I’m thinking these days about a kind of comedy that relies less on what words do, as in jokework, and more on how they sound. Here are three major players in pronunciation humor:
Moira’s “dazzling peach cry-uhb-apple” and Chloe’s “toe-uhst” both play off class pretense—the understanding we have (and the British have even more) that upper-class people distinguish themselves through dialect. “Posh accents” and so on. The rich’s need to insert extra syllables most of us can’t afford, etc. etc. (Madonna’s a culprit.)
But then you have the Oh Hello guys. I get that it presents as a parody of Upper West Side Jewish guy, but the performance seems less systematic of an accent and more a commitment to strangify as many words as they can.
I’m not talking here about funny accents, or finding the funny in our U.S. accents, which Fred Armisen has lately made a parlor trick out of. And there is something funny about the quick-shifting uncanniness of hearing, say, a hyperaccurate dialect portrait of all the NYC boroughs, or of hearing Seattle and Portland captured via accents the rest of us don’t even hear:
But the folks I’m looking at deliberately move away from accuracy. They’re not capturing anything in their mispronunciations other than absurdist mispronunciation, which is what makes them so funny. Or at least what makes me love it.
I’m drawn to fictive comedy, comedy that makes new and often absurd things possible on stage, more than I am Carlinian/Seinfeldian nonfictive comedy that says what the rest of us are thinking, or observes what we’ve noticed but haven’t yet put into words. Which is why these are my favorite Catherine O’Hara, Drew Droege, and Kroll/Mulaney roles: they make the known and familiar less real.
But it’s baser than that. Using language itself as their material, they all seek this riskless and yet massively disruptive transgression on language, something I as a writer understand as so fixed and ruly. It’s unlike puns and wordplay. Puns and wordplay are mere clevernesses with language, whereas these feel more like rudenesses.
Such selfish disregard! The pleasures of watching someone daring to make words their own. The useless, dangerless gall of that. I’m always ready for it.
Everyone, turns out. But this year’s Pride is particularly for queer people of color. This Pride recognizes that police brutality in this country is continuing to hurt and kill black queers and black trans people, and that their struggle for existence is our struggle. I’m glad for the ways we queers have put those faces, names, voices, and histories at the forefront of our parades.
How Pride is for everyone involves sex. I’m writing this from a housesitting gig in the Oakland hills, which feels like the suburbs, and when I walk the dog I pass the same sign posted on different houses’ lawns:
“Love is love” is the Okay With Queers part. It’s the assimilationist message that says it’s wrong to deny us equal rights, because we’re at heart just like straight people.
What Pride is for? Reminding the world that, also, sex is sex.
We mean two things by that. One: sex is not separate from what defines a queer person. Queers love people just like heteros do. Queers breathe using their lungs just as heteros do. The argument for our rights and respect doesn’t hinge on proving to heteros that we aren’t different, it hinges on demanding that heteros accept difference. It demands the end of discriminating because of difference. The sex you have is the sex you have, and the sex I have is the sex I have. Now let me fucking add my partner as a dependent for my work benefits.
Two: Sex is not a demonstration of your virtue or righteousness. This is the real exciting gift of Pride. Let me explain.
Every queer’s life begins from a place of being told their desires are wrong, or if not wrong, abnormal. I mean their desires for the kind of sex they want to have, or their desires for the gender identity they want to express.
I imagine every straight life begins with some version of this story, too. Because remember, if you go to school in some states, the only guilt-free sex you’re allowed to have is when a masculine-presenting husband puts his penis inside his female-presenting wife’s vagina, usually with him on top.
Kids are still being taught that that’s what sex is.
However, every queer’s life reaches a point where they stop heeding lies about their desires. Often they do it once they find each other and realize they’re not alone. Sometimes they do it in isolation. Either way, it makes them heroes. These are the heroes we celebrate each June.
If you like more variety in your sex without feeling bad about it, thank queers. If you like sex not to follow proscriptions but rather affirm your and your partner’s autonomy, thank queers.
