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International Socialism, Winter 1963/4


H. Orlando Patterson

The Very Funny Man

A Tale in Two Moods


From International Socialism, No.15, Winter 1963/4, pp.29-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Proofread by Anoma Cartwright (July 2008).


The First Mood: The Prelude to the Funny Man

For a moment his response had been blind, spontaneous, animal. He had been successful. It followed that he should be happy. Therefore he was happy. At the very least, he wanted desperately to be. And the consciousness of that alone should have satisfied him. Intent would be enough, would be everything. Why, he asked himself – somewhat self-embarrassed by a vague sense of artificiality – why should he pursue the unknown? For all he knew this strange unknown which he sought, and which he dreaded, may yet remain unknown by proving to be nothing. Here and now he had something tangible. The very thought, the very suggestion of happiness struck him as being slightly naive, even bizarre. But there could be no doubting the reality of his intent. So why should he ask why?

But already, in the asking – and could he help himself; he was simply human? – he had trapped himself. Had been plunged headlong down into the bottomless pit of a little commonplace tragedy. A petty anti-climax, constantly seeing itself down. So the ridiculous question was posed. And what was he being left with? Anything else, he wondered, but a laughable, dismal monotony of self-consciousness?

Something in him revolted and he sought to shatter the confused trend of his thoughts with the hatchet of his consciousness. Blast it all! He had been successful in his exams. He was happy. He was proud. Happy, proud, he repeated, blushed, and suppressed an urge to laugh. Yet he felt he longed for the holidays to be over so that he could be back at college to sit and watch the other students sitting and watching the lecturer. And he damned the crude reality of his mind that sought to remind him that as soon as the holidays were over and he was back only one desire would dominate his being – for the holidays to begin again so that he could long for college.

But sooner or later he knew that he would have to accept the crude reality of what he felt so deeply and which he now sought to deny by reducing to something no more than the flippant product of his thoughts. Then he would give himself up to weariness, to the deep, inner uneasiness that parched every semblance of achievement from him, that made him tired, so strangely tired that he would wish only to sink into everything and so be nowhere, that made him wish for everything – walls, carpets, chairs, ceiling, mirrors – to close in on him and in a moment (what sweet, self-killing joy, that moment!) crush him to complete depthlessness.

His emotions, as usual, drove him to pen, to paper, and to another of his funny attempts at expression. The story that clouded his consciousness then, struck him as the funniest he ever created. So he decided to call it The Very Funny Man. And so he wrote:

The Second Mood: The Making of the Funny Man

Once there was a very funny man. This man was neither short nor tall. This man was neither slim nor fat. This man was neither black nor white. He was just an average looking Jamaican with average looking features. Not even his dress betrayed any peculiarity. It possessed neither the tweedy waist-coated conservatism of those of light hue, nor the shabby exposure of those on whom the tar brush had been too lavish. No. He was just a normal looking man on his normal way.

And yet, paradoxically, this man always caught your eye. It was very funny. So very strange. But if you happened to be on the same bus or train on which he travelled, inevitably your eye settled on him. Perhaps because he was so inconspicuous and unseeing. Or perhaps, in epitomizing the boredom and lack of interest in all the other faces his became the one most worthy of interest. But don’t misunderstand, it was not as if in looking at him you really saw him. His was a sort of boredom ending itself in interest through sheer boredom. And that is why so many people afterwards while admitting to having spent an entire journey sitting opposite to him and actually staring at him could not, despite this, remember one solitary thing about the very funny man. That he existed almost everyone knew. But who and what he was, well, that was another matter.

The funniest thing about this very funny man was that he was always travelling. He never stopped. It was vital to his existence that he always found himself going. It didn’t matter where. Not at all. The important thing, the essential fact, was that he should be going.

It is necessary for this tale to say that our man was fairly well off. And after all, this is not such an unreasonable assumption considering that it was widely rumoured that his father had been a successful politician. So the funny man, if he wished, could get most anything he wanted. He could eat all the nicest foods at all the nicest places where all the nicest people went. If he wanted he could have driven the biggest cars or he could have conquered the skies in his own private plane. But no. Space meant nothing to the funny man for the simple reason that he could be anywhere he wanted. And time meant nothing either, for he could get there in the moment he desired. Not that this funny man was a sorcerer or anything as extraordinary as that. In any case you needed faith for that sort of thing, and, this little is known of him, the funny man had absolutely no faith neither in anything apart from himself nor himself. It was just that to this funny man every moment, every thought, every action reduced itself into the present of his expectancy. This funny man could be everywhere for he never went anywhere except there – there – which was the expectancy of where he was ever going.

And so he passed his life. Always from one end of Jamaica to the other. Always on the narrow precipitous roads. But he never saw the rugged, passionate green hills that were about him, no matter how much they threw themselves at him with their tall peaks veiled in the distance with the mystic, remote, blue haze and topped with saintly flocks of clouds, he never saw them. Nor did he see the rich valleys with their entanglements of trunks and grass and thorns and huts and little plots of pitiable, dry farms beside the big-big sugar estates. Nor did he ever see the weary, downtrodden, black faces of the peasants, as stubborn as the basketed mules they drove. Not even the snug, brown faces of those in the city, though that might have been understandable, always hiding as they were behind the windshield of their enormous cars.

