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.
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.
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.
Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.
It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.
But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.
The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.
The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?
These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.
But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.
First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.
Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral world out of all the puzzle pieces.
To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.
A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”
But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.
There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)
“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.
A funny but not ha-ha funny thing happened to me today on the bike trail. I took a ride of about 20 miles, starting on North St, and moving south to the end of the Razorback Greenway, then back north. I must’ve gone just 2-3 miles when the trail came to an abrupt, if temporary, end. Suddenly the asphalt gave out and a patch of white rock began, on the road where workmen had excavated the asphalt and a few feet on either side. A sign proclaimed, “Trail Ends.” As I put on my brakes and came to a halt, I saw a young woman jogger stopping ahead of me. “End of trail!” I called out, as much to myself as to anyone.
She turned to look at me — a slim young woman, 20 or so, I’d suppose — and said, “I can read. You don’t have to read it to me!”
“Whoa!” I countered. “Aren’t we touchy?”
She turned toward me a couple of steps and spat out, “I know your kind!”
“What kind is that?” I inquired.
But she wouldn’t say. Just continued to sputter venom. So I muttered, half under my breath, “Idiot!” — and sped away.
I was hoping that was the last of her, but though I went to the end of the trail, and detoured also 2-3 miles out of the way, I came upon her again, going north, just as I hit North St. I’d just gone by a young jogger, but didn’t think this was the crazy lady. But it was! She ran by me, wearing white jogging pants and a chartreuse top, as I waited at the light to get across the street, and then, when she was 30 feet down the street from me she turned to me and hissed, “Sex offender!”
So that’s the kind I was! A sex offender in her mind!
In Atlanta recently visiting my wife’s family and a nephew and niece of my own, I encountered a waitress named Tristan at a sandwich shop.
Tristan! I exclaimed. How did you, young lady, get a name like Tristan?
Well, she explained — a chubby, blond early-twenty-something — my mom saw Brad Pitt in a movie and his character was named Tristan.
Certainly, Pitt starred in 1994 in Legends of the Fall, where his character sports the name Tristan Ludlow. He is one of three brothers who grow up, in early-20th-century Montana under a father who detests the government and its wars. The youngest brother brings home his fiancee, and the others fall in love with her. One not very helpful user review, at the Internet Movie Database suggests that Tristan is “A guy who does the frickle frack with the lady they kiss and stuff.”
Apart from the grammatical and analytical deficits of this demotic characterization, the movie does involve themes of loyalty and betrayal, which are what the first famous Tristan had to contend with. In Arthurian legend, the knight Tristan is the nephew of King Mark of Cornwell, charged with bringing home to his uncle as bride-to-be the beautiful Iseult from Ireland. In transport, however, a magic potion makes Tristan and Iseult fall in love. Their scandalous affair sets up tragedy, as surely in the Arthurian original as in the Wagnerian opera based on it, or the Brad Pitt movie, for that matter.
If you believe, as I do, that a name carries with it certain suggestions, even burdens, then naming a girl Tristan is a heavy load for the girl to carry. Should she grow up to act more like a man than a woman, whatever that means? Be dashing, passionate, and adulterous? Be in thrall to a Hollywood role or pop-culture expectations?
Of course, it’s our parents who name us, and they may have in mind, in naming, ideas or ideals or feelings that will not be our own. (If they don’t merely admire the sound and shape of the name, its heft, its euphony.)
In any case, my name, Gregory, is from the Greek, meaning a watchful person or guardian. The name James comes from Hebrew Yaakov, or Jacob, meaning “at the heel,” since in Genesis Jacob is born immediately after his twin brother Esau, with his hand holding Esau’s heel. My wife’s name, Jennifer, comes from the Gaelic, and it means the fair one: the fair one that, again in Arthurian legend, betrays King Arthur when she takes Lancelot as a lover.
Not to make too much of names or naming, but don’t we wear names as we would wear a coat or mantle? Don’t they cover us, like suggestion, and speak to us as if propelling to a certain end? We needn’t take them literally, of course, if we take them, consciously, at all, but when Jennifer and I named our son Gabriel, or man of God, from the Hebrew, didn’t we wish to usher him along a path of glory? Certainly, not a path of shame. Certainly, not a path trod by Hollywood stars.
Yesterday voted early, in the affirmative, for a human rights ordinance in Fayetteville giving LGBT people the same rights against discrimination, in jobs and public places, that the rest of us are said to enjoy.
The forces in the negative have spread fears about transgender people besieging women and girls in public restrooms.
These fearmongers, I fear, are reacting largely on the basis of their own hysteria about sexuality — its depth, its power, its variety. They are on the straight and narrow, affirmatively straight and narrow, and will not venture off the road on which they’ve trod and been instructed. (They’ve read the manual on straight relations, and are glad to be straight, rigid, erect on a matter of such all-consuming and unthinking importance.)
So it was strange, my eyesight was strained, my belief systems strained, too, challenged, you might say, when after last night’s bike ride with the Meetup group, we repaired to JJ’s, a sports bar on the west side of town, where the hamburgers are thick and the young waitresses too, thick and delicious, and I visited the men’s restroom not to rest but you know what. And what to my wondering eyes should appear, as if produced by magic or hysteria, but a man named Little Debbie!
I swear, his shirt said Little Debbie on the pocket, and I thought it a strange and surpassing wondrous thing that a man would go about with a name like that emblazoned on his shirt pocket and puffed up proudly. Now he didn’t try anything, understand, or get fresh with me, and I assume it was a he because he sure looked that way despite the name.
It was the aura of uncertainty that unnerved me. In the climate of uncertainty about sexuality, in this voting season, which is the same climate of uncertainty we enjoy year round, that man with a woman’s name spooked me.
Who knows what he might have been doing in the can? Just peeing and washing his hands? Are you sure? Do you know for sure?
Who knows anything about this knotted question, this sex thing? Whether we’re 14, or 34, or 64, who knows? Even in this greatest of all countries that ever existed, by jingo, where Little Debbie is free to come and go as he pleases, where Lil Wayne and Miley Cyrus twerk and jerk out what the rest of us are not allowed, where God is in his heaven and all’s right with the USA, where Donald Trump denounces immigrant rapists and killers, I have to confess that after all these years, said to be in the upper 60s, by the gods, I know next to nothing about sexuality. And thus would like to invoke, here and now, the same freedoms that we’re voting on for LGBT folks.