Thursday, September 13, 2018

Williams and Williams (Brief Look at Satire, Part 6)

One of the greatest of American cartoonists of the twentieth century was Gluyas Williams (1888-1982), who retired, much too early, in 1953 (he lived another three decades). The name Gluyas was his mother’s maiden name and was of Cornish origin. Born in San Francisco, he lived most of his life in Massachusetts, and drew a great deal of his inspiration by watching people getting on and off the train at the West Newton, Massachusetts station.

Here is a typical full-page drawing Williams did for The New Yorker, dated April 26, 1941; it is part of “The Inner Man” (i.e., feeding the inner man) series, this drawing depicting “The Cocktail Party”:

Notice how Williams contrives to fill his canvas from top to bottom and from side to side with a multitude of sharply observed individual sketches. Every character is doing something, so there is a sense of movement. The range of individual emotions and attitudes is striking—from assertiveness to mild anxiety. It is a view of the human comedy without condescension. The writer Edward Street declared:
He sees humans as confused, insecure, well-intentioned duffers bluffing their way through the world of half-baked customs and screwball mores which they do not understand but cannot sidestep.*
Another writer, David McCord, agreed:
This universal human quality—a love, not a contempt, for his fellow man—is what sets Gluyas Williams in a class by himself. Satire has no place in his method of characterization. Even his painfully correct reporting of some of America’s incredible playgrounds shows not the slightest trace of mockery. That crowds of men and women can look and act as they do, and affect to find pleasure and recreation in the sordid mass, is part of the subdivine comedy in which he enters as a spectator, never as a critic.

However . . .


Consider the following drawing, part of “The Reading Public” series (The New Yorker, November 15, 1941: 

Lolling in bed, 2:30 in the morning, smoking his cigarettes as he reaches the final pages of a mystery novel, he reads:

Yes, “[s]atire has no place in his method of characterization” in the drawing itself. But Williams does demonstrate a fine satirical sense of parody in the literary portion of the work. Here he has got down pat the essence of the English detective mystery novel of the age. Every word, every inflection, is dead-on typical of the genre. For example: the elaborate timetable of the movements of the characters—down to exact minutes, which somehow get registered in people’s minds for later retrieval—which the detective pieces together, in retrospect, for the benefit of the less-astute narrator (and reader). 

This is absolutely brilliant satire. Parody at its best. Without resorting to exaggeration or distortion, Williams highlights the clichés and conventions of the English detective novel. The “novel,” in other words, is not “new,” but formulaic. 

True to his nature, Williams’ satire is gently done. But sharply observed and perfectly drawn like his cartoons.

How one wishes Gluyas Williams were around to gift us a picture of the crowd at the women’s final of the US Open tennis tournament this past weekend—with their boos and catcalls protesting the treatment of their favorite, Serena Williams, by the match umpire. My first thought upon reading about the brouhaha was: Were those people New Yorkers? Where was the traditional New York rooting for the underdog? Granted that that Serena Williams is one of the greatest racket-wielders of all time, but, hey, she was playing against a twenty-year-old! I can only surmise that like so much of the city these days, the stadium was infested with gentrifying out-of-towners. 

But I digress—well, actually I don’t digress because I haven’t gotten started yet.** 

Well, to get to the point—there did emerge from the event a now-notorious cartoon from the down-under newspaper The Herald Sun. Here is Mark Knight’s cartoon:

Serena throwing the tantrums of all tantrums, jumping on her broken racket and screaming for all she’s worth. Serena, not as a grown woman, but as a bratty child--notice the pacifier. (And off to the side, the umpire implores her opponent to let Serena win in order to stop the ruckus.) The drawing is indeed satirical—a caricature that reduces its victim by distorting her features and exaggerating her actions for a critical commentary. Her actions are exaggerated—Serena did not jump up and down on her racket. And her physical features—except for the hair—are grossly distorted. Distorted in a way that has led people to call out the work as racist. 

Caricature relies on distortion. A pointed nose gets longer and pointier. Ears expand to rival Dumbo’s. Chins either recede into nothingness or jut out like the prow of a ship. It all depends on what the victim’s features were to begin with. Here’s Daumier’s caricature of King Louis Philippe:

Notice how the portrait emerges from Louis Philippe’s physiognomy. From now on when we see the King, we see a pear, and when we see a pear, we see the King.

To return to the depiction of Serena Williams in the cartoon. Aside from the hair, what feature is there that builds from the player’s face? Look at the lips—are they anything like Serena’s? Or are they like this:

A racist stereotype.

