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SATURDAY’S CHILD: All Greek to me


SATURDAY’S CHILD: All Greek to me

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THERE ARE SOME QUESTIONS, especially in science and logic, which lead to intense speculation. 

For example, in the 1970s the biologist Stewart Brand posed the riddle: “What colour would a chameleon take when placed on a mirror?” One scientist, Kevin Kelly, actually tried it. This led to speculation about the behaviour of a robot chameleon, the second law of thermodynamics, the impact of an observer on a chameleon in a mirrored box, and even Boy George and his 1989 hit Karma Chameleon. Explaining the title of his song, Boy George said: “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”

It is believed that in medieval times some of the finest minds were engrossed in questions like: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But long before that, the ancient Greeks came up with the idea of being on the horns of a dilemma. Brewer’s Phrase and Fable explains that “Lemma” is something that has been proved and comes from the Greek word lam’bano (I assume or take for granted). Di-lemma is a double lemma, or two-edged sword which strikes either way. The “horns of a dilemma” is a figure of speech taken from a bull, which tosses with either of his horns.

In other words, it is when you encounter a difficulty of such a nature that whatever way you attack it you encounter an equal amount of disagreeables. For example, Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan, was in a strait between two evils. If he allowed Banquo to live, he had reason to believe that Banquo would supplant him; if, on the other hand, he resolved to keep the crown for which he had ’filed his hands,” he must “step further in blood,” and cut Banquo off. Another example of a dilemma comes from World Wide Words. John Morton was Lord Chancellor to Henry VII, a permanently hard-up monarch. Morton (who was also archbishop of Canterbury at the time) was a brilliant extractor of forced loans – or benevolences, as they were euphemistically called – through what is known as Morton’s Fork. His ploy was to go to prominent people and ask them for money. If they were big spenders, then they must be rich, and could afford to give money to the king; if they spent little, then they must have a lot of money stashed away, and could well afford to give some to the king. That’s a dilemma with really sharp horns: either way the unwilling donor was forced to cough up.

There are simpler examples. Suppose a teacher says to the class, “Okay class, today we are going to play a game. When I say a fruit, you run to the right side of the court. And when I say a colour, you run to the left side of the court. Got it?”  The students, all excited, shout: “Yes, Miss.” The teacher then says: “Ready. Set. Orange.” 

Then there is the one which, though politically incorrect now, was often used in the past. Imagine you wake up in a bed with two people next to you. To your left is an incredibly beautiful woman willing to have sex with you, and to your right is a very horny gay man. The dilemma is, on whom do you turn your back?

The Greeks were so good at dilemmas that they created one which required Zeus to sort out. There is the creature called the Teumessian fox (or Cadmean vixen), an animal so big it could not be caught. But there was also the magical dog Laelaps who could catch everything it chased. Because these two were mutually exclusive concepts or a paradox, Zeus turned the beasts into stone and made them the stars Canis Major and Canis Minor. The riddle comes in other forms. The Chinese have the story of a man who created a spear that could penetrate anything and a shield that nothing could penetrate. The modern equivalents are the irresistible force and the immovable object. What happens when they meet?  The paradox can be expressed in another way. If God is all powerful surely he can create a stone that he cannot lift?

What is clear is that the irresistible force and immovable object cannot occur on the same plane, bus or “robot” taxi except here in the Caribbean where the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) is taking on the heads of government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) over the question of to whom does West Indies cricket belong and, with it, questions about the present state of affairs and the future prospects of the game that is still the glue which binds the region together. 

I am writing this early in the morning of Wednesday March 16, 2016. The West Indies team will shortly take on England in the T20 World Cup. Even though the West Indies lost their first warm-up game and then won the second, already their diehard supporters are once more interpreting this as “turning the corner” while some cynics believe that there is a large bus coming from the other direction. 

The outcome is not simple. It depends on whether all the heads of government will be on the same bus or plane. This has never happened before and the odds are it will not happen now. At the same time, if the West Indies win the T20 World Cup as they won the recent Under-19 World Cup, euphoria (significantly, of Greek origin) will dominate, the WICB will be both irresistible force and immovable object, and Karma Chameleon, the fear of standing up and the indignity of sucking up, will continue to prevail.

• Tony Deyal was last seen asking, “What would you call Boy George if he was petrified by Medusa?” The ultimate rock star.