Is why a pride parade, when it’s done well, puts sex at the center. Dykes in leather. Bears in jockstraps. Femmes in body paint. Femmes in jockstraps. And, yes, kinks of all stripes. Which is an argument I thought we were done with in the queer community.
But In recent years, some online queers have begun complaining about the presence of kinks and nudity at pride. People attending pride do not consent to your kinks goes the argument. It’s an update of an older, sadder argument that goes something like This is what the homophobes point at to show how we’re all degenerates.
These complaints come from people who do not understand what a queer person is or what Pride is for. They accept sexual shame as a valid force. They believe that queer pride can exist alongside sexual shame. They insist that we queers accommodate the shame of others.
It feels and sounds like progress and radical politics, but it’s neither. Though he’s speaking specifically about the gay male community, Michael Warner can maybe better illuminate the trap I’m getting at:
Identity, like stigma, tars us all with the same brush, but it also allows us to distance ourselves from any actual manifestation of queerness. We only share the identity and its stigma, in fact, because identity has been distinguished from sexual acts and their shame…. Thus there always seem to be some gay people who are shocked, shocked to find that others are having deviant sex. They will have you know that their dignity is founded on being gay, which in their view has nothing to do with sex. If others are having sex—or too much sex or sex that is too deviant—then those people have every reason to be ashamed…. But to have a politics of one without the other is to doom oneself to incoherence and weakness. It is to challenge the stigma on identity, but only by reinforcing the shame of sex.
The worst part of the new resistance to sex at Pride are the complaints that children cannot (by dint of their age) consent to seeing it in public, which reeks of the age-old lie equating queerness with child abuse. It’s a deeply conservative tactic: won’t somebody think of the children?
“Children can’t consent to your kink” is true if your notion of consent involves two adults saying yes to each other. But kinksters have been marching in our parades longer than the children you claim to be protecting have been alive. If you believe your kid’s sexual autonomy and growth is damaged by their watching sluts whip each other or crawl along the ground on leashes, then don’t bring your child to a celebration that’s all about transcending sexual shame. Stay home and talk to them about what pride has always been about.
I. Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:
How do you get better? How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.
I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.
I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.
II. If I could go back to April 2013 and answer him, I’d try to show my younger self the trap of believing that goodness inheres in people. Badness, too. If you believe you are at core a good person, your actions will not signify. Good-person cops kill unarmed black men (whom they see as bad persons) and their self-presumed goodness stays intact.
Infinitely more than your self-image, it’s your actions that matter. How you treat people, and how you treat yourself, stirs up the dust of progress and moves the world toward what folks might call good or bad—but also might never.
How do you do better? Does it always just happen over time? What if you do worse? What if you work so hard every day to do the right thing and in the end you do the wrong thing? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know.
Me I use God for guidance, and role models from books and among my friends. It decidedly doesn’t “just happen over time”—what happens over time is inertia. If I do worse, I recognize that I’ve done worse because I see the effects of what I’ve done. And then I try to do better next time, because there will always be a next time.
III. The thing about doing over being is that people will tell you, and so you’ll regularly know. They’ll say “Thank you” or they’ll say “Fuck you.” It’s a useful system.
But if you park just for a sec in an accessible parking spot, or let your party’s music go on past quiet hours, or forget your friend’s birthday, and some witness says, “You’re a bad person,” don’t listen to that lie. “You’ve done the wrong thing,” is the feedback you’re looking for.
(Of course, if you hear it and don’t listen, and don’t change in the future, then like magic you’ve become a bad person.)
Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention.
If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.
“My new idée fixe is asemic writing,” he writes in “Corpse Pose”—”writing that doesn’t use words or signs.” Koestenbaum’s a painter, and throughout the book fall essays that read like lists of writing prompts, or art prompts, or both, which essays urge us to let ourselves get reckless and productively aim-less with our artmaking. Though as an essayist, he’s stuck with language and its trap of signification, much of the pleasures of the book come when he leaps about his subject in attempt to slip that trap. These are essays so horny for signifying’s decay, if not writing’s total dissolution, and Koestenbaum knows language itself can do the job, the way silicone lube tends over time to eat away at silicone sex toys.
