Sunday, December 13, 2015

False Normality (Brief Look at Satire, Part 3)

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
There’s no art/ To find the mind’s construction in the face
One task I would sometimes give my students before discussing Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess” was to have them make a sign reading:

I Am a(n)

They were instructed to insert an adjective that would best describe them. They were then told to hold the signs out in front of themselves so that other people could read them. “Wouldn't it be great,” I asked, “if signs worn on their chests would reveal people's true qualities (and not just the sweetness-and-light ones claimed there in the classroom)?” Browning's subtlety would, alas, be lost as the Duke of Ferrara's toxic pride would be (literally) up front. But how much easier life would be if all the masks disguising fools and villains were countered by a little bit of writing.
Architect [John Cleese]: “This is a 12-story block combining classical neo-Georgian features with all the advantages of modern design. The tenants arrive at the entrance hall here, carried along the corridor on a conveyor belt in extreme comfort past murals depicting Mediterranean scenes towards the rotating knives. The last 20 feet of the corridor are heavily soundproofed. The blood pours down these chutes . . .”

Committeeman [Michael Palin]: “Excuse me. Did you say ‘knives’?”
Monty Python's Flying Circus
. . . my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.
As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging . . .
Jonathan  Swift, “A Modest Proposal”
What the famous Swift satire and the non-satirical, Chas-Addamsish-macabre Python skit have in common is (a) the initial surface normality of the presentations: “neo-Georgian features” and “modern design” in the case of the Python architectural project and in the Swift the claim by his persona to have “maturely weighed” the schemes of other proposers and (b) the almost unobtrusive way that a calm seemingly-sane presentation is subverted by a horrendous incongruity. The signaling word in the Python skit is, of course, “knives”; in the Swift the word is “dam”--the mother of a human child has become an animal, and the child will be treated as such too, bred to become the central ingredient in “a fricasie, or a ragoust,” food for the tables of rich Englishmen in Ireland.
Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not . . .
Jeremiah 5:21
. . . instead of seeing a full stop put to all abuses and corruptions, at least in this little island, as I had reason to expect; behold, after above six months warning, I cannot learn that my book has produced one single effect according to my intentions.
Gulliver's Travels
Satire has a range something like chili sauce—from mild to four-alarm fiery hot. But one thing that all satires have in common is the working proposition that out in the world, deceived by appearances, there are too many people who have eyes that do not see, or ears that do not hear. Otherwise, would they not already have—as Gulliver wished—put an end “to all abuses and corruptions” (as well as eradicating the milder follies of our species)?
Enter GLOUCESTER [Richard III-to-be] aloft, between two BISHOPS. . . .MAYOR. See where his Grace stands 'tween two clergymen!

BUCKINGHAM. Two props of virtue for a Christian prince,
To stay him from the fall of vanity;
And, see, a book of prayer in his hand,
True ornaments to know a holy man.
Richard III (Act III, Sc. 7)

In the play we (unlike the Mayor) are not fooled by the pretended display of piety; we know it's all an act, the prayer book merely a prop and the bishops just stage furniture, for the playwright, since the opening soliloquy, has allowed our eyes to see behind the villain's mask and our ears to hear his duplicitous intentions. But what of the real life equivalents of the Shakespeare's Duke of Gloucester or Browning's Duke of Ferrara?

The challenge for the satirist is how to make those eyes see, those ears hear—to counter the stage-managed displays of fake virtue and false reason.
I have decided to take a respite from writing this blog. When (or whether) I will return to it, time will tell.
Meanwhile, to those who have bothered to read the blog at some point I offer many thanks. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Watch Your Step!

Perhaps you've seen it: the video of a man being roughly subdued by a posse of Austin, Texas policemen numerous enough to corral the Dalton gang.* The victim's crime in the capital of the Lone Star State? Jaywalking.

I counted about eight police originally involved, with at least two patrol cars racing up later—all Sturm und Drang (or should it be son et lumière?)sirens blaring and light bars blazing. That such a contingent of cops would be deployed to haul in a total of one (alleged) jaywalker and one inquisitive bystander got me to thinking; here are the (admittedly contradictory) results of my ratiocination:

1—Austin, Texas is the safest city in the country. If so much police presence can handily be deployed to nail a single jaywalker, that must mean that there is no other crime around for the cops to deal with.

