Two Jokes About Bears
Two Jokes about Bears I
The Fork that’s Already Broken Our Path; Realism; the Absurd; Narration
Imagine a found set of instructions. Liken them to these that are in front of you now, if this helps. Vague, the instructions offer two options; two jokes – one begins with a panda walking into a bar, one with a hunter tracking a brown bear in the woods.
They are not really instructions at all, but they do imply a beginning – two beginnings: the descriptions given. Forgive me but I presume to know you. You will want from these descriptions to infer a direction for your narrative. Here is your voice – the ever-sensible and aesthetically-concerned you:
Q. To which of the two jokes am I initially attracted?
And here is mine:
A. If you base your decision on verisimilitude, you will choose the second
Not to say you don’t appreciate or even love to dwell in the absurd, but you are not convinced this line of absurdity is worth pursuing, particularly in the “walks into a bar” form. You have your limits and rightly so. You put yourself in the place of the bartender in the first, instinctively rejecting the absurdity of a panda in your bar. You freeze, think you are dreaming – or, no, you are too jaded for this. You wonder if it might not be a man in costume. Maybe I’m trying to trick you. I should know better.
Verisimilitude – in this case making good on the promise of finding a bear in the woods – draws you into the second joke. Wise of the economy of nature, the bear is exactly where it should be. And, though you may have never seen a bear in the wild, education and popular idiom tell you where bears are to be found and how they go about their business. Past experience, albeit secondhand, makes you comfortable sending the hunter out and imagining yourself as he is. The gun in your hands and the ground beneath you are familiar. Your father was a hunter?
Q. Moving forward with my weapon, it is his hand I feel on my shoulder?
A. You are worse off it is not your father. It is the brown bear.
You have your limits with realism as well. The real becomes unruly. Elements of the absurd enter the world you believed was real and you fear the empathy you once valued could become dangerous. There are weapons involved, and images of your father. Animism not withstanding.
The criteria for your first decision now dictates a change. You are compelled to now explore the second joke and search for verisimilitude within, or to change your value system. I say you switch jokes and not values. I’ll leave only this door open to you, but I will not lock the other.
You may now take refuge in the world you have acknowledged as fully absurd and separate, where you, now again the bartender, are asking yourself – the panda having made his way in while I have kept you in the ether – whether or not you serve the panda’s kind in said bar. You ask yourself, “Is this that kind of joke?” It could all end right now if it is, and with less than a clicking of heels. But maybe I have allowed you, my bartender, to speak out of turn. Or maybe I’ve meant to do so. But you are clever, you raise good questions.
Q. Might we now not call this a meta-joke?
A. For the sake of discussion, I say yes. There is much to explain.
Your monologue as the bartender is internal, known to me only because I have written it. But I have one foot in the joke and one without. And I have made you, out of necessity for demonstration, both the bartender and, to some lesser degree, the narrator. You are aware you are living in a joke and that, because of this, the joke is aware of itself and its limitations. I know how both jokes end, but I am pretending not to know. I am speaking out of the side of my mouth and yours. And though your own experience leaves you incapable of fully believing in or imagining the implications of omniscience, you will grant that the exercise may teach you. (I would rather not have explained this.)
It is the language of first instruction – telling yourself to move as such, you pull yourself forward. The language of underwater. (I would rather have just said this.)
Two Jokes about Bears II
The Russian Language; Storytelling in Russian; Zoos; Narration (cont.)
I would like to discuss the Russian language in order to take a second approach at verisimilitude and to evaluate your narration. In Russian I could not say your story is told through an omniscient narrator. The Russians do not say “through” when they speak of storytelling, interpretation or translation. They say “across.” In English I might also say across – as in the statement, “to tell the joke effectively, the narrator must get across the bartender’s true feelings when eyeing the panda.” The Russians, though, mean something altogether different, as they will say the bartender’s thoughts are spoken across the narrator. The storyteller is a bridge and not a vessel, and only gains importance by allowing the story to pass from one world into the other via his shoulder.
