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Gags that teach us to decode life

A Chaplinesque lesson on repetitive mistakes in the time of a pandemic

The first time I watched anything created by Charlie Chaplin was a scene from One A.M. (1916) 10 years ago. It portrayed what I realised later happens to be a cliché in the movies of Chaplin — a series of falling and rising caused by some directly visible hindrances. For the audience, these are obstacles no one can pass through unnoticed.

The drunk Chaplin is trying to go upstairs. No sooner did he succeed in some steps than he falls. The scene runs at least five minutes, and in the end, somehow, he succeeds. At the time, I took the scene of repetitive mistakes as just something worth laughing and a beautiful piece of the gags.

In the present outbreak of COVID-19, one of my friends declared, “Since I am active in sports, I must have a strong level of immunity, so I am out of danger from this virus.” He was both scientifically naïve and socially irresponsible. Later, I came to know he had made the identical remark when someone in his surroundings got a bad cold and cough (”I cannot get it, I have strong immunity”), and he was the one who suffered the worst.

I wonder why people very often commit the same mistakes even after suffering the consequences when they did it previously. Last week, I read an article, “Why mistakes are often repeated”, in a 2016 issue of The Atlantic under its science section. The article concludes that the “brain fails to learn from past experience, dooming us to relive our errors” and “the best way to avoid repeating mistakes is to try not to learn from them”.

I have heard that history repeats itself in present days more often than it did in any other time. Some compare this outbreak to the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 5% of the population of India. I saw a post on Facebook quoting the lines of Kathleen O. Meara (1839-1888): “And the people stayed home, and read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made arts…” The post said that the poem that was initially published in 1869 and reprinted in 1919 is highly contextual for the present scenario as people are going through the period of lockdown.

I believed in history repeating itself but doubted that people repeat themselves. Now that I understood the logic, I rely more on the latter than I do the former. Recently, I watched the same scene from One A.M. again. I no longer see it for the purpose of laughing only. I have understood how Chaplin was depicting the nature of human beings that is doomed, like history, to repeat itself. He did it in the way that all good artistes do — in exaggeration.

sprakashverma@hs.iitr.ac.in

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 12:57:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/gags-that-teach-us-to-decode-life/article31376506.ece

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