2--Austin, Texas is the unsafest city in the country. If so much police presence congregates in one place to nail a jaywalker, then the rest of the burg must be open city to murderers, rapists, muggers, and other miscreants.

3—Austin, Texas has too many cops. At a ratio of ten cops (counting the later-arriving prowl car guys) to one offender, the police force is surely over-stuffed. At least half the force would seem to be surplus to requirements (I love that British locution).

4—Austin, Texas has too few cops. If it's really going to take ten police to nail one offender, then Austin better start hiring in case a major crime wave (something like multiple jaywalking) breaks out.

5--Austin, Texas police are a bunch of weaklings. Really, it takes ten officers to haul in one unresisting male and a female bystander?

6--Austin, Texas police deserve credit. At least they didn't shoot anybody. And though jaywalking is obviously a major criminal activity in Texas, the police recognized that it isn't a capital offence (yet).

*If you haven't, it's here:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

My Vote, Your Vote

LICKCHEESE. Theres no doubt that the Vestries has legal powers to play old Harry with slum properties, and spoil the houseknacking game if they please. That didnt matter in the good old times, because the Vestries used to be us ourselves. Nobody ever knew a word about the election ; and we used to get ten of us into a room and elect one another, and do what we liked.                                                                                            George Bernard Shaw, Widowers' Houses (1892)
Two days ago, it being a nice sunshiny day and me needing some exercise, I walked the few blocks over to the Middle School. Had it been an inclement day, I would have driven to the school. One way or another, I was going to the school, because it was Election Day, and the school was the polling place for my ward. Not that there were any grand offices being contested--nothing national or gubernatorial—just a pair of legislative seats and local posts. I pressed the button to re-elect the mayor, and was happy to learn later that he had won by about a five-to-one landslide.

The lady who had entered the voting booth before me, however, had some trouble figuring out what to do to register her vote. “Press the red button,” exclaimed the poll booth attendant, and eventually she did, whether to be part of the mayor's majority or not will never be known.

I felt no irritation at having to wait a few extra moments while the woman got all straightened out. That I would walk into the booth already determined how to vote, press the buttons zip, zip, zip and stride out only about a minute later did not mean my electoral contribution to democracy was superior to her fumbling one. Did she also enter the booth determined how she would vote? Or did she go “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo”? Or did she put a hand over her eyes and stab blindly for buttons to press? To me it mattered not, for in a democratic state a person should not only be free to vote for the candidate of her choice, but also to free to choose how she arrives at that choice.
One hundred years ago, she wouldn't have had the problem of deciding how to vote, for women were excluded from the ballot box. Women, slaves, the propertyless were—and still are in too many places in the world —unable to engage in the process of determining how they are to be governed. And even when they are granted the vote, there are powerful forces attempting to snatch their voting rights away (just look around the country)--whether because of a fierce desire to protect their own economic interests or through a neo-Platonic contempt for those they consider inferior in wisdom, education, intellect, or knowledge. In the latter case, we have the “guided democracy” ploys—as in Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Singapore)--in which there are elections which determine nothing because the ruling powers keep the elections substance-free (and dissenters in jail), or the technocratic Walter Lippmann argument—that the general public is unequipped to deal with the modern world and needs “knowledgeable administrators whose access to reliable information immunize[s] them against the emotional 'symbols' and 'stereotypes' that dominate[_] public debate.”*

Assuming such emotion-immunized administrators exist and can be identified, is there any guarantee that they would not eventually begin to act in their own self-interest? This question is a modern updating of Juvenal's “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“Who will watch the watchmen themselves?”). But besides that, who would have more right to have a say on such a substantive issue as whose son should go off to war—a robotic administrator or an emotional mother?

*That is Christopher Lasch (The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy) explaining Lippmann.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Objects of Derision, Not Makers of Decisions

In my last post, “Up and Away,” I cited a United Air Lines (as it was called then) advertisement from 1953 that promoted its “Chicago Executive” flight--“A Club in the Sky.” But only half the population could avail itself of the flight's amenities, because it was “FOR MEN ONLY.” Women executives, I noted, would, therefore, have to travel less executively on United's regular 5 PM New York to Chicago flight.

