A boy sees a farmer feeding apples to a pen full of pigs, one apple at a time. The boy asks, “Wouldn’t it be quicker to just dump the whole bushel into the pen?” “What’s the rush?” asks the farmer. “The pigs have nothing better to do.”
I don’t remember where I first heard this joke, but I remember wondering what it meant. Obviously, part of its meaning is clear enough: the farmer mistakes the intent of the boy’s question, which is to suggest that the farmer is wasting his own time, not the pigs’. But like any good joke, it is shot through with absurdity and irony: that is, it attempts to hold up two opposing views of reality (human and pig), while mocking the ludicrous notion that it is possible to do so.
Ludicrous or not, we do this sort of thing all of the time. In fact, it has become something of a cliché to measure a person’s level of intelligence by their ability to hold two or more opposing perspectives in their brains at the same time. Some might see this as a form of madness—an endless loop of equivocation—but “smart” people (and I will presume to number myself among them) see it as an essential part of critical thinking, believing that we must let in at least two opinions to test the validity of any particular one. Which isn’t to say that high levels of intelligence do not sometimes appear to correlate with madness. To return to the joke in question, perhaps the truly mad are those who finally refuse to come down on the side of human or pig, who refuse to finally nail a banner to their mast and pledge allegiance, who refuse to be held to account. Or to introduce another metaphor, at some point we have to stop spinning plates, take one down, and tuck into our dinner. Which, in this instance, is probably pork-based.
But jokes do not need to declare themselves one way or another. They are only critical frames and not sentient things (human or porcine), and therefore beyond any moral or social obligation. The teller of the joke does bear these burdens, but the joke itself, like any text, remains stubbornly separate and—because it is built on absurdity and irony—unresolved. That’s what makes it powerful, and hopefully funny.
Which brings me back to the farmer, the pigs, and the boy. Several things strike me about this joke. Some might not be of general interest, like questions of age and gender (why a boy and a man?), and social class (what does it mean to be ‘the farmer,’ besides the obvious, that he ‘farms’?). But other questions press themselves on all hearers, because it is in the nature of jokes to do so. Whether we are able to say with finality what the message or meaning of a joke is, we still need to take a position within it. Quite literally. To use the old slip-on-a-banana-peel gag as an example, we need to ask ourselves whether we identify as the spectator to the slapstick, as the person dropping the peel (wittingly or unwittingly), or as the person slipping on that peel.
So, who am I on this imaginary farm? The farmer, the boy, or one of the pigs? The boy seems like a safe bet. He’s the most apparently rational, framing reality in a way that is familiar to us, in terms of human time and value. If the farmer works faster, the boy’s implied logic suggests, he achieves a higher level of efficiency, which increases productivity and/or leisure for the farmer. In other words, he is better compensated. That compensation is measured in money and time, yes, but also in pig flesh. From the boy’s perspective, the pig’s value is measured in purely economic terms, as something traded upon. And if he’s grown up on a farm, he’s probably looking at the pig and thinking, “pork chops,” or “bacon.”
The farmer’s view is a bit more complex. He is a kind of poet in the piece, who acknowledges the validity of alternative states of being (pig time vs. human time). Like the Surrealists, who refused to give greater weight to waking reality than dreams and hallucinations, he does not assume that his experience of reality is the only one with merit. Of course, this does not prevent him from trading in pig flesh. Even poets have to eat.
The pigs, if I may presume to speak for them, are less inclined to think in terms of time or money, or indeed leisure vs. productivity. All they see is the apples. Red, green, ripe, rotten: all are indiscriminately gobbled with the same greedy determination that has led pigs to be identified with gluttony and excess (“Don’t be such a pig!”) and stubborn, single-minded pursuit (“Don’t be so pig-headed!”).
Of course, there is another perspective: that of the apple. Like the banana peel, it looks to play the role of the vehicle rather than the subject of the joke, because it lacks a will of its own. At best, it is the currency of the joke, the verb in the sentence that is the joke (okay, there are more than one sentence in this joke, but you see my point). The farmer ‘apples’ his pigs, and the boy wonders why the farmer ‘apples’ so inefficiently. But the apple is also done to. Or maybe it is better to say that it is done in by the joke. If the boy makes the farmer the butt of the joke, the apple is its more concrete victim. Even the pig is prized for its flesh. But the apple is just the fodder that makes the pig flesh, that in turn feeds farmer and boy (and, in industrial farming, other pigs).
By all appearances, it sucks to be the apple. As it has, seemingly from the beginning. In Eden, the apple was the instrument of damnation; in the story of Johnny Appleseed, it is the currency, rather than beneficiary of abundance. In myth anyway, apples have ever existed in the service to others’ transformation, but never their own. They remain, despite genetic cross-breeding and the occasional caramel coating, apples, plain and simple.
Which is why, I suppose, my first impulse is to speak for the apples, as the Lorax presumed to do for the trees. And also why I pause. After all, the Onceler might have been an amoral free-market capitalist without a thought for the environmental impact of his massive Thneed operation, but he was right about one thing: the Lorax was a self-satisfied, self-righteous, humorless scold. I certainly don’t want to be seen that way.
And there are other complications, as well. By what right do I claim to know the plight of apples, or to serve their welfare? Who am I to say what it feels like to be an apple, and what an apple wants or needs? I see them as victims of an oppressive narrative, a hierarchy where they are rendered powerless, incidental. But isn’t that critique informed by my own limited view of power dynamics?
Here’s something I do know: there is no joke without the apples. They are not merely the vehicles of the joke, but—if you’ll excuse the pun—the core of the paradox within. They are the creative tension, the frisson that makes meaning, both grist and grease for the mill. Whether as symbols of the transitory nature of existence (‘stuff’ as energy in a constant state of transformation), or digestible, but otherwise irreducible objects (‘stuff’ as ‘stuff’), they are essential. But like so much that is essential, they also appear to be indifferent to the transaction of the joke. They have no clear stake in it, which is why they may be fodder for the joke, but they are never the butt. Talk about a paradox!
So even if I can’t presume to stand up for the apples, I want to stand with them. They may pay the ultimate price in the joke, but they never submit to its tyranny. Within the many transactions of power and meaning, and the web of intersecting human and pig realities that complicate those transactions—in which I, the hearer, invariably get lost–they remain, stubbornly, themselves. Apples. Which of us can make that claim?
Besides, isn’t the underlying truth of any joke the same? That we all get eaten in the end?