Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jokes Etc.

Jokes are our friends that accompany us through life—at least he good ones are. They made us laugh when we first heard or read them, and they make us smile as we summon them up from our memory. That, at any rate, is my experience at age 92. They come in certain groups according to nationality and such, and though they tend to involve others, they may implicitly affect us as much.

 French jokes. Pierre and Maurice, two entrepreneurs (note the French-derived word), meet on a Paris street. Pierre exudes wealth, whereas Maurice reeks of poverty. M.: How did you make it so rich? P.: I knew that Frenchmen go down on their women and read that their favorite fruit is oranges. So I devised a cream for orange-flavored pussies.” They meet again years later and now Maurice looks rich and Pierre poor. How come? M.: I devised pussy-flavored oranges.”

Again. Pierre and Maurice meet on a Paris Street (it’s an old joke with old names, nowadays it might be Yves and Thierry). Impoverished Pierre asks wealthy-looking Maurice how come? M.: I invented nightingale-tongue pate. P. : How is that possible? Nightingales are so small and their tongues even more so. M.: Well, we mix them with horse. But it’s very equitable, fifty-fifty. One nightingale’s tongue to one horse.”

Romanian jokes. In the Ceausescu dictatorship era, Antonescu meets Joanescu on a Bucharest street. A.: How are you doing in these parlous times? J.: I turned spy for the government. A.: Funny, so did I. And what do you think of the government. J. : Exactly what you do. A.: Sorry to hear that. Now I shall have to turn you in.

Again, An American comes to Bucharest and stays with a Romanian friend. He wants to meet one of the fabled Romanian beauties. R. takes him to a nightclub and the women are indeed great. A.: How do I get one of those? R.: Easy. They are just hundred-Lei whores. [Note currency that sounds like “lay.”] A.: Hell! Take me somewhere with better women. R. does, and here the women are gorgeous. A.: I really want one of those. R.: Simple; They are just three-hundred Lei whores. A.: Christ! Take me to a better place. R, takes him to the best nightclub in Bucharest with fabulous women in haute couture dresses. A.: There, it’s one of those that I want. R.: No problem. They are just five-hundred Lei whores. A: Damn! Are there no respectable women in Bucharest? R.: Of course.  But they will cost you a thousand Lei.

Italian joke. Two business friends are vacationing seaside, and when they return to the hotel restaurant late, all that is left are two fishes, one big and one small. First friend takes the big one. Second friend grouses: “Some people are real swine.” “Why?” asks the first. “What would you have done? “ Answers the second, “I would have taken the small one.” “Then why do you grouse? That’s the one you’ve got.”

Greek jokes I have already quoted the Serbian saying, After shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. Also the true story told by Frank Harris of a high diplomatic meeting in Athens, where a proud Greek was showing off his gold pocket watch. It was making the rounds of the table when it suddenly disappeared. Said the host: “I will extinguish the light, and whoever pocketed the watch as a joke can discreetly return it next to the clock on the mantel.” When the lights went on. No watch, and the clock too was gone.

Scottish joke. Alleged inscription on a public toilet wall: “Here I’m dying brokenhearted,/ Paid a penny, only farted.” Scots are supposed to be miserly, but actually are, I’m told, extremely generous.

Jewish jokes. Abraham and Sara are in their bed, when a robber breaks in and rapes Sara, then leaves. Abraham slaps his wife hard. Sara, plaintively: “But Abraham, I was forced.” Abraham: “It’s not for being raped. It’s for having so clearly enjoyed it.”

Again. Two Jewish immigrants meet on a New York street. Asks one: “Where have you been all this long time?” Answers the other: “I was at home, polishing my English.” Responds the first: “You should have been Englishing your Polish.”

German jokes. A somewhat butch German woman doesn’t have a private bathroom and so uses a public one. How does she avoid being seen in the total nude? “I just wash my top half down as far as possible. Next, I wash my bottom half up as far as possible.” “Yes,” says her interlocutor. “But how do you wash your possible?”

Again. (I have used this one before.) The new maid is told that the dog’s name is Hercules. Says she: “I’ll just call him Kules. I’ll be damned if I’ll call a dog Herr [Mister].”

Hungarian jokes. From the works of F. Karinthy. An admiral is proud of the admirable names of the Navy’s ships. They are called things like the Unsinkable or the Indomitable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but won’t it delight our enemies to have sunk the Unsinkable? So, says the admiral, let’s call them the Unnecessary and the Disposable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but what will it look like on maneuvers in the Mediterranean when all our ships are called things like the Useless and the You Can Have That One? Admiral Well, we’ll install a device that changes the name from Unsinkable to Useless the moment the ship goes under.

A man has seen Garbo in “Anna Karenina” a hundred times. Why? his friend asks. It’s because she is stripping for her suicide by train as she takes off her clothes, and is in her undies as the train arrives. I keep hoping, says the man, that one day the train will be late.

A different type of joke is the epigram. A serious insight tersely expressed would be a maxim. When a maxim is clever, it becomes an aphorism. When an aphorism is truly witty, even outright funny, it is an epigram. Typical aphorisms are Stevenson’s “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” Or Mark Twain’s “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” An aphorism is Wilde’s “A man cannot be too careful in choosing his enemies.” An epigram is this of Wilde’s about Dickens: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Or this: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.” Or again his: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Now here is Dorothy Parker upon the news of the death of taciturn Calvin Coolidge: “How do they know?” Or herewith Sydney Smith on Macaulay: “He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful.” Or this, from a famous French courtesan, la Belle Otero: “God made women beautiful so that men would love them, and he made them stupid so that they could love men.”


I could go on forever, but let me conclude with one of my own modest contributions. The history of art stretches from Anonymous to Untitled--from when only the work mattered to where only the signature does.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Critics and Criticism

“Are critics necessary?” a good many people ask, not a few of them the butts of some kind of criticism. Certainly if dray horses, victims of he whip, could speak, the answer would be No. Even someone who surely knows better, Samuel Beckett, arrogates to himself the fun of making the supreme insult meted out between his contentious tramps be “Crritic,” with a double R, to make it more explosive. But playwrights, directors and actors of stature would surely answer Yes.

