When I want to get the attention of a co-worker I send her or him or they an email with the subject line: “Assorted Chocolates.” In truth I’m not much for chocolates but my studies suggest most are. You may wonder what goes “in” such an email. Here’s a sample:
To: Herkimer Kiwi
Subj: Assorted Chocolates
Dear Professor Kiwi:
There have been many kings of France but there’s only one copy of Sartor Resartus in our university library and you have it. Moreover library records show you’ve had it for ten years. This is your right as a member of the faculty and I presume you’ve rightfully renewed the book many a time and even if you haven’t we both know you’re free of consequence owing to your privilege as a “knowledge worker” but in these digital times “not the smallest cranny or dog-hole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated” and I’m on to you Kiwi. One must ask “what do you do with the book?”
Kiwi doesn’t reply but I’ve hit him with marzipan and I know he knows it.
One should not expect replies from the Kiwis.
Poor Groucho Marx. He once had diner with T.S. Eliot. He was hoping to have a serious discussion about literature. Eliot wanted to talk about comedy. Who needed “what” more?
I like this question. My guess is Eliot needed comedy more than Groucho needed to talk about poetry. Eliot worked in a bank.
Groucho’s mistake was to assume poets know how to converse about their art. I’m not saying they can’t write about it or give prepared lectures on the subject–not at all. But poets tend to clam up when one asks the question: “what’s your process?”
I’m betting Groucho asked Tom the third rail question above.
Worse is talking about comedy. There’s E.B. White’s quote: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.”
One pictures Groucho and Eliot dining on frogs.
It is entirely possible Eliot and Groucho talked of Shakespeare but the surviving account of their evening suggests it was glum. Here’s how I’d have liked it to have gone:
“Shakespeare was the first comic writer to dramatize reverse psychology as Petruchio, a wandering nobleman, undertakes the wooing of Kate who’s notoriously short tempered and cruel:
“Say she rail; why, I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
and say she uttereth piercing eloquence.”
We are the ones invited to say she rail; we’re instructed to become as devious as Petruchio. Taken into his confidence we’re delighted by his promissory book of lies.
Eliot (waving a frog leg):
“That’s comedy. Not as a vehicle for pratfalls or put downs, but discernment where the irrational is concerned.”
Enter the waiter.
A game I play, more often than I should admit, is a dramatic transference for which there may be a name but I’ve never found one. Perhaps there’s something in German. In short, I employ the characters of Shakespeare and Moliere as standard bearers for people I meet and especially for public figures. The literary term for this is “comparison” but what I’m describing is better than that—“kayfab” is what they call it in professional wrestling, where everyone, both wrestlers and fans collectively pretend a false drama is real. Essentially I live and have always lived since my late teens in “Tartuffe” and “The Taming of the Shrew” and at this stage of life there’s no help for it.
Are you still with me?
Both Moliere and Shakespeare grew up watching morality plays, fables whose stock characters were invariably named God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. Because they lived during the first flowering of public literacy they understood the indispensable healthiness of word flipping. Talk about nature’s bounty! Words were no longer merely to be received and absorbed. Can you imagine the joy of a 17th century adolescent forced to watch Everyman or The Second Shepherd’s Play, as he substituted Satan, Life, Neighbor, Sin, Second Rate Demons, Ignorance, Ugliness, Gossip, and Basic Human Weakness for the stock characters of religious drama? Of course you can.