Five Rules of Wisdom (From Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman)

by Biblioklept

‘Tell me this much,’ I ventured. ‘What sort of readings were those in the policeman’s black book?’

The Sergeant gave me a keen look which felt almost hot from being on the fire previously.

‘The first beginnings of wisdom,’ he said, ‘is to ask questions but never to answer any. You get wisdom from asking and I from not answering. Would you believe that there is a great increase in crime in this locality? Last year we had sixty-nine cases of no lights and four stolen. This year we have eighty-two cases of no lights, thirteen cases of riding on the footpath and four stolen. There was one case of wanton damage to a three-speed gear, there is sure to be a claim at the next Court and the area of charge will be the parish. Before the year is out there is certain to be a pump stolen, a very depraved and despicable manifestation of criminality and a blot on the county.’

‘Indeed,’ I said.

‘Five years ago we had a case of loose handlebars. Now there is a rarity for you. It took the three of us a week to frame the charge.’

‘Loose handlebars,’ I muttered. I could not clearly see the reason for such talk about bicycles.

‘And then there is the question of bad brakes. The country is honeycombed with bad brakes, half of the accidents are due to it, runs in families.’

I thought it would be better to try to change the conversation from bicycles.

‘You told me what the first rule of wisdom is,’ I said. ‘What is the second rule?’

‘That can be answered,’ he said.

‘There are five in all. Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any. Turn everything you hear to your own advantage. Always carry a repair outfit. Take left turns as much as possible. Never apply your front brake first.’

‘These are interesting rules,’ I said dryly.

‘If you follow them,’ said the Sergeant, ‘you will save your soul and you will never get a fall on a slippy road.’

‘I would be obliged to you,’ I said, ‘if you would explain to me which of these rules covers the difficulty I have come here today to put before you.’

‘This is not today, this is yesterday,’ he said, ‘but which of the difficulties is it? What is the crux rei?’

‘Yesterday? I decided without any hesitation that it was a waste of time trying to understand the half of what he said. I persevered with my inquiry.

‘I came here to inform you officially about the theft of my American gold watch.’

He looked at me through an atmosphere of great surprise and incredulity and raised his eyebrows almost to his hair.

‘That is an astonishing statement,’ he said at last.

‘Why?’

‘Why should anybody steal a watch when they can steal a bicycle?’

From Flann O’Brien’s surreal comic masterpiece, The Third Policeman.

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