I am inclined to aver that every activity needs its critics, from megalomaniacal narcissists bloviating in the White House to exhibitors of knee holes in their blue jeans byway of following a fad. So, too, tennis players and others wearing their caps bakward. There is, to be sure, only fairly innocuous folly in puncturing pants or reversing caps, but for political or artistic or religious twisting of thought or harboring holes in the head there is rather less excuse.

As my readers will recall, I have always inveighed against the bleary journalism practiced by newspaper reviewers, as opposed to the real criticism performed by, well, critics. The former are barely more often right than stopped watches managing it twice a day, or like that bore trying to justify himself to the great and witty French actor Lucien Guitry, by saying “I speak as I think.” “Yes,” agreed Lucien, “but more often.”

One might also designate differences as a matter of taste. Actually, the better reviewers can write fluent paragraphs and titillating sentences, but where exactly lies their taste? Most likely in the pages of Marvel Comics, the source of so much of our stage and screen fare.

Take our current musical theater, two of whose biggest hits are “Come from Away”and “Dear Evan Hansen,” one cheesier than the other. If newspaper criticism were not almost as lamentable as public taste, more people might read it or even believe it. In any case, theater criticism has seen its purveyors decimated, as more and more publications have dumped it, largely replaced by the Internet. On the other hand, in our time of few good shows and no more cheap seats, it is unlikely that theater could survive if it depended on artistic and journalistic quality.

Already some years ago, when The New York Times was desperately seeking a new drama critic, the most serious candidate they interviewed was Robert Brustein, who declared he would take the job if he could dismiss typical trash with just a few sentences. Whereupon he was no longer considered by the Times. The one minority most neglected and most underpaid in America is the intellectual one. Elitist, which rightfully should be a term of praise, is derogatory in the quasi-democratic U.S.A.

It was claimed by some that I modeled myself on my friend Dwight Macdonald, which I didn’t; we merely happened to agree on many things. Certainly with his self-defense when accused of excessive negative criticism: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’’ without hating myself in the morning.” The only point with which I could not concur is the political, because it lies outside my scope. But there was never any question of mentorship or modeling between us. I can recall only one major disagreement: about Fellini’s  “8 ½,” which Dwight exulted in and I did not. In retrospect, he may have been right.

It was likewise claimed by some that I was the critic on whom my friend Wilfrid Sheed  modeled the protagonist of his novel “Max Jamison.” But as he told me, if Max was modeled on anyone, it was on himself. Two incidents only might be based on me. One was when upon my suggestion that Clive Barnes and Brendan Gill should not come to meetings drunk, Gill was barely restrained from fisticuffs with me. The other was when Manny Farber, a member of the National Critics’ Circle, stood up trembling with rage to deliver a lengthy and barely comprehensible philippic against the rest of us for not including film writers from obscure, hardly known publications. I suggested the desirabiiltiy for election to our group of a sanity test. Whereupon Manny stormed out and never showed up again.

Let me adduce an incident from the Tehran Film Festival in the time of the Shah. At a long table sat a number of attractive debutantes intended for whatever assistance a jury member might need. One of the young ladies asked me what I did for a  living. I said I was a film critic. Said she: “And for that you get paid?” Absurd as the question  was, it elicited my response: “Not a whole lot.” And so it is at the more intellectual weeklies and monthlies, to say nothing of the quarterlies.

But to advert to drama criticism, which, aside from some book reviews, is the only kind I still practice, to start with some typical misunderstandings. ln a context of movies, but applicable also to theater, John W. English, writes in his book “Criticizing the Critics”: “High-brow [sic] critics such as John Simon, are often intrigued by witticisms, puns ad cleverly reworked  phrases a form of intellectual gamesmanship. Simon, for example, has flippantly called ‘2000: A Space Odyssey’  a ‘Shaggy God Story.’ It’s a sign he’s not as serious as he might be.” In other words, wit does not belong in criticism, a notion funny enough in its own right. Long-faced prose seems solely admissible.

In Matt Windman’s book of interviews with theater reviewers, “The Critics Say . . . ,” we read this from John Lahr: “Anyone who talks about standards is a fool. There is no agreed-upon standard. A standard is an aesthetic or a taste that has evolved over time. That is all it is.” Agreed, and that is all that is needed. Lahr continues, “John Simon is always going on about his standards. But if you look at the standards he liked and those he didn’t like, you’ll find that his standards tend to overlook major work and praise a lot of terrible shows.”

Now, standards are what you derive from the criticism of major critics from Aristotle on, advocated and agreed upon. To be sure, it depends on whom you consider major, but certainly among those on my list, and surprisingly among some others too, you find a goodly measure of concord. And from that you get the notion of a standard. And if Lahr argues that there are wrong standards (mine), there must also be right ones (his). Which means that standards exist even for him, only they have to be his..

Furthermore, Lahr is wrong about my alleged always going on about standards. I hardly ever mention them, as they are not there to be pontificated about, but to be displayed and reaffirmed in one’s writing. Moreover, Lahr’s “always” implies that he has read me extensively, which I am inclined to doubt. If he had, he might have learned something from me as I have from him.

In that same book edited by Widman, Elisabeth Vincentelli opines: “I am ambivalent about John Simon. He’s such a great stylist and writer, but his meanness is just too much. It was delicious to read, but sometimes it got in the way of his critical acumen, and that kind of spoiled the pleasure of reading him. I didn’t feel like there was any generosity behind it. He often wrote about very real issues that nobody else would touch—the stuff that is very tricky to deal with, but he wrote about it with such a lack of empathy.”

This raises several questions, some of which my quote from Dwight Macdonald answered. Really though, if something is bad, why empathize? You don’t root for it. you try to uproot if. If, however, it is good, your positive review is all the empathy that is called for. Writing about lack of food in some countries, and lack of freedom in others, that is where empathy is appropriate.

