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On Jabberwocky: Why We Do the Things We Think We Aren’t Doing

It's so annoying being so tall at the wrong times!

To be human is to live in this mixed or hybrid dimension. To be specifically human is to let the accent fall on Reality at the expense of Necessity without, of course, eliminating the latter—otherwise we become naïve utopians for the limited time in which we are permitted to survive. But to emphasize Necessity at the cost of Reality, as is so often the case, is to approximate to animal or vegetable existence, with a little “spirit” left over to deposit in those isolated time capsules we call leisure or entertainment. Thus we fall below the level of the truly civilized.

The infallible sign of the merely utilitarian attitude to life is irritation. We tend to get irritated when function is impeded: when the suitcase spills its contents, the car breaks down and the doorjamb attacks the toe, when, as Heidegger wrote, we are confronted by “the failure of equipment.” True wisdom is a stranger to irritation and it is precisely this refusal to be irritated that is the principal element in our picture of the Wise Man. In ordinary life it is when irritation is embellished by humor, wit, or the imaginative curse, or is immediately deflated by self-mockery, that the specifically human, the civilized, has once again asserted itself.

But it asserts itself whenever we express the contingent side of our being: whenever we hum for no reason or make atrocious puns or avoid the cracks in the sidewalk or impersonate people or make rubber lips in the mirror or recite long passages of bardic improvisations or pretend to be what we are not at the instant in order to amuse or even to instruct. It is then that we are essentially what we are.