Wittgenstein’s Lion and the Blue Whale of Catoosa
“Hon, do I have a cousin Frank?”
“Hon” was the wife. She taught French part-time at the local community college. The husband tended bar at nearby Shadows. He was applying to teach at the college also—introductory philosophy, one night a week. The college hadn’t hired a full-time philosopher since Obama’s first term. Shadows had never hired one.
“At last!” said Shadows manager “Big Red,” putting his frizzy, carnivorous head critically to one side and his aproned paunch to the other. Then, swiping down the bar with a lateritious hand, “We finally get a qualified applicant.”
Hired on the spot, was the husband, just two nights a week, but still….
“Whatsat, Babe?” came Hon’s fruity voice from the bathroom, which opened out of the bedroom, which doubled as their office.
At the time of this exchange, Hon, who was thirty-one or -two with modish, chiseled features and soft brown eyes and, like Babe, a student debt still weighing down on her, was soaking in the new Kohler alcove tub which just that morning a sweaty Dunning Kruger had installed with Trumpian bluster and a fifteen percent rent increase.
Despite the Stygian oath she’d rapped out at the rawboned, thimble-patted landlord with the sallow, moth-eaten face, Hon had to admit, as she settled into the hot soak, redolent of rosemary and lavender, that she did like the way the champagne toasting flute sat on the tub’s shiny white wall.
“A hot bath—” Hon allowed languidly, trying to recall the exact quotation from A Death in Venice.
Stumped, she pressed Babe.
“Babe!” she threw out, followed by, “What else makes all the difference? Besides a hot bath—according to Mann, I mean?”
Getting no response, Hon importuned: “Babe, . . . Babe, are you there?”
“‘Man?’” Babe said at length. “What about ’m?”
Before Hon could survey Babe’s response her mind flitted bee-like from Death to her six day interval to whether with her slim gracefulness she was too thin to, sipping, whether she should cut back on the Sappho Ultra Brut (Diet) Champagne, an admitted indulgence but a steal at $8.99 a bottle per case.
Babe and Hon—each could imagine life without the other, which meant, Babe took on the word of her favorite psychologist, Adam Phillips, they were still together, hidden like two Waldos within the madding crowd, sharing their lives with the people they failed to be.
They were trying to have a baby, Hon and Babe were. Well, Hon was, desperately. For his part, Babe monthly breathed a shrouded sigh of reprieve.
Babe, who Hon liked to think still had a touch of Tadzio’s “intellectual and ephebe-like masculinity,” distractedly repeated his query, about “man,” and getting no response from Hon, who even after seven years of marriage could still awaken a wicked throbbing in his veins, studied the email that had just come in. It read—
“‘Jewelry!’” Hon cast into the steam with all the passing excitement of one solving a cryptic crossword clue. Then, breathlessly, “What else?”—she meant besides a hot bath and jewelry makes all the difference,—“according to Mann?”
—“Cousin Frank committed suicide. Thought you’d want to know. . . . Depressed, I guess.”
Babe measured the message with a cageful of feelings. It was unsigned, but he could see that it was from—
“Does this have anything to do with—” Hon broke off with a quick, high-pitched laugh.
—his brother, with whom he hadn’t communicated since—well, not ever really, but technically not since “Dubya” left office. Why then? What then? How—? Babe could no more tell you than he could summon up a particular Stuckeys they had once breezed by on the “Main Street of America,” with Hon, by trip’s end the soul of his life, a tight fit, holding on to his waist with one hand and the beemer’s large grab rail with the other, accreting from all their kitschy stops along the way what she called “precious jujus,” and he, “silly gewgaws.”
“Don’t tell me,” Hon resumed impishly, brushing a lump of damp blonde hair off her upper forehead, “the talking lion’s name was Frank?” She laughed again.
Hon was referring to the perplexing remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s that had of late taken them hostage, Babe and Hon.
The aforesaid comment, as opaque as muddy water, was this: “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.”
Babe was expected to give a presentation on this assertion as part of his job interview.
The word had come from Edgar Elger, who was serving still another term as chair of the philosophy department, largely due to his convivial insistence on being called “just plain Ned.”