So, yes, Mr. Knight has drawn a funny, satirical cartoon. But one that is deeply flawed; because it depicts a racist idea of a black woman and not Serena Williams.


Satire comes in many varieties. It can be coolly intellectual or emotionally boiling. It comes in words; it comes in images. It comes as parody. It comes as caricature.

Sometimes it can be extremely nasty.


(Strangely, Williams’ given name is spelled wrongly here in the address.)

      ** Somehow I seem to have developed a case of Tristram-Shandyitis. If you haven’t read that        classic novel, please do. It’s a gas.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Taken to the Cleaners

Yesterday, while sitting in my favorite chair as I was attempting to unveil the identity of the murderer in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, I found myself starting to nod off. Declaring lethargy the victor over ideation, I repaired to my bed for a nap. The time, according to the LED read-out on the night table clock, was 6:01 PM. There was, unfortunately, to be no repose for me. At 6:23 PM I conceded defeat to the two words that had floated through my head for the previous twenty-two minutes, and abandoned my bed and my attempt at sleep. The two words were “dry cleaning.” 

I must explain how such a seemingly innocent—even banal— phrase could haunt my brain for years and undermine the fortress of sleep.

I don’t remember exactly when it was, but I do remember the occasion. I was doing the most unlikely thing: reading the executive compensation report of a company in which I, at the time, owned a few shares. What moved me to read it is a mystery (not on The Poisoned Chocolates Case level, though), because my usual practice was to toss such mailings straightaway into the trash. Nevertheless, in this instance I deigned to read about the salary, travel allowance, office expenses, and so on and so forth that would fall that financial period to the chief honcho. All well and good, I imagined; after all, he needed to receive an income; he was going to be traveling to the distant outposts where the company had a presence; and he needed, when not mobilizing the far-off troops, some furniture for his head office suite, including a desk to look imperious behind. 

But then I discovered, tucked in after the gelt allotted for limousine service, this item: “Dry Cleaning—$xxx” (pardon me for neglecting to input into my head the exact amount—which, of course, didn’t matter).

What did matter was that this giant of industry, this plutocrat of plutocrats, this capo di tutti capi, with stock options upon stock options, in addition to the humongous basic salary, was somehow incapable of paying for his own dry cleaning! 

No, that was put wrong; it wasn’t that he was incapable of that, but that he was capable of squeezing every last cent out of the company that he could. 

His receptionist, his secretary, the shlub of an assistant accountant on the floor below—all had to pay for their dry cleaning out of their own pockets. But just as the capo could jump into a company limo and speed away to his house in the Hamptons without digging into his pocket for gasoline money, much less subway fare to Penn Station and the Long Island Rail Road, he could have freshly-laundered clothes without scrounging around in his pockets for the odd coin or two to square the price of the service. 


Some days, it is not the big bone of economic inequality, but the little bone of a grasping meanness that sticks in one’s craw.

Friday, September 7, 2018

What Jane Knew

The latest nine-day wonder in TrumpWorld (or, per John Kelly via Bob Woodward, “Crazytown”) is the anonymous New York Times op-ed by a personage the paper identified only as “a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure.”(1) The article delineated ways in which “many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” The writer claims that these officials are attempting to thwart “Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office” in order “to preserve our democratic institutions.”

The writer calls these officials “the steady state,” who act to counter “the president’s leadership style, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective,” and his “amorality,” which is unmoored from “any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” 

But wait, says our steady stater: 
Don’t get me wrong. There are bright spots that the near-ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture: effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.


The “bright spots” our steady stater points to really tells us all we need to know. As Susan B. Glasser notes:
Both the Op-Ed and [Woodward’s] book convey the laments of conservatives who, in many respects, are fine with the Trump agenda but not with the man.(2)
What the steady staters are doing is propping up a Potemkin village of an administration, behind whose two-dimensional facade exists the typical conservative cabal plot to make the air more polluted, the workplace more dangerous, payday lenders freer to scam the poor, healthcare less available to the public, etc. (all in pursuit of the chimera “effective deregulation”). And even more iniquitous, there is the continued push for a “tax reform” that gifts tax breaks to the rich in line with the discredited Reaganesque trickle-down theory of monetary distribution, which George H. W. Bush so rightly entitled “voodoo economics.”


If trickle-down distribution really worked, I imagine a dramatic representation would go something like this:

Plutocratic CEO (opening envelope): Look at this, my dear, we have just received a whopping great tax credit from the IRS. What do you think we should do with it to facilitate economic growth, relieve the burdens of those less fortunate than ourselves, and make sure that tax revenues will grow in the future?