He just went on, passing from one place to the other, always coming to the point of reaching but never quite getting there, for there was never anywhere to get at, since to this funny man everywhere and everything began and existed in his expectation and everywhere and everything dwindled away with it.

Then one day a very tragic thing almost happened to the very funny man. That is to say, things conspired to make it so that on one occasion he almost did reach somewhere. Or thought he did. For as he assured himself afterwards it had all been a pretence anyway. A trick his mind had tried to play on him. None the less, it went like this.

One fine summer the funny man was suddenly struck with the idea of making a trip through Europe. He was hesitant at first. It seemed such a great idea. But he soon came to like it more and more and eventually was bubbling with joy just thinking about it. So then he went to all the travel agents. He collected all the travel pamphlets he could get and after reading them and making copious notes, added them to his large and ever expanding library of travel catalogues of which he was so proud. Then he drew up elaborate plans of the planes and ships and trains he would take and the places he would pass through, and, just to make sure, of the places he would not pass through.

Soon he was on his way. In the skies. Over the chiselled grey of the sleeping ocean. Relishing the sheer sweet joy of going, simply going. On the way he discovered, to his delight, that there was some error in his plans, so when they landed in a place called England he rushed to the nearest hotel and for the next two days completely rearranged his schedules and times for travelling through Europe.

But then he found himself in France and it was there that it almost happened. After landing he had been escorted to the tourist office and there an elderly French woman, taking advantage of his ignorance of the language, had been wicked enough to arrange for him to take a guided tour of the city (perhaps it wasn’t her fault, the funny man came to realize afterwards, yet, she should have warned him of the deceptive nature of the city). They had taken him to all the usual places – the Pantheon, the Notre Dame, Les Invalides, the Louvre, were those not their names? – and except for his annoyance with the Americans and their stupid obsession with getting to the places they were led to believe they were getting at, everything went, for a time, quite smoothly, especially since he had brought along a booklet explaining the delightfully intricate rail-routes of France.

However, the funny man eventually found himself in a place called the Palace of Versailles. At first he just walked along with the crowd through the large halls, not bothering to look at the massive, dreamy pictures on the walls and ceiling, or the carpets with their intricate, flowery designs, till they reached a point looking out toward the south end of the building.

But then, the funny man, for some strange reason, became more and more aware of the people around him. At first he could only stare at them in a kind of dazed disbelief. He saw that they were tall, that they had two legs and two arms, that they had smooth, pinkish, healthy faces, that the hair on the flat-chested ones stood upon their heads like porcupines and those of the ones with bulging breasts and smoother, pinker skin tended to have it long. And then he became aware of the fact that he was actually in the middle of them. And they were squeezing him in; they who were all so much alike. He became terrified for a moment in the thought that there was a possibility that he might be like them too, and with the sweat creeping up on his brow, he looked down on his hands and found some slight relief in the relative darkness of its colour. But then, the clear, piercing voice of the Frenchman caught hold of him. He tried desperately not to, but he had to listen, had to hear him speak of the grand days of French diplomacy, had to hear him recall the many tribal wars of Europe, had to look at the rich, elaborate tapestry, had to stare outside at the vast, extravagant panorama of lawns and woods and steps and statues and lakes that confronted him.

Suddenly he knew, or felt he knew, that he was there, somewhere, in a land called France, near a city called Paris, in a palace called Versailles. And that they were all about him. He could not escape them. They terrified him. Utterly, completely. They shattered every crevice of his being. He tried desperately to think and to convince himself that he was different, something apart, himself. But this only drove him more and more to a self-destructive feeling of forlornness, of being somehow lost in the midst of them. So his soul was trapped in an abysmal paradox. For he could only escape them in the consciousness of his difference, but in this very consciousness was an overwhelming sense of grief and abandonment. He was alone, the funny man, for the very first time that he could recall, he was alone in a vast world made up of their faces – pale, expressionless, indifferent – and he was terrified of being conscious even of himself, yet it was only of himself that he could dare to think, for if he moved, if he budged, they would be about him, they would be closing in on him and they would all be screaming with horror what the Frenchman was now bellowing – that he was there, there in Versailles, seeing it, feeling it, smelling its antiquity, touching it, knowing in the moment nothing else but it and his relation to it.

The full terror of what had really happened suddenly crashed deep into him. He had been caught. Caught out of expectancy. No longer was there the sweet solace of going, of simply being in expectation. Gone in an instant were the passive joys of anticipation, the undemanding emptiness of the moment which knew nothing more than the expectation of what was only created by itself.

In his terror he began to scream, to shout that it was all a lie, a great farce. So everyone began looking round at him. And the encounter of their stares only drove him more to terror. He began to run.

‘I must be going’ he kept saying as he pushed them aside, ‘I must be going, I must be going’.

Outside he dashed into a taxi and raced for his hotel. As soon as he was in his room, he opened his suitcase and pulled out his catalogues and, sitting around the table with pencil and paper, he continued until far into the night soothing his shattered nerves with a new, intricate plan of return to Jamaica.

Two weeks later he was back in Jamaica and had almost smothered the incident to the back of his mind though every now and then it forced itself up to level of his consciousness.

But soon it was completely forgotten. For the funny man had gotten back to his old routine and was happily travelling the length and breadth of the island again.

Moving along. Passing. Eternally going. Without joy, yet without sorrow, without fear. He knew no one. No one seemed to know him. And so his journey went, passed, continued. And he never reached, that funny man, and he never left ...

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