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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Antonio Ribot y Fontseré (1813–1871)

Maximum and Minimum

From the Periodical “La Risa”

ABOUT the middle of the last century there flourished in Canterbury two physicians, by name of Thompson and Kinster. The former was a man of more, the latter a man of less; the one knew no arithmetical rules save those of addition and multiplication, the other only acknowledged those of subtraction and division. Thompson ignored existence and being; everything seemed to him trifling, small, insignificant, and in this point of view he was the antithesis of Kinster, who, seeking everywhere simplicity, and believing that existence is the greatest of evils, tried to reduce everything to its lowest possible point of restriction, to the indispensable and the absolutely necessary, and his life was a long series of labors consecrated to the quest of the irreducible minimum. The systems of Thompson and Kinster were as far asunder as heaven and the bottomless pit, as infinity and zero.

Each applied the spirit of his system to the smallest details of his daily life. Thompson spoke always in periphrase, expressed all his ideas by means of circumlocution and redundance, and, not content to employ the largest number of words possible, he even chose the longest syllables, and in his habitual conversation gave the preference to the most intricate constructions. His professional visits partook more of the nature of the lover than of the physician. He hardly ever made use of heroic remedies, for the reason that they could not be prescribed in huge quantities; and if, perchance, he put some patient on diet, it nearly always had the effect of hastening his victim to the hands of the undertaker. The good doctor reasoned thus: Where is the invalid whose state could be prejudiced by eating a grain of rice or an infinitesimal fiber of chicken? And where is the invalid who, after having consumed one grain of rice or one fiber of chicken, could not with impunity partake of another grain or another fiber? If he can take one, then why not two, three, or four? And thus, from grain to grain and from fiber to fiber, he finally consented to his patient satisfying his hunger with a pound of rice or a whole chicken. He employed the same basis of calculation when computing the number of persons that a given space would hold. The application of this theory to practise was often followed by serious consequences….

One day he invited seventeen of his friends to accompany him on an excursion into the country. He insisted that they all enter one coach, which would hold six with difficulty, and to certain suggestions which were made to him on the impenetrability of matter, he replied, with his customary optimism, that if six could enter, why not seven, and if seven, why not eight? And so, one after the other, he forced in the whole seventeen. The inert mass of crushed, smothered, bruised humanity, unable to speak or even breathe, would certainly have succumbed to the doctor’s obstinacy if the coach, shortly after leaving Canterbury, had not burst like a bombshell.

The explosion was accompanied by loud screams of agony from its occupants. Those who were nearest the windows were shot out with the impetus of water squirted from a syringe. The state of those who had first entered the vehicle was pitiful. The squeezing process had so increased their longitude at the expense of their latitude that their mothers would hardly have known them.

Notwithstanding this catastrophe, the doctor would not hear of giving up his pastoral excursion, but the horse, a mere skeleton of a beast, evidently thought otherwise. The driver, following the doctor’s orders, did his best, but the horse rebelled at Thompson’s theories, and would rather have been killed a thousand times than budge a single inch. When he saw that he could not overcome such obstinate resistance, the doctor made his guests get out and follow the coach on foot. This meant a walk of several miles, and few of them felt sufficient confidence in their legs for such a task; but no one dared to place himself in open objection to Thompson’s caprices, for all knew that he was capable of shooting his best friend with as much indifference as he would have prescribed half an ounce of cream of tartar for a patient. The party covered a mile of the distance without mishap, and then the strength of many of them began to fail. Thompson, noticing this, encouraged the most laggard with his habitual cure-all. “Just a step more is nothing, two steps are nothing, and a man who can take two steps can take three; and, as we know that a few steps are nothing at all, we can walk any distance.” As a matter of fact, he felt very tired himself, but his faith in his doctrines would have enabled him to walk round the world.

But there finally arrived a time when the whole company had reached the end of their strength. They stopped, and determined to go no farther. “Damn!” said the doctor, enraged by their decision, and put a hand into each of his side-pockets. All trembled, and breathed a prayer, for they believed their last hour had come. There was a moment of anguish, of mortal terror; but soon their faces cleared, for Thompson withdrew his hands from his pockets as empty as they had been before. “Damnation!” he muttered, “I have left my pistols at home. Nevertheless, my rage will take the place of powder, and my fists will do the duty of bullets.”

But this bravado frightened nobody, for what is one against seventeen? The doctor soon saw himself attacked on all sides by his infuriated guests, who pommeled him until they were tired. When they left him he was spouting curses like some blasphemous geyser. It took him two days to return to Canterbury, where we shall leave him for the present.

