Well, folks, for the past 58 years I’ve been self-isolating from most of the rest of the human race and expressed both pessimism and cynicism about the race itself. Welcome to my world. I’m not necessarily delighted to be proven right, but these days I’ll take what I can get.
During these home-bound days, I’m re-reading a few of the books that led me to these conclusions: “comfort fiction,” let’s call it. Here are only three that I highly recommend:
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: By the end of Swift’s novel, Gulliver is self-isolating from human stupidity too. It’s an extreme but, once you get to the end, understandable conclusion.
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek: During World War I, Hasek’s simpleton Svejk demonstrates that you can easily prove the incompetence and stupidity of your leaders by doing exactly what they tell you to do.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: More than an anti-war novel, it’s an anti-stupidity novel, offering only the thinnest of hopes at the end (though hope, I believe, it is).
Alas in these trying times, Cafe Katja is closed for regular business, so you won’t find me at the bar there this afternoon. But fortunately for all of us, the owners have instituted a take-out and delivery service so your Austrian food needs can be met during this difficult disruption. Follow their Instagram feed for details. I also recommend that you help out the staff at Katja by tiding them over until the doors can formally open again.
Until next time, prost! The liquor stores will remain open indefinitely (and, I understand, are doing just fine).
I was happy to write about an upcoming anthology of Shary Flenniken’s fine comic strip for the National Lampoon, Trots and Bonnie, earlier this week.
Self-quarantine and self-isolation are not new to me; I’ve been self-isolating since 1962, but instead of prudent caution I do it more because I hate people. Not that these are mutually exclusive. It could be that stupidity is even more contagious than the coronavirus, and we all must take steps to protect ourselves from infection. (Not to mention panic. Stress and anxiety will probably sicken more people than Covad-19 over the next few months.) But that’s the world we live in; the novelist Bruce Jay Friedman in the foreword to his 1965 anthology Black Humor put it best:
You hear an awful lot about the “fading line between fantasy and reality” in the modern world and I had better put that in fast or else I am not going to get to do any more Forewords. So here it comes. I agree. There is a fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line … Then, too, if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind. …
What has happened is that the satirist has had his ground usurped by the newspaper reporter. The journalist, who, in the year 1964, must cover the ecumenical debate on whether Jews, on the one hand, are still to be known as Christ-killers, or, on the other hand are to be let off the hook, is certainly today’s satirist. The novelist-satirist, with no real territory of his own to roam, has had to discover new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters, has had to sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire and I think this is what is meant by black humor.
And that was before we started carrying around our own portable anxiety-delivery systems like the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter. (Today the New York Times even invites you to, as they put it on their home page, “play with a model of coronavirus in the U.S.“)
Friedman’s “new set of filters” is perhaps what is lacking in our satire now — the breadth of stylistic imagination and daring that you simply don’t find on The Daily Show and in The Onion, which can be very funny indeed, but limited by their narrowness of parodic form: the news show or the newspaper. To get into those darker waters beyond satire — and the art of our own age requires no less than that — you need to get beyond television and the internet.
Me? As usual, I’ll be isolating myself at Cafe Katja later this afternoon; you’re welcome to isolate yourself with me. Prost! And wash your hands before you come. I may be misanthropic, but I’m not stupid.
This week we welcomed the return of William Gaddis’s first two novels to print, carefully placed a portfolio by Christoph Mueller in a prominent position on our coffee table, and relaxed to a rag by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin. (The new display font on this and other pages is “Mom’s Typewriter,” a typeface developed by Mr. Mueller.)
Not a bad week overall for the first week of March: the first month of spring (even if its official beginning is a few weeks away) and my birthday month besides. So I’ll end the week as I began it by lifting a glass of Austrian wine to the month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb — although opinions differ, as you’ll see below. I’ll be toasting the month with my fellow barfly Gabe at Cafe Katja, where particular people congregate, later today. In the meantime, a favorite bit of comedy from forty-four years ago.
As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.
An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Heraldreported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:
Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.
What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.
So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.
It seems like we pessimists in the United States will be rewarded today or tomorrow with further confirmation of the correctness of their temperament, one of those occasions on which being right is no cause for celebration. Nonetheless, we’re ready for it, and there lies the value of cynicism. Let it not lead us to paralysis, however. As another great sage, Walt Kelly, put it in 1953, a time perhaps as politically and culturally dark as our own:
Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people, do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly. It is just unfortunate that in the clumsy hands of a cartoonist all traits become ridiculous, leading to a certain amount of self-conscious expostulation and the desire to join battle. There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us. Forward!
Forward indeed. Instead of paralysis, this pessimism will lead me today to Cafe Katja, where I raise a toast to the philosophy that has served me well lo these many years and share a few mordant jokes with the crew there. (And, since one of my children is joining me for an hour or so of Friday non-alcoholic cheer, sharpen the philosophical legacy.) Prost!