Friday, October 17, 2008

On Pumpkins

I had an epiphany today. I was thrust in a situation where I had no choice but to consider the pumpkin as cultural artifact. Being stuck on a one-lane rural highway behind an open trailer filled to the brim with pumpkins will do that to a person.

I realized that my perception of pumpkins had been dulled by familiarity. I don't think I've participated in a pumpkin carving for a couple of decades now, and it has been about that long since I've seen the Charlie Brown Halloween special, but due to the ubiquitousness of the pumpkin this time of year, every year, one can't help but become inured. Still, seeing so many, perched so precariously, has the effect of shocking a person out of complacency.

The first thing that one realizes upon having their eyes opened anew is that the pumpkin is an utterly absurd object. I suppose gourds in general fit that category, but at least other members of the gourd family come with coloration patterns that appear natural. Pumpkins, with both their size and their color, seem downright artificial, the Pamela Anderson of the vegetable kingdom (even though it is technically a fruit, further adding to the absurdity).

It struck me that pumpkins are more renowned for their vulnerability than their utility. I struggle to come up with another object sold in supermarkets that is regarded for its decorative or commemorative value moreso than its nutritional qualities. And there is no natural product more fastidiously anti-Darwinian than the pumpkin. It flourishes precisely because it is unfit for survival. If pumpkins weren't so easy to carve, or indeed to smash, their commodification would be null (and I wouldn't encounter a trailer full of them on the highway).

But as I further considered why these objects command such a prominence in our culture and ritual, I realized that the pumpkin does have one thing going for it that few other products of nature can claim. It resembles a human head. And I guess I should have realized that before today, but better late than never. If a lethal pumpkin virus eradicated the species overnight, I'm not sure what could be used as a substitute for the creation of Jack O'Lanterns.

But here's another thing to consider: why are Jack O'Lanterns scary? I've got to think that if I encountered a guy with a pumpkin head, I'd be more inclined to laugh than to run away. Yet, I can see the primal cause behind the pumpkin head as a projection of fear. There are few things more terrifying than the prospect of a body that acts without rationality, an entity that has all the potential of a human being, but lacks the mind to moderate that potential. That could be one definition of a "monster." Jack O'Lanterns, with their human facade but hollow interior, represent a return of the repressed fear we have that actual bogeymen walk among us. In carving them out for ourselves, we try to assert control over them. In smashing them, we assert power over them.

And in transporting them, we slow down traffic.


Blogger Jason said...

Hmm good thoughts... Do I get extra credit if I find a spelling error????

2:11 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

ubiquitousness - is that all you've got? man u need to learn some new vocabulary words...

8:59 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Jason, if you go all semester without any spelling errors on your blog, then you can have extra credit.

Justin, every passing year it gets harder to add words to your vocabulary.

12:04 AM  
Blogger ryanzhaase said...

It really is amazing what our society wastes it's money on. It's the fleeting notions like pumpkins and turning on Christmas lights that kill me. I know they are supposed to spread joy, but perhaps if we spent that money on helping the poor we could all attain a higher level of joy.

10:20 PM  

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