There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number–“a hundred and twelve” or “thirteen” or “seventy-eight”–and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. “Jokes,” the old prisoner said. “Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here–along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?”
“Yes,” said the new man.
“Well, we’ve all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time.”
Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, “Forty-six!” Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, “Some guys don’t know how to tell a joke.”
I taught my way through Vanderbilt’s PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” Here’s how Eliot himself explained it:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: “What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?” Steps 2-14: “Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he’s trying to get across here?” In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion. Read More