Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

Today I reveal THE MEANING OF LIFE and I don’t mean the Monty Python one

God, depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

God, depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

I have never taken recreational drugs. The only drugs which ever attracted me were heroin and LSD.

They were not available to me when I might have taken them.

By the time they were available, I had seen and read too much about people damaged by them.

But, when I was in my late teens, I remember there was a day when – for maybe ten minutes – maybe five minutes – I felt I could feel my position within the air around me, could feel my physical position in 3D or 4D within the room I was in… and that room’s physical existence within the house, within the street on the surface of the earth and that I was standing on the surface of a planet floating and rotating in space and its place within the solar system and the universe. I could mentally comprehend and feel my relationship within all those inter-related elements.

And I also simultaneously felt I comprehended my position in time – how time only exists as a ‘moment’ that, in a sense, does not exist because, as soon as it happens it is over and it becomes an infinity of time stretching backwards while the next not-yet-existing moment is part of an infinity of time stretching forward and, as you can narrow the existence of the exact moment of ‘nowness’ more and more and more down to the non-existent point of infinity, time exists as an over-all concept but the exact moment of ‘now’ never exists. I felt how, at the instant I felt this I could understand where I was in infinity with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and a woman scratching her nose in 1171 and an insect crawling on the sand in 5,000 BC and something that had not yet happened in the year 2373.

In the 1960s or 1970s I was told a probably apocryphal story about the rock guitarist Eric Clapton. Those of advanced years will remember common graffiti around that time proclaiming:

CLAPTON IS GOD!

The story was that Eric Clapton had taken LSD and seen God who told him the Meaning of Life, but he (Clapton, not God) then forgot the details.

The next time Eric went on an acid trip, he had a pen and paper by him. This time, he wrote down what God told him.

When he came down from the trip, Eric looked at the piece of paper. On it were the words:

“THE SMELL OF METHYLATED SPIRITS PERMEATES THE AIR”

That, as told by God to Eric Clapton, was the Meaning of Life.

The reason I think this 1960s story might be apocryphal is that there are other versions of it.

In his 1945 book A History of Western Philosophy, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (very trendy in the 1960s) wrote:

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A SMELL OF PETROLEUM PREVAILS THROUGHOUT”

Before that, on June 29, 1870, the American physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered an address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. An extended excerpt from the lecture was published in 1879. He said:

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. 

The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. 

Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these: 

“A STRONG SMELL OF TURPENTINE PREVAILS THROUGHOUT”

The other day, I was talking to someone about LSD.

He told me that, years ago, a girl he knew took LSD and, after the trip, she told her friends (who had also been tripping) that she had, during the trip, understood the nature of existence, the Meaning of Life and all the rest. But she could not remember what it was.

So they decided that, next time they went on an acid trip together, she would write down what she saw and felt. The next time they tripped out, there was a pen and a piece of paper. And, sure enough, again, she saw and understood the purpose and meaning of life.

She wrote it down.

When they came down from the trip, to keep it safe, they put the piece of paper in an envelope which they pinned to the ceiling for safety. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And, of course, they forgot the envelope was there. They had been tripping.

A few hours or a few days later, someone spotted the envelope pinned to the ceiling and they remembered that the Meaning of Life was in the envelope.

They took the envelope off the ceiling and opened it.

The piece of paper said:

“IF YOU STAND ON THE CEILING, YOU CAN SEE THE FLOOR”

So there you are.

Life may mostly be methylated spirits, petroleum and turpentine but that could depend on your viewpoint.

And I would argue that taking LSD might be a confusing factor in thinking clearly.

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Pagliacci at the Edinburgh Fringe – but will laughter get women into bed?

Giacinto Palmieri in Pagliacci costume

As mentioned in my blog yesterday, I had a drink with Italian-born British-based comedian Giacinto Palmieri – after seeing the first try-out of his show Pagliaccio which he will be performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

Giacinto is one of life’s natural quotables:

“It’s a love story,” he says, “but it’s a double love story because it’s also a love story for the Edinburgh Fringe itself.

“The Fringe is an intense experience. It is like those war veterans who spend the rest of their life talking about what they did in the War. People think Why? The War is a horrible thing – but it’s the intensity they are missing. Once you have done the Edinburgh Fringe, the rest of your life just looks bland.”

This will be Giacinto’s fourth year at the Fringe.

“This is my first attempt to do a thematic narrative show,” he told me in a Soho pub. “I was doing joke-joke-joke comedy but, as a member of the audience, I started to discover and love thematic shows. There was a mis-match between what I was doing and what I really like. So I set myself the goal of writing a thematic show.