I discovered the advertisement in the New Yorker while performing a systematic scrutiny of that magazine's post-WWII issues (I do not know where else the ad appeared). Now, thinking back on what I saw between the magazine's covers, I believe that I was wrong about women executives and their flight plans, because—at least on the evidence of that magazine's widely-acclaimed cartoons—there were no women executives in the United States from the middle 1940s through the middle 1950s.*

If women were not executives, what were they?

1--They were (literally) objects of men's pursuits, being chased around offices or hospital rooms (senior nurse to man tackling another nurse: “Mr. Comstock! That's not included in your Blue Cross!”). What today is recognized as sexual harassment was then a laughing matter.

2—Or, they were happy to be sexual playthings. Usually depicted as showgirls or nightclub employees, they were gold diggers latching onto sugar daddies. Even non-night-clubby types might be on the lookout (two women are outside a travel agency with a sign in the window:
Travel Now
Pay Later
One young woman to the other: “And of course the chances are you'll land someone to take care of the installments for you”).

3—They might work in department stores, often in the Information Booth or Gift Counseling department. If they weren't exclaiming, “How should I know?” in the former, in the latter they were usually steering gentlemen to the jewelry counter (and in a fine merging with point 2, we have: “All I can say is, if some gentleman were to give me a nice sapphire brooch, he'd find me most appreciative”).

4—And if they were not working in a store, they were its customers--overeager (husband in bed to wife in nightgown with handbag pretending to sleepwalk: “Macy's is closed!”); exasperating (woman—during WWII--to salesman surrounded by at least 50 scattered shoes: “Now, isn't that silly? I haven't a shoe stamp”); or all at sea (woman to liquor store clerk: “What would you suggest for a small group of ladies who meet every Tuesday to do needlepoint?”).

5—If they were driving a car to the shops, then they were sure to smash a fender or, worse, wrap the vehicle around a tree (woman driver to passenger: “Now I mustn't forget to notify the Rent-It-Here, Leave-It-There People”).

6—If they survived their automotive misadventures, they aged into amply-upholstered matrons, whose major activities, in addition to bedeviling salesclerks, were attending committee meetings (matronly woman with book in hand: “I shall now quote the passages which I consider obscene”) and promoting culture (matronly woman in front of theater curtain: “Enough of Prologue! Now let's have the play. 'The Pageant of Distinguished Bergen County Women' is under way'”).

7—And, going back in time, there were the unfortunate cavewomen, who were always being banged on the noggin by men with wooden weaponry and dragged by their trailing tresses to the caves of their captors.
Which goes to show that throughout history women have been victimized by men's clubs.
*As additional evidence, consider that that was the prime period of the ads for Lord Calvert booze featuring “Men of Distinction,” overwhelmingly business execs with an actor thrown in here and there—not “Persons of Distinction,” also including women execs with highball in hand.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Up and Away

In the past few days several items about air travel have flown across my computer screen. First, there was an article on the Atlantic magazine website by Ester Bloom entitled “Why Does Air Travel Make People So Grumpy?”* “Not too long ago,” she reminds us, “flying could be a relatively pleasant experience, but executives focused on cutting costs have stripped away everything flyers associated with luxury or even dignity.”** She points to “[f]ood, baggage handling, boarding in a logical manner” as things “once taken for granted [that] now must be paid for or done without.”

Almost immediately after reading Ms Bloom’s article, I came upon an enticing advertisement for an air travel experience that offered the exact opposite of modern cattlecar air travel. Who wouldn’t want to travel in an “informal, club-like atmosphere,” relaxing in the “pair of slippers provided,” then tucking into the “full-course steak dinner . . . table-served by the two stewardesses aboard”? 

So there we are, in our “club in the sky,” sucking on our pipe or blowing smoke rings with our cigar. 

Oh, didn't I say? It’s 1953--and the flight is “The Chicago Executive,” operated by United Air Lines (as it was known then), leaving New York City at 5 PM daily and arriving in the Windy City 3 hours and 15 minutes later. 

Who wouldn’t want to travel like that? Wrong question. It should be: “Who couldn’t travel like that?” And the answer: Women!