The good critic notes details that might escape a lay viewer, as well as pinpointing implications and providing explications for what is not immediately apparent. He or she shows how a work fits into the history of its art form, and how it reflects and comments on its social context. If it is of performing art, he or she evaluates writers, directors and actors. In theater, there is also set, costume, and lighting design; in musicals, choreography, singing, and dancing, both as concept and execution for the critic to address.

But there is something else, too, and it is supreme. We also read a critic for the writing, as we read for their writing practitioners of other art forms: fiction, poetry, essay, drama. This is scarcely less important than the critic’s yea or nay: Kenneth Tynan, with his wit and elegance, his way with words and paragraphs, is vastly preferable to most of his more plodding colleagues, however dedicated--and, if you will, empathetic--they may be. “The critic is a man who knows the way, but cannot drive the car” Tynan has said. As oversimplifications go, not a bad epigram. Among the many writings about criticism, let me direct you to one essay: Oscar Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist.,” exaggerated but witty and brilliant..

If the critic goes beyond information and adjudication, if he or she can add wit to the review or critique, the resultant effect is at least doubled. Even intelligent digression can prove indirectly pertinent. The focus might well be narrow, but the relevance and resonance should be extensive. You might do worse than study “The Great Critics: An Anthology of Literary Criticism,” compiled and edited by James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks.” Criticism should also be comprehensible, which is to say not written by Frenchmen with esoteric theories and befuddling jargon. And it should not present itself as written on Mosaic tablets by the likes of Harold Bloom. Above all, it should not be the voice of a publisher or editor or anybody else but independently his own.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Same Sex

I have sometimes been called (wrongly) a homophobe. But let’s start with the word “homosexual.” The “homo,” per se, has nothing to do with homosexuality. It comes from the Greek “homos,” the same, as it does in homonym, homogeny, homologous and various others involving sameness. So “homosexual,” means same sex practitioner. It can even refer to dogs or other animals having sex with one of their own kind. It does refer to two men or two women having sex with each other. Until fairly recently, this was considered wrong, but not anymore, hence even same sex marriage is by now almost universally, legally practiced. If you doubt it, just ask the Supreme Court.

This opens the question of what is, or is considered, “normal.” Essentially, normal is what a large number of people practice, and is not considered immoral. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or immorality, but only with frequency. If it is ever revealed that a large enough number of people have sex with animals (think D. H. Lawrence’s “St. Mawr” and horses), something called zoophilia will then become normal. To be sure, it appears as of now fairly rare compared to homosexuality, but that could change, if only farm boys would speak up. All that it takes is for the onus to become removed, and a thing becomes okay. Consider bikinis or nude beaches or legalized marijuana.

This is where mea culpa comes in. A very famous critic who used to be my friend and I would amuse ourselves by outing famous persons who were widely considered heterosexual. Uncloseting, to coin a word, seemed piquant. But  closetedness in former days was prudent and excusable, practiced by some highly respectable persons. Think of such people as (in some cases I merely surmise) Leonardo da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Thomas Mann, Ravel, Manuel de Falla, Saint-Saens, Henry de Montherlant, Nikolay Myaskovsky, Michael Tippett, Michael Redgrave. Perhaps also the delightful Mompou. Some were married, like Leonard Bernstein, and (I suspect) my admired Lennox Berkeley. And surely others.

This is comparable to ferreting out clandestine Jews, unavowed for similar reasons.
Despite much progress in this area, anti-Semitism won’t quite go away. To no avail does one say “Some of my best friends are . . .” here fill in blacks, gays, Jews--it proves nothing, and it does not exculpate you. I am reminded of that great French writer Jules Renard noting, “We are all anti-Semites. A few of us have the courage or coquetry not to let it show.” Very cannily put, note even the alliteration on C in French as in English.

For whatever it is worth—not much—I have always had gay friends. One of them was the very clever young Donald Lemkuhl, who called me Nina Simone and disappeared into England (more about that anon) and left me wondering what became of him. He did have the makings of a poet, but not enough discipline. Of course, if you are in the arts, believe it or not even as just a drama critic, you must come into contact with many homosexuals, although you don’t end up believing with Gore Vidal that everyone is really bisexual.

But why are so many in the arts gay? There are numerous explanations much debated, though surely in large part because in the arts there is no homophobia, and there is even gay pride. Homosexuality may, for instance, have something to do with excessive love of your mother leading you to emulation. Example: Kevin Spacey used to show up at events with his mother as his date. Growing up without affection for sports, being of a delicate physique and loving theater—dressing up, role playing on and off the school stage--all these may be inducements. Perhaps even reading too much Oscar Wilde. When I briefly taught at a Southern university, the only library copy of the sole available Wilde biography was heavily annotated by my one flagrantly gay student.

Homosexual friendships, whether or not declared as such, are the stuff of myth and literature. Think only of the story of Damon and Pythias, or Schiller’s famous poem, “Die Buergschaft.” Think also of great unrequited loves, such as A. E. Housman’s unreciprocated adoration of the straight friend Moses Jackson. But there are so many enduring homosexual relationships as Auden’s with Chester Kallman and especially Britten’s with Peter Pears. I recall hearing how shocked the great Scottish string player William Primrose was when staying with Britten and spotting Britten’s and Pears’s slippers side by side under the same bed.

At first glance one may be surprised by how many great all-male affairs take place in England. Think E. M. Forster and Maurice and all those complicated relationships in the Bloomsbury group. England, despite the country’s until fairly recently stiff penalties for homosexual incidents, has been a thriving land of homosexuals. As a lovely American former girlfriend of mine remarked about her affair with an English duke, scratch any Englishman and out comes the homosexual. With the duke—Charlie, as she referred to him—when in bed together, she had to do all the work, his heart was not quite in it.

Why all that homosexuality? I think it is because until recently the sexes grew up separately from each other, there being no coeducation in Britain, so that  schoolboys had to be sexually boys with boys. I must admit though that during my one-year stint at a British public school I saw no direct homosexuality, but that may have been because, as a foreigner, I did not become intimate with anyone.