Kinster, with his theory of the minimum, was no less extravagant than Thompson with his theory of the maximum. He had devoted himself to the dictionary with much assiduity in order to memorize the shortest words, and had converted his brain into a monosyllabic magazine. He talked in monosyllables, he wrote in monosyllables, and in his letters he abbreviated even these. His visits were as short as those of a postman or a newsboy; he was hardly inside a house before he was out again and into another; he entered and left almost at the same time. He prescribed the most harmless remedies in fractional doses, so that he might have been called the founder of homeopathy, if his point of view had not been entirely distinct from that of the homeopathists. Kinster believed that a grain of anything was quite as efficacious as a pound, on which basis he calculated that if a grain was as good as a pound, why was not the infinitesimal part of a grain as good as a grain? And so on. By this process of reasoning, he ended by leaving his patient without any medicine; in which habits, by the way, he might be emulated to advantage by a number of physicians of my acquaintance.

With respect to surgery, Kinster was a terrible operator. Convinced that existence is the worst of evils, and desiring to reduce it among men to the lowest possible point, on the appearance of an ordinary pimple or an insignificant scratch he at once proceeded to amputate the offending member. His system lasted for some time, and the tourist who in those days visited Canterbury was horror-struck by the sight of universal mutilation, men everywhere without eyes, without ears, without arms, all dismal witnesses of the devastating system of Dr. Kinster. More than one traveler was moved to ask if in Canterbury there existed a peculiar race of men who came into the world less richly endowed with members than the rest of mankind. Fortunately, Kinster’s system fell into utter disrepute, and the good doctor, finding no more patients to visit, devoted his time to the chase. But in this he was even more unlucky than he had been in the exercise of his profession. In pursuance of his theory, he loaded his gun with an almost invisible pinch of powder and a single shot of the smallest size. He would take a handful of shot, and say, “Will not the bird fall as readily if there be one shot less? And if one less doesn’t matter, what difference will it make if two are missing?” In this way he gradually discarded the shot until the charge was reduced to a single pellet, and frequently none at all. This did not prevent him, however, from firing at royal eagles, nor did it lessen his disappointment at having to return invariably with empty hands….

The time came when Thompson and Kinster married. But do not think, gentle reader, that they married each other. Thompson married one woman and Kinster a second, and neither physician allowed matrimony to interfere with his extravagant theory. Thus it was that Thompson, in his love of magnitude, wedded the largest woman in England; and Kinster, the champion of the minimum, took for his wife the smallest. Thompson’s wife was known throughout the United Kingdom as the Elephant, while Kinster’s spouse rejoiced in the sobriquet of the Thumb. But it was hardly to be expected that any woman, large or small, could suffer for long the whims of our medical friends, who practised their exaggerated theories down to the most insignificant domestic details, and even to those intimacies which are essentially matrimonial. The Elephant and the Thumb died, but not without each leaving to her husband a living testimonial to her fecundity. They died within a year of their marriage, and, by one of those singular freaks of Nature which cannot be explained, the Elephant presented Thompson with a daughter who, at fifteen years of age, was so small that she might have been the offspring of the Thumb; while on the same day a daughter was born to Kinster, who, when she had reached her fifteenth year, was so large that she resembled no one so much as the Elephant.

See, therefore, by what methods much wiser than the dispositions of mankind does Providence unite like with unlike, even when as diametrically opposed as Thompson and Kinster. When Thompson lost his Elephant he gave up hope of ever finding another woman of such impressive stature, and resolved to remain a widower all his days; and for the same reason Kinster also despaired of ever again meeting another Thumb. But when Thompson saw the corpulent daughter of Kinster, and Kinster the diminutive daughter of Thompson, their fine resolutions suddenly changed, and reciprocal matrimony was agreed upon. Their respective daughters fell into the arrangement with an enthusiasm not difficult to explain. For to the naturally abstemious daughter of Thompson, who was obliged by the rigorous system of her father to fill her stomach with far more food than her capacity permitted, every meal was a torture from which she would have done anything to free herself, and this was undoubtedly the motive that caused her to give her hand to Kinster. The daughter of the last named, on the other hand, naturally robust and voracious, and forced to subject herself to a rigid adherence to the starvation theories of her father, saw in Thompson her liberating angel, little dreaming that in escaping starvation she was courting a worse fate.

The double wedding having been celebrated, Thompson and Kinster, in order to be near their respective daughters, decided that all should live together as a single family. It did not take many days for the house to become a bedlam. The two physicians struck each other as even more extravagant than they would have appeared to a rational being, and from morning until night they argued over their ridiculous theories of the maximum and the minimum. Thompson’s daughter began to feel the gnawing pangs of hunger, and to regret her past gorgings, and Kinster’s daughter implored Heaven to relieve her fulness, and would have sacrificed anything in the world to be placed again on the old ascetic diet. Sometimes, fortunately, the systems of Kinster and Thompson neutralized each other, but this only happened as a sequel to horrid struggles and mutual recriminations, which nearly always ended tragically.

