Humor and nudity

Was talking the other day with a friend, high on his mountaintop, about how humor works, particularly about how a joke or witticism that some of us find hilarious can be just the opposite to others: so, about how variable and tendentious humor can be.

Take the obvious examples of jokes about sex or religion. What a man, let’s say l’homme moyen sensuel, finds funny can infuriate other men, less sensual perhaps or more moral, or women, whether consciously feminist or not.

Of course, we don’t have to be talking jokes here, just stories or discourses of any kind, written or spoken, that concern sex.

Or, as I say, religion.

I had the poor bad taste the other day to respond in kind to an inflammatory remark, with religious implications, on Facebook. It was a post about abortion, from a right-wing Catholic woman, and one of her friends said abortionists are “murderers.” To which I responded, “Honestly, can we stop blubbering over the babies and take care of those who are born?”

Now, if the author of the murder charge, or the respondent, had tried a bit harder to fudge or disguise or polish his remark that might have led to a more apparently reasonable exchange, for whatever it would be worth.

Whether they concern religion or sex, controversial discourses can be made less offensive in a variety of ways. I think of the essay by E.H. Gombrich, the art historian, who took a piece of pornography or a cheesecake photo of a naked woman and then interposed a series of filters or lenses over the image. How many filters does it take any one viewer — concealments, that is, or transfigurations — before the naked becomes the nude, the nude becomes socially and personally acceptable, even becomes art?

You could try this sort of experiment with jokes too. Take a thoroughly raunchy joke and then gradually interpose filters to see at what point individual and then general audiences find it acceptable.

George Carlin in The Aristocrats

I think in this regard of the film The Aristocrats, which is a collection of stand-up comedians telling variations on a very raunchy joke just after 9/11, a joke so offensive most people would run like the devil from it. (A family performs before a vaudeville agent: the father fucks the daughter, the mother the son, and all sorts of variations and perversions are tried out.) So precisely at the time when the nation was in mourning, after the terrorist attacks, and tendentious humor was verboten, voila! that’s EXACTLY the time to test the limits.)

“What do you call this act?” the agent asks when the family is done performing and is wiping itself off. “The Aristocrats,” the dad responds.

Block and blog

Just this morning, the phrase “writer’s blog” entered my mind, which, naturally, in my mind anyway, evoked the more common phrase “writer’s block.” The latter is a concern to just about every writer I know, denoting those times when nothing comes to the head or nothing gets down on paper anyway. Countless articles and books have been devoted to this phenomenon, but it’s not my concern here.

Snoopy is probably just thinking too hard.
Up on the rooftop, he’s also in the doghouse.

Probably because, at this age or stage of my life, said block is not a problem for me. Rather just the opposite, as those who know me, the way my wife knows me, for example, must surmise. Writer’s blog — sometimes blah or meh as it is — is, rather, a condition of full-bore verbal excess, or logorrhea, where the words rush out pell-mell, impelled by word associations or sound klangs, as we have here (block blog → bug: whatever spills out of the cornucopia of sound, you use it). I drive my wife crazy, true, by singing constantly, snatches of this, that, or the other song from years ago, usually pop songs or classical Lieder, it doesn’t matter, and this material, like the material in the mind of a psychoanalyst’s patient, or analysand, must be worked through.

What I’m getting at is that the apparently formless or meaningless sounds of our language, its klangs or music, can form a large if usually unexamined part of what impels the writer to write. These are unconscious or half-conscious motive forces, it can be, but where can they lead us?

Before he or she can make much sense of these sounds, I suggest, he’d better be prepared to make nonsense — no sense for the time being — or risk making no sense ever. Isn’t the best way to loosen up for your on-stage performance, the finished product, just to get way down and loosey-goosey to begin with? If we’re talking student essays, more than a few of which I’ve shepherded through to completion, we may be talking what writing teachers like to call “pre-writing” or “brainstorming.” Before the brain can be productive, it has to be awake, even if it’s awake in a muggy way. So the writer starts humming, or singing, or committing nonsense to paper. He babbles like a child, the child he is. And refuses to censor himself before he’s gotten going.