Q. What do I make of this?
A. To answer this question, I’ll ask that you again consider verisimilitude.
An estimated 100,000 of the 125,000-150,000 brown bears living throughout the world are found in the former Soviet Union. As for the panda, since the introduction of the panda to the West in 1869 when a French missionary shipped a pelt to the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, pandas have been sought and procured by zoos throughout the world. The first modern zoos were founded hardly more than a century before this point – the Imperial Menagerie was founded in Vienna in 1752, and in 1793 a small collection of animals became part of the Botanical Gardens in Paris. The two most celebrated British zoos, located in Regent’s Park, London and Whipsnade Park, Bedfordshire, were not established until 1828 and 1831. These zoos were all founded with the intention of creating living, outdoor museums. Imperial Russia shared the world’s interest in zoos and in the panda. The Moscow Zoo, the largest and oldest zoo in Russia, opened in February of 1864, followed by the St. Petersburg Zoo less than a year-and-a-half later. Both zoos at first faced extremely high animal mortality rates, due to extreme winters and general inexperience. Bears, however, were never particularly problematic, as parts of Russia do boast suitable habitat for both the panda and the brown bear (which both tend to live fat and happy lives in captivity).
By extension, the jokes, disregarding for the moment the talking brown bear, could take place in Russia, perhaps even simultaneously. Perhaps there is one beginning and not two. The jokes could take place during or after WWII, the Moscow Zoo having been nearly completely destroyed, the animals escaped and wandering the city.
Q. Should I return and reevaluate my initial impulse?
A. Yes. Yes.
The second joke is now the absurd one; bears do not talk. The first joke, given the right location and period, could have occurred. A panda may indeed have once walked into a bar. History permits us to consider it.
Two Jokes about Bears III
Two Sets of Questions; Argument from Abstraction; Go Fish
Given this turn of events, perhaps you would like to take a break and sharpen your beak. Please take the time, as I have, to complete the following statements. The theme – “go fish”:
A question is often . . .
Questions, in some languages . . .
If a city had . . .
The cities where I have lived . . .
If I moved to . . .
Two Jokes about Bears IV
The Panda as Icon; Returning to the Brown Bear; The Trap
You are still the bartender. You are aware there is a panda sitting in your bar and, while this is odd and comical, history tells you it may actually be happening. You are no longer as aware as you once were that this is a joke of the absurd kind. Still, you could test my limits by attempting a punch line. You still have a decision to make.
Q. Do I allow the panda to stay?
A. For the purpose of this exercise, I ask that you do. Please base your decision on economics.
Your reasons for allowing the panda to stay. I explain them here as you explain them to the waitress (a red-haired girl with whom you’re on friendly terms) whom you must now send to serve him: pandas, a charismatic and lovable mega-fauna (none other than the poster-species for the preservation of endangered species), could be good for business. You must assume, even though this is made-up, that business is a top priority in today’s economy.
A. Yes. The waitress is taking care of the bear. There is time for the absurd. It may even be fun.
Any discussion of verisimilitude concerning the brown bear has now lost its import. Still, I’d like to talk in terms of probability for a moment and move our brown bear out of Russia and back to North America.
Enter again the fact collector, who points out that there are currently over 1500 zoos in the world, only 14 of which are located in Russia. Furthermore, he says, the zoos in Russia are currently most famous for their care of the polar bear, having successfully bred several generations of polar bear in the St. Petersburg Zoo since 1932. Perhaps it is best here to consider that one of the largest collections of animals in the world is located in Bronx Park, New York City, founded by the New York Zoological Society in 1899.
This information is trivial, but it allows me to have the bear speak in clear English, with maybe an upstate accent, when he says to the hunter, “Best bend over, let Brown Bear take over.” Absurd or not, these are difficult words for you, the hunter, to hear. You are he who's been caught.
Two Jokes about Bears (INSERTION)
I am doing this now because I notice we’ve both been negligent on the point of urgency. It is not fully developed. Urgency will grow within the drama of the jokes as they are further unveiled, this is true enough, but urgency regarding the exercise has not been established. Why am I pulling you through this?
I am, of course, writing from the somber future (or, if not somber, characterize it as you will). I have seen your end. I have come back to the moment just before the fall, knowing that, though we try to keep a sense of humor about it all, it somehow gets away from us both. (You have this to look forward to.)
And I have a favor to ask:
Imagine for this one interruption that you are either the hunter or the bartender. Choose one. I am a docent. The museum in which you’ve met me appears to be, but is not, my grandmother’s house. Nonetheless, all of the artifacts we might find in my grandmother’s house are present.
