29 July 2010

1000 Lovers

I’ve been listening almost incessantly to Lynn Miles’ song, “1000 Lovers.” The chorus goes like this:

A thousand lovers could put their arms around me,
A thousand wishes could fall like summer rain,
A thousand mothers could sing hush now don’t you cry,
There’s nothing in the world tonight that’s gonna take away my pain.

I don’t think this song is about lost love. A thousand lovers couldn’t help. This song isn’t about getting what you want. A thousand wishes could fall. Neither is this song about nurture and unconditional love. A thousand mothers could sing. No, none of these comforts are going to take away the pain. And so from where does that pain derive? What is this overwhelming pain that cannot be assuaged? Ah, these are the questions this song demands the asking.

But in fact, I don’t think it is important for me to have answers. I think it is enough now to know that there are pains from which there can be no relief. It is a comfort, finally, to know that it is not pathology from which I sometimes suffer but the inevitable experience of living in this world.

23 July 2010

There are two Jews on a train . . .

I’ve been studying jokes. It is a funny enterprise to have undertaken, but the scherzo of my symphony demanded a repertoire of comedic events, and scholar that I think I am, I went out researching the subject. For weeks now I have been reading joke books (well, for years I had unmethodically memorized a great deal of Garrison Keillor’s Pretty Good Joke Book. I did not intend to commit the book to memory, but it’s just the book available to engage me when I’m blow-drying my hair. And some of the jokes are even pretty good!). I’ve actually become somewhat skilled at telling jokes, and so if you see me walking towards you, I might suggest you cross the street or be subject to a barrage of material I am practicing. Though I have to acknowledge that I am becoming not an inexperienced joke-teller, though my repertoire is severely limited.

Sigmund Freud wrote an entire book exploring the phenomenon of jokes: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. His clinical analysis takes a great deal of the humor out of many of the jokes he narrates, and he really doesn’t concentrate very much on delivery. He might have laughed heartily at several jokes when they were first told to him, but his need to analyze dampens the presentation.

Freud is concerned with understanding how jokes work and why we tell them. On one level Freud attributes the effectiveness of jokes to their “ability to provide pleasure against the objections raised by criticism that would put an end to pleasure.” In this sense, jokes permit me (us) to enjoy those things our superegos have declared it wrong (or too dangerous) to enjoy. Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll, to speak metaphorically.

In my own work I have considered that jokes served as a form of protest against that world beyond my own superego (and even within that entity) that denies me pleasure. We rail against the world that abuses us physically or psychically with its power. Of course, the Marx Brothers are the quintessential exemplar of this stance: with their nonsense they debunk all attempts to make sense!! As Wagstaff, newly appointed President of Huxley College, Groucho begins his opening address, “Members of the faculty, faculty members; students of Huxley and Huxley students. I guess that covers everything. Well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard this speech, and that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself.” The speech improves of course, but never makes more sense. Then again, how many such speeches do make sense? It’s just that the Marx Brothers wouldn’t fool themselves.

And so I find in Freud some support for my belief that jokes are a protest: he says that ‘tendentious jokes,’ those that express an opinion, say, are “useful in order to make aggressiveness or criticism possible against persons in exalted positions who claim to exercise authority.” In the Marx Brothers, all pomposity and authority is deflated, even that assumed by Groucho in his many positions of presumed authority. A tendentious joke—and the Marx Brothers made whole movies filled with them—is rebellion against authority.

Of course, this technique leads to a great number of offensive jokes: we are, after all, fearful of so many things whose authority we fear, though most of these fears are irrational terrors even as the presumed authority they maintain derives from our own sense of powerlessness. Trevor Griffiths, in his play Comedians, asks “Do we fear . . . other people . . . so much that we must mark their pain with laughter, our own with tears.” We have to learn to overcome some fears. We use jokes as a weapon sometimes to demonize others and protect ourselves. But we can learn through jokes to accept the fears as our own, and then the joke would be on us.

Freud tells us that the greater our sense of joy the less we have need for jokes. He writes, “It is most instructive to observe how the standards of joking sink as spirits rise.” I must say in these times we have a great need of jokes. Just look at any newspaper. Any day. Any time. Any where.

16 July 2010

Makes the World Go 'Round

I see where Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is leaving the bulk of his wealth to his philanthropic enterprises. He is at the moment being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I hope that he fully recovers and lives a very long life.

Apparently Mr. Allen has committed to giving away about seven billion dollars. His net worth is approximately 13.5 billion dollars. That seems to me quite a lot of money. But what struck me in the news article regarding Mr. Allen was the fact that he is only the 37th richest man in the world. There are 36 people richer than he, thirty-six people whose accumulated wealth is in excess of 13.5 billion dollars!!