There is also not infrequently a tendency among homosexuals to feel superior to “straights.” The wonderful German writer, Erich Kaestner, admonishes gays in a poem not to feel proud “just because you do it from behind.” Which reminds me of two prominent members of Hungary’s classical music scene who had long been living together suddenly breaking up. After some years, however, they resumed their relationship. As the Budapest wits would have it, the pair must have said not let’s start from the beginning [in Hungarian, from the front] but let’s start from the back.

Interestingly, though I can recall various other kinds of jokes, I can’t come up with a single homosexual one. Have there not been any? Have I repressed some? Have they been inferior? I don’t know; I do know that the two persons I would most have liked to meet, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, both were gay. Coward I came close to one night backstage at “South Pacific” on Broadway. I had gone back to congratulate an acquaintance who, as standby that night, had splendidly played the lead. There I crossed paths with Coward going to make peace with Mary Martin, with whom he had had a falling out in London at his “Pacific 1860.”

Although I don’t collect autographs, I would have made an exception for Coward, but all I had with me was Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” which I considered a little too suitable. When, much later, I met Bea Lilly and told her about this, she said I should have gone ahead: Noel would gladly sign anything famous as if his own.


Once or twice in my life I have been accosted by homosexuals. Once when teaching in Seattle, while gazing at a store window. “You should have slapped him,” someone later told me. “Not at all,” I answered, “I felt rather flattered.” Quite recently, a well-dressed, middle-aged man on a Metro North train chose to sit opposite me although there were plenty of empty seats all around. After a while, he smiled and laid his hand on my knee. I withdrew my 92-year-old leg, but was too old not to feel a bit flattered.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Names

Names are more significant than one might offhand assume.  I am thinking of first (or given, or Christian names) names, whose bearers may or may not be concerned with, or even aware of, their derivation and meaning.

Take, for instance, a woman named Chloe, which comes from the Greek for a green or tender shoot. Is she even cognizant of the etiology or epistemology involved, and even if she is, I wonder whether she makes anything of it. Whether it influences her personality and, possibly, even her behavior.

To be sure there is little evidence that a woman would think of herself as a green or tender shoot, or if she did, what that would result in. But what if her name was Spring or a man’s first name were Gardner, would that produce joyous effusions or a green thumb?

What complicates matters is that our English names have foreign or obscure derivations, coming from ancient Greek or Latin, Welsh or Scottish, Romance or Teuton, Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaean? Or when they are so commonplace that neither parents nor children would attribute any individual characteristic to them. When there are millions of Peters and Janes around, they become impersonal by their very ubiquity.

In other words, the more widespread a name is, the less it matters where it comes from and what it means. And heaven knows there are fashions in names. Right now there are Ryans and Jennifers in every bush, and minor variations (Kristin, Kirstin, Kirsten etc.) which only seem desperate measures to improve on Christine or Christina. None of them has that hint of originality that might mold a character—say, Maximilian or Isadora.

I cannot help lodging a complaint against Rachael, made current by that obnoxious TV food guru. This is based on a nonsensical analogy with Michael, which comes from the Hebrew “who (is) like a god,“ complete with the “ae.” that makes the “ch” hard. Whereas Rachel, likewise from the Hebrew, but with no “ae” in it, and thus a soft “ch, ”means “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle. (Years ago, there was a short-lived play that featured an eponymous Rachael.) This is what happens when illiteracy takes over, comparable to pronouncing groceries as “grosheries.”

I am not in the position to start a scientific inquiry into whether the imperial name of Maximilian (from Latin, maximus, the greatest, and long a favorite with European royalty and aristocracy) confers nobility on its bearer. but in “Rebecca,” the novel and movie, it seems to do so on its autocratic protagonist.

German, by the way, appears to have more meaningful names. Take Gottfried, for example, which derives from Gott and Frieden, God and peace, and, appropriately, we don’t find it much among the Nazis. The poet Gottfried Benn may have started out truculent, but ended up very much becalmed. The Swiss poet and prose writer Gottfried Keller was certainly much of a bourgeois naturalist, sometimes of a humorous, god-given kind. Better named yet was the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Gotthold meaning attached to God; the Ephraim, from the Hebrew, doubly fruitful. And, of course, Mozart, whose God-loving Amadeus seems applicable enough.

But to get closer to home, what about Aaron? It seems to come from the Hebrew for “(a) light.” The only Aaron I have ever known was the publishing star Aaron Asher, who was indeed a bright light. But would he have been any less so if, for instance, he had been named Claude? It comes from the Latin Claudius, a name very important throughout Roman history and to Robert Graves. It means in Latin lame, and may well have been initially the name of someone lame. The only Claude I have ever known is Claude Fredricks with whom I was good friends for quite a while. He was or is a charming gay guy, extremely learned (the only person I know to peruse a Latin text as airplane reading,) and when I mounted a play of mine at Harvard, he would call people to invite them to it under the assumed name of Dimitri Merezhkovsky, that of a well-known writer. Claude ended up as a beloved prof at Bennington, and the protagonist of a novel by Donna Tartt, but fame made him drop me. Could he have accomplished as much if named Gus?

I do persist in believing that, as the Latin adage “nomen est omen” has it, a name somehow rubs off on its bearer, or should I say wearer? How about my own John, recently aped by the annoying Jon? As Eric Partridge (my favorite lexicographer) puts it in his delightful booklet “Name This Child,” without which this essay could not have been written, “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed  to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all. m[asculine] ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’”

Now I don’t know how gracious God is, or would be if he existed (think Holocaust). but, regretably, I don’t see myself as particularly gracious as a result. What is interesting here, though, is that the names of the three other Evangelists are nowhere near as popular, even if Mark, at any rate, is just as brief and strong. Besides, in many languages John is not all that snappy: Jovan in Serbian, Janos in Hungarian, Janusz in Polish. Giovanni in Italian, Jean in French, and Johannes in German (though usually in abridged forms, Johann or Hans) are all reasonably euphonious. But do they charaterize?