It’s not, the collection, my favorite of his books (that would be Humilation), and while I glossed over a few of the pet obsessions and more abstruse topics, I was glad for this book, for giving me over the course of a week that long-happy-afternoon feeling I mentioned above.
In short: I love listening to Koestenbaum think, even if only to himself. Let me see if I can capture for you something of his singular, inimitable gifts. Here’s a segment (or “crot” as John Barth taught him to say) from “‘My’ Masculinity Remix” wherein he thinks out some anxieties about his role/function as an essayist:
“can I do this spiritual drag, collective agony wishful thinking,” wrote kari edwards. I, too, wonder if I can do this drag of speaking or thinking collectively, drag of not being singular, drag of shedding the rags of self. Adrienne Rich once excoriated these rags as “personal weather.” She opposed personal weather to “the great dark birds of history.” Syllables shamed by birds of history can intoxicate the ear. Remix, please, a consciousness, nominally mine, governed by its enthrallments, and hell-bent on squeezing cadence out of thrall.
No one I read has a vocabulary as rich at the high-end and the low as Koestenbaum, and no one does this sudden header into metaphor and lyric off the diving board of intertextuality like he does.[*] It’s a steady hand behind his lines, one that somehow in its mastery allows room for, and then accepts, anxiety.
But my real love lies in the way I’m led to feel things about/toward/for his narrator while rarely getting any access to a direct emotional space. Koestenbaum’s essays hold me by and within his intellect, a place that’s never cold, despite everything I continue to hear about the warmth of the heart and how vital it is to pour it out if you want to connect with a reader.
I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.
I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.
King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.
At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.
I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.
In other words, I couldn’t imagine that a 1950s translation could be as decadent as the original, given the goings-on at the time in the US/UK. The newer the queerer the better.
Or so I thought. What I’m going to do now is shut up and show you a paragraph from the book’s prologue (written by Huysmans after the original publication), which prologue summarizes Des Esseintes’s rise and fall. I’ll quote the ¶ in chronological order: first the original (for those who speak French) and then translations by Baldick, Mauldon, and King. Look at the different approaches to style and voice:
Une seule passion, la femme, eût pu le retenir dans cet universel dédain qui le poignait, mais celle-là était, elle aussi, usée. Il avait touché aux repas charnels, avec un appétit d’homme quinteux, affecté de maladie, obsédé de fringales et dont le palais s’émousse et se blase vite; au temps où il compagnonnait avec les hobereaux, il avait participé à ces spacieux soupers où des femmes soûles se dégrafent au dessert et battent la table avec leur tête; il avait aussi parcouru les coulisses, tâté des actrices et des chanteuses, subi, en sus de la bêtise innée des femmes, la délirante vanité des cabotines; puis il avait entretenu des filles déjà célèbres et contribué à la fortune de ces agences qui fournissent, moyennant salaire, des plaisirs contestables; enfin, repu, las de ce luxe similaire, de ces caresses identiques il avait plongé dans les bas-fonds, espérant ravitailler ses désirs par le contraste, pensant stimuler ses sens assoupis par l’excitante malpropreté de la misère.
J-K- Huysmans, 1884
One passion and one only—woman—might have arrested the universal contempt that was taking hold of him, but that passion like the rest had been exhausted. He had tasted the sweets of the flesh like a crotchety invalid with a craving for food but a palate which soon becomes jaded. In the days when he had belonged to a set of young men-about-town, he had gone to those unconventional supper-parties where drunken women loosen their dresses at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had hung around stage-doors, had bedded with singers and actresses, had endured, over and above the innate stupidity of the sex, the hysterical vanity common to women of the theatre. Then he had kept mistresses already famed for their depravity, and helped to swell the funds of those agencies which supply dubious pleasures for a consideration. And finally, weary to the point of satiety of these hackneyed luxuries, these commonplace caresses, he had sought satisfaction in the gutter, hoping that the contrast would revive his exhausted desires and imagining that the fascinating filthiness of the poor would stimulate his flagging senses.