At a recent session of a writer’s group with which I’m associated, one of the other writers brought in a tremendously detailed outline of the novel she plans to write. All this work followed the prescripts of one or another of the literary gurus out there in the self-help writer’s market. (Gurus who may or may not ever have produced a work of creative genius.) Page after page of outline and character background and analysis were poured forth. It was exhausting just listening, or looking, at this pre-production. “Now all you have to do,” I remarked, “is write the book.”

Poets, of course, aren’t held to the same high, and foolish, regard for what passes all too easily for truth as fiction writers and factual writers. There could be far worse ways to get going than babbling. Or blogging.

Blog → block → blah. And, as Webster’s gives by way of “blah” synonyms: “bunkum, humbug, hooey, eyewash, twaddle, bosh.” Be willing to risk ’em, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, all the rich and various ways to make no sense before you make perhaps too much. As my fourth grade nun, old Sister Peter, would say, back in the day, “Bunk! Rubbish! Fiddlesticks! Nonsense!”

Writing and morality

If you too are in the business of writing and publishing, you’ll run across at every turn moral injunctions and prohibitions from the editors and publishers as well as the public, whom they represent.

These may not be first-rate editors and publishers; in fact, it’s highly unlikely. But how many run-of-the-mill ideologs are out there whose job it apparently is to confuse good writing with good morals?

Take one little literary magazine’s statement of what they’re looking for:

We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced … including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.

Then take Oscar Wilde’s statement on the relation between art and morality (including what we’d call these days politically correct morality):

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. [Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.]

Image result for oscar wilde
Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900.

We can write about mankind and human morality, or lack of it, in other words. But the choice of subject matter says nothing about the success of the writing, whether we’re talking about homosexual rights or the Holocaust. Does the writer have something new or interesting to say? And a new or interesting way to say it?

Wilde, who for sure did have an interesting way to say what he had to say, goes on: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Of course, Wilde was an aesthete as well as LGBTQ+ (wherever he might have fit within that spectrum). But his main point is simple: either you’re a good writer or you’re not. You don’t have to be writing about good or preaching good or babbling good. Chances are such babbling, which includes sticking to a prescribed set of socially approved values, and even vocabulary, makes you a bad writer, someone who’s saying the obvious, in an obvious way, who knows what he/she thinks before writing, and for whom nothing new is revealed or discovered in the act of writing.

 

 

 

 

 

Why else write?

A wonderful if incomplete interview of Saul Bellow, by Philip Roth, in The New Yorker contains among other gems an insight into his breakthrough as a writer. Bellow talks about writing two “correct” and rather depressing first novels, then seizing on the idea for The Adventures of Augie March from recollections of a childhood friend:

 … in becoming a writer I hoped to bring out somehow my singular reactions to existence. Why else write? I had prepared and overprepared myself by reading, study, and fact-storage or idea-storage and I was now trying to discharge all this freight.

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, 1915–2005.

Gods know that all of us carry such a freight and think it’s significant. Even significant magic. It can be, at any rate, if we lighten the load by expressing it. Stuff summoned up from childhood or adolescence or last year or yesterday. Magical freight that gets lighter and lighter the more we heave it out of the dark.

Of course, we have to do some work, most of us, rummaging around in the dark. Much of the past is forgotten, often to our benefit. But much of it lives in the present and must be exercised or exorcised so that it doesn’t haunt, once conscious, but frees us.

Think of something funny in your past or someone in your family who was a real character, as we say. What specifically did he or she do to show a difference from the others, from the rules, from the crowd? I think of my older brother Gerry, who died two years ago, and was always a character. He was married three times if you want to count the first marriage, which lasted a day. He eloped with a girl from high school, who was “good in the back seat,” he said, and drove from Minnesota to Iowa to get hitched by a justice of the peace. When he came back with his bride, my dad, a lawyer, had the marriage annulled.

So much for that rebellion.