“The Chicago Executive” (and one supposes the return flight, “The New York Executive”) was “FOR MEN ONLY.” Women executives desirous of a 5 PM flight to Chicago had to make do with the regular nonstop flight at that hour. Presumably, they would not be afforded the closing stock market prices or their favorite business magazines, and they probably had to make it through 3 hours and 15 minutes in their own shoes. But I seriously doubt that although they might not have gotten a steak, they had to go hungry.
And yesterday I received two emails from United. In the first, Oscar Munoz introduced himself to me (“our valued customer”) as the new president and CEO of United.*** He is all excited about the opportunity “to improve the travel experience essential to the vitality of global business and to the personal lives of millions of people.” 

The second email offered me the immediate opportunity to improve my personal life by hopping a United bird to Hawaii. And I’m set to go; I’ve got my suntan lotion and surfboard ready—just need to pick up a flowery shirt. But United has to guarantee me two things: cosy slippers and a table-served steak dinner. Oh, make that three things: women; if women aren't allowed on board, I’m not going either.

**What Ms Bloom does not acknowledge is that she is part of the problem. She relates that “on a recent Ryanair flight, I discovered that not even water was free.” Ryanair is the textbook example of John Ruskin’s observation about price and quality:
There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey.
The result of such practice is a race to the bottom in which everyone else also suffers the consequences.

Ruskin also said (and this was in the 19th Century):
Modern travelling is not travelling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.
***His predecessor was ousted for some corrupt dealings with a Christie crony.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Usurpation (Brief Look at Satire, Part 2)

----------------------The Galton Case:
“Your son has been missing for a very long time.”
“I’m better aware of that than you, young man. I last set eyes on Anthony on the eleventh day of October 1936. We parted in bitter anger and hatred. I’ve lived ever since with that anger and hatred corroding my heart. But I can’t die with it inside of me. I want to see Anthony again, and talk to him. I want to forgive him. I want him to forgive me.”

----------------------"Garish Summit” Episode 2:
I have something preying on my mind that I need your help with, Bodin. A man has turned up here in Garish Summit who claims to be my long-lost elder son, Caldwell.
That’s shocking, Agatha. We’ve known each other for forty years, and I always thought your weak-willed son, Rodney, was an only child.
Well, I thought so, too. That’s the strange part I don’t understand.
Well, you’re a fabulously rich widow who’s inherited the world’s largest chain of lead mines. The man’s probably a fortune hunter.
No. I’ve encountered those before. But this chap definitely claims to be the son I never knew I had. So, of course, it’s just his word against mine.
A short time ago, I indulged in a binge of reading (or re-reading) half-a-dozen novels by Ross Macdonald. Although his private eye, Lew Archer, is not as famous as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Macdonald is generally recognized as holding the third spot in the trinity of American writers of hard-boiled detective fiction. 

At the same time as I was gorging myself on the Byzantine intricacies of Macdonald's Californian family sagas, I was also getting re-acquainted with the output of Bob and Ray. Although Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding did some television work (and even had a hit Broadway show), they were men of radio; they not only worked on radio, they used radio as the basis for most of their material—such as, the stilted language and formulaic plots of soap operas, the banality of advice givers, the obliviousness of newsmen and sportscasters, and the boasts of commercials. 
Satire, as I noted in my previous blog post, “X-raying the Soul (Brief Look at Satire, Part 1),” can be general or specific. For example, Bob and Ray's “Jack Headstrong, All-American American” was a specific parody of the serial “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” while their “The Life and Loves of Linda Lovely” was a parody of the soap opera genre at large. “Garish Summit,” created in 1982, was a rather late addition to the Bob and Ray stable of soap opera take-offs. Although performed on radio, “Garish” was based on the hot-house rich-family television primetime soaps, such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” It was while reading the script of a “Garish” episode that I was reminded of something I had recently read in Macdonald's The Galton Case, written in 1959 (see above). Which I will get back to shortly.
I enjoyed Star Wars when it first came out in 1977, and I enjoyed it even more when I went the second time and actually saw the movie—having been afflicted by a dodgy contact lens the first time I went. I also enjoyed the second in the series to be released, The Empire Strikes Back, which I also saw in a theater (thankfully with both lenses working). However, when the third of the series, Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983, I never made it to the movie house. I did catch up to it when it was later aired on television, taping it for viewing at some future time. Somehow in the next five or six years I couldn't seem to find that future time. And in the meantime, Spaceballs happened. 

