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The Solid Nonpareil
Posted on Dec 20, 2013
By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch
Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee—“They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief”—and I’m reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of 13, with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.
In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational, the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity—white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape.
More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief’s funeral. The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and 11, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech.
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Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked down as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River.
In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table—not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn’t belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s.
A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program—able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul —I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera, but I didn’t recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the 98th percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.
Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examiner to report on the event, I didn’t make it past the coatracks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn’t taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes.
Chicolini Really Is an Idiot
Laughter follows from the misalignment of a reality and a virtual reality, and the getting of the joke is the recognition of which is which. The notions of what is true or beautiful or proper held sacred by the other people in the caucus or the clubhouse set up the punch line—the sight of something where it’s not supposed to be, the story going where it’s not supposed to go, Groucho Marx saying, “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
Groucho’s appeal is to the faculty named by Bergson as “intelligence, pure and simple,” and I laugh out loud for the reason given by Arthur Schopenhauer: “simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real object.”
Being in or out of the loop is not only a question of separations in space and time, it is also a matter of the distance between different sets or turns of mind. Sudden and happy perceptions of incongruity are not hard to come by in a society that worships its machines, regards the sales pitch and the self-promotion as its noblest forms of literary art. What Twain understood to be the world’s colossal humbug enjoys a high standing among people who define the worth of a thing as the price of a thing and therefore make of money, in and of itself a colossal humbug, the true and proper name for God.
“There are,” said Twain, “certain sweet-smelling, sugarcoated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate… We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express, and another one—the one we use—which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.”
It is the Mrs. Grundy of the opinion polls from whom President Barack Obama begs the favor of a sunny smile, to whom the poets who write the nation’s advertising copy sing their songs of love, for whom the Aspen Institute sponsors summer and winter festivals of think-tank discussion to reawaken the American spirit and redecorate the front parlor of the American soul.
The exchanges of platitude at the higher altitudes of moral and social pretension Twain celebrated as festive occasions on which “taffy is being pulled.” Some of the best of it gets pulled at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York when it is being explained to a quorum of the monied elite (contented bankers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers) that American foreign policy, rightly understood, is a work of Christian charity and an expression of man’s goodwill to man.
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