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GP 8 August 2007: Did Camus Ever Giggle?

UStore.  We were always charmed by Leonard, a fellow with infinite interests and a manner so magnetically enchanting that he could just about sell anything to anyone.  He revealed to us, for instance, that geese tenderly weed strawberries, the fruit not to their taste, so that they provide a twofer, putting food on our plates both in summer (strawberries) and in the Fall (roasted goose), perhaps at Thanksgiving.  We’ve wanted a gaggle ever since.

Once he went into Princeton University’s bookstore in search of Albert Camus’s The Stranger.  Happening upon a faculty wife with manicured hair and short fingernails who was working there, he asked if she could locate the works of ‘that fellow K-Mus’ (pronounced like Don Imus) for him.  She said, “Oh, you mean Cahmoo?”  And he looked quizzically at her, asking, “Oh, is that how you prefer to say it?”  And she, “Oh, should I be saying K-Mus?”  Leonard simply had a line nobody could resist.

Princeton, even with its big endowment, is the lightweight of the Ivy’s Big 3—Princeton, Harvard, and Yale.  But that has its virtues.  The town is simply more charming, more smalltown Ivy, than Cambridge or New Haven.  Curiously, the school has done interesting things in the sciences—astrophysics, mathematics, etc.  From there comes the ever vigorous Princeton Elm, which has withstood the Dutch Elm disease, and now is being planted across America.  The students are more preppie, use words like “top drawer,” and belong to “eating clubs” instead of fraternities.  Its bored professors toss off oblique books such as Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Getting tenure requires a lot of bullshit.  As we remember, Carlos Baker, a professor there, turned out a novel in which a visitor found only one thing in the refrigerator—a manuscript—that obviously had not quite jelled.  Princeton adds levity to the mix.

Philosopher of the Absurd. Camus, in his day, came to be known as ‘the philosopher of the absurd,’ a handle he did not appreciate, especially later in his career when he divorced himself from Sartre, the existentialists, etc.  Interesting to us is that early on he did his thesis on Plotinus, a Neo-Platonist.  Suffice it to say that NeoPlatonic philosophy really was a mishmash of this and that, with some mysticism thrown in—which is what happens to philosophy when it reaches the end of the trail.  Things are much the same today, with all sorts of stuff masquerading as philosophy.  This philosophical chaos and confusion is enough to arouse feelings of absurdity in many breasts.  Somebody will call our age NeoPlatonia II.

For Camus it meant that the universe did seem very absurd, perhaps senseless, but that man had both a duty and the capacity to add some meaning to the equation in defiance of senselessness.  The trouble with this kind of absurdity is that it definitely does not lead to a 1,000 laughs and has no connection whatsoever with the spirit of comedy.  Isn’t it a hoot that this merchant of the absurd should live in such a bleak house?  We would imagine that Oscar Wilde would reject any version of ‘absurdity’ that was so damn serious.  Even if one halfway agrees with Camus, who wants to hang out with a guy who takes abstract art to be “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered?”  Snooty guy.

SeriousSerious is a disease of the spirit that’s going around now, and it’s to be dreaded as much AIDS or bird flu.  Our comics have caught this infection bigtime.  We think that Canada has produced a disproportionate amount of good comedians, as we hinted in “Canada’s Shrinkwrap Comedians,” but it should be noted that they and English-speaking Canadians in general are an inordinately serious people.  Years ago, over dinner, we learned that the hilarious Ed Wynn wanted to be taken seriously, as he privately ranted on about the cares of the world.  Should you purchase the 12 outrageously funny episodes of Fawlty Towers, you will fall off your stool watching them, if you first don’t go to sleep listening to the dreary, posturing remarks of an older Cleese that are patched on to the tapes.  Serious, as we have said, is all about us, much of it brought on by the senselessness of our age and by the drop-til-dead-overworked lives now characteristic of people in developed countries that we discussed in “How to Vacation.”