“Edinburgh is such a strong experience, it really stimulates your writing. I started to write this year’s Edinburgh show the day after the Fringe finished last year; some material I even wrote during Edinburgh itself. I wanted to start writing fresh from the Edinburgh experience without waiting for January or February like most comedians.”

“Most comedians seem to start writing around 25th July!” I said.

“Yes,” he laughed. “Or on the train up to Edinburgh! It’s true.”

“But I really wanted to express the intensity of being there and the fact that people are up in Edinburgh to express their emotions, so anything can happen there. Once you open the bottle, you don’t know what comes out. Once you go there to express yourself every day for three-and-a-half weeks, you don’t know what you will discover about yourself.

“My show is about comedians living together and sharing a show and working together and it is a true story of unrequited love and jealousy between the comedians and I play with the similarity between that situation and the plot of the opera Pagliacci which is about a travelling group of clowns.

“So it is a love story about another performer I became romantically interested in at last year’s Fringe, but also about the craziness and intensity of the Fringe itself.”

“The Pagliacci cliché,” I said to Giacinto, “is that all clowns are sad.”

“There is clearly some truth in that cliché,” he replied. “One of the best responses I have ever seen on the comedy circuit was when a comedian asked a member of the audience What do you do for a living? and the reply was I’m a therapist and the comedian simply asked So why am I doing this?

“You do need to wonder why we are all doing this.”

Giacinto has been in the UK for eleven years (and is now a British citizen) but he has only been performing comedy for the last four years. Before that, he was a full-time I.T. consultant. That seems a bit weird to me – coming to a foreign country, pursuing your career for seven years, then becoming a stand-up comic.

“It is even weirder than that,” he tells me. “The first time I went to Edinburgh was as a member of the audience. I absolutely loved it and saw 30 or 40 theatre shows but only one comedy show which I did not even like. So I did not know comedy at all. I discovered it later. I was in a pub in London and saw there was a comedy show upstairs and I went and I was mesmerised because I discovered how much creativity and energy there was in it. It looked very fresh. I was fascinated by that level of comedy, not by the professional level on TV.

“When I started, my models were the comedians who were one or two levels above me on the London circuit, not the Big Names.. I discovered the Big Names quite late.

“I had always liked writing. I started writing a fake, mock anthropological study of the British tradition of the corporate Christmas party and – completely by mistake – I emailed it to the MD of my company and he liked it so much he read it in front of everybody during the Christmas party. And it worked very well. People liked it. People laughed. But he did not mention my name. He thought he was protecting me. But I would have liked the recognition.

“So, at the same time, I discovered the comedy club scene on the one hand and my comedy writing instinct on the other hand. I put the two things together. I thought why not take my material and convert it into a stand-up comedy form and perform it myself?”

“But,” I asked Giacinto, “people from I.T. have a different mindset to comedians, don’t they?”

“Well,” he explained, “people in I.T. are interested in recursion and self-referential paradoxes like Bertrand Russell’s – the paradox of the infinite sets.”

“Ah, of course,” I said, nodding sagely and hoping Wikipedia had an entry I could look up later.

“Philosophy,”  Giacinto continued, “is what I studied at University, so there is a connection between my interest in logic and philosophy which can be brought into the I.T. arena because computer programming is applied logic and many jokes are based on paradoxes and self-reference. So, if you like logic, you will probably like word gaming, paradoxes and so on.

“That is why, until now, as a comedian I have always been very academic, very much inside my head, very much philosophical – it has been about language and so on. Which, of course, is very much part of my personality and my way of looking at things.

“The fact that English is not my native language is a difficulty – an obstacle of sorts – but it is also a great opportunity, because you can play with it. I can see in the English language things which a native speaker cannot see. Every foreigner is able to see cultural things which a native cannot see.

“Most foreign comedians in Britain are foreigners but still native English-speakers. They are Australians, Americans, New Zealanders and so on. I have the advantage, as a non-native English speaker, of being not only able to see British culture but the English language itself from a fresh point of view.

“I played with that as part of my act for a long time. This new show Pagliaccio does not play with language so much. It is a love story, so is more universal.

“My comedy was very abstract, so I decided to try to be more personal, to go more into the emotional side of things. And people told me one of the reasons I always had problems with women was because I am too much inside my own head.

“It is true comedy is a journey of self-discovery, in a sense. I am trying to discover the emotional side of me. It is frightening. Once you open the bottle, you don’t know what kind of genie will come out. It might be a good genie or a bad one.”

“One great cliché,” I suggested, “is that the way to get a woman into bed is to make her laugh.”

“Well, it hasn’t worked for me!” laughed Giacinto.