Ned—or “just plain Ned,” as some colleagues called him, sub rosa,— had a way of capering as he lectured and dandling his head from side to side. The letter he’d sent to Hon Ned had mentally composed while shaving his cheeks and chin and trimming his mustache, that hid deep vertical lines cutting into upper lip. The bottlebrush growth of hair, some older colleagues said,
made him look a little like Einstein, whereas younger staff favored an older, dissolute Sasha Baron Cohen. Ned had composed the letter while under the influence of Dorothy Parker Gin, not to say, of course, his reflected image in a swing arm wall mirror, that showed, even in the warm yellow glow of the Ikea vanity light, a net of wrinkles etching brow and the print of crow’s feet
framing baggy eyes—a face Ned was not ready to face. He preferred instead to perceive his skin, his countenance, as looking younger every day since he’d begun applying Dr. Oz’s vitamin C facial serum nightly a month or so ago.
“Not ephebe-like, certainly,” the epicene bachelor humbly self-conceded to his self-described agreeable image, “but-but,” he stuttered, “definitely more youthful.” Then, after a pause, a look, a nod, another, from Ned, “De-definitely.”
Ned also of late had begun using face makeup, and pondering suicide, as a concept, that is—likely because he was including Sisyphus this semester as part of his course in Twentieth Century Philosophy, (which he viewed as steering between, as it were, Scylla and Charybdis, existentialism and linguistic analysis, and which with Odyssean wit he had pushed through the curriculum committee with a mix of cajolery and wraiths of institutional memory bordering on blackmail).
Is suicide, as Camus called it, “the only one really serious philosophical question”?
This he couldn’t decide, he decided, until he decided what suicide was: a question, a problem, or an act.
Completing his toilette Ned toyed with the notion of springing this brain teaser on the applicant. But then, as he lavishly splashed on Pherazone and, like a pointillist, punctiliously applied a concealer to his face, he nimbly drafted:
“As part of your application, you will be interviewed by a panel of members of the philosophy department, including myself, as well as the Dean of the Humanities Division. For this interview you should be prepared to give a ______mini lecture to the panel as if students on the topic_______.”
There followed—to Ned a particularly pleasing appendage—the exhortation: “Be, like Wittgenstein, CREATIVE!”
Later Ned entered in the blanks with an unsteady hand guiding his Montblanc Meisterstück: “10 mins” and “Wittgenstein’s Lion,” respectively.
Why this assignment? Hmm, ’s one of life’s imponderables, you could
say . . . The gin? the mirror image? the perfume? . . . Could even’ve been Ned’s disdain for Wittgenstein, which verged on Wittgenstein’s own contempt for scientific explanations. . . . Who knows?
Left are we, then, as always, trapped like Wittgenstein’s fly in a bottle, to ponder some inescapable fact or other. This time, this one: Sometimes in life to get a job one simply has to tame a talking lion.
“No,” Babe at last murmured, more to himself than to Hon’s Frank question, one hand kneading a thigh, the other holding a cigarette with arching, spatulate fingers. It was unlit. He was trying to quit. Then, abstractedly, the thought of the curious Frank working his jaw in a ruminative way, Babe added, “Not exactly.”
“Hey! Hey! C’mon, now,” Hon said with swift tones, like a heartening parent or coach might, “tomorrow’s the big day.” Then, “What about the talking lion?”
“Uh-huh,” Babe said, taking a long drag off the unburnt Lucky and musing why Ned couldn’t have picked Epictetus for his presentation.
The Greek Stoic, y’see, was Babe’s favorite philosopher. Why not, say, ten minutes on “You’re a little soul carrying around a corpse”? Now that Babe could—
“Hmff!” Hon returned. “No ‘uh-huhs’, Mister.” Then, “Remember: First impressions count. You have to sell yourself,” followed by another “remember”: “Elevator pitch?”
Hon was referring to the “ice breaker,” delivered in about a minute to whomever one wanted to sell oneself to—a term she’d picked up, with the deal on the champagne, at a conference titled “Don’t Let Student Debt Stifle Your Entrepreneurship.”