As for me, the only effect I can think of is exercise of my neck muscles, because often in the street behind me someone yells “John!” and I am optimistic or naïve enough to assume it meant for me, which it usually isn’t, and turn my head. But it is true that John sounds good in certain languages, like the Spanish Juan, the Portuguese Joao, Jannis in modern Greek, Jokanaan in Hebrew if the opera “Salome” has it right, and several others.

Spanish aristocrats have the most impressive names, because they come in bunches.
A recent Times obituary for Mary Aline Griffith informs that she became a countess by marrying Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman el Bueno, Conte de Quintanilla (and later) Romanones. Which reminds me of a true story.

A Hungarian fencing team once came to Madrid to fight a Spanish one. At a reception, they were to get to know one another. A Spanish caballero introduced  himself to a Hungarian with his full complement of a dozen names. The Hungarian was ashamed of having a measly single last name. Not to be outdone, however, he appended in his introduction to the next fellow every Hungarian swearword and obscene insult he could think of by way of self-presentation. “Delighted to meet you” responded the man in perfect Hungarian, “I am the Hungarian ambassador to Spain.”

Spaniards, by the way, are not the only ones with such elaborate nomenclature. Consider the recent Times obituary for a distinguished French writer, academician and aristocrat, Jean d’Ormesson. His full name was Jean Bruno Wladimir Francois de Paule LeFevre d’Ormesson. There is method to it. His diplomat father wanted him to appeal to various nations. Bruno, a name popular In Germany, was a bow to that nation. Wladimir (note the un-French W) was to appeal to several Slavonic nations.
 Francois de Paule is the French version of the name of an Italian saint. Le Fevre, sometimes spelled Le Febvre, was the name of several illustrious Frenchmen, one of them a victorious Marshal of France. Since d’Ormesson  pere was posted to Bavaria, Romania and Brazil, it is surprising that the son had not also Romanian and Portuguese names bequeathed on him.

Names are a fascinating thing. My father, a good Yugoslav, observed that I had only one given name, whereas Americans often had more, so he decided to provide me with the middle name Ivan. This is a tautology, being the Croatian form of the Serbian Jovan, and indeed, my savvy friend Dona Vaughn calls me, as if I were a Kennedy, John John. A favorite chemistry teacher of mine at Horace Mann School uniquely called me Jack, on the basis of which I could have been, like Rousseau, Jean Jacques, or John James.

But what about Simon? Partridge says, “Simeon, Hebrew for obedient, hearkening. Already in the first century A.D. Simeon had been confused with Simon. In Greek, Simon is ‘the snub-nose.’ But as a New Testament name it seems to have been a mere Grecism for Simeon. Diminutive: Si.” Well, I am neither snub-nosed nor particularly obedient, and, thank heaven, no one has ever called me Si.

So I am John Simon, which once earned me a packet of letters intended for John Simon Guggenheim, and I forwarded to that Foundation. It did not earn me so much as a thank you, let alone a grant. But for many years, Yoko Ono generously sponsored my website with a monthly $500, which just now stopped. I wonder whether you blog readers could help support the site with a monthly $50? Yet do I even have ten regulars?







Saturday, December 9, 2017

Onomatopoeia

There is a salient aspect of language that I haven’t handled hitherto--not alliteration, as in these consecutive h-words, but onomatopoeia, Greek for name-making. What it really means is what occurs when a word’s sound echoes or represents the thing that it denotes. I recur to the examples given by J. H. Cuddon in his excellent “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” from Penguin Books, which I strongly recommend to one and all. In it, he offers examples of onomatopoeia that I intend to look closely at. They are: “dong, crackle, moo, pop, whizz, whoosh, zoom,” all well chosen.

Somewhat puzzling is the first one, “dong,” perhaps even embarrassing at first sight. My Heritage Dictionary gives as its first, nononomatopoeic definition, a Vietnamese currency. Pretty obscure, that; but not so the second definition, “a penis, vulgar slang. (Origin obscure.)” The Random House Dictionary, on the other hand (pun not intended), lists also “the deep sound like that of a large bell. (Origin unknown.)” This latter definition, curiously, does not appear in the Heritage. The reason, I would guess, being that in overwhelmingly most cases it is not the intended one. In more recent versions of the OED (the important Oxford English Dictionary), it is part of “ding-dong,” as the imputed alternating sound of a ringing bell..

In “Alice in Wonderland” we get also a person’s nose “with a luminous dong,” and in Australia, a dong may signify a heavy blow. The newer OED also cites Philip Roth’s Portnoy handling his dong. In the penis sense, to be sure, there is no immediate onomatopoeia, so let us stick with the bell sound.

Cuddon next cites “crackle.” This the Heritage defines as making “a succession of short snapping noises as of a fire in a wood stove.” Or, in the verb version, “to show liveliness, energy or intensity as in a book that crackles with good humor.” The first example is clearly auditory, the second more figurative. Either way, a sound or potential sound is implied.

Next comes “moo,” the sound of a cow, which various languages describe thus or in  some similar way. So the verb in French is transformed into the more melodious “mugir.” In German, we get the verb “muhen,” and the noun “Muh.” The M needed to clinch the onomatopoeia, is perhaps a trifle arbitrary.

Next comes “pop,” for which the dictionaries give a number of definitions, some of them visual but enough of them auditory, for a sudden snappy noise. Notable among the many definitions is the one for a male orgasm elicited manually. This so-called “hand job” I had experienced from a Bennington girl specializing in the operation to avoid total commitment, and not generally auditory. (Vide also Bill and Monica.) The sound is largely associated with the uncorking of champagne bottles.

Cubbon’s next is “whizz” or “whiz.” This is defined as “making a whirring or hissing sound” with the descriptive adjectives themselves onomatopoeic. It is often defined as the sound of an object speeding through the air, or, nonauditorily, as any quick movement by a person. Related is the “whizz-bang,” suggestive of the rustling of a fuse leading to an explosion. Notable, too, is the meaning, not always auditory, of something conspicuously effective, successful, or skilled, as, for instance, a good speech, with the onomatopoeia only remotely applicable.

