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It is important that you should know I cannot sleep on in airplanes. This is partially because I also cannot sleep under any circumstances, but may have its roots in the neurotic belief that it is only the power of my mind keeping the aircraft suspended 45,000 feet in the air. As I am often called upon to fly to places remote and exotic, I spend quite a lot of my time in exquisite, wakeful boredom on airplanes. Ears ringing with white noise, eyes fixed on that peculiar illuminated ceiling graphic that is either a red ‘X’ through a burning cigarette or a warning not to open your fountain pen above your head, I go quietly mad. It used to pass the time to bite stewardesses on the bottoms, but the new restrictions on in-cabin behavior have robbed me of even this fleeting amusement. So I am forced to read, or write.
As it happens I am writing this on an airplane, marinated in ennui, having read an entire Sunday edition of Britain’s The Guardian from front page via masthead to advertising supplements, including all box scores and cookery hints. But all was not lost; I count this entire trip a worthy expenditure of red eyeballs due to the discovery, on page six, of a magnificent example of why scientists shouldn’t be allowed to write their own grants. The headline of the piece is as follows: “Highest functions of brain produce lowest form of wit”. Naturally I was very interested to find out if by ‘lowest form of wit’ they meant kicking someone in the marbles. In fact it is sarcasm to which they referred. Sarcasm is produced and deciphered, if the article is to be believed, in the frontal lobes of the brain. According to the sarcasm-studying team leader, Dr. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, persons with damage to the frontal lobes through brain injury or being born in certain parts of Texas were unable to process sarcasm, irony, or metaphor, all of which require all sorts of subtle mental gymnastics to negotiate between the literal meaning of a statement and its intended, oblique meaning.
Hence, and I’m quoting from the actual study, the sarcastic example of a boss observing an employee showing up for work and proceeding to have a rest: “Joe don’t work too hard.” Apparently people with the telltale concave forehead just sat there staring at Dr. Shamay-Tsoori, whereas folks working with a full deck were able to grasp the ironic nature of the remark. The article does not mention whether they thought it was as stupid an example of sarcasm as I thought it was, or if anybody named Joe walked out of the experiment. Anyway, at the very bottom of the piece (the article, not the stewardess that just slunk past me) there’s a rather gratuitous observation that sarcasm is grasped with a lesser degree of skill on the opposite side of the Atlantic. I checked a map and they’re not talking about Australia. Dr. so-called Shamay-Tsoori cannot help but remark, “Maybe it’s a cultural difference. I think The English have a more complicated and subtle sarcasm that the Americans are not used to”. I find this sort of wild speculation to be perfectly in keeping with the rather wooly kind of scientist that would embark on a study of sarcasm in the first place, but nonetheless I felt the cut. I felt it deeply.
First of all, Ms. sarcasm-expert doctor, assuming you’re not one of those Frenchmen with a female name and really are a woman as the appellate ‘Simone’ would suggest, let’s just remember who won the war. Once we’ve got that squared away, let’s also remember that sarcasm is supposed to be the lowest form of wit, or possibly second only to a swift boot in the fork. But I must admit I am intrigued. Is it possible, the ad hominem aspect of this attack on American wit aside, that Americans just don’t get sarcasm, irony, or metaphor? I think it’s entirely possible, and it’s why we’re in so much trouble. We’ve forgotten how to laugh at ourselves. We’ve forgotten that the Bible is perfectly valid as metaphor it doesn’t have to be literally true. Without a sense of irony we fail to see what’s so preposterous about exporting democracy at gunpoint. Maybe it’s the water, or early exposure to Kool-Aid, but something has damaged our collective frontal lobes. Meanwhile, here I still am on this bloody airplane, halfway across the Atlantic.
Maybe I work too hard, like Joe.
BEN TRIPP is an independent filmmaker and all-around swine.
His book, Square In The Nuts, may be purchased here, with other outlets to follow: http://www.lulu.com/Squareinthenuts . Swag is available as always from http://www.cafeshops/tarantulabros . And Mr. Tripp may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.