The Existentialist Penguin

Two penguins were stood on an iceberg and one jokingly said to the other

“You look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.”

To which the other unflinchingly replied

“How do you know I’m not?”

 

            This is my favourite joke because it draws attention to something that is rarely talked about and even more rarely understood and appreciated. It points to the invisible and unchallenged assumptions that form the foundational bedrock of language and culture. How so? Because the first penguin was making an apparently reasonable joke and, but for the Socratic thinking of the second penguin, that would have been fine. If the second penguin had done as so many other penguins in the pub had done before him and chuckled politely we would have a completely unremarkable interaction. Instead, we have a beautifully crafted joke about a joke, from which it is almost impossible to identify the source of irony. The second penguin did more than subvert a joke, though. I like to think that the first penguin left that iceberg a different bird; one that thought more, and more deeply, about what he assumed with his words and actions. He probably stayed up all night knowing the real meaning of existential angst for the first time in his life because for once somebody has questioned him. No-one had questioned his facts or his figures, but they had questioned him as a being that is able to be fundamentally wrong in a way that he did not even know existed.

            But the comedy (and I mean that in the philosophical sense of confronting absurdity) doesn’t stop there. Heidegger observed that we are all thrown as individuals into a world of meaning, which we do not need to observe and represent linguistically because the work has always already been done for us by the culture in which we find ourselves. But that culture, that language, that lens of sense is not an objective and cold reprint of reality – if it were we would be no better off with it than without it, for we would need a representation of the representation ad infinitum. It is “the world in which I exist” and as such can never be devoid of my being there. Like the first penguin, we vacuously assume to see the world without us in it as if that were a better form of the world to see but then we are challenged by that second and most lovably irritating penguin who invites is to once again become what we already are – angst-ridden subjects in a world of absurdity.

            This has implications. This has clear and measurable effects in this life. If, as the existentialist penguin supposes, our words are devoid, as it were, of objective foundations and rest merely upon the shifting sands of culture then we have reason to despair. Reality itself is compromised and truth has collapsed under its own weight. Nietzsche was right to preach the death of God for all of the assurances which we attributed to the divine have turned out to be smoke and mirrors. Morality can never be solid, certainty is impossible and love… well love is only a feeling.

            Yet the joke has a punchline, albeit an implicit one. Maybe our crude metaphysical ideas have fallen flat and maybe we have lost faith in those things that had comforted us before, but still there might be some salvation. Maybe we can hope for a truth that is not based on objectivity, a morality which rests on convictions, a love which has finality in its limitation, a faith which stands on the strength of the absurd and a God who embraces death like one of us. Such a hope can never be given, only ever chosen, but I like to think that our newly awakened penguin did not fall into the pit of self-despair and end his misery in cowardly inauthenticity but carried on living with a better appreciation of just how comic the whole situation is.

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