“Whoosh,” next, is defined as “a sibilant sound,” like the whoosh of a high-speed elevator. It is also an onomatopoeia for the darker sound of some liquid violently tossed from a bottle, perhaps at a hostile person’s face.  The “oo” sound is also used for wind, as in the title of “Gone With the Wind,” in translations usually grabbing the U diphthongized as “ui,” thus the Hungarian “Elfujta a szel” (I lack the needed acute accent), or the Serbian “Prohujalo kao vihor.” Oddly enough, the English title has no U in it. which can come either as an “oo” in “room”, or in a diphthong like the English “you,”  or “oui, ” like the French for yes.

“Zoom,” serves similar purposes as whoosh, but it is grander, perhaps referring to an astronomical movement of comets or meteors. It is less likely to denote sound then, alhough it does so, a bit lower, for the buzz of a plane overhead.

So much for Coddon’s examples. But what for other onomatopoeias? How about the song, or the very name of, the nightingale? That name, in English, is not onomatopoeic, merely visual as in “night,” when the nightingale sings, to be replaced by the morning lark. (See “Romeo  and Juliet,” in the bedroom scene.) No word this for onomatopoeia. More so in German, as “Nachtigall,” with the two A’s suggesting a staccato in the song. Hence also the German name for these birds’ singing, “schlagen,” i.e., to beat (a s in Heine’s famous poem), for, to be sure, a rather delicate kind of hammering. But does onomatopoeia lurk in these avians’ very names?

Not much in the unaccented U of the Serbian “slavuj,” But quite a bit in Hungarian, where the bird has two names, the poetic “cselegeny,” with the rising, accented E in the third syllable, and more so in the common name, “fulemule,” with  a treble-making diacritic mark on both U’s, and the internal rhyming repetition making it more avian. This is curiously like the modern Persian or Turkish nightingale, “bulbul,” again with the treble-inducing diacritic mark (or umlaut) on both U’s, and again with the duplication in the name, probably to indicate an aural onomatopoeic flow. But what about “cselegeny”? Here the open E’s of the first two syllables have the same duplicating effect, perhaps all these devices conveying a lyrical, onomatopoeic continuity.

There is, incidentally, a kind of onomatopoeia even in the French term “rossignol,” maybe as a derivative from the Spanish “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the N. The “senor” part confers seigneurial nobility on the bird, while the “rui” may well be a corruption of “rey,” which confers actual avian royalty—all very euphonious as well.

So much from me. But the reader is encouraged to come up with his or her own onomatopoeias. That brings me to the point of this essay: the onomatopoeic musicality of the language the reader may seek out in his or her own verse. For, let’s face it, many people, clandestinely or not, write verse, a charming trait, regardless of whether transparent. Onomatopoeia makes for euphony.


Here then is a spur toward, or a desirable delight in, onomatopoeia--all for your participatory enjoyment or actual active exploration.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Languages



Be prepared for vehement disagreement with what follows, but mind that I am not proposing it as a binding universal truth, only as my own certainly arguable private views. What I am asserting, skewed or not, is a sense of the beauty or lack thereof of certain languages, with a considerable middle ground between extremes that I would call the in-betweens.

I am thinking of so-called Western. i.e., European and American languages, for no better reason than acquaintance with them, thus excluding Asian and African languages about which I know nothing. So let me designate Italian, French, and educated British as beautiful, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, Yiddish and Swiss German as unattractive, positing the presence or absence of melody in them as the determining factor.

So lets start with Italian as spoken in Italy, not Brooklyn. Not for nothing are there Italian composers, musicians, opera lovers in superabundance. Clearly a two-way relationship between music and language exists, whichever you consider the chicken and which the egg. I am asking you not to be swayed by dialects or the speech of the uneducated, whom I don’t consider inferior morally or mentally, only wanting aesthetically. But independently from what they mean, I aurally prefer “fa in culo” to “fangul.” Note that I am not thinking Dante, except where it may coincide with the speech of ordinary middle-class people as apprehended by an unprejudiced ear.

To be sure, there may be disagreement as to what is melody, or at least speech melody, but not so much about what is pleasurable. Consider the well-known story, true albeit attributed to different protagonists, whereby a foreigner being transported by truck to a concentration camp, recited some of ‘The Divine Comedy” in such exquisite Italian as to be released by his enchanted Fascist captors.

The basic musicality of a language depends on its presence in everyday speech, much as the melodiousness affects someone listening to music  (please, no rap or hip-hop) and being spellbound by Verdi or Puccini even if unable to read music or recognize a sung high C. This presumes neutrality in the listener and absence of any particular agenda from his or her upbringing in a family awash in music of a particular kind. But to anyone hearing, say, the last line of ‘The Divine Comedy, “ which runs “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” and is not that different from everyday educated Italian, melody ought to be apparent.

It has to do with the large number of vowels of every kind, and also with the frequency of flowing disyllables, whereas in the English translation, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars,” you get heavily accented monosyllables comparable at best to a drumbeat. Even “vietato fumare, “ for “no smoking,” is more melodious, to say nothing of “ti voglio bene,” for “I love you.” And so on, for even the music of ordinary conversational prose.

Now for no lesser melodiousness, though of a different kind, in French. There is a sort of fascinating singsong built into the language that all educated, and even many uneducated, speakers somehow spontaneously fall into. Some of it has to do with nasalization of the an, on. un, in, en variety; some of it with all those endings in mute e’s; some of it with diphthongs in oi or ie, e.g., moi or oie (goose), and hier or pied. Note the diverse e’s, as in ete (I can’t do accents), a kind of soprano, mezzo as in geste, and contralto, as in etre--the latter two with also the mute e ending. But even the mute e is often not really mute, as it follows the preceding consonant in, say, je.

