This year, for the first time in several decades — indeed, the first time in the entirety of my adult incarnation — i decided to do Hallowe’en.
I’ve never gotten really excited about Hallowe’en. As a philosopher, i feel a need to know what i’m celebrating when i observe a holiday, and Hallowe’en seems to be just a confusing hash of ancient pagan imagery, modern horror, Disney, magical unicorns, and contemporary kiddie-fied commercialization.
However, this year i decided to get with the program; you know, find out what everyone else has been experiencing all this time. And it seemed fitting that, as a philosopher, i should provide the kiddoes with a uniquely philosophical experience that they’d be unlikely to get at the other houses.
Upon discovering that some people like to dress up the front of their home to reflect the spirit of the holiday, i decided to make an attempt. I chose as my theme the decay of Western Civilization… the tragic, inexorable unraveling of more than two thousand years of achievement and tradition… the entropic deterioration of centuries’ worth of cultural advancement and rational thought… leaving a (metaphorically speaking) dilapidated, moss-grown, disintegrating ruin. The advantage here is that i didn’t really have to do anything to decorate. My front porch already looks like that.
Then i hauled a big cauldron onto my porch and loaded it up with goodies for the little trick-or-treaters. Finally, i put on my bow-tie and wire-rimmed spectacles (my ‘philosopher’ costume) and i was ready to go.
The evening, i must say, went very well.
By way of illustration, why don’t i narrate for you my encounters with three different batches of trick-or-treaters, each group interesting in its own way. Let’s start with a group of five children that came by pretty early on, while it was still light out.
“Greetings,” i said to the group at large. “Welcome to the Philosopher’s Haunted Den of the Breakdown of Western Civilization.”
They eyed the front of my house apprehensively, as if searching for a notice of condemnation by the building inspector.
“And what are you?” i asked the first kid who bravely stepped up to my porch.
“I’m Conan O’Brien’s haircut,” he explained.
“Ah!” i said. “Not bad. I can see it. An extremely accurate likeness. And you?” i asked the next kid.
“I’m an ocelot that identifies as a manatee that is actually a bottle of Dr. Pepper.”
“That’s exactly what i would have guessed. Very clever. Layers of ontological complexity. I like it.”
“And i,” said the next kid, an absolutely whacking redhead, “am a mathematical impossibility.”
“No kidding!” i said. “That’s amazing! Can you be more specific?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’m the square root of peace and love for all humankind.”
“Dig,” i said. “Oh yeah. Wow. Can you dig it.”
We all sort of dug it for a few seconds.
“Yeah,” said Conan O’Brien’s haircut, quietly. “Crazy.”
“And what about you?” i asked the next kid.
In the most earnest, heartfelt voice i have ever heard emerge from the body of a human being, he said, “I am a single tear from the eye of a magical unicorn.”
“Well, of course you are,” i acknowledged. “Even a fool can see that. Good work.”
The fifth and last kid stepped forth boldly. “And what are you?” i asked.
“Your Mom,” he said, simply.
“Roger that,” i said, and reached into my cauldron to fish out goodies for each of the kids.
Now, i’m afraid we need to pause a moment before going on.
Most regular people, when preparing to receive trick-or-treaters, will stock up on Mounds mini-bars, Kit Kats, Jolly Ranchers, and those awful candy corn things. But do not forget that we are here dealing with a philosopher, not a normal person. My cauldron was stocked with something much better than candy: pocket paperback editions of some of the shorter philosophy classics. To wit: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Immanuel Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. And Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. By way of concession to the tastes of children, i also had a pile of 100 Grillion Dollar Bars in there. To sweeten the deal, as it were.
“For you,” i said to the one who’d identified as my Mom, “a copy of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and a 100 Grillion Dollar Bar.”
“But it’s not real!” he demurred.
“What?” i said. “It is absolutely real! This is an authorized edition of the Tractatus!”
“I meant the 100 Grillion dollars.”
“Oh,” i said. “Hmmm. Define real.”
“Cool, a philosopher who’s also a smart-aleck. I can’t wait to tell my friends.”
I was not going to take this from a pipsqueak whose idea of a Hallowe’en costume was a lackluster impersonation of my Maternal Ancestor. “You were trick-or-treating in the hope of amassing a fortune?” i demanded. “No. You were trick-or-treating in the hope of getting lots of candy. This is candy. ‘Grillion’ isn’t even a number.”
Annoyed, i distributed philosophy books and 100 Grillion Dollar Bars to the remaining kids with no further complaint, although the fellow identifying as the tear from the eye of a magical unicorn did tremble slightly. No harm done, the kids were off, and i was left to contemplate the complexities involved in the naming of candy bars.
This next interesting group came along a while later, after a few rather disappointing cohorts of fairies and zombies. “Hello, hello!” i said to them. “Welcome to the Philosopher’s Haunted Den of the Utter Decay of the Western Cultural Tradition.”
“SWEET,” said one of the kids, obviously genuinely impressed. “It even looks like a deteriorating architectural corpse, a rude, broken-down relic of past greatness.”
“Um, yes, thank you,” i said. “Moving on. Let’s start with you. What are you identifying as this evening?”
“I’m a naughty, naughty fellow,” he said in the most perfect deadpan you’ve ever seen.
“Well, yes, i’ve no doubt of that,” i said. “I meant, what are you dressed up as?”
His companion, with an almost-matching costume, spoke up. “He means that literally. He is identifying as a naughty, naughty fellow for Hallowe’en. He’s usually the perfect kid. He never does anything wrong. The grown-ups all love him. It’s disgusting.”
“Ah!” i said. “How silly of me. Got it. And you?” i asked his cohort.
