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After Magritte, After Carroll, After Wittgenstein: What Tom Stoppard's Tortoise Taught Us KEIR ELAM The noble tortoise occupies an important place in the history of philosophy, in the history of the moral fable, not to mention, naturally, the history of zoology in its testudinal branch. If it has yet to leave its claw print on the history of theatre (with episodic exceptions such as a couple of passing and not very flattering references in Shakespeare, or a burlesque reduction to its shell in JonsonI ), this might be put down to the animal's fabled slowness and timidity rather than to any innate lack oftheatricality. Indeed there are signs, as we shall see, that the said chelonian beast may finally be clambering its comical reptilian way onto the boards. Now the peculiar emblematic and pedagogic utility of the tortoise, and ofthe testudo family in general, in its moral-philosophical guise, emerges most unequivocally in the Mock Turtle's impatient reply to Alice's naive question in Wonderland, namely as to why his old schoolmaster, in reality a turtle, should have been called Tortoise: "We called him Tortoise," snaps the Mock Turtle, ... "because he taught us.... Really, you are very dull!"2 Well, what, throughout history, has the tortoise, as opposed to his cousin the turtle, really taught us? In one of Aesop's more renowned and retold moral fables, the plodding kheione, in defeating the athletic but sleeping hare, teaches us allegorically the virtue of steady application. In the equally notorious second paradox of the Greek philosopher Zeno, the similarly tortoise-paced tortoise, in similarly defeating, given a charitable head start, the even more athletic and this time perfectly wide-awake Achilles, demonstrates instead the logical and mathematical impossibility of the Greek hero's ever reducing the distance between them because ofthe infinite divisibility oftemporal and spatial intervals (Achilles, in order to catch his opponent and thereby avoid eternal humiliation, has to complete an infinite set of arithmetical reductions within a finite time). The first modem logician to revisit this thorny or horny or shelly problem of the tortoise's Jesse Owens-like invincibility was C.L. Dodgson, the same 470 KEIR ELAM Lewis Carroll who fathered the Mock Turtle, in his facetious but intriguing dialogue "What the Tortoise said to Achilles," published in the quite unfacetious Mind (1895).3 Carroll's articulate reptile, this time more plausibly overtaken by the Greek warrior, proves that he is at least intellectually quicker by lecturing Achilles on the dangers of deductively overstretching, as Zeno does, the premiss of a syllogism: Zeno, in effect, omitted to take into account the fact that the two competitors were moving at different speeds. Carroll's defeated but philosophical testudinian has in turn won a series of more recent admirers and followers (in an intellectual rather than athletic sense), from epistemological heavyweights like Gilbert Ryle,4 to paradoxical narrative game-players like Jorge Luis Borges (see the story "Avatars of the Tortoise" in Labyrinths),5 to modishly ludic computer scientists like Douglas R. Hofstadter,6 to logically and semiologically self-conscious dramatists like - I would argue Tom Stoppard. It might be noted that the tortoise, perhaps because of its provocatively enigmatic and unco-operative character, has been traditionally associated with a deviant, paradoxical and somewhat sadistic mode oflogical reasoning. And it is precisely in such a context of an irrational excess of rationality that it makes its first conspicuous appearance on the modern stage, albeit a purely verbal and in the event quite illusory appearance, namely in Stoppard's After Magritte (1970). The narrative fulcrum - inasmuch as it has one - of this heady hermeneutical farce is a banal off-stage event barely glimpsed by the play's main characters, the three members of the Harris family, who devote much of the cross-talking dialogue to arguing out their three rival interpretative hypotheses: Thelma Harris interprets the scene as comprising a one-legged footballer in West Bromwich Albion gear, his face covered with shavingcream , hopping down the street, wielding an ivory cane and - the essential detail here - carrying a football under his arm; her mother-in-law perceives instead a gentleman dressed in gaberdine, wearing a surgical mask...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 469-485
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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