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Moral Moments

First Person, Second Person, Third Person

by Joel Marks

I had just begun to tell a story to my traveling companion – call him Earl – when he interrupted with no fewer than four questions about what had happened. Surprised by his outburst of impatience, I exclaimed, “Wait a minute! That’s just what I’m going to tell you about!” But then he surprised me even more by erupting in anger, saying that I had no right to be angry with him, because he had said nothing on several occasions when I had interrupted him. With a cynical “Whatever you say, Earl,” I wrenched my own emotions back from the abyss of escalating discord, and proceeded to tell the rest of the story as if nothing had intervened. Fortunately, Earl let it drop as well, and resumed to be engrossed in the story.

This sort of thing is not a rare occurrence for Earl and me. The contributing factors from Earl are his emotionality and his ego. The former precipitated his urgent questioning when I had only commenced to tell the tale. The latter accounted for his instant rebuke when I warded off his importunateness. I call that ‘ego’, because it seemed to me to manifest a hyper-defensiveness which made Earl interpret my justified request for a little patience as an unfair and indefensible attack meriting censure.

But I must also admit that I have such run-ins with others. So what is it about me that elicits rebukes of this sort (justified or not) in the first place?

As I further pondered the situation, I had a flash of insight into my own behavior. One of my favorite television programs as a child was The Honeymooners, a comedy starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. Their two characters, Ralph Kramden the bus driver and Ed Norton the ‘underground engineer’ (ie plumber), were pals who could never stop bickering. One of the classic routines of this odd couple would take place when Ralph was enlisting Ed’s assistance in some mundane task or crackpot scheme. Ed, or ‘Norton’, as Ralph called him, would for example sit down at a table or a desk to use a typewriter, and then embark on a stream of preparatory tics: rolling up his shirtsleeves, adjusting the placement of the chair, pushing back his hair, etc. In short order Ralph would explode: “Will you get on with it!”

To my childish eyes this was the funniest thing imaginable. I still think of it with great pleasure, and whenever I happen to see a rerun, I am filled with the same hilarity. It strikes me as not only funny but brilliant – and also as typical: as somehow normal, even though these were unique and comic characters. If the show did not contain some universal truth, why would it be so funny, not just to me, but obviously to millions of other fans, who still hold it in reverence? It captures an archetypal juxtaposition between an innocently but infinitely frustrating antagonist, and a hopeful but helpless protagonist who has been stretched to his limit. In a word, this is life itself – as seen through one sort of lens anyway! And when I had burst out with my “Wait a minute!” to Earl, had I not been re-enacting this primal scene? Granted, it was Earl who had initially expressed impatience with me, but there was nothing lackadaisical about the way I had commenced my story; I had hardly spoken two sentences. Rather, it was Earl who had exhibited the first odd behavior (à la Norton), by prematurely and repeatedly questioning me; then I expressed exasperation in response (à la Ralph). But not only that: my subsequent insight was that I had been intentionally directing my response to suit the remembered comic pattern, however consciously or subconsciously. It was really a kind of behavioral memory; a part of my being rather than a deliberate decision. I embodied Ralph Kramden: ironically, as if from a third-person standpoint; and yet at the same time quite essentially, genuinely, and spontaneously. I had been both feeling exasperated and enjoying ‘watching’ the situation unfold. Thus I had also embodied Jackie Gleason, in that I was playing to an audience. I had reacted with a twinkle in my eye, not anger.

But now I have a further insight. One should recognize that there is also a viewpoint from the second-person, as it were – in this case, Earl’s. Evidently he was not acting from the same script that I was. And in fact I now recall another recent occasion when I was eagerly introducing a friend from overseas to her first experience of The Honeymooners – a DVD of that precise episode – and she did not find it funny. I was thunderstruck, although of course I should not have been. For what is life (as seen through yet another lens) if not a continual series of shocks at how differently others see the world? This is perfectly understandable, given that each of us is the product of billions of accidents – or contingencies, as philosophers call them. Yet life lived in the first-person sees the world ‘as it is’, as I share it in common with all others. This is an illusion.

Postscript: Wouldn’t it be a riot if Earl had not been angry at all, but was merely acting out his own inner Ralph Kramden, as I was? Maybe after all we were reading from the same script – but from the same part – and each thought the other person was Ed Norton!

© Joel Marks 2008

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralandothermoments.blogspot.com.

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