The piece you are looking at is a large portrait of a Siamese dancing girl. The artist who painted this picture – he did everything for a reason, I think. It could be that the war taught him this, but this is speculation on my part. This picture he painted for his wife, who, though she is a Russian Jew by ancestry, has thought since her childhood in Brooklyn that she is a small part Chinese.
As you can see, this is a portrait of a woman dressed in a green robe and a green hat, tilting her head to the side. Raising her hands in a tall triangle. It is backed by bamboo, an element of folk artistry that does more to humble the wall than frame the piece. And, in fact, the size of the thing was dictated by the artist’s wife – who wanted the piece to cover as much of the wall as possible.
You will notice also the authentic Chinese antiques, art and artifacts distributed elsewhere throughout this main room and on into the hall. The chest by the window isn’t authentic – it is a standard cedar chest with the tags still inside, reading that it has a lifetime guarantee against moths. It’s had its legs sawn off, it’s been painted black, and an elaborate Chinese seal is stuck to its front. All alterations made by the artist and his three sons.
There are two blankets – one afghan, one green army blanket – inside the chest. Take your time viewing it, but don’t neglect what’s sitting on top of it. The final sketch. When the artist was dying, he told the same joke, the longest, most complicated joke he could remember. He told it many times every day just to show that, though part of his brain had been removed, he still could think.
The artist told a joke, and the joke involved this sketch here. He drew it several times, but this is the only one that survives, hidden away by a grandson who was afraid the joke would be the last thing his grandfather would tell him. It was a horrible, unfunny joke, and not for mixed company.
But it’s not your joke. Your joke is different.
Two Jokes about Bears V
Noah; A Hasty Retreat; Taxonomy and Self-Awareness
It is easy and almost appealing here to make a quick retreat to proclaimed restrictions on sexuality. Not to commit rape, incest or sodomy – these are the laws of Noah. And Noah did know something about animals. I’ve got this bear ready to commit one count each of the two bookends. The charges are reduced because, of course, these days sodomy is out the window. As it should be. No crime, no sin. As the German’s might say, antiquated ideas like these are durchs fenster. I have a feeling you’d be durchs fenster yourself if there were a fenster to go durchs. But I’m afraid this bear has you cornered. I don’t know if he’s at all religious. I also don’t know if he understands the concept of consent. It looks as though you’re screwed – literally, biblically and legally. Forcible sodomy. Premeditation? Certainly bestiality – and that could get us both in a lot of trouble.
This is moving too fast – the prose betrays it. You can make an appeal (you may even invoke the Lord) that I take you back to the panda and as quickly as possible. You are somewhere in New York State, rural. Russia is a long way away. But maybe you don’t have to go so far. We could resort to the Bronx Zoo again and find you a panda.
Q. Getting another panda into a bar, won’t that take a stretch?
A. It’s a question of time, not place.
Facts: The first panda to be captured and brought back to America alive was delivered into the arms of New York City 65 years ago by the Manhattan socialite turned explorer, Ruth Heartness. She asked twenty thousand dollars for the animal, an absurd sum for the time, and so she was stuck with it for quite some time while she waited for a zoo to meet her price.
So here you are, at one of the cocktail parties Ruth threw in the meantime to show the bear off. It’s an open bar and you are tending it. You’re wearing a nametag that reads Durchs, just in case. Durchs Fenster. A nice touch.
You don’t care about business anymore, but certainly Ruth does. Your waitress is still tending to the panda. You are mixing a martini and thinking about your narrow escape. I am reminded of the joke about the bear and the rabbit, but I’m not about to tell it here.
You’re not about to return to the hunter in order to let me make my next point. Just recall what he said. Brown Bear’s statement, referring to himself as Brown Bear, reveals he is aware of himself as both a bear (family Ursidae) and a specific type of bear (Ursus arctos). I do not know if he considers himself a grizzly or a kodiak, although I do know these are the two most familiar lay names for the brown bear in North America, which is slightly less shaggy than its Asiatic cousin.
While on the subject of taxonomy, I’ve not yet indicated whether the panda is the large, “giant” panda of the mountains of China and Tibet (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) or the small, raccoon-like “red” or “lesser panda” of Northeast Asia (Ailurus fulgens). However, in my mind I have assumed the former and, in revealing this, it is now made explicit – it is a giant panda. What you, the bartender, still do not know is if the panda, like the brown bear, is self-aware. I, the narrator, do know, and I am about to let it slip. It is the next piece of the puzzle.
