Throughout the ages, philosophers have struggled to unravel the existential mysteries which confront us all. What is the meaning of life? Does God exist? Is there an afterlife? Is there intelligent life on Earth? Why can't you ever get a taxi on Saturday nights?
The comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" once presented a conundrum which expresses the quintessence of our quandary. In a philosophical Great Leap Forward that opens new vistas in metaphysical speculation, Calvin posed the following question:
"If you plugged up your nose and mouth right before you sneezed, would the sneeze go out your ears, or would your head explode?"
This is profundity at its deepest - and expressed with exquisite simplicity through the medium of a humble comic strip. An issue, indeed, for great thinkers to contemplate, and wrestle with, and subsequently pontificate about in long and learned tomes bound in old leather.
In one artless question, Calvin has pinpointed a puzzle that might easily be enshrined in the catalogue of Zen koans. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is easy. "What was your original face before you were born?" is kid's stuff. "What is it that moves - the wind or the flag?" is a no-brainer.
But there is danger here. I can easily imagine humankind being riven by schisms on this issue. Those who say the "sneeze" (I am trying not to be gross here!) will go out your ears will be called Earists. Those who say it will make your head explode will be called Headists. When these two sects clash, there will be inquisitions, heresy trials, persecutions, pogroms, holocausts and religious wars that will go on for centuries, spilling oceans of blood and depopulating entire continents.
So let us examine the question objectively and dispassionately, to see if we can arrive at a conclusion that will spare the world a dreadful nightmare which it can ill afford. What would the great religions say about this issue?
They might say something like this:
Judaism: "It doesn't matter, so long as you follow the Torah."
Christianity: "It doesn't matter, so long as you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour."
Islam: "It doesn't matter, so long as you observe the Five Pillars of Islam."
Buddhism: "All compound things are transient. The ears are transient, the head is transient, the sneeze is transient. Why worry about things that are transient?"
Hinduism: "Brahman is real and the world is unreal. The ears, the head, and the sneeze are also unreal. Just what is the problem here?"
Taoism: "The sneeze that can be sneezed is not the eternal Sneeze. Attune yourself to the Tao, and the sneeze will take care of itself."
Confucianism: "Please don't sneeze when observing the Rites. It would sully the majesty of the ritual."
You can see that the great religions are not being very helpful here. For the answer, we must turn to America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, which spurns ideology-based cant and fustian, invades other countries with insouciant absence of forethought, and advocates a pragmatic solution to every problem.
American pragmatism says, "Let's find out. Block up your mouth and nose, and sneeze. Then you will know the answer."
In the ground-breaking comic-strip episode mentioned above, Calvin thinks of this solution, but is afraid to try it. Alas, he is just a six-year-old boy who thinks his stuffed tiger is alive. Poor, pathetic little wretch! Precocious though he may be, he is too immature to persist for long in the philosophical quest.
But fools rush in where Calvin fears to tread. Seeking to ascertain the answer to this question, I put it to the test. The next time I had to sneeze, I closed my mouth and pinched my nose.
I have to tell you, people, it wasn't much fun. The "sneeze" didn't come out my ears. My head didn't explode, either, but it felt like it was going to. My ears rang, my eyes saw stars and the "sneeze" went right into my brain, causing me to write this column, which I suspect is not one of my best. [Editor's note: In evaluating these columns, we never think in terms of "best". We think in terms of "least worst".]
Next time, I'll leave my orifices unblocked and let nature take its course. The great religions had it
right all along.
S Tsow can be flamed at email@example.com, when he's not performing experiments suggested by comic strips.