But the annulment didn’t quench Gerry’s spirit. He quit high school shortly and joined the Marines … from which he was expelled a couple of years later but not before having his share of adventures.

If Augie March can have adventures, why not our friends and relatives? Why not us writers? If we find the right subject and the right language, which, Bellow suggests, should reveal itself, our writing will be an adventure. Our story will practically write itself. Our story will be our own “singular reactions to existence.”

 

And where do we go from there?

Okay, so we have an idea. Or the seed, or germ, of an idea. Maybe it’s an image that comes to mind, in sleep or reverie or the gods know how. Maybe it’s an idea that we’ve been mulling, in one for or another, for some time. Maybe it’s just a catchy rhythm overheard in a song, or a clatter on a street corner, or a busker’s beat.

Something in that idea, or image, or rhythm catches hold … and begins, as if automatically, the process of pushing us forward. The key at this very early point is not to criticize ourselves or censor or shut off. We must let it flow. Just write down whatever comes,  or gushes, however foolish or unpromising it may seem at first to the conscious mind or the superego or what Twain calls that “yellow dog conscience.” (And didn’t Shakespeare say the conscience “doth make fools of us all”?)

In the case of “Material Girl,” referenced in the last post, the main idea and images too came pretty quickly. I have a friend, Deborah, who is both athletic and gifted in artistic ways, creating and successfully marketing a line of bold and yet delicate jewelry. She has a gift for speculation, too, and lets her mind and imagination rove, often saying things that catch me sideways or unawares, speculations on gender or mortality that might knock me off a bike if we are biking together, totally unexpected and wild and often hilarious venturings.

For example, she and her husband Ken had been watching Transparent, the TV series about a father who undergoes a sex change and becomes a woman. Deborah offered, on the spur of the moment, as we were biking down the trail, that it wouldn’t bother her if that’s what her husband decided. I was appalled, or at least thought I was, and her husband denounced the idea when she told him. “The fuck I would go along with that!” Ken said. Still, this is the kind of thing that flies out of Deborah’s mouth as she’s blazing down the trail.

Image result for john berryman
John Berryman, poet of The Dream Songs, who wrote with the aid of smokes and whiskey … and at night.

I’m amused and bemused by these speculations. Deb seems to be to be one of those poetic spirits who soar rather than fall plump down, as Emerson might say, and stick in the mud and mire of the everyday. Naturally, then, or supernaturally, she would tend to speculate about rising above it all, including the conventional secular sentiments about the end of life.

When I look back at my Catholic boyhood, which took place long ago at a time when Latin was still used in the Mass and when school children learned Latin and English side by side, literally, in the missals and prayer  books, then I can invoke images pretty quickly of yearning for something gone, something spiritual, however improbable, and so I come to the conclusion that I am no longer a believing boy, clutching missal and catechism, and cannot believe in the misty and mystical spirits of the Church … but can believe in such bodies and such spirits as Deborah’s which are before me.

So forgive the long digressions. I haven’t really told you or anyone how to blast past the mere beginnings of a poem. Just stressed that we shouldn’t censor ourselves prematurely. Put down some images or ideas, some jangly or janky thoughts. Then brainstorm, adding images and ideas. Search your past. Speculate on the future. Something surely will come, line by line, and given enough time and enough genius, your own and your contemporaries’, will add up into something.

Where do we begin?

I belong to two or three writers’ groups, and one of the mysteries of creative writing is how the writing arises in the first place. What is the impetus for what you write, whatever it is you write?

Some people like to pose writing “challenges” to respond to, bait to get the juices going, but I myself for whatever reasons find that annoying. These challenges force us to respond to something we may have no interest in, whether a certain topic or a form. (Sonnet? Villanelle? Are you kidding? This is not the sixteenth century! Doing good to others? How annoying! I’d just as soon run the opposite way, as Thoreau says, if I see you coming at me with your charity, or therapy, or do-goodism.)

How about you? Where do you begin if not from a sense of what is necessary? There is something within you that must come out. A response to something you’ve seen or witnessed in the world at large. In your family, it could be. Or your circle of friends.

