Thursday, April 27, 2006

More on the Chichen/Road Aphorism

Now that I have consulted my references, I see that I have been partially right, but also partially wrong, in my recollections of the "Chicken/Road" aphorism. After quite a bit of difficulties contacting the copyright holders (it being Thursday) I was finally given permission to post thefollowing article from a well-known student of many subjects, the esteemed Father A. Thomas, O.P. There are one or two other articles relevant to the topic which will aid in our understanding of the topic, and once I get them into the proper electronic form (and of course the requisite permissions) I will post them too.

--Dr. Thursday.
Humor and its basis in reason
by Fr. A. Thomas, O.P.

In the varied literature of the world, there have been many attempts to explore nature: reality as such, and man's place in it. Indeed, there are so few works of literature dealing with something other than reality [Like this paper, for example. Eds.] that we may, without loss of generality, ignore them. Throughout these works, two common threads may be observed: the pursuit of knowledge or the pursuit of pleasure. Rarely are these two combined, and when they are combined, the literature is often of lower order than the forms which simgle-mindedly pursue one or the other. For example, the mystery or detective story clearly belongs to the category which combines the two, since it, by definition, must be both pleasurable as well as intellectual: it must solve the stated problem in an entertaining manner.

There are remarkably few examples of the combined form, however, once the length of the form is brought to its utmost minimum. While the world abounds in aphorisms, mottos, proverbs, slogans, and even cheers, there are remarkably few short examples of human statements which pursue both knowledge and pleasure. Nevertheless, there is one which has endured for unknown centuries, successfully combining both the abstract search for knowledge and the glorious delight of pleasure sought and found. Even more remarkable is it because in a few short words it combines one of the most interesting members of the natural world (Here I mean the specifically non-human part of nature) with what deserves to be called one of the great achievements of human talent.

In the quest for knowledge, the interviewer of the media, like the scientist, employs the small but famous collection of interrogative pronouns: who, what, when, where, how, and why. Though forsworn by Darwinians for reasons they likewise forswore, the last of these has been both the most challenging in its posing, as well as the most satisfactory in its resolution. Though all other questions of detail may be answered, the human spirit remains restless [Cf. St. Augustine's famous dictum. Eds.] until the why is also answered. The great aphorism to which this article alludes begins with this powerful word.

The aphorism we are considering then takes as its substrate the fundamental element for structured organization of human ambulatory or vehicular motion, typically of human construction. These were well-known even in Roman times, and heve long since become an excuse for taxation in many countries. Entire industries have sprung up to assist in their use.

Along with this socially supported human construction, this marvellous aphorism combines a member of a popular species of domesticated avian, engaged (at the moment under consideration) in the act of coordinated pedal transition of the previously mentioned human construction. It is at this point that the humor apparently enters, because the reason for this transition is left in doubt. True, the aphorism explains that the avian intended to attain the unconstructed boundary previously distant to its original location, and this explanation is considered humorous by some. However, the mere query of that reason has itself taken on a not insubstantial humor. The reason for this is most unclear, and we will now proceed we will examine it further. Consider, for a moment, the aphorism as it appears in the vulgar tongue:

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"To get to the other side."

There seems to be at least three possible explanations for this succinct marvel of humor.
1. The aphorism is a remarkable juxtaposition of the dichotomous, in a style similar to the well-known Chestertonian paradox. A natural creature, an animal, encounters one of the great and ancient human artifacts, and, in direct contradistinction to the usual direction, travels perpendicular to the supernatural direction of the road, merely (as it has been said of mountains) for the reason of getting there.
2. The aphorism makes use of a mechanism which derives from the "double dictionary entry" technique we mentioned in our last column. This derivative mechanism might be called "the assertion of the obvious", and is a derivative since the mind, accustomed to the difficulties arising from the existence of double dictionary entries, often forgets that the primary, greater, common and dominant entry exists in favor of the attraction of the secondary, lesser, unique and subsidiary entry. Hence, asserting the obvious (the greater or common) form when the lesser or unique form was expected produces the effect of the double reference. This approach may often be required when the particular words lack the desired duplicity.
3. The aphorism was longer in the past and made use of the standard double dictionary form, but the aphorism was reduced during centuries of neglect or growing editorial domination. One of the reconstructions (I quote the one due to Bl├╝cher) has appeared previously in Archaeology of Aphorism:

"Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"She had heard that, on the other side, the men were laying a sidewalk, and she wanted to see how they did it."

Again, since this has been translated, the humor has apparently been lost, but the reader can quickly see which words have multiple definitions. There are, after all, any number of sidewalk jokes; Socrates, of course, was the master of the form, it having been the Athens Department of Transportation which made things so difficult for him in the first place.

Reprinted with permission from
Something Good To Read
Vol. CXIV No. 226 (Jan. 14, 1998)

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