Back to book


Professor Mmaa's Lecture

Stefan Themerson


Wherein Professor Mmaa Begins His Lecture

I have steadfastly resisted the temptation…” – said Professor Mmaa; and as he spoke it suddenly occurred to him that the world was simple and not complicated.

“It has suddenly occurred to me that the world is simple and not complicated,” he continued. “But, I assure you, this will have no influence on my lecture, the subject of which is complicated and involved. My personal feelings might well be the object of psychological investigation, might be made the theme of a poem, or the foundation of some philosophical system. Yet, here, before you, you have not a psychologist, nor a poet, nor a philosopher; you have, here, a scientist who is concerned not with what derives from revelation, nor with what has been gathered empirically from nature.”

Professor Mmaa’s audience had no idea what he was driving at. The young students on the ceiling first murmured with satisfaction, then thought better of it. The young students on the floor maintained a distrustful silence. For those on the floor had not so far decided what Professor Mmaa’s political opinions were, so how could they tell whether to applaud or to boo?

The impartial chronicler himself would be unable to state objectively what Professor Mmaa really was. The impartial chronicler can only note that Professor Mmaa was regarded as a sage by those who were regarded as quite clever by those who were regarded as slow on the uptake by those whom Professor Mmaa regarded as idiots. At the same time, however, he was regarded as a bit of a romantic by those who were regarded as mad by those who were regarded as cranks by those whom he himself declared to be genuine scientists.

“In these introductory remarks,” Professor Mmaa went on, “I would like to quote the following sentence:”

‘I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to enhance the marvel of reality by adding marvels that may be attractive but are not true; being older, I have found the temptation less; for, little by little, the years teach every termite that truth alone is marvelous.’

“In this quotation, does not your subtle scent recognize traces not only of intelligence but even of scientific thought? “Yet, I have changed only one word. The word that I replaced by the word TERMITE.

“Yes, in all seriousness I have to reveal to you that the Sentence I have just quoted did not come from under a termite vibrissa. No! In all seriousness I have to tell you that it emerged from under one of the four extremities of an animal – of an animal belonging to the genus which is the subject of our present investigations. Moreover, I must add that it is merely a little bite from a Large Agglomeration of Sentences, all of them dealing with nothing less than Us, our species, our life, our society.

“Admittedly this work is crammed with errors, falsehoods, unbelievably fantastic stories about us. But is it not magnificent in itself that during the last expedition all these errors, falsehoods and fantasies were so efficiently eaten up and deciphered by our respected colleague and lecturer, Mr. Themeris Stefannos? I repeat: ‘eaten up’! For, as you may have heard, the animals we are studying are in the habit of recording what we may call their thoughts not in their associative substance, not internally, but outside their corporeal integument, namely on sheets of cellulose. And , as you very well know, cellulose is a substance which, thanks to the protozoa cultivated in our wet nurses’ abdomens, we have no difficulty whatever in digesting. Mr. Stefannos’ unforgettable service to science consisted (1) in his making the sacrifice of his own abdomen and transplanting in its place one cut off from a wet nurse, and, (2) in his applying the method of the horizontal consumption of the said sheets of cellulose, and committing to memory those unsavory taste obstructions which he encountered on both surfaces of each sheet.

“But, you will ask, is it worth while expending so much labor simply in order to decipher what, as I say, is a number of errors, falsehood and fantasies? I answer: Yes, it is! For, if anyone expresses an opinion on a subject which we happen to know better than he, his very mistakes become source of information not on the subject itself but on him who talks about it. Thus, the sheets of cellulose which Mr. Stefannos has eaten up, and which deal with our termite kind, become a source of information on their author, on homo. Such is the relativity of the things of this world.”

The word “relativity” rather disturbed the assembly. It was a dangerous word. No one knew exactly what it meant, but everyone had a definite feeling that it undermined established conceptions and accepted authorities. Could it be that even Professor Mmaa’s outsmells were permeated with the odor of relativity that had been so treacherously instilled into society by Professor Albert, who derived from the royal line of Einfuss-Dreistein? So it was not surprising that certain of the audience turned their antennae anxiously in the direction of the police constable whose head, armored and bristling with horns, could be scented at the end of the corridor. The constable was not allowed to cross the threshold of the University, which rejoiced in autonomy; but who knew whether he had not already been ordered to detain the audience as they left the hall, and to search their intellectual content? That would be serious, for it might end in physical arrest or, even worse, in economic arrest, in deprivation of one’s wet nurse. And that inevitably involved death from starvation. So the more fearful ones attempted to ignore those of Professor Mmaa’s remarks which they regarded as dangerous, in order to avoid fixing them in their memory and being compromised by their presence if any police research of their heads did happen to take place.

Oblivious of what was going around him, Professor Mmaa continued:

“I cannot tell you much about the author of the work that Mr. Stefannos consumed, except that he belongs to the genus homo, and that his name is either Maurice Maeterlinck (that is, if we accept Stefannos’s argument that the sheets of cellulose should be consumed horizontally from left to right) or Kcnilreteam Eciruam (if we accept the argument of Dr. Nosnafets, who, on the basis of other cellulose documents, known as the Torah, Mishnah and Gemara, maintains that they should all be consumed from right to left).

“Fortunately, we do not have to decide this complex problem at the moment, for the name Maeterlinck (or Eciruam?) is a characteristic not of the entire genus homo but merely of one of its many families. In order to make this clearer, I remind you that in the homo society not only the king and queen but every individual possesses the capacity and the right to produce offspring. Consequently, in the genus homo there is innumerable number of families, each of which has its own name. According to Mr. Stefannos, Maeterlinck is a family name, and Maurice is an individual name, by a hygro-acoustical method ceremoniously sprinkled all over specimen, to distinguish it from other specimens of the same family. According to Dr. Nosnafets however, even if we accept the principle of consumption from left to right, Maurice is a family name, and Maeterlinck the name of a particular specimen.

“I ignore here the view defended by Dr. Siremeht, who, adducing a sheet he has consumed, derived from a secretion of some Bombyx mori larvae, considers that the right way to consume all such documents is vertically from top to bottom. I ignore this view because, as Dr. Themeris noticed, Dr. Siremeht failed to provide us with an adequate definition of what is its top and what it its bottom.”

Professor Mmaa broke off.

A she-syphon approached and Professor Mmaa, pressing her abdomen, refreshed himself with a couple of sips. Then he continued…