The panda, seated all too comfortably on Ruth’s lap, orders from your waitress a sandwich and a beer. He is only pointing at the menu. For all you know at this point, the panda is not self-aware. He’s not really acting like a bear, but he is not speaking and has not introduced himself in any way. Who knows what tricks Ruth has taught him, driving up his price.
Q. What assumptions am I making now?
I’ll explain it, but only parenthetically. (If one can claim that knowing one’s own taxonomy is to be self-aware, then one can also assert the claim that knowing the taxonomy of all animals and plants is to approach omniscience. For the moment, let me get away with saying that this may be simply a matter of semantics or imprecision, and that it doesn’t necessarily affect my narrative in any way, positive or negative.)
Two Jokes about Bears VI
Unfinished Business; The Rule of Three; A Nasty Resolution
I suppose I must finish the joke about the brown bear, but not without reservation.
Q. Should I interrupt you?
A. Yes. What lies ahead is humiliating.
Pause for Self Evaluation
It might serve us well to remind ourselves of a few things. To set a rigid structure. Here, do as I’ve done:
And who doesn’t love (previous answer, verb past tense) . . .
who doesn’t love (same but different) . . .
but will, on the other, (+a,-b) . . .
The circus being (b,a) . . .
Two Jokes about Bears VIII
Look Parenthetically to the Panda for a Smile; To Illustrate a Point
I can only protect you for so long. I am sorry.
The brown bear is not good for business, not at all. You, the hunter, have been raped by Brown Bear. We have both spent a sleepless night and decided to return to the woods with your gun. Maybe he can only get the best of you once is what I suggest. (Look at the panda: The waitress returns to the panda with a sandwich and a beer, which the panda eats and drinks with relish.) Brown Bear rapes you, the hunter, a second time, with great relish. The bear must be killed. He might talk. In fact, as I have already shown you, he does talk. Maybe he can only get the best of you twice. A third trip to the woods precipitates a third rape. (Look again at the panda: The waitress returns to the panda three times, on the third occasion carrying the panda’s check. This is where we see things go sour with the panda. He waits for the waitress to turn and start walking away, pulls out a gun and shoots her in the back.)
Q. What happened?
Two Jokes about Bears IX
A Conclusion; Punch line
I’m at a loss. I’m also doing away with parentheses. When you are the bartender, you do not have a gun, and so can only look on in amazement as your waitress is shot dead and the panda walks toward the door. I suppose I, the narrator, could give you a gun, but I am tired of the guns. Even when you are the hunter and have a gun you seem unable to use it. I don’t blame you for this.
You are at odds with yourself – this was your waitress, your friend. Familiarity makes the loss of life tragic. This is something gone horribly wrong. You, the hunter, think this same thing as you are raped one last time by Brown Bear.
Q. Are these tears?
A. Too late.
You only have one last act to perform as the bartender. Still too much in shock to fear for your own life, you ask the panda who he thinks he is to behave in such a way. Or maybe I push these words past your lips. At any rate, the panda betrays his self-awareness: “I’m a panda. Look it up!”
Q. Now he speaks?
It’s a line delivered over the shoulder while walking away. The panda is self-aware. The brown bear, as he has demonstrated, is self-aware. You, the hunter, are very aware of the brown bear also. And you, the bartender, pulling the dictionary from off Ruth’s shelf, are about to be made more aware of the panda: “Large, black and white Asian mammal. Eats shoots and leaves.” There is a picture. Yes, that’s your bear alright. Brown Bear leaves you, the hunter, with one more gem to ponder as he leaves, but it has nothing to do with bears: “You don’t come here for the hunting, do you?”
Q. What now?
I want to, but I can’t imagine if you, the bartender, or you, the hunter, would trade places with the other if it would erase the horrible events of either predicament. Of course you would. But erasure doesn’t seem possible. Let’s just have it done with.
Two Jokes about Bears X
Epilogue; Speech of the Light Afterward; Final Instructions
(1) Breathe a sigh, one similar to the “sigh of relief” you’d rather be breathing:
Matthew Shindell is the author of a chapbook, Were something to happen it would be both funny and interesting, published by Galom Press in the Type Kitchen of the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Recent poems appear in Fence, Jubilat, and Black Warrior Review. Shindell lives and writes in Phoenix, Arizona.