And I find that quite remarkable. Now I understand that several of them are probably not United States citizens, but of those that are, if they were to give some of that money to the states to help balance their budgets, then perhaps the economic climate might dramatically improve for those of us who have not yet earned even our first million!

How could anybody acquire that much money?

08 July 2010

Biblical marxism

I’ve been studying the Marx Brothers. I was prompted to this study by the story of Balaam and his donkey followed by the story of Balaam and Balak. And the Scherzo movement in my symphony. There is something very marxist about this Biblical story, and something quite Biblical about the Marx Brothers, and for the full version of the tale you might read the tale itself (Numbers 22:2-24:25) and for the complete counterpoints you have to wait for the eagerly anticipated (at least by me) publication of the full symphony.

But of Groucho and his brothers . . . well, with them I am falling again in love.

Balaam finally arrives at Balak’s place of encampment, and has to explain his lateness. I don’t imagine he told Balak about the talking donkey to account for his tardiness; after all, Balaam has his reputation to protect. Groucho too sometimes arrives late, and he, too, does not speak very honestly. You recall, perhaps, in A Night at the Opera, that Driftwood is an hour late to his dinner appointment with Mrs. Claypool. She confronts him: “Mr. Driftwood, you invited me to dine with you at seven o’clock. It is now eight o’clock, and no dinner.” He looks at her without much surprise but some affront: “What do you mean, no dinner? I just had one of the biggest meals I ever ate in my life, and no thanks to you either.” Of course, Driftwood has been at the time dining at the next table with a beautiful blonde, to whom he immediately gives the check for payment, (Nine dollars forty cents! This is an outrage. If I were you, I wouldn’t pay it!) and immediately turns to sit down with Mrs. Claypool. But when Mrs. Claypool complains that she has been waiting an hour for him, Driftwood says, “Yes, with your back to me. When I invite a woman to dinner, I expect her to look at my face. That’s the price she has to pay.” Driftwood knows his place, but that does not deter him.

Balaam has no such modesty. Taken out to view the Israelite people whom he is to curse, he tells Balak to build him seven altars on which he will sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. And then he goes off to await some manifestation from God that he intends to share with Balak. And God speaks to Balaam and informs him that he can say nothing but what God commands. And so with Balak and his officers standing behind him, Balaam starts to curse the Israelites and ends up blessing them. Balak is incensed. I imagine him smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand: “What have you done to me? Here I have brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” Balak moves his entourage to a new location, and once again Balaam commands him to build seven altars on which he will sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. Again, Balaam goes off to seek a manifestation from God, and again the curse becomes a blessing. Exasperated, Balak tells Balaam to say nothing: “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them.” But it is too late; events once set in motion must work themselves out. Balaam tells Balak, “But I told you: Whatever the Lord says, that I must do!” Finally, he moves him to a third location, builds the seven altars and sacrifices the seven bulls and seven rams, and once again Balaam again blesses the Israelites. Balak smacks his hands together—a Biblical version of slapping his forehead—fires Balaam and sends him packing. “Then Balaam set out on his journey back home; and Balak also went his way.”

As I read, all I could remember was the auction scene in Coconuts when Groucho hires Chico to up the bidding: “Now, remember, when the auction starts, if anybody says one hundred dollars—” “I-a say-a hundred dollars”—“That’s grand. Now, if somebody says two hundred . . .” “I-a say three hundred.” All seems in place. But as soon as the auction starts the scheme goes awry—Groucho asks for starting bid and Chico bids two hundred dollars, but when Groucho asks for three hundred dollars, Chico bids it, and before he knows what is happening, Chico, who really has no money bids the land up to six hundred dollars. “Wrap up that lot and put some poison ivy on it. . .,” Groucho orders. With his hand on his cheek he says resignedly, “Well, I came out even on that one. That was a great success. Yeah, one more success like that and I’ll sell my body to a medical institute.” Not much improves in the sale of the next lot. Bidding himself up a hundred dollars at a time, Chico foils all of Groucho’s plans: “Well, the auction is practically over. Yes, it’s all over but the shooting. I’ll attend to that later.”
Hey, wait—wait!. What does this say here? This thing here?
Oh, that? Oh, that’s just the usual clause. That’s in every contract. That just says-uh, it says-uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Its alright. That’s-that’s in every contract. That’s—that’s what they call a sanity clause.
“Oh, no. You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause.
The world is absurd. There ain’t no sanity clause. It’s in the Bible.