Take a sentence like “Moi, j’ai toujours ete tres fier et meme entete,” and you have a whole gallery of various e’s making music. Then the pretty eu sound as doubled in
 heureux or as diphthong in lieu; and the echoing ou of toujours. Further, the high u, in words like nue, or diphtongized as in pluie. Again, the rhyming repetition of nasals in enfant or the progressively lightening sequence o, i, i in colibri. And bear in mind that such effects come at you full throat in clusters, not just in fortuitously fortunate isolation. Or consider the sequence of vowels in the title of a ballet by Jacques Ibert: “Les Amours de Jupiter,” with even a rhyme on Ibert-Jupiter.

All this does have a lot to do with who is speaking, because the most beautiful languages benefit from a well-spoken exponent. This is where France has produced some exquisite speakers, either from the Academie Francaise, or from the theater (somewhat fewer from the cinema). Gerard Philipe comes to mind, and Louis Jouvet, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Desailly-- even in his exaggerated way, Sacha Guitry. Also Marcel Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Dux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Marais. I remember the fabulous Iago at the Comedie of Aime Clariond, prematurely deceased like Philipe.. And then the women: Edwige Feuillere.  Maria Casares. Micheline Presle, Renee Faure, Arletty. Berthe Bovy, Germaine Dervoz, Gabriele Dorziat, Valentine Tessier. Danielle Darrieux. and perhaps also Marie Bell and Gaby Morlay. Even merely reciting their names proves melodious.

But melodious too are even the most commonplace utterances casually uttered, take “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” This with the sequence of three ous, interlarded by the three e’s, albeit one differently voiced in “avec.” Or compare the prosaic English “Pull he handle only in case of danger” with “Tirer la manivelle seulement en cas de danger,” where I leave it to you to parse the sundry beauties.

All of which brings me to my third melodiousness, well-spoken British English. I recall, quoted from memory, Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “America and Britain, two countries separated by the same language.” Let’s face it: American English has no discernible melody, whereas upper-class or theatrical British English very much does. Just listen to a recording featuring such actors as, for instance, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave. Or women, such as Judi Dench, Celia Johnson, Edith Evans. Sybil.Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Bown.
And still others I can’t think of at the moment.
The extreme form of the British accent, a sort of flute melody rollercoasting up and down,the scales is that of Oxford dons sand some students, called Oxonian. It was most imperiously (or imperially) exhibited by Professor Garrod, and required utmost concentration to comprehend. (Isaiah Berlin also had it.)  I experienced it in a milder form from Professor (later Sir) Maurice Bowra, when he was guest lecturer at Harvard.

He seemed to like me, because he chatted with me in his office. I recall his having experienced Kenneth Burke, and not having understood him (although that may have been less a matter of an American accent than of certain weird neologisms invented by Burke), asked me to provide interpretations. I mostly couldn’t. This is a good, though perhaps extreme, example of how some accents may become problematic.

We come now to what I call the in-between languages, not quite ugly but not quite beautiful. There is, for example, Spanish, where I fund the purest, i.e., Castilian, most accessible, although still not without a certain harshness. The most interesting are the Scandinavian ones, notably Danish, which, though not lovely, have a certain likable droll quality, what with profuse glottal stops and other idiosyncrasies.

I myself first learned as a toddler German, because that was the language of my beloved nanny, Mia, who came from Austro-Hungarian Bielitz, which is now, Bialistok in Poland, as well as in the Broadway musical, “The Producers.” Those speakers are largely Jewish, and subjects of numerous anecdotes, some jovial, some hostile.

I soon added Hungarian, which we spoke at home, my father being Hungarian but, as we lived in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, a nationalized Yugoslav. My mother came from a Yugoslav minority of Hungarians, and never even learned proper Serbo-Croat, later Serbian, which was the language of that capital where we ended up. It is from that dominant Serbia that, first Slovenia (whence Mrs. Trump), and later Croatia, seceded.

So my next language, which I picked up in the streets, was Serbian, as I preferred to call Serbo-Croat, which was ever so slightly different in Croatian Raciat. So already trilingual, I proceeded to French, the language of most of the intelligentsia. This I learned in private lessons from a charming lady French teacher, the popular Marcelle Raciat. At 13, I was starting English lessons from an Englishman who may well have been a spy, and who regaled me with stories of his female conquests. Then I was sent to public school in Cambridge, England, about which I have already written.

My great regret is that I never properly learned Italian, except from what I picked up in treasured Italian movies, and much, much later from frequent Roman visits to Lina Wertmuller, whose American champion I became. It was her reception on American screens that finally led to Italian critics granting her the well-deserved acclaim they previously withheld for specious reasons.

What I would like to convey is that multilingualism is a wonderful thing, not only because the polyglots get to enjoy and learn from so many more people, but also because certain differences and similarities teach them greater command of the native language. Thus, perhaps, it is that I have no difficulties with “lie” and “lay,” which, largely with the collusion of TV and social media devastates the speech of so many native speakers knowing and using only “lay.”

Or take my avoidance of such pleonasms as “old crone,” or tautologies like “cannot help but,” redundant for either “cannot help” plus a participle, or “cannot but” plus an infinitive. It may also account for proper pronunciation, such as EXquisite rather than exQUIsite, which one hears all over the place and is gaining acceptance from dictionaries. I can see no good reason for it, except that lazy speakers prefer medial accents, easier to handle than initial ones followed by more than one unaccented trailing syllable..

I suppose that in the end the purist or traditionalist cannot win, but I think there is a certain glory in fighting even a losing battle for what one believes to be right. Which brings me to my conclusion: German.

German is basically an in-between language. In its vulgar, Southern form, known as Plattdeutsch, it is downright ugly. But in its well-spoken Northern form, known as Hochdeutsch, it can be very lovely indeed. Consider a fine actor reading out loud a poem by Goethe. Rilke, or Stefan George (or many others), and you can have a musical feast. When I assisted  Archibald MacLeish in a Harvard poetry course, he asked me to recite a Rilke poem to his large class. I did, and was well received. Later MacLeish summoned me to his office and I wondered what did I do wrong this time?  Well, he merely wanted to know the name of the beautiful Radcliffe girl who came just to hear me. It was Christine Bosshard , and though she was impressed, I never even got to first base with her—and neither, I imagine, would have Archie.