When I finally rolled the tape of Return of the Jedi, I couldn't take the movie seriously. For me, the Mel Brooks parody Spaceballs, although rather broad and hit-and-miss (like most of Brooks’ work), had usurped its place in the Star Wars canon. 
There was a riddle a few economic recessions back that went like this:

What's the difference between a pigeon and a yuppie?

A pigeon can still leave a deposit on a new BMW.
Bird droppings have their place in two excellent parodies: the 1968 short film De Düva: The Dove and The Birds episode in High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ homage-cum-parody of Alfred Hitchcock films. 

De Düva takes on two of the most famous films by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. Conflating the two Bergman works, De Düva has an angst-filled Strawberries professor accosted by a Seal-like figure of Death, and they engage in a contest for the man's life. In the original, the protagonist is a medieval knight, and the contest is a game of chess. In the parody the professor and the black-robed figure of Death engage in a game of badminton. While a grim game of chess—that most mental of contests—seems quite appropriate as a cinematic battleground to determine life or death, badminton, with its airy, floating shuttlecock, swerving this way and that, forcing the players into all sorts of contortions to follow its flight, reduces the confrontation to absurdity. 

And there is a dove to leave its deposit.

In High Anxiety, bIrds mass on a school's monkey bars behind an oblivious bench-seated Mel Brooks (like Tippy Hedron in Hitchcock's film). And then they swoop—but instead of attacking and pecking the bodies of the running adults and children as in the original film, in Brooks' parody the birds relieve themselves on the frantically running protagonist, who ends up so smelly that the patrons of the dry cleaner shop he escapes into quickly exit the premises holding their noses. 

Bird droppings are nature's way of making everything else at the time unimportant.  Perfect for the deflationary role of satire.
It was with the sense of a, for him, very memorable something that he peered now into the immediate future, and tried, not without compunction, to take that period up where he had, prospectively, left it. But just where the deuce had he left it? The consciousness of dubiety was, for our friend, not, this morning, quite yet clean-cut enough to outline the figures on what she had called his "horizon," between which and himself the twilight was indeed of a quality somewhat intimidating. He had run up, in the course of time, against a good number of "teasers;" and the function of teasing them back—of, as it were, giving them, every now and then, "what for"—was in him so much a habit that he would have been at a loss had there been, on the face of it, nothing to lose.
(Max Beerbohm's parody of Henry James “is almost indistinguishable from the real thing.” Brendan Gill, The New Yorker, October 24, 1970)
Parody ranges from broadest (e.g., Spaceballs) to the subtlest take-off of the original work. Beerbohm's parody is so subtle that it is, as Gill puts it, “almost” indistinguishable from James' own prose style. If one were to imitate perfectly the style and select the same sort of content as the original writer, there would be no satire. A carbon copy is not satire. The satirist exposes the flaws of the original author to our scrutiny by deliberately exaggerating—subtly (the "almost" effect) or broadly—his stylistic tics and mannerisms and the formulaic content of, and ideas in, his work.
A gift for comedy seldom comes to a writer unaccompanied. . . .Sometimes, as in parody, it is coupled with the flinty disposition of the critic.
(Donald Malcolm, The New Yorker, November 8, 1958)
When the parodist has done his job well, his work—the “flinty” examination of the original—supplants, in the audience's mind, the original work, and he has himself progressed from critic to creator.
And so back to Ross Macdonald and Bob and Ray.

Unlike the other parodies discussed, which were all specific satires, Bob and Ray's “Garish Summit” was aimed at an artistic (if we can called it that) category—the rich-family's-got-a-lot-of-entanglements-and-strange-passions soap opera. After reading the script of the episode above, I had a flash memory of something I had read shortly before in Macdonald's The Galton Case (written 23 years earlier). It was, it seemed to me, the stilted dialogue of soap opera. And the convoluted storylines of his mysteries, I realized, were soap operas with a hard-boiled detective on the chase. 