Here’s a quick list of the origins of some recent efforts of mine, both poetry and prose:

  • “Show Me That Thing: A Love Poem.” Well, this unusual rhymed piece must’ve started out as a naughty response to the excessive politically correctness it’s easy to see in the arts. Not great artists, for sure, but the middling bulk of artists lean on the correct, the tried and true, so they can steer their wagging tongue the right way and make sure it’s not banded or branded by the morality police.
  • “Material Girl.” A poem written as a debate with a friend who tends to believe in the not-here and not-now, though she’s firmly anchored in the here and now of exercise and artistic craft. A response to something specific she said, in an email exchange, I believe, about what might come after this life is done.
  • “What We’re Looking For: Or the Editors Seek.” A found poem, in editors’ own words, about what they seek. The desiderata found in little literary magazines tend to be cant, that is, pious platitudes. Or we can’t be sure what the hell they mean they’re so silly or obscure. No need to comment on this stuff, really, aspiring writer. Just read it and weep.
  • “Rivers of Blood.” This began as a novel, a form I’ve tried several times with no success, but morphed before long into a screenplay. It began, and continued, as a response to the godawful spate of gun violence in this country. Its setting is academe, where I once worked, and its protagonist the one-time girlfriend of a guy who goes berserk and guns down his professor and classmates.
  • “Unko.” A long short story, in a metafictional vein, prompted by the death of my older brother a couple of years ago. As older siblings tend to be, Gerry was what I call here “a guiding and misguiding light.” Unko is the Japanese word for poop, as the story is ostensibly about installing a toilet, something Gerry would have been very comfortable with, besides his life as a wonderful artist and illustrator. (I couldn’t call the story “Toto” for pretty obvious reasons, but I do use some of Gerry’s erotic and humorous illustrations.) Since the brother is not available, the author implores the reader to help out with the task, which is not only installing a toilet, you see, but accomplishing the business of mourning.

Of  course, once we have an idea, a “germ” of a poem or story, as Henry James would call it, we still have to run with it, don’t we, and develop the idea? That part is not easy, but if we believe enough in our idea, and are excited enough about it, we will persist in the development. This persistence might be fortified by encouragement and corrections we get from other writers, as in writers’ groups, but wherever it comes from it’s a completely necessary component of the writer’s life. (This topic to be continued, of course.)

 

I write for me

Taking up where I left off yesterday, with so much more to say and say it more clearly and powerfully: writing for ourselves does not mean that we write solely for ourselves.

It means that we express ourselves so truly and deeply and honestly, bringing forth what only we know, in the way we know it, in our unique view of the multiverse of experience, that an audience will be created, or summoned, that knows and appreciates the unique art.

It may not be a big audience. Or a remunerative audience. But there will always be an audience when word magic is effected, and our abracadabra calls up a vision that has never been seen before.

If we write about love, for example, we will talk about it in a way that hasn’t been realized before. Our writing will resemble no romance novel ever written, no love poem, no story of lust or betrayal or torture. It will be ourselves, an imprint of our unique own transit through the world, if only we have the skill, of course, and the courage that the task requires.

To cite the example of Karl Owe Knausgaard, the Norwegian phenomenon, his  long autobiographical novel My Struggle, so rude and shocking to his countrymen on first release, contains according to one critic “forensic observations of the everyday [that] are an astonishing effort to capture the vast mystery of consciousness through the techniques of a novelist.”

Image result for red wine blood

The vast mystery of consciousness, indeed. A transfusion of such consciousness from one individual to another, an attempt to explain what it feels like to live here and now, before the here and now, inexplicably, are no more.

So here’s to courage, my hearties. Drink up now. The strong red wine of your own blood if you must.

Who do you write for?

Or, to be perfectly, stuffily grammatical about it, For whom do you write?

In either form, it’s a question that is put to the writer often, either by his overactive superego or by those who don’t or won’t read him.