Robert Baldick, 1959
One passion only, the passion for women, might have restrained him in this universal contempt that was gnawing at him, but that passion too was spent. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh, with the appetite of a capricious man who suffers from malacia, who is beset by pangs of desire yet whose palate rapidly grows dull and surfeited; in the days when he consorted with so-called country gentlemen, he had attended those long-drawn-out suppers where, at the dessert stage, drunken women unhook their gowns and bang their heads on the table; he had also frequented theatrical dressing-rooms, sampled actresses and singers, and had to endure, over and above the innate stupidity of woman, the frenzied vanity of third-rate performers; then he had kept women who were already celebrated whores, contributing to the prosperity of those agencies which provide questionable pleasures in exchange for money; in the end, sated and weary of this unvarying profusion, of these identical caresses, he had plunged down in among the dregs of society, hoping to revive his desires by contrast, and thinking to arouse his dormant senses with the provocative squalor of extreme poverty.
Margaret Mauldon, 1998
A single passion, woman, might have restrained him in the universal contempt that gripped him, but she, too, had palled. He had tasted the feasts of the flesh with the appetite of a capricious man afflicted with bulimia, one who is obsessed by hunger, but whose palate is quickly dulled and surfeited; in the days when he had associated with country gents, he had participated in those protracted suppers during which drunken women unfastened their clothing at dessert and slumped their heads on the table; he had also scoured the wings backstage at the theatre, sampled actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the frenzied vanity of third-rate leading ladies; after that, he had kept already notorious whores and contributed to the fortune of those agencies that supply dubious pleasures for a modest recompense; finally, sated, weary of these unvarying lusts, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the slums, hoping to revive his desires through contrast, thinking to stimulate his deadened senses with the arousing indecencies of poverty.
Brendan King, 2008
Right away we notice a few things. Contempt is either taking hold of, gnawing at, or gripping him. There’s this malacia/bulimia problem of what Baldick calls a “crotchety invalid” (crotchety shows up later in the prologue, I think it’s a pet word for Baldick). Malacia from what I can tell is a softening of tissue and appears nowhere in the original, and bulimia puts far too contemporary a diagnosis for what seems like habits well below a pathology. (The term “bulimia” has existed long before the 20thC diagnosis, but it seems always to have referred to overeating, not so much craving or hunger.)
We can look also at the misogyny in/of the passage: la bêtise innée des femmes. Baldick calls it the innate stupidity of the sex, Mauldon has the innate stupidity of woman, and King has the innate stupidity of women. King’s is surely the worst, which somehow in its plural seems to apply the idea of this innate stupidity to all women as individuals, whereas Mauldon’s “woman” very subtly indicates Des Esseintes’s/our narrator’s misogyny being an idea, a fancy, more than an assertion.
N.B. I think Baldick’s does this too. At this stage, I’m ready to ditch King’s translation. It seems far too loyal, or literalistic. Too transcripted without taking artistry of language into consideration. (In the passage we’re about to look at, his “arousing indecencies” seals it for me.) But when you look at the final sentence (well, it’s 2 sentences, the whole passage, so the final set of clauses I mean), I think Baldick comes out ahead, surprisingly.
I don’t really know French, but what I know of it in reading shampoo bottles and international signs is that it requires more words to say a thing than English does. Push red button for help becomes in French something like “For the assistance of yourself, press you the button of red.” To say nothing of French’s needing two words to express a negative.
This gives translators a choice to make: do you capture the language’s florid syntactic excesses, or do you translate those to a more Anglo-Saxon-based English-language idiom? Do you leave diction in place but alter syntax, or vice versa? At the end here, Huysmans leads us to focus on the objects Des Esseintes hopes to revive himself with: the poor, the gutter, the filth. If you believe in the power of the periodic sentence to save for its end a sentence’s most important or compelling aspect, these objects themselves are stressed, syntactically.
