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IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS: Descartes and The Pumpkin Man

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I n 1641, the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, published Meditations on First Philosophy. A book is great when you quote from it without even knowing it exists. Ever heard or said the little phrase, “I think. Therefore I am?” The chances are, however, that you have never read the book and never will. Descartes happens to be one of those writers we despise, criticize, and idolize without ever having read any of their works. In the following conversation, I try to give you an idea of what Descartes is about and how he came up with the catchy little phrase that has captivated us for centuries. I got the idea of the Pumpkin Man from Descartes himself. In the first chapter of the book he passingly refers to “madmen whose brains are so damaged by vapors of melacholia that they firmly maintain…that they are pumpkins.”

FYI: IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS is a series. It’s a modest attempt at having fun with philosophy.

Descartes and the Pumpkin Man

You are sitting in front of a beer parlor, thanking the mango tree for saving your bald head from the malicious sun. After a few sips of cold beer, the afternoon is looking far less bleak. Just about the same moment, you notice two men one table away from you. Their conversation is far more interesting than their appearance. So you perk up your ears and listen with shameless curiosity.

Descartes: What’s eating you P?
Pumpkin Man: I am turning into a pumpkin. Again.
Descartes: How do you know?
Pumpkin Man: I have this bloating feeling in my stomach…floating feeling in my lungs…funny feeling in my elbow.
Descartes: Apocolocyntosis
Pumpkin Man: What?
Descartes: Latin word for Pumpkinification.
Pumpkin Man: What do I care about the name?
Descartes: Gone to see the doctor?
Pumpkin Man: I”m afraid he’s going to say the M-word.
Descartes: What’s that?
Pumpkin Man: He’s going to say I’m mad.
Descartes [sighs]: Look if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone. Everyone gets confused about stuff. I mean, I sometimes wonder about the reality of this life. Think about it. What if we’re in a dream right now? Ever thought of that?  We both could be imaginary characters in a Disney cartoon at this very moment and not know it? Sometimes, I can’t even tell the difference between sleep and waking? I ask myself: is there a God? Is my voice that of a mechanical doll?
Pumpkin Man: Shit!
Descartes: Life is all about making distinctions. Being careful not to mix things up.
Pumpkin Man: But mixing things up  don’t mean you’re mixed up.
Descartes: Oh yes it does. That’s the reason the doctor would think you’re mad. ‘Cause he thinks he knows the difference between a pumpkin and a man but you don’t.
Pumpkin Man: [no response]
Descartes: You can’t be a successful apple seller if you can’t tell the difference between the good and bad apples in your basket.
Pumpkin Man: Okay you lost me there…with the apple thing.
Descartes: Look, go home and try this. Doubt the existence of everything. In the comfort of your room, say to yourself: “Self, I don’t exist.”
Pumpkin Man: Would I just be pretending not to exist or is this for real?
Descartes: That’s the complicated part. But ignore that for now. Tell yourself you do not exist. These hands, these arms, this round face of yours, this blobby body of yours, these boxers, your groin and the heat making it sweaty. None exist. No sky. No world. Nada.
Pumpkin Man: This is some deep stuff.
Descartes: Are you following me?
Pumpkin Man: Hell yeah. I take off my body like it’s a t-shirt.
Descartes: Not quite the same thing but you get the picture.
Pumpkin Man: What next?
Descartes: The moment everything ceases to exist, you discover what truly exists.
Pumpkin Man: What’s that?
Descartes: Thinking! Your thought dude is the one fucking thing that cannot be separated from you. It remains no matter what. 

Pumpkin Man: So I think. Therefore I am.
Descartes: If you put it like that, yes.
Pumpkin Man: So I am not my body?
Descartes: It’s not your body if you don’t know you have it. But how can you know if you don’t think?
Pumpkin Man: [no response]
Descartes: Look, bodies are a dime a dozen. Machines have them. Animals too. Even the dead have bodies.
Pumpkin Man: I have a body. It’s pumpkin.
Descartes: What do pumpkins think of?
Pumpkin Man: I’ll have to think about…
Descartes [cuts him off] Maybe you…
The rain interrupts, rather dramatically, in the way only rains can. Good riddance anyway. There must be a mad house somewhere around here, you conclude.  On a second thought, you think to yourself, even though Mr. Pumpkin is a complete goon, the Descartes guy is not too shabby. He’s simply saying that if you can pretend that you don’t have a body, you can’t pretend that you don’t have a mind. Twisted logic but not bad at all.


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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

2 Responses to “IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS: Descartes and The Pumpkin Man” Subscribe

  1. N. Coppedge October 14, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    My mother makes some amazing pumpkin bread—maybe in some convuluted logic she’s a suppressed philosopher in the Descartes tradition.

    She says, “Nathan, you’re turning into a pumpkin”

    Maybe I have pumpkin survivalism going on—

    The subtle things matter so much in life—

    “He’s simply saying that if you can pretend that you don’t have a body, you can’t pretend that you don’t have a mind.” classic thinking

  2. admin October 14, 2011 at 9:22 pm #

    Lol. “Pumpkin survalism.” I love that.

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