“The comedian Andrew Watts – a very very clever guy – wrote an article. His theory is that women use laughter as a way to communicate a sexual interest in somebody. In a comedy club situation, maybe onstage I can get a bigger laugh than a very good-looking comedian but, if you go for drinks with the girls afterwards, I am pretty sure the good-looking comedian will get bigger laughs in the bar. Pretty sure. Because women are sending signals.

“Getting a woman into bed by making her laugh… That was my hope, but I lost that hope: I don’t think it’s going to work for me.”

“The press will love your show in Edinburgh,” I told Giacinto: “A love story with laughs actually set during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.”

“Perhaps,” he mused.

“Maybe you should call it Pagliacci – An Edinburgh Fringe Love Story,” I suggested.

“Perhaps,” he mused. “Perhaps. Perhaps women will like it.”

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Let me tell you a joke about Jade Goody, the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuke and the 9/11 attacks…

British so-called ‘reality star’ Jade Goody died two years ago on Tuesday. She’s gone and largely forgotten.

Can I tell you a joke about her being a racist? People reviled her before her death and said she was racist. And they made jokes about it.

She’s been dead for two years now, so I can certainly make jokes about her, can’t I? No-one can possibly say it’s ‘too soon’, can they?

This is about a blog I wrote a couple of days ago in which I mentioned a friend’s criticisms of Japan but, first, let me repeat an arguably sexist and allegedly true story about the playwright George Bernard Shaw. As is the way with such stories, it is not necessarily true; it has also been attributed to Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, W.C.Fields and even the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Anyway…

The great man was at a dinner party with some very lah-di-dah people. Somehow, the conversation turned to slack sexual morals (in the George Bernard Shaw version, this was in the 1930s). He asked one of the ladies present:

“Madam, would you sleep with me for one million pounds?”

“Well, for a million pounds, Mr Shaw,” the lady replied, “perhaps I would.”

She and the other guests laughed.

The conversation turned to other topics and, later, George Bernard Shaw whispered to the lady: “Madam, would you sleep with me tonight if I gave you £10?”

“Mr Shaw!” replied the woman, deeply offended: “What sort of woman do you think I am?”

“Madam,” Shaw said, “we have established what sort of woman you are. We are merely haggling over the price.”

Which brings us back to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

I wrote a blog in which I quoted the opinions of a friend of mine who had been to Japan last October. She was not impressed. Her image of an efficient, futuristic country were confounded.

In light of the still ongoing disasters and 10,000+ deaths in Japan, several people – mostly stand-up comics – found my initial blog and a follow-up blog in bad taste, although they were non-comedic blogs.

I know that one of the comics who found my non-comedic blog to be ‘too soon’ had, in fact, made jokes about the death of Jade Goody just a few days after her death from cancer.

I have no problem with that, but it does beg the question When is ‘too soon’ too soon? and why.

American comic Gilbert Gottfried was dropped last week as the voice of a giant US insurance company because he made jokes about the Japanese earthquake.

I don’t think him being dropped was unreasonable, as insurance companies should perhaps not be seen to make light of disasters. But the criticism was not that he made the jokes but that he had made the jokes ‘too soon’. He had similar problems when he made jokes ‘too soon’ about the 9/11 terrorist attacks (as seen in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s comedy documentary The Aristocrats).

Why would a joke made a few days after the 9/11 attacks be any less in bad taste than exactly the same joke made ten years after the 9/11 attacks? Why – and when – would it become acceptable?

Why would a joke about Jade Goody be funny only two years after her death but be in bad taste two days or two weeks after her death? What could have changed to make the joke become acceptable?

If the argument is that someone who personally know Jade Goody or personally knew a victim of the 9/11 attacks could hear the joke and be hurt… then that argument holds just as strongly 2 days or 2 weeks or 20 years after the event. The emotional pain caused would, in all honesty, be much the same.

Surely if a joke is in unacceptably bad taste, then it is unacceptable, full stop.

So why would someone’s non-funny criticisms of Japan (correct or incorrect) be in bad taste – specifically because they are ‘too soon’ – a few days after an appalling triple disaster – earthquake/tsunami/nuclear problem? At what point would those same comments (correct or incorrect) become more acceptable?

I have genuinely never understood the concept of ‘too soon’.

If  joke is in bad taste, it is in bad taste. If an observation is unacceptable, it is unacceptable.

To return to George Bernard Shaw:

We have established what sort of observation we have here. We are merely haggling over the timing.

Why?

What’s all this ‘too soon’ shit about 9/11, about Jade Goody – or about Japan?

If it’s bad taste, it’s bad taste. But at some point, bad taste apparently becomes acceptable.

When?

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