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The Valve - A Literary Organ | Pancakes

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Posted by John Holbo on 09/22/06 at 11:05 PM

From George Bernard Shaw, “Toujours Shakespeare”, in Dramatic Opinions and Essays:

And then Touchstone, with his rare jests about the knight that swore by his honor they were good pancakes! Who would endure such humor from any one but Shakespeare? - an Eskimo would demand his money back if a modern author offered him such fare. (p. 119)

What do you think, dear reader? Do we seize, like grim death, upon an artificial comedy standard on account of Shakespeare’s immortality? Example: the last time I saw Twelfth Night I just about rolled in the aisle over the ‘cross-gartered most villainously’ thing. But I’m not sure tricking someone into wearing yellow socks - in, say, a sitcom - would quite do it for me. Then there’s Jerry in the pirate shirt. That was funny. Terry Pratchett is very funny about the whole ‘Shakespeare unfair to jokes’ thing. The Fool hates his own jokes, which he has been brutally compelled to learn by rote out of the Monster Fun Book. And no one else much likes them either:

‘This is very pleasing. If it goes on like this, Fool, you shall have a knighthood.’

This was no. 302, and the Fool knew better than to let a feed line go hungry. ‘Marry, nuncle,’ he said wearily, ignoring the spasm of pain that crawled across the duke’s face, ‘if’n I had a Knighthood (Night Hood), why, it would keep my ears Warm in Bedde; i’faith, if many a Knight is a Fool, why, should a-’

‘Yes, yes, all right,’ snapped Lord Felmet. In fact he was feeling much better already. His porridge hadn’t been oversalted this evening ...’ (Wyrd Sisters, p. 171-2).

I’m reading Shaw on account of discussion of Troilus and Cressida in a piece entitled “Ibsen Ahead”. More about that later. The part of the essay that didn’t so much concern me concerned an upcoming London production of “Little Eyolf”. Shaw on the turn to Ibsen away from some artificial trifles he has been considering:

What, then, is to be the end of all this revival of stageyness? Is the mirror never again to be held up to nature in the theatre? Do not be alarmed, pious playgoer: people get tired of everything, and of nothing sooner than of what they most like. They will soon crave to be tormented, vivisected, lectured, sermonized, appalled by the truths which they pasionately denounce as monstrosities.

So he goes on about how there are already ‘subscriptions to buy the rack’. Various certifiable draws - actresses - are volunteering to play the various roles.

The subscriptions poured in so fast that the rack is now ready, and the executioners are practising so that no pang may miss a moan of its utmost excruciation. Miss Robbins herself will play Asta, the sympathetic sister without whom, I very believe, human nature could not bear this most [at this point I was obliged to cut the page of this never-before-read hundred year old volume. So to simulate that frisson of virginality for you I’ll tuck the rest under the fold]

horrible play. (pp. 93-4)

Of course Shaw thinks it’s quite a good horrible play. Later, in “Ibsen Without Tears” he gets to send up the disappointingly padded, comfy rack that was, in the event, constructed. “And how nicely Mrs. Campbell took the drowning of the child! Just a pretty waving of the fingers, a moderate scream as if she had very nearly walked on a tin tack, and it was all over, without tears, without pain, without more fuss than if she had broken the glass of her watch.”

Getting back to Troilus and Cressida, we feel more than a bit contemptuous of Dryden for his Restoration prettifying efforts on its behalf. Rewriting a tragedy - or a great cynical shambles of a problem play, call it what you will - to make it a comforting romance? That’s shallow and deplorable behavior. On the other hand, to take some fairy tale and turn it into something dark - even if it is just turning The Wizard of Oz into Wicked - feels deep, or at least appropriate. It’s easy for me to understand reading a Batman comic and thinking: this is good because you could retell it so he’s an SM leatherboy. But taking some gritty, nuanced, realistic Ibsenical monster and thinking: this is good because it could be turned into a nicely sanitized Martha Stewart-living production? (Very strange mind that will stand the hermeneutics of suspicion on its head like that - and make it stand there for hours. Sheer torture.)