It’s a question posed a week or so ago by a writers’ group to which I’ve belonged for two or three years, a group I call Twelve Old Ladies and One Old Man, though to tell the truth, or something like the truth, our ranks have been swelled lately by one more old man.

I was reading  the first part of a long story I wrote several years ago, a very unconventional story in both form and, evidently, content called “Bird in Hand.” The first-person narrator, a married man, eyes other women and admires their asses.

Oops! That’s the word that got the ladies excited, I fear. They dismissed the piece as something gross and nasty about “horny men,” a genre that was popular back in the 1960s. So, you see, “Bird in Hand” was only 50+ years late on the scene.

Yes, the story is about a horny old man — but much more than that. As the title implies, it’s about marriage itself, about fidelity, about solidity, about what my old mother, may she rest in peace, used to call “sticktuitiveness,” for isn’t that what we need in marriage or other relations in a contemporary world of nothing but distracting pleasures?

When I wrote the story, or when I revise it, do I imagine an audience? An ideal audience? What the hungering hordes in the fictive hinterlands might desire?

I’m afraid I don’t, not even in itty-bitty ways.

I write what I feel and what I need to express  … to get it off my chest, as they say, the stuff that is bothering me.

And it evidently bothers others, at least the ladies, which is their right certainly.

If you look through directories of little magazines in Submittable or Duotrope, for example, you can find the widest, wildest variety of tastes and topics imaginable, everything from church broadsides to pornography, with the churchly in one form or another, for better or worse, taking precedence over the porn. (By churchly, I mean journals that are seeking to validate their preferred audiences and topics, whether “LGBTQ+” — be sure not to omit the + — or “the marginalized” or “diverse” others. I mean journals with a moral, or moralistic, mission, with values that you’d damn better not forget, you poltroon, even as you’re writing.)

If I wanted to be perfectly moral, or moralistic … if I wanted to be commercially viable, I would certainly write for a well considered audience. I confess, however, I’m unable to do so. I simply hope to express myself with enough skill and patience that the result will always find an audience. I write for myself, as others have said, and trust that there’s enough of me, and enough humanity in me, to shine through to those who are looking for a glimmer.

Writing, again, is working in the dark and working in a deafening silence. The clamors of the critics are the first thing that must be shut out. And the roar of the crowd the next.

 

Facebook and delayed gratification

Back at the blog again, today, after a hiatus of just over a year, my my my.

It’s not that I’ve been writing nothing in the interval. I’ve been pretty busy in fact, writing poems, stories, and a screenplay.

But how much energy has gone into Facebook? Your honor, I must plead guilty.

It’s an addictive pleasure — the immediate gratification one gets from almost instant responses via likes and laughs and comments.

But steadier, deeper, truer writing may not elicit comment, or laughs, or likes any time soon. It may exist, ironically enough, for the ages rather than the moment. I don’t mean that what I write will be or should be read 100 years from now or even 10 days. But that it’s more important than the passing fancy of Facebook and the museum that one keeps there, according to analyses I’ve heard, to one’s ideal self. (One chooses what to record and how to record it, what to include and what to leave out in the interest of burnishing an image.)

Likeable Facebook post
A likeable Facebook post, evidently.

Sure, I can (and well might) go back to Facebook and extract what I’ve written there the last year. It might be a record of witticisms and enthusiasms. (A friend has encouraged me to collect and publish my posts.) It might be of some interest and value. But pursuing larger themes, in more ambitious forms, is something else altogether.

Learning to forego the instant appreciation is necessary for the serious writer. Who do you write for? I sometimes hear. And I can’t readily say. I don’t write, first and finally, for yucks and back or head pats. I write simply to get off my chest something that needs to be said. Or, more accurately, find a way to be said. Not everything one writes will find an instant or appreciative audience. So what. If the writing is of value, it will acquire an audience at some time or other.

The writer trusts this is so. And meanwhile works on in the silence and the dark.

 

 

Boredom

Goethe
The young Goethe (Illustration by Boris Pelcer, from The New Yorker)

Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.

Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:

… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….

How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.

Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?

Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?