“Well,” he began, “I’m a fellow who’s not quite mischievous enough to be called ‘naughty’ but who is, nevertheless, not an entirely reputable citizen.”
“And i see you two are a package deal,” i observed.
“We are,” said the first one, a naughty, naughty expression on his face.
“And you!” i said, directing my attention to a young man dressed in what appeared to me to be the garb of a well-to-do dandy from the early 1800s.
“I’m a character from the novel Persuasion, by Jane Austen,” he explained.
“That’s tremendous!” i said. “As it happens, i just re-read Persuasion a few months ago. Which character are you?”
“Well,” he said, somewhat tentatively, “I’m not actually in the book.”
“I see,” said i, although i didn’t.
He continued. “I’m a character that Austen would have included in the novel if she had actually known what she was doing.”
“Ah,” i said. “That’s more like it. Most treadknicious of you.”
The fourth child stepped forward, a little squirt of a dude who appeared to be dressed, as nearly as i could tell, as a shapeless blue amoeba.
“I’m an as-yet-undiscovered chemical element,” he said.
“Ah, but here you are,” i said cleverly. “You’ve been discovered.”
“Discovered by you,” he said. “The scientific community still hasn’t got a clue.”
“Niiiiiiiice,” i said. “Does this element have a name?”
“Nunnayurbidnium,” he said.
“Oh, sorry,” i said. “Didn’t mean to offend.”
“No,” he offered, “I mean the element is called ‘Nunnayurbidnium’.”
“Ah,” i said. “Yes. Of course. Very good. I shall append it to the periodic table in my old college chemistry book. The scientific community will never have to know.” He and i shared a mutual scholarly wink, and then i cauldron-dove to fetch the kiddies their goodies.
The third interesting group arrived shortly after dusk, at around that time when the little kids and their parents are starting to thin out and the teenagers elaborately made up as zombies or wearing lame skeleton t-shirts are becoming the dominant demographic. Happily, the group of which i now speak was not made of such stuff.
There were eight people in this group: one set of three, and another set of five. The two sets of trick-or-treaters weren’t actually together, but they all arrived at my front porch at more-or-less the same time.
“And who are YOU people?” I was talking to what appeared to be the leader of the group of five, which i took, furthermore, to be a family of aliens. Not the illegal kind; the interplanetary kind.
“We’re a family of aliens,” he explained helpfully.
“I gathered as much,” i said. “And what brings you ’round these here parts?”
“Well,” he began, hooking a tentacle into each of the two straps of his overalls, “It’s like this. We are the last of our race. Our civilization was wiped out by a race of even meaner aliens from a neighboring planet.”
“Grrrrrr,” chorused the wife and kids, their tentacles waving menacingly in the air.
“That’s awful!” i said. “So you’re refugees here on earth, seeking asylum?”
“Well, it’s more like, we’re hopin’ to set up a GoFundMe account so that we can afford thermonuclear weapons and wipe them other aliens off the face of their stupid planet.”
“Well, gosh, y’know, okey-dokey,” i said, concluding that these varmints were serious customers and not to be trifled with. Casting about for a change of topic, i said, “Well, sir, your young’un here looks just like you.”
The lad waved his tentacles about in evident pleasure.
“Don’t he now?” said the proud papa, huffing a cloud of pinkish gas from the top of what i believe to have been his head. “He sure do favor his old dad, that’s what i’ve always said.”
I nodded. “I gotta say, the apple don’t fall far from the tree. So, remind me again… i don’t think i caught it the first time… what’s the name of the planet y’all are from?”
The father replied with the most horrifying sound i have ever seen produced by an object that was less than six feet away from me: a sort of screeching moan, mostly made up of harsh vowels and painful dreams. “So,” i squirmed. “Um. So that’s the name of your planet, is it?” By this time the conviction was finally borne in upon me that these were probably not kids wearing costumes.
“Wow, okay,” i said, turning my attention to the remaining group of three, who had sat patiently on their fence during the preceding proceedings. Did i mention that these three fellows had a portable fence, mounted on wheels, and that they were sitting on it?
“And you fellows,” i said. “What’s the story?”
“We’re Scotsmen,” said the first one.
“Aye, that we are,” said the second. “Three of us.”
“Sittin’ on a fence,” added the third.
That certainly cleared things up for me. “Golly,” i said, “you fellows seem oddly familiar. Might i have encountered you in a joke somewhere?”
“It’s not unlikely,” said the first one.
“You’ve probably haird the one about the three Scotsmen,” said the second one.
“Sittin’ on a fence,” added the third.
“Aye, that i have,” said i, involuntarily falling into their mode of speech. “So that’s why you fellas seem so familiar.” Then, seizing an opportunity that was not likely to come round again, i asked, “So what’s the punchline? I’ve never heard the finished version of the joke.”
The three Scotsmen looked at each other, then back at me, smiled mysteriously, and said nothing.
[Editor’s Note: For a discussion of the original joke about the Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence, you might want to check out this post… (“So There Were These Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence, See”) from about four years ago. You might, additionally, enjoy checking out this later post: “An Attempt to Get to the Bottom of This ‘Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence’ Thing.”]
Unsure of how to continue the conversation, i dug out some Hundred Grillion Dollar Bars and pocket philosophical classics from my cauldron, distributed them among the strange company, and saw them off.
Well, there you have it. My first participation in Hallowe’en in about 40 years. I feel you must agree with me that it was a smashing success.
And you will be gratified to note, as i was, that after having checked all up and down the block the next morning, i saw no sign of philosophy books that had been tossed aside into people’s yards or chucked into conveniently located garbage cans.
[Editor’s Note: For some clues as to where some of these kiddies might have gotten the ideas for their inventive costumes, have a look at the post prior to this one.]