The net of general parody captures a lot of fish (even unintended species).
1—The dialogue in De Düva: The Dove is in mock-Swedish—basically English with fake “Swedish” suffixes appended.

2—Coincidence: Madeline Kahn is in both De Düva: The Dove (her first movie role) and High Anxiety.

Video Evidence:

Bob and Ray

Bergman: The Seventh Seal 

De Düva: The Dove

Hitchcock, The Birds

Brooks, High Anxiety 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

X-raying the Soul (Brief Look at Satire, Part 1)

For every calendar year we can find reasons to commemorate—if not celebrate—the anniversary of a notable event. Last year—2014—the most notable event that cried out for recognition—if not for celebration--was the centenary of the start of the Great War (as it was known at the time). This year, thankfully, we commemorate—and celebrate—the notable anniversaries of the conclusion of two bloody wars: the Second World War ended 70 years ago and the American Civil War ceased 150 years ago.

This year's notable anniversaries are not just about conclusions, but also about beginnings. One hundred years ago Billie Holliday was born. And 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll brought forth Alice in Wonderland onto the scene. But perhaps the most notable anniversary this year is that of a birth that took place 750 years ago: a man irreverently described by the Devil in Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman as one of “the greatest fools that ever lived,” because he described Hell
as a place of mud, frost, filth, fire, and venomous serpents: all torture. This ass, when he was not lying about me, was maundering about some woman whom he saw once in the street.
Dante, of course.

Putting Shaw's satiric remark aside, for Dante's 750th anniversary I wish to take a brief look at Dante's own use of satire in The Inferno.
Why is there such a thing as satire? The simple answer is that the world is filled with falsity: folly is applauded as wisdom; vice is accepted as virtue. And something must be done to unmask the deceivers and reveal their true faces. The art of satire is in the doing.

Satire can be general or specific. In The Inferno Dante targets both the general mass of mankind (all of us nameless sinners) and specific historical and contemporary individuals. His satirical strategy is really a simple one: he makes the figurative literal. Before citing examples from The Inferno, let me illustrate the maneuver by offering the following excerpt from one of the greatest satires of all time-- Swift's A Modest Proposal (which, as you know, is based on the idea that the best way to alleviate the economic distress in Ireland is to have the children of the poor become food for the rich):
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
Devoured” is the key word here, as Swift morphs a figurative observation about economic distress (the landlords have devoured the poor) into a literal (and repulsive) action.

In The Inferno the controlling conceit (both literary and theological) is that the sinners suffer punishments that are the literal equivalents of the sufferings they endure in real life. For example, in Canto VII the hoarders and the wasters, whose souls in life were obsessed by (figuratively burdened by) material things, are condemned to smashing great weights (literal material things) against each other:
I saw a nation of lost souls,
far more than were above: they strained their chests
against enormous weights, and with mad howls

rolled them at one another. Then in haste
they rolled them back, one party shouting out:
"Why do you hoard?" and the other: "Why do you waste?"

So back around that ring they puff and blow,
each faction to its course, until they reach
opposite sides, and screaming as they go

the madmen turn and start their weights again
to crash against the maniacs.*(Translation by John Ciardi)
This is general satire—against the undifferentiated mass of material sinners. The hoarders and the wasters, though seemingly opposites, are just different faces of the same coin. And (segueing from figurative to literal) coins—money, riches—are what they've given their souls over to. In life they are suffering from the figurative burden of their material lust. In Hell they will suffer the literal burden.
Much deeper in the bowels of Hell—in the Ninth Circle (the lowest)--Dante (the character) comes upon sinners frozen in ice, with just part of their faces free. They are in ice because they committed murder calculatedly, cold-bloodedly. (Those who killed in the hot-blooded heat of passion are in the Seventh Circle.) There, Dante comes upon Friar Alberigo, who points out Ser Branca d'Oria to him. Their presence in Hell astonishes Dante. He asks Alberigo, "What! Are you dead already?" and complains to the friar about the latter:
"I think you are trying to take me in," I said,
"Ser Branca d'Oria is a living man;
he eats, he drinks, he fills his clothes and his bed."
This is a brilliant example of Dante's specific satire. The souls of two living men are in Hell before their deaths. And in real life, the eating, drinking, clothes-wearing bodies are inhabited by demons:
I will tell you this [Alberigo explains to Dante]: when a soul betrays as I did,
it falls from flesh, and a demon takes its place,