Looking for Gods in All the Wrong Places.  As in the NeoPlatonic Period of the 3d century, erratic piety and a search for false gods spring up easily, not without humor.  In the movie Forrest Gump, we hear Lieutenant Dan ask, “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?”  A bewildered Gump replies, “I didn't know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

At the Peace Conference ending World War I, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, asked how he made out in the negotiations, piped up, “Not badly, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon” (Wilson and Clemenceau).

Wilson did seem to feel he was a godly messenger.  Troublesome times make some feel the world is meaningless; others look for the hand of the gods in human affairs, even when the gods have decided to sit things out.

Tears and Laughter.  TV and nightclubs and the Internet breed a very peculiar form of humor these days.  We laugh and snicker, often at length, but know what we are seeing is not quite funny.  We are seeing and hearing things that don’t make us feel wonderful about mankind, but that, instead, try to tell us all of mankind is in the same dreadful fix,  every soul driving around with one hand tied behind the back.  Bittersweet humor of this sort immobilizes the limbs even more than the 95 degree temperatures that have assaulted us lately.

In this vein, the immensely talented Chelsea Handler comes to mind.  Born in the mid-seventies, hailing from the very beleaguered state of New Jersey, “she was raised as a  Reform Jew by her Mormon mother and Jewish father.”  She says, probably only half in jest, “I went out with a guy who once told me I didn’t need to drink to make myself more fun to be around.  I told him, ‘I’m drinking so that you’re more fun to be around.’”  Probably today she is the fastest lip on television, but her talent is used to celebrate a dysfunctional, confused society.

Biden His Time.  Most of the handicappers of the presidential sweepstakes pretty much agree that both parties have fielded a dreary bunch of candidates, none of whom Chelsea would be willing to date.  On August 1, the Associated Press proclaimed that there was “No front-runner so far in laughs contest.”  But we’re happy to report they’re wrong:  there’s a sleeper in the contest.  Biden is funny.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, whom nobody is watching and who is thought to have no chance, is the least fuzzy candidate of either party—and entertaining to boot.  This is strange, because he has always been given to pontificating.  Since he is bringing up the rear, we figure he figures he has nothing to lose with straight talk and a bushel of wit.  In this regard, we would refer you to his lunchtime talk to the National Press Club on August 1, 2007.  He was pretty clear about a number of policy matters.  With his mother in the audience, he also brought real humor to the task of recounting how he grew up.

When a youngster, he wanted to go to a school dance in the worst way.  He had to wear his father’s dress shirt, which was a bit big for him.  Cufflinks were nowhere to be found.  His Irish mother went down to the basement, opened the toolbox, and got some nuts and bolts.  Coming back up, she fastened his cuffs together.  He protested that he was not going: it would be too embarrassing.  She screwed up her face and said, “Joey.  Joey.  If anybody makes a comment, you just say—don’t you have a pair?”

At the dance, near the punchbowl, one of the school bullies came up to him, held up his hand, and mocked the makeshift cufflinks.  Biden shot back, “Don’t you have a pair of these?”  The bully stammered, then said, “Yah, Yah, I have some.”  Of course, it should be noted that both Senator Biden and Senator Obama have crept onto the nation’s best-dressed lists.  Biden has had a lot of very hard knocks along the way, but he has had enough comic sense in his system to get past them.  It’s a relief to hear some nuts-and-bolts humor.

The Comic Rhythm.  Comedy is the celebration of living, and vitality, of overcoming obstacles.  In her book Feeling and Form, the highly influential philosopher and critic Suzanne Langer got it just right in her chapter on the “comic rhythm”:

Comedy is an art form that arises naturally wherever people are gathered to celebrate life, in spring festivals, triumphs, birthdays, weddings, or initiations.  For it expresses the elementary strains and resolutions of animate nature, the animal drives that persist even in human nature, the delight man takes in his special mental gifts that make him the lord of creation; it is an image of human vitality holding its own in the world amid the surprises of unplanned coincidence.  The most obvious occasions for the performance of comedies are thanks or challenges to fortune.  What justifies the term “Comedy” is not that the ancient ritual procession, the Comus, honoring the god of that name, was the source of this great art form‹for comedy has arisen in many parts of the world, where the Greek god with his particular worship was unknown—but that the Comus was a fertility rite, and the god it celebrated a fertility god, a symbol of perpetual rebirth, eternal life.