The assumption being (the buried cultural assumption you identify, or perhaps your assumption, you don’t say) that tragedy and ‘the dark’ is just weightier, deeper, more signifcant, grander etc, than comedy and ‘the laugh’.  But that’s so not the case.

My suspicion is that Shakespeare muddies this question because, towering and beyond-excellent though he be in so many areas, he’s not very funny.  Yes, yes it’s a subjective thing etc., but nonetheless I’d wager modern performances of his plays get laughs from comic business more than from his actual, er, jokes.  I’ve taught a third-year UG course for many years called ‘Theories of Laughter’, and what I find is that eager and intelligent students laugh (actually, out loud, in lecture or seminar) at Rabelais, and contemporary stuff (Wodehouse, Python, Woody Allen), and report that they have sometimes laughed at Chaucer and Aristophanes, but never Shakey.

Otherwise I’d say laughter is a more significant culutral phenomenon than the glum-face-at-tragedy reaction; that the Joy the German Romantics talked about (admittedly as a deeply ‘serious’ sort of thing) actually encompasss laughter, that laughing at tyrants is more politically effective than writing gloomy tragedies about the miseries of the tyrannised life, that it’s harder to pull off successfully (anybody can write tragedy, actually; but comedy, and especially comic prose, is real real hard)—and that it touches on truths about our being-in-the-world that are wholly inaccessible to tragedy.  For all these reasons and many more Wodehouse is a greater and more important C20th writer than Thomas Mann.

By Adam Roberts on 09/23/06 at 03:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...contemporary stuff (Wodehouse, Python, Woody Allen)”

Pfgh.  Wodehouse our contemporary.  I meant ‘...twentieth-century stuff’.  Tho that’s still contemporary in my head.

By Adam Roberts on 09/23/06 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dude, Thomas Mann is teh funny. Felix Krull can go toe to toe with Wodehouse any day.

By John Holbo on 09/23/06 at 05:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here ya go, night hoods:


By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 09:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, didn’t Hesse blather on about laughter of the gods, with nary a chuckle anywhere in Steppenwolf?

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/06 at 09:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tories prefer the comedic mode, methinks: when yr smilin’, the whole world smiles with you. And 12th night or As Ewe Like it, however amusing and clever, are not so far from a Benny Hill sort of schtick (or bad Python); nor are Chaucer’s comic tales (tho Chaucer quite a bit more noirish than most realize and with a definite Dantean aspect: e.g. the Pardoner’s Tale). I wager GBS thought along those lines, and thus affirms Ibsenian realism over the Shakespearean rag.  And Aristotle hisself ranked tragedy (i.e., early lit. realism) as superior to the comic saytr plays.

By on 09/23/06 at 10:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But The Glassbead Game redeems Hesse by being slow-but-steady-wins-the-last-laugh hilarious. (Speaking of Thomas Mann, he actually said that too few people would realize Glassbead was absolutely hilarious, in its way.)

I have to agree with Adam about this much: the reason I think Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are much deeper than, say, Heidegger and Hegel, is that they are much funnier. Metaphysics without the jokes just isn’t worth the candle.

By John Holbo on 09/23/06 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"We might, for example, restore this girl to life again and marry you to her.”

“No, I should not be ready for that. It would bring unhappiness.”

OK, so I wasn’t helplessly laughing aloud. Still, Mozart’s games with Harry Haller at the end of Steppenwolf, and Harry’s doom-laden responses, are worth at least a smile.