Mauldon is faithful to French syntax. Baldick is unfaithful, stressing instead what’s wrong with Des Esseintes: his exhausted desires, his flagging senses. This is the right move; Des Esseintes is a sickly hero. But also that syntactic choice captures, for me, what the experience of hope feels like and where our focus within hope ultimately lies, once the totems have been found and employed.
Plus, I’ll always prefer “gutter” over “dregs of society”, “flagging” over “dormant”, and “fascinating filthiness” over “provocative squalor.”
Once, in a fiction workshop, another student referred euphemstically to a certain passage in a text we were discussing, a passage on shit if I recall, as “earthy”, and it made me laugh. Life decays in the earth, so I’m going to stick with Baldick this second go-around.
But no translation is perfect. Which is your favorite, and why?
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
It’s also why I thought the translated title was so terrible. À rebours translates roughly to “backward,” which is great because of the backward-learning accent the title begins with. I’ve read that some have used “Against the Grain” as a translation, but I’ve never seen a book published with this title. It’s for sure an improvement. Maybe the novel is more concerned with The Natural and Des Esseintes going against it (I seem to recall a large turtle he acquires and covers with gold and gems), but to me the title has always ringed (and not in a good way) of “a crime against nature”, that euphemism for gay sex.↵
For fun, here’s Google Translate’s version: Only one passion, woman, could have kept him in this universal disdain that gripped him, but that one, too, was worn out. He had touched carnal meals, with the appetite of a quintentious man, afflicted with illness, obsessed with cravings and whose palate dulled and grew blatant; at the time when he was companions with the hobereaux, he had taken part in these spacious suppers where drunk women unhook themselves at dessert and beat the table with their heads; he had also gone behind the scenes, dabbled in actresses and singers, suffered, in addition to the innate stupidity of women, the delirious vanity of cabotines; then he had entertained already famous girls and contributed to the fortune of these agencies which provide, for a salary, questionable pleasures; finally, sated, weary of this similar luxury, of these identical caresses, he had plunged into the shallows, hoping to supply his desires with contrast, thinking of stimulating his drowsy senses by the exciting filthiness of misery.↵
The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:
If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:
In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”
My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.
These ideas stem from two sources. One is Lewis Hyde’s incredible book Trickster Makes This World. The other is what little I was able to stomach of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before I deleted the ebook version of it I found for free online somewhere. (Extremely relieved not to have given that guy any of my money.)
Hyde’s book focuses on trickster figures in global myths (coyote, Hermes, Loki, Krishna, etc.), with a whole chapter on what he calls “dirt-work”, trickster’s predilection for using shit and filth and shame/lessness to “make this world”—i.e., create art, artistry, industry, knowledge and then give it to humans.
By working/playing in the dirt, trickster assures his art can begin in a form unsullied by the Pure, or the Ideal, which both belong, Hyde shows, in the realm of the gods, and which reflect values centered on effort and s(t)olidity. Trickster art, on the other hand, is always playful, agile, and fluid.
(Quick aside about how purity likes to pose as strength but it’s much more of a weakness. Purity is very easy to stain and ruin. Think of washed hands, the myth of virginity, all-white furniture. Whiteness in general. Hyde notes how formulations of race in the antebellum South believed that “one drop of black blood” made anyone black. Whiteness is so fragile it cannot survive a single procreative act from a non-white person, whereas blackness can procreate with anyone and stay fully intact.)
Here’s a quote I found in my notes:
[T]rickster’s freedom with dirt means he can operate where fastidious high gods cannot and as a result heaven’s fertility and riches enter this world.
Myths show this process again and again. Not only can trickster do things the gods cannot, his dirt-work also inserts fluidity and flexibility within a system or culture. Consider Carnival/Mardi Gras, the annual dirtwork-sinfest the Catholic Church allows everyone to get out of their systems before its grueling demands of Lent. Through the chaos of Carnival, through its mockery of the pure/godly/ideal,
ritual dirt-work operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect, the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.