ruling the body till its time is spent.
The ruined soul rains down into this cistern.
So, I believe, there is still evident

in the world above, all that is fair and mortal
of this black shade [Branca d'Doria] who winters here behind me.(Canto XXXIII)
Here again, Dante uses the figurative/literal transfer. To demonstrate that these living men are figurative demons, he replaces their souls with literal demons.

As we said above, satire—that purposeful art—aims to strip away the false mask of virtue and expose the true face of vice hidden behind it. Dante has gotten behind the mask, gone beyond the face, and exposed the soul.

*In an article in the Guardian, Alex Preston sums up his visit with one of the premier collectors of Nazi artifacts and memorabilia as follows:
I had met a man wrestling with a hobby that had become an obsession and was now a millstone. Collecting was like a disease for him, the prospect of completion tantalisingly near but always just out of reach. If he was mad, it wasn’t the madness of the fulminating antisemite, rather the mania of the collector.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Job Market

I was disappointed recently by a piece on the New Yorker website entitled “Jobs I’d Be Well-Suited For” by Dan Abromowitz.* You see, over the years I have attempted to compile my own list of jobs that I could do if forced back into the labor market at this late stage in life, and I had hoped, when seeing the title of the piece, that the author would offer a witty insight into some undemanding jobs in the real world. Instead, Abromowitz presented the reader with a list of lame inventions, such as:

Cool, crushable substitute teacher;      
Tattoo complimenter;
Horse spooker;
Do-over middle-schooler;
Ape taunter.**
None of the jobs on my list of “Jobs I Can Do” is an invention, but a job I have encountered in the real world. To get on the list each had to meet the following criteria:

It must require a minimum of physical effort;
It must need a minimum of mental agility;
It must not be susceptible to the vicissitudes of the weather;
And it must not pose a threat to life or limb.

My list began several decades ago when I drove onto the New Jersey Turnpike and received a toll card at the entrance booth. After tucking the card under my sun visor, I said to myself, “I could do that!” That is, I could hand out the toll cards to the drivers; after all, what did it take to do it? No physical effort to speak of and merely the ability to distinguish a car from a truck. And you were shielded from the weather by the glass booth. I recognized, though, that I while I could be a toll card giver-outer, I could not be a toll collector. That would involve the mental ability to add and subtract and the physical ability to juggle card, cash, and coins without losing anything under the wheels of a tractor-trailer.

The second job I could do I discovered while having an early dinner at a French restaurant in New York City prior to going to the theater. The table was covered by a tablecloth, which in turn had butcher paper on top as placemats. While my theater-going companion and I contemplated the menu, a minion was going around to all the tables with a rubber stamp in one hand and an ink pad in the other. What he stamped on the butcher paper was a message that read (something like):

Please Join Us for Sunday Brunch
11 AM to 3 PM.

Yes, I could do that job; all it would take was a steady hand not to smudge the ink and the recognition that the tablecloths were a no-no. And it was indoors!

The third job that I could do I found one Sunday morning (I was not having brunch at a French restaurant that AM) when I arrived at a nearby mall a little before the opening time of the stores. Since it was a sunshiny day, I spent a few pleasant minutes alongside the other early birds contemplating the meaning of life. At the stroke of 11 AM a fellow in a suit appeared inside the store doors and stepped forward to activate the electric sensor and open the exit door. He then walked through that door, took a few steps to the side, and tested the electric sensor for the entrance door, which, indeed, did open. Task successfully accomplished, he then proceeded into the store through the door, and we followed him in a line as if he were a modern-day piper of Hamelin. 

Stepping up to activate electric door openers? I could do that. I own a suit. And I'd only be subjected to the weather for the few seconds it would take to activate the entrance door sensor.
I'll stop my list here. Three jobs to choose from is quite enough and contemplating which one is best is too much like hard work.

**I will give him credit for “Door-to-door e-Bible salesman,” that's subtly good.