I think Shakespeare is funniest in his tragedies, for a reader as opposed to an audience: Hamlet (and, of course, the gravedigger) in Hamlet, especially where Hamlet is mocking Polonius; the Fool in Lear. Some of the writing in the comedies makes room for embellishment, visual puns, and slapstick, none of which quite translate on the page (hence John’s comment about Twelfth Night). Consider the difference between how Puck reads, and how he is acted when he is acted well.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This might be even more to the point. I started The World’s Forgotten Boy partly in order to write in a mode other than the comic. Comic writing has become a very influential mode nowadays, thanks to Dave Eggers & McSweeney’s, Benjamin Kunkel & n+1, David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman, David Foster Wallace, and the rest of the new generation of postmodernists. Their influences are all over the place, from punk and Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson, to Nabokov and Kafka and Roth, but their style is highly recognizable. In my case, I felt that that influence had actually begun to hinder my writing, by making it overly uniform and bathetic.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/23/06 at 10:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For myself, I’d be afraid to try to write in any mode other than the comic. I don’t think I could do it. (Please note tension with my claim, above, that you can’t be deep without jokes.)

By John Holbo on 09/23/06 at 10:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You and the Valvie grrls are the living phucking mockery of HS Thompson and Bangs, Holblo: just as each of your narcissistic belches reveals how little you know of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein or Russell or about any thinker whose name you care to drop; except maybe your tried and true Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  But I wager you’d manage to spoil even Stan Lee’s ahht were you to write a few dozen gaseous paragraphs about it.

By on 09/23/06 at 11:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yet there is eternal wisdom in the Bard, it cannot be denied. For example, Thersites rails against the Greek commanders - ‘lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery’. And, in our own day, William Lane Chesterton accuses the grand editor of the lofty literary organ, the Valve, of suppressing the sex and war in Troilus and Cressida. And yet our Chesterton lacks the self-consciousness of a true Thersites, who in the end knows himself for the man of ressentiment he is. And so, if our Chesterton were only to apply himself to the study of Shakespeare in a serious way, he might ... come to know himself better:

“Thersites: How now, Thersites! what lost in the labyrinth of thy fury! Shall the elephant Ajax carry it thus? He beats me, and I rail at him: O, worthy satisfaction! would it were otherwise; that I could beat him, whilst he railed at me.”

I am now done. The troll of sorrow has, once again, worn out his welcome. I will allow him one further comment, in which he may protest his banning as cogently as he likes. (I do not think it will be very cogent. That is why I am permitting it.) After that, I am simply going to delete any new comments that bear his unmistakable imprint.

By John Holbo on 09/23/06 at 11:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What are those called, filosophaster:  Unwarranted assertions perhaps? I attended upper div. Shakespeare courses years ago, Mr. Bufo, and earned A’s in those courses: in fact sat in a course with one of Bly’s Harvard mentors.

You’re a confused, demonic liar. You got that? You’re sort of Orsino times 10: or maybe the Dogberry of blog-land.  And along with your arrogance and pseudo-scholarship (the holbo school--cite maybe 20 great Names and a few fools will actually think you are making a point: although claiming to be an “analytical philosopher” you routintely forget cites/jargon/appeals to author-i-TAY are not valid arguments), you have yet to figure out what proxies are. Ban away, windbag. Er, about 15,000 to go (mussalama!)

By on 09/24/06 at 12:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually that’s a bit harsh. You’re a great talent. A Bon Vivant. Wit, raconteur, excellent taste in, er, manga, way dread erudition, etc. THere are bloggers more evil than J Holbo; c’est vraiment.  Nonetheless, a control freak--J-Edgarish--domineering--arrogant. That tends to upset those few churls who used to take that “question authori-TAY-” jive seriously: and it winds up “trolls.” Anyways, delete/block/moderate ASAP. I win when you delete. Get down with yr bad self already! do the J-Edgar.

By on 09/24/06 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I’ll let both of those stand. since they compose a devotional diptych of a bi-polar sort. If it’s true that the troll wins when I delete from now on, then I think I can foresee a strategy whereby we can all be winners. (And that’s not something that happens everyday, so we can all be very happy with this result.)

By John Holbo on 09/24/06 at 12:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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