In other words, the presence of chaos (however controlled) allows order to continue, even to take control. Eradicating chaos—or trying out that impossibility—will only bring more chaos.
Chaos makes neo-fascists (here we turn to Peterson) very afraid. It is, in Peterson’s imaginary, the force we must all fight, avoid, or transcend. School shootings, transgenderism, the fact of disease, single mothers—they’re all evidence that life is full of chaos and trouble and that we need to return to “Western values”.
The work Peterson does to help us accomplish this is giving young men shoulders-back-type advice (literally: shoulders-back is Rule 1 of the 12 Rules), and reminding them that the yin of the yin and yang symbol is the chaos side of the balance, and is tied to the feminine. Peterson’s work is, in Hyde’s formulation, lordly, godly work—it’s rigid, pious, inflexible, humorless.
I don’t think I need to spell out the sterility of order. It produces nothing new, it works desperately to sustain itself, it seeks a kind of deathfulness. (If you’re thinking about Marie Kondo right now, I want to point you to a great essay on this by Deb Olin Unferth.) I tell my students to seek always to make a mess in their first drafts, because in a mess you can create something. In a mess something can grow. Write a swamp, I say, not a desert.
(Ecologist readers are probably rolling their eyes at my ignorance re desert ecosystems. Fine.)
How does the desire to seek order in chaos lead to despotism? Because if you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to need to point you to a future where that seems possible.
And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicate those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
The only sense to make of chaos is that we’ve always lived among it, and while cosmos literally moves the world, it’s through chaos that the world moves forward.
Where white men have to lead, so I’ve been told, is in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality, when the audience for or members of that conversation includes other white men.
(Immediate clarification: white men do not have to lead women, trans people, or people of color in conversations about racial injustice and gender inequality.)
Used to be I’d’ve thought the opposite, that white men needed to sit back and shut up and, ideally, listen in such conversations. But as a colleague once explained to me, calls for justice and equality sound different to white people’s ears when spoken by other white people.
Her unspoken implication was that white people, by virtue of our history of being underchallenged on these topics, have developed a knack, consciously or otherwise, of being deaf to POC voices. Or of granting those voices low priority. Or, worse, of hearing marginalized people’s own arguments for equality as “black people once again making everything about race.”
In other words, when white guys make something about race, other white guys tend to finally listen to the conversation about race.
Oh, I remember thinking. My discomfort is an effect unbefitting my intention. (I was probably less articulate in the moment.) I wasn’t racist, and I may not in my lack of action have been a vehicle for racism, but nor was I in my lack of action putting an end to racism. When another colleague of color later spelled out the burdens I put on my already-burdened students of color by waiting for them to tell me of their discomfort with any racist goings-on in the classroom (goings-on I may have been ignorant of), whereas what they were looking for was for me to call it out, if anything as the person nominally “in charge” of the classroom, that sealed it.
I did not want to have to lead in topics and conversations where I felt ignorant or unskilled, and so because not leading in those conversations is a form of violence, I had to stop being ignorant and learn some skills.
After a teenager enters into a passionate, devoted BDSM sex relationship with an adult, what remains? What is the aftermath once the teenager is an adult himself? That’s what Rasmussen’s … I’m going to call it an essay (though the publisher calls it a novel) seems committed to evoking. The assumption of course is scars—emotional and in the protagonist Bjørn’s case literal, as one of the things he does is cut lines, shapes, and words into his skin. What I liked about the book was how it always complicated the narrative of abuse, and kept the lines between love, lust, devotion, and subjugation evocatively blurry.
Plus the language is sublime in places:
When the weed kicked in, you waded into the pond. I watched you standing there, the red remains of evening winking in the water that surrounded you from the hips down. The pronounced V of your Apollo’s belt reflected in the surface, ripples caressed your public hair, the insects flitted around you.
