No philosopher came close to solving the problem of guilt and weight until Descartes divided mind and body in two, so that the body could gorge itself while the mind thought, ‘Who cares, it’s not me’. The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup?There’s a notable tradition in modern American humour writing of the “what if” story, spun off from a real-life personality or event – S J Perelman for instance would often use a stray line in a newspaper report as a starting point for his stories. Likewise, Allen is very funny when he’s weaving hypothetical tales around famous historical figures. Some of his earlier short stories in this vein:
“Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This?” – a short chronology of the life and struggle of the Earl of Sandwich, “inventor” of the now-ubiquitous snack.
1745: After four years of frenzied labour, he is convinced he is on the threshold of success. He exhibits before his peers two slices of turkey with a slice of bread in the middle. His work is rejected by all but David Hume, who senses the imminence of something great and encourages him.“If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists” – letters written by Vincent Van Gogh (who defied his father’s wishes and became a dentist instead of a painter) to his brother Theo.
Dear Theo,“A Giant Step for Mankind”, about the three forgotten scientists who almost beat Dr Heimlich to the patent for what became known as the Heimlich Maneuver, a method used to aid people who are choking on their food.
Toulouse-Lautrec is the saddest man in the world. He has real talent but he’s too short to reach his patients’ mouths and too proud to stand on anything…Meanwhile my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls “a full, fresh mouth”. It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?
January 7: Today was a productive day for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was done by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. If we can transfer the procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.Wonderfully funny stories all, and these, along with many others, can be found in three collections: Without Feathers, Getting Even and Side Effects. But try to get your hands on Woody Allen's Complete Prose, which includes all three books.