The scene generally took place when they were dining in the open air. If, for instance, it was rice that they were eating, Dr. Thompson would ply his wife with grain after grain and spoonful after spoonful, until she could hardly sit up, and sometimes the food would be seen coming out of her eyes and ears; and this would so enrage Dr. Kinster that he could not refrain from calling his brother-in-law barbarous and brutal, although he well knew Thompson’s irascible and overbearing disposition. Then the two physicians would stigmatize each other as visionaries and fools, and after a sputter of epithets that sounded like a volley of musketry, they would supplement their words with blows. At this point the women, instead of trying to separate their husbands and fathers, even when almost exhausted, would take advantage of the scuffle to improve by the situation. While Kinster’s wife would ravenously devour everything on the table, Thompson’s better half would hurry away, and escape from the odious stuffing….

I cannot now record the multitude of curious and strange stories born of the eccentricities of Thompson and Kinster. I present only one incident, which I think will sufficiently illustrate the character of the two physicians. One day, after a more serious affray than usual, from which both parties emerged with bloody noses and faces covered with scars and bruises, the two combatants fell to the ground, crestfallen and taciturn, and gave themselves up to profound meditation. After an hour of silence, Thompson absent-mindedly asked Kinster a question, which started the following dialogue:

“What are you thinking about, Kinster?”

“And you, Thompson, what are your thoughts?”

“I,” said Thompson, “was seeking for something more immense than immensity, more infinite than infinity, more eternal than eternity.”

“You’re a fool!” said Kinster, between his teeth.

“And what were you seeking?” asked Thompson.

“I was trying to find nothing, absolute nothing, something which is less than nothing.”

“How absurd!” exclaimed Thompson. “Nothing! As if we did not see it everywhere, more’s the pity! Do you think that you are something, that I am something, that what you hear, what you see, what you touch is something; that the world we live in, the generations that are gone, are something? The world was made from nothing, and from nothing can be made only nothing. My search for something nearly drives me mad, yet I never find anything. Nothing is followed by an imperceptible point which is also nothing, and to this point is added another point, and so on, and many of these points united form that which you call something, but this something that you see is always nothing. Everything is nothing. Generations pass and fall into dust, and in the end even the dust disappears. Oh, that it were possible to make of all mankind that has gone a single generation, and of that generation a single man, one single individual! And even then, that collective and synthetic individual would seem insignificant and also nothing, and he would in fact be nothing.”

“He is quite unnecessary, Thompson, this individual whom you wish to see realized, because everything in the world is superfluous, even to the world itself. God formed the world from nothing, because nothing was before anything. You see the generations die, and I see them renewed. Everything is regenerated and is never extinguished; what you think is disappearance is only change of form. Man reproduces himself, and even when he remains no more than a corpse, he is still converting himself into an infinity of generations. There are some who embalm the dead to preserve them. Actually they destroy them; by embalming, they take life from matter, kill the dead. They desire that the corpse shall not decay, and yet decay is the only life that remains to it. From every fiber, from every atom, rise infinite generations, who die in their turn, but are not extinguished; take another form, but are not destroyed. Oh, if I only knew that death and annihilation were synonymous terms, I would have committed suicide years ago! But I can at least exist as little as possible. I will not shorten the time that Providence has apportioned to me to live in this world in body and soul, but I can diminish myself, restrict my actions, reduce myself, it may be, to an indivisible point.”

There was a moment of silence, broken only by a burst of laughter from Thompson. Then Kinster rose from his chair, took Thompson by the hand, and said to him:

“Follow me.”

Thompson followed him.

The two physicians entered the study, from which they first expelled their respective wives, one of whom was voraciously devouring food, and the other vomiting violently. As the women went out they noticed that Kinster gave signs of a strange agitation. The force of an overpowering curiosity glued them to the threshold. From within they heard groans and cries that would have melted the heart of a tiger, accompanied by the metallic rasping of a saw. This went on for three hours, at the end of which time Thompson came out, covered with sweat and blood, carrying a pile of severed legs, arms, and other mutilated members. In order to reduce himself to the lowest possible minimum, Dr. Kinster had made him amputate everything that he did not believe absolutely necessary to his existence. He had caused to be removed both arms and legs, the nose, one eye and both ears, and half of both the upper and lower sets of teeth. These terrible operations were consummated without disrobing the patient, for the members which Thompson carried still wore the usual garments of their owner. When the two women realized the awful significance of the sight they swooned away.

It might seem impossible that Kinster could survive the atrocious pain of the surgeon’s knife, but Kinster, as well as Thompson, succumbed to a cold, or rather to the method of its treatment under his ridiculous system. Kinster, in the act of bleeding himself, lost, drop by drop, all the blood in his body, and died like a butchered ox. Thompson, on the other hand, desired that a pound of blood be taken from him, but, as in his eyes a drop was nothing, and if one drop was nothing, two drops were also nothing, and nothing was the same as a pound, he ended by not bleeding himself at all, and shortly afterward gave up the ghost. Their wives survived them, and, although neither of them ever alluded to their wedded existence, it is fairly safe to assert that they did not much regret the death of their husbands.