Comedy does not reconcile us to our predicament: it predicts, fosters, encourages our rebirth, renaissance, recreation.  It reveals divine purpose.  It is a triumph of humanity over chaos.

Waking Ned Devine.  To see what we and Ms. Langer mean and to have a good time besides, take a peek at the movie Waking Ned Devine. In this an Irishman who has gone to meet his maker manages to bring a bushel of happiness to all the villagers with whom he abided for so many years.  In other words, the village, in a very fulsome way, will go on with the dance of life.  With Ned, we can laugh at death itself.

P.S.  We are just now laying our hands on a proper vermouth for our martinis.  Winston Churchill did not have much use for the stuff, and it is said that a “Churchill Martini” had no vermouth.  When French vermouth became scarce during the Second World War, he would simply bow across the channel, in the direction of France, when he was mixing his drink.

P.P.S.  There seem to be countless studies that claim people of good humor live longer and enjoy better health.  In this vein, read Dr. Trisha McNair, who seems to be a good humored lass and who prescribes humor.  We have not asked her about her health.  We wonder what econometrics genius will write the book about the costs of bad humor.  Of course, Robert Burton may have said it all in 1621 in his very comprehensive Anatomy of Melancholy.

P.P.P.S.  Most of the jokes we get pour in over the Internet these days.  That’s too bad, in a way, because it cuts into sociability.  Half the joke is in the telling.  We had one colleague in San Francisco who used to spend an hour a day locked in a ‘vital’ conference call with the East Coast: that’s where he got all his new jokes.  Wall Street and the East seem to generate a disproportionate amount of yuks.  We long since concluded that Wall Streeters don’t really do that much except sit at their desks and stare at their Bloomberg terminals, so they need jokes to break the monotony.

P.P.P.P.S.  A top journalist at USA Today asked us years ago, when John Gutfreund of Salomon Brothers got in a whole boatload of trouble with the Federal Government, whether we knew the one and only investment house of that day that had a code of conduct and business ethics. It was an easy guess for us—Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette.  She wondered how we knew.  We had had some close dealings with the firm.  At the end of its credo which appeared in its annual reports, DLJ pledged to “have fun.”  Fellows with that kind of mantra tend to be ethical.  Unfortunately it’s no longer around.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Our global sports analyst, Doctor Lundquist, finds all the world to be in an August slump at the moment—on and off the field.  Even with Tiger Woods crushing the competition at the Bridgestone, golf has turned listless.  Nobody, not even Angel Cabrera, cracked par at the U.S. Open held at torturous Oakmont , and, except for Tiger, the story was much the same in Akron.  Bonds has sort of pulled even with Hank Aaron on home runs, but it’s a non-event, because his record is clouded.  It’s gotten so bad, says the Doctor, that “we are watching headlines about women racing in high heels in Russia.”

Doctor L points to the minor leagues for a real sport experience.  In North Carolina, for instance, he says fans should follow the legendary Durham Bulls, a farm team for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, or the Winston-Salem Warthogs.  In winter, he would shun the Hurricanes, carpetbaggers from Hartford who displaced the Raleigh Icecaps, now the Augusta Lynx, and advises true believers to look in on hockey’s Charlotte Checkers. All these smalltown heroic events have a great atmosphere, oodles more spirit, and cheap tickets to boot.  What a deal!

P.P.P.P.P.P.S.  To make the most of an overheated August, we would recommend Little Miss Sunshine, which is available from Amazon.  It’s about a systematically dysfunctional family with enough will and energy to keep on moving and who wind up with a victory or two, prevailing against the world by coming together as a family.  It’s this sort of spirit that troubled businesses and institutions need today.  Alan Arkin, who had almost faded from the Big Screen, took home an Oscar for his performance.  One lady of our acquaintance, not given to giddiness, said she had not laughed so hard in years.  This little bit of a picture won an Academy Award.

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