To the metronomic beat of fingers thrumming thigh, Babe recited his Wittgenstein power points—“family resemblances,” “games,” “rule following,”. . . , all of which, in an inspirational instant, he pared down to one: frame of reference.
“Frame of reference,” he said, then again, “frame of reference.”
Babe was still muttering this mantra when presto! out stole Wittgenstein on suicide: “If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed. If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed.”
“You aren’t smoking, are you, Babe?” Hon sniffed. “Remember what it does to the antioxidant levels of your sperm and—”
“Are you imbibing?” Babe shot back.
After a meditative pause Babe asked Hon if she thought suicide was the “elementary sin.”
“Suicide— is what?” Hon giggled grimly.
“The ‘elementary sin’,” Babe said, “that’s what Wittgenstein called it. D’ya think—”
Babe broke off with hoarse feeling, while from Hon, dismissively, “Oh,
Wittgenstein, Schmittgenstein—you’d think they were offering an endowed chair or something. . . . Didn’t he spend years reading cheap detective novels and watching cowboy movies?” She meant Wittgenstein. Then, with a sullen splash, “And called it a waste of time at that.” She meant philosophy.
But Hon checked all of this on her tongue because she didn’t want to elevate her alpha-amylase levels, which she’d read could increase the risk of infertility.
Instead, she simply said, “Babe, I’m—” then broke off before continuing mincingly, with twitching lips and thick with feelings, “I’m like—,” then staccato, “a-raw-egg-white.”
His right hand now worrying nervously at the mouse pad, Babe wondered fancifully, “Does a talking lion throw a light on suicide?”
He felt it did, albeit in some inexpressible, inexplicable way; but, nonetheless, with frightful clarity he felt it did, and he said forcefully: “Criminy!” a word he’d picked up years ago from Helga G. Pataki and unconsciously reserved only for the most—well, the most criminy turns of
events, of which this certainly was one, namely: “Cousin Frank was the talking lion!”
The sturdiness of this proclamation sent a sharp judder up his spine, then bango! he said with like vigor, “Yes, by criminy cricket, that’s the elevator pitch!”
All he had to do, he averred, was to show to tomorrow’s august body that if we couldn’t understand a talking lion, then suicide cannot be the elementary sin. And then the zinger, uttered with all the shuddering force of a eureka moment: “And ‘the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century’ never saw the family resemblance!”
Happy as the so-called clam at high tide, Babe’s mind then turned to Hon and to egg white, about which after a short while he said, à la Wittgenstein, “That’s the fact.”
There ensued a restless silence before Babe added this peroration, conveyed with a stern and compelling resolve, and just loud enough for Hon to hear, “The rest is just noise.”
“Aha!” Hon cried out, “‘rest,’ of course.” Then quoting, in low, glad tones, just loud enough for Babe to hear, “Jewelry, a hot bath, and rest often make all the difference.”
Then, with startling suddenness, Hon abandoned the bath, hastily toweled off, and, with a purposeful air, opened the linen closet, where she found nestled between the sheets, wrapped in crinkly white tissue paper, a flannel white nightshirt. This she ceremonially unveiled, held at arm’s length, and read with mirth the words printed on it: “The Mother Road.”
The prized juju she then slipped into with all the grace of a priest donning an alb, while outside Babe on a bee was slipping in a CD. Not just any CD. “Je T’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus” (“I Love You. . . Me, Not Anymore”), which, by Hon’s measure, was the greatest love song ever written. When Babe, who knew no French, had asked why, Hon showed him.
Babe squashed the dead smoke in a glass ash tray, whose bottom bore a black shield on which was printed in tiny white letters the words, “The Great Diagonal Way.”
There then resonated throughout Dunning Kruger’s money-spinner breathless sighs of undecided waves and naked islands, all from breathy lovers slipping back and forth, all, of course, in French.
Drawn by a hot current of feelings, the husband then drew near to the wife, and the wife, as though anticipating his step, awaited the husband with open arms and a broad, “Ta-da!”
Off guard, not knowing exactly how to address a soul in a nightshirt, the husband simply said to the wife softly, playfully, “That’s silly.”
And the wife whispered huskily to the husband: “So said you once of the Blue Whale of Catoosa.”