You were crying. I’d never seen you cry before. You’ve cried many times since, and with good reasons; my two hands aren’t enough to count the times you’ve been pained to the bone, but at the time: your chest heaved, snot ran from your nose, the sound you made was like a stag maimed by a botched rifle shot. You roared.
This, of course, is a translation from the Danish, so I’m talking less about the words/sounds themselves, and I’m talking much less about the sentiments or emotions behind these words (this, too, isn’t beautiful because it depicts a man crying, or because it depicts devotion and beauty), I’m talking about Rasmussen’s choices of how to build this moment, and where to take the sentences. I’m talking about that roaring stag. Maybe this bit does a better job of capturing his imaginative talents:
Believe nothing of what I say about feelings. I only have the rudiments of anything genuine. And if anything genuine does come along, it always falls to pieces: talk to me about implosion, about atoms. You chase a frog for hours and when finally you get your hands around it, it dies of shock. And if I really get you someday, I won’t want you anymore. I’ll want something else instead. What. Tell me the difference between want and need—I don’t think there is one. What is there then. Capitalism, talk to me about capitalism. No, human nature. Oh, listen: it’s black as night inside my ass; inside my ass, about 6cm up, there’s an erogenous zone equivalent to the clitoris or the head of your dick. Fact. When this point is touched, vibrations go through the spine, the hammer, the stirrup, and listen: the asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand…frogs, mothers, riding instructors, and feelings, they’re the same old story. Suck my plot.
The book is elliptical in this way, usually not my thing, but a friend recommended it after I told of my complaints about the writing in Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, where sex becomes in its slow detailed scrutiny utterly lifeless, and Rasmussen’s talents lie in all the ways he’s able to make sex come alive, all the things he can make of sex. A longer post than I have time for would get at Rasmussen’s and Greenwell’s different handlings of sexual submission, but all I’ll say here is that The Skin is the Elastic Covering… left me with the clearer sense of how submission can fill the self with warmth and strength that doesn’t necessarily lead (only) to a hardened core, a scarred shell.
What makes me most angry as a member of the public is injustice. Maybe growing up the youngest of three got me attuned to it. I have been angry since watching that asshole cop kneel on George Floyd’s neck last week—sometimes low-level angry, sometimes Unable To Do Anything-level angry—as I imagine you have been.
(If you haven’t been angry, let’s talk, because I can’t understand why and I’d sincerely like to.)
I’ve also been frustrated, and numb, and sad, and confused. My anger at the continuous injustice of cops murdering black people has kept clenching, figuratively, my fists, readying for some fight, but I haven’t been sure what kind of fight. Frankly, I don’t know what to do each day. I wake up mad and unsure.
I forget which comedian said, “I’d rather get a laugh than a clap,” but since I first heard this (in an interview? DVD commentary? Seinfeld’s coffeetalk show?) I’ve thought of it as doctrine. Like Go Hard or Go Home: get laughs, not claps. It’s not just that the comedian’s job is to make us laugh (making us think, much less agree, seems auxiliary), it’s that laughs are much harder to win from an audience than claps.
Evidence? TED talks.
Lately I’ve been thinking a generational/zeitgeist shift is going on that’s rendering this doctrine outmoded, like purity as a virtue. Witness two specials I watched tonight: Fortune Feimster’s Sweet & Salty and Todd Glass’s Act Happy.
Sweet & Salty is memoir-shaped. Feimster moves us generally through the years of her childhood up to coming out as gay and getting engaged. The journey is mileposted with small but crucial victories the audience is encouraged to cheer at, more in celebration of Feimster’s becoming—the classic draw of the memoir: I’ve survived, see? Now watch how I did it—than in delight at her jokework.
Feimster’s best at slipping into a girlish pride within a bit, posing and doing a voice that blurs the lines between past self and present self. It’s itself a funny bit of clowning, and it gives her a moment to comically comment on the story she’s telling. Blah blah blah comedians’ talents are hard to convey in writing. The point is that her set takes lots of its shape and approach from Moth-style storytelling. It’s funny testimony. The jokes aid in our laughing at what mattered to her but no longer has the power to capture or define her.