I conclude with a favorite passage from Rilke that I may have quoted before, but that can bear repeating. The scene is a riverside afternoon in a Grande Jatte or Sunday in the Park With George setting, with the poet and his mistress present.

Befriedigungen ungezaelter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut.
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Hear this and feel it, and its music and meaning may well leave you with tears in your eyes.


Monday, November 6, 2017

MYTHS

Some stories are, or ought to be, mythic. I may have already adduced them before and will try not to repeat myself, though these days my memory Is far from reliable. Now does it much matter whether some toothsome anecdotes are factual or merely fictional, when either kind manages to turn mythical? By which I mean an existential road sign.

Take the one about Washington and the cherry tree. Though clearly fictitious, it served, and continues to serve, as a useful moral exemplar to our schoolchildren. Similarly, some popular fairytales have attained mythic status. Take the one about the boy who kept falsely crying wolf when there wasn’t one, and what happened when finally there was. “Myth” comes from the Greek muthos, and you may check out its various meanings in your dictionary if, as I hope, you own one.

Many myths, like the ancient Greek ones, served to explain natural phenomena before there were scientific explanations. The Greeks were expert mythmakers, who, I regret to say, were also expert fabricators of quasi-truths, i.e., also liars, and,   related to that, thieves. A Serbian adage has it, after shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. That is, of course, a myth.  True, however, is that my father, waiting for a train on a Greek railway platform, had his attaché case close to his feet.. For a few seconds, he looked away whether the train was coming, which proved sufficient for the case to be stolen. To be sure, something only barely less dramatic happened to me at Penn Station.

Now I have always assumed the veracity of the story about Napoleon and his invading army stopping off at an Italian monastery, and his warning the doorkeeper monk with his awareness that all monks were liars. Said the monk, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” Wit as a mythic power to stand up to inimical authority.

But to get back to the Greeks. Frank Harris tells in his memoirs about an important political dinner at which a proud owner, to display his splendid watch, had it circulate around the table. Unhappily, it did not come back full circle. The embarrassed host announced that he would turn off the light and let the perpetrator deposit the watch unnoticed next to a clock on the mantel. When the light came on, the watch was still missing and so was the clock.

A true story this, though one that did not achieve mythic status. But remember Oscar Wilde’s upending Alexander Pope’s “An honest man’s the noblest work of God” into “An honest God’s the noblest work of man,” and then consider that the Greek and corresponding Roman lots were a pretty hedonistic bunch.. And not only hedonistic but also cynical and a good deal more fun than the Judeo-Christian God. Why, they even had a rogue god, Hermes, of whom we read that he was the patron of merchants and thieves, a mythical paradox.
                                                                                                                                                                 But are there no more polytheist gods today, no more models, for instance, for human erotic behavior; gods moreover like the Greek ones who cheerfully meddled in human affairs—as in the Iliad Athena for the Greeks and the less helpful Aphrodite for the Trojans-- not to mention Zeus’s carryings on with human women and the like. All of it more engaging than the God of Abraham and Isaac with his shenanigans (speaking out of bushes, if you please), including those tablets with ten mostly draconian commandments, which to follow would make you a very self-righteous, boring character. Significantly, there are plenty of books on Greek myths, but, for good reason, few if any on Hebrew ones.

What are some of the non-Greco-Roman myths that have bedeviled human behavior since? The gold of El Dorado for one, whose reckless, destructive seekers were far worse than the mere adherents of Mammon, who did not believe in streets paved in gold, and were not ready to die in a bootless search.

Geography, or rather pseudo-geography, proved a costly myth for the deluded  believers in the Northwest Passage, or even for many of the California Dreamers. There are, however, more recent, hardly less stultifying myths, such as the still prevalent one of Hollywood, both real and unreal, going also by the names Tinseltown and La La Land, as in the recent abominable movie. Misleading even the venerable Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science, which wields a greater power than the worthy French Academy, merely adjudging language and literature.

Think of Cocteau’s epigram “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo.” Wonderful mockery of mythic self-inflation. Or think of the Messiah, whom multitudes of the religious await with mythic endurance. Think also of the perennial American myth that anyone can become President, which had the disastrous result of for once becoming  true. Think also of what ought to become a myth, Anatole France’s story about the unhappy potentate told to become happy by donning a happy man’s shirt. and vainly finding among the one percent nothing but dissatisfaction and unhappiness. After a prolonged, fruitless search, he finally found a happy man, a cheerful shepherd with his herd, whom the servants of the seeker dragged before him, but who, as it turned out, did not own a shirt.

And then there is the myth of the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy (the Greeks again), but who caused nothing but trouble for herself and others. Today we have Angelina Jolie, who may be beautiful enough for a myth, but who is also trouble enough, even without causing a ten-year Trojan war. Myths, in other words, don’t come cheap.

Our supreme myth remains that of Paradise Lost, which elicited from John Milton one of the most grandiose poems in the English, or any, language. (I rather prefer George Meredith’s wonderful and very much shorter poem “Lucifer at Midnight.”)
We gather that the supposedly foolish couple of Adam and Eve forfeited eternal blissful, naked, prelapsarian frolicking in God’s pleasure garden, and were condemned to  mortal sojourn on a not all that hospitable earth.

All that for tasting that fateful, Satan-promulgated apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why should such knowledge have been so illicit, so punishable? Or was it simply the best tree in the Garden that God was reserving for his own snacks? Or was it that God on principle wanted to keep humans on a lower cognitive rung, less competition for himself?

So was that catastrophic Fall from Grace merely a consequence of insubordination, a matter not of grasping special knowledge but of a greater power keeping a lesser one in an inferior position? Instead of a poetic apple to pluck, could it have just as well been a pedestrian potato to dig up? 

There it is then, the myth of Paradise Lost made more mundane than heavenly, almost laughable, on the assumption that a myth is as good as a smile. Conclusion:
Some myths are good, or at least defensible; others are dour and dislikable. Like so much else.