And I mean it was just all claps and shouts and woos, just almost at every punchline break. Personally, it drove me crazy. It drove me up the fucking wall, but knowing it was never Feimster’s fault how her audience was choosing to react to her set, I tried not to let it get to me. When people woo’d it was more than a response, it was an offering. You could feel them giving back the love they either (a) felt they were getting from her, or even (b) felt that she needed to hear.
Every comedy-special audience is generous and forgiving, far from the standard skeptical-if-not-hostile audiences comedians cut their teeth in front of. But this one seemed more attuned to the risky anxiety of getting on a stage and Speaking Your Truth, and they obeyed the idea that such a performance deserves your respect. Their support was like snaps at a poetry slam. When they laughed, that felt auxiliary.
Todd Glass talks in Act Happy about his decision to come out as gay after his heart attack a few years ago. And from the beginning he signals this isn’t going to be the story of triumph and survival we might be expecting from younger comics: “I’m not crazy about the term ‘coming out of the closet’. It seems a little flamboyant for me, personally. You know, ‘busting out of the shed’ would work a little better. I’d feel a little cooler.”
Here’s a bunch of red flags if you’ve got certain notions of how queerness intersects with gender. Glass isn’t presenting in his standup as such a person. He’s not trying to. And indeed, as the bit continues, it fizzles out in whatever promise you might be expecting in a coming out story. Indeed, it verges on old-marrieds-style comedy. (Friends eventually saw that his disagreements with a certain friend betrayed way more emotional investment than you’d expect from straight buds, that’s it.)
It’s funny, but it never gives anybody a moment to clap. (Also, Glass’s comedy is so rapidfire it’s hard even to find time to laugh.) Glass isn’t necessarily proud of himself. He hasn’t survived anything. He’s a guy living his idiosyncratic life and talking about it in front of an audience. This is where his thrives; the best joys in a Todd Glass set are when he talks about this other hyperspecific thing that also bothers him.
(My favorite from Act Happy is people who walk backward on a treadmill.)
So: you think Glass is disinterested from being a claps comic, until the end of his uneven, shaky special, when it comes time for Jokes I Didn’t Get To. A few of these are straightup jokework jokes, but much of it involves truth rants. Preaching. Chiefly about the kind of irritating, unimaginative people who say they’re sick of “P.C.” Almost none of it is funny, it’s just right. Accurate and correct to any thinking human. And he goes out on it, and the audience is left standing and applauding and cheering, with his little side combo band playing “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
It’s not ironic. It’s maybe employing some ironized touches, but it’s not ironic.
The star of this Not So Much Funny As Right moment is Hannah Gadsby, and I feel like everything that can be said about her comedy Hilton Als has already said. Lenny Bruce might be its originator, though what he said wasn’t exactly right as otherwise unspoken in his time by people with microphones. Still, that tells us a lot about how not-so-new this moment is—we have long wanted to pay money to hear people say things we can’t easily hear people say.
What makes standup comedy the best vehicle for this? We laugh when the truth is told to us faster than we’re ready for it. But note that the truths Feimster told (the best thing you can do is support your kids in whoever they are) or Glass told (it’s not being P.C., it’s being kind) weren’t new to anyone in their audiences. These truths weren’t thrown too quickly at the audience, they were given room and time to be aired.
Again: in both specials I watched too-rarely spoken truths get spoken. That this is a result of the post-Daily Show transformation of standup, with comedians as our new Walter Cronkites, feels too easy a gloss. Twitter is chock full of unexpected truth tellers folks’ve put their trust behind. Rarely are they funny, and rarely do they try to be. Too much is on the line to risk a laugh.
What does it mean that folks’re still looking for this in a standup context, where the truth-teller says—or perhaps once, historically said—Don’t take me seriously?