Mrs. Plutocratic CEO (thinking hard): I suppose we could take the money and give it to our servants—the maids, the cook, the chauffeur, the gardener. They will immediately spend it, giving the economy a great kick in the pants.

Plutocratic CEO: Now I know why I married you—which I would have done even without your daddy’s stock options!

Unfortunately, I imagine trickle-down works more like this parallel situation in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (it’s a bit long, but stick with it—it’s brilliant):

From Chapter 1

When he gave his promise to his father [on his deathbed], [John Dashwood] meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece. He then really thought himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a-year, in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother's fortune, warmed his heart, and made him feel capable of generosity.— "Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: it would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience."— He thought of it all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent.

From Chapter 2

Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum? And what possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods, who were related to him only by half blood, which she considered as no relationship at all, have on his generosity to so large an amount. It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?
"It was my father's last request to me," replied her husband, "that I should assist his widow and daughters."
"He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child."
"He did not stipulate for any particular sum, my dear Fanny; he only requested me, in general terms, to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do. Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required the promise, I could not do less than give it; at least I thought so at the time. The promise, therefore, was given, and must be performed. Something must be done for them whenever they leave Norland and settle in a new home."
"Well, then, LET something be done for them; but THAT something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider," she added, "that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could be restored to our poor little boy—"
"Why, to be sure," said her husband, very gravely, "that would make great difference. The time may come when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition."
"To be sure it would."
"Perhaps, then, it would be better for all parties, if the sum were diminished one half.—Five hundred pounds would be a prodigious increase to their fortunes!"
"Oh! beyond anything great! What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if REALLY his sisters! And as it is—only half blood!—But you have such a generous spirit!"
"I would not wish to do any thing mean," he replied. "One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more."
"There is no knowing what THEY may expect," said the lady, "but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is, what you can afford to do."
"Certainly—and I think I may afford to give them five hundred pounds a-piece. As it is, without any addition of mine, they will each have about three thousand pounds on their mother's death—a very comfortable fortune for any young woman."
"To be sure it is; and, indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all. They will have ten thousand pounds divided amongst them. If they marry, they will be sure of doing well, and if they do not, they may all live very comfortably together on the interest of ten thousand pounds."
"That is very true, and, therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she lives, rather than for them—something of the annuity kind I mean.—My sisters would feel the good effects of it as well as herself. A hundred a year would make them all perfectly comfortable."
His wife hesitated a little, however, in giving her consent to this plan.
"To be sure," said she, "it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But, then, if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years we shall be completely taken in."
"Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase."
"Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father's will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. Her income was not her own, she said, with such perpetual claims on it; and it was the more unkind in my father, because, otherwise, the money would have been entirely at my mother's disposal, without any restriction whatever. It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world."
"It is certainly an unpleasant thing," replied Mr. Dashwood, "to have those kind of yearly drains on one's income. One's fortune, as your mother justly says, is NOT one's own. To be tied down to the regular payment of such a sum, on every rent day, is by no means desirable: it takes away one's independence."
"Undoubtedly; and after all you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all. If I were you, whatever I did should be done at my own discretion entirely. I would not bind myself to allow them any thing yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expenses."
"I believe you are right, my love; it will be better that there should be no annuity in the case; whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think, be amply discharging my promise to my father."
"To be sure it will. Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season. I'll lay my life that he meant nothing farther; indeed, it would be very strange and unreasonable if he did. Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a year a-piece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that?—They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give YOU something."
"Upon my word," said Mr. Dashwood, "I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described. When my mother removes into another house my services shall be readily given to accommodate her as far as I can. Some little present of furniture too may be acceptable then."
"Certainly," returned Mrs. John Dashwood. "But, however, ONE thing must be considered. When your father and mother moved to Norland, though the furniture of Stanhill was sold, all the china, plate, and linen was saved, and is now left to your mother. Her house will therefore be almost completely fitted up as soon as she takes it."
"That is a material consideration undoubtedly. A valuable legacy indeed! And yet some of the plate would have been a very pleasant addition to our own stock here."
"Yes; and the set of breakfast china is twice as handsome as what belongs to this house. A great deal too handsome, in my opinion, for any place THEY can ever afford to live in. But, however, so it is. Your father thought only of THEM. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes; for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to THEM."
This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.


One last thought:

Perhaps the next writer of a tell-all book about TrumpWorld might consider Pride and Prejudice as a most appropriate title.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Their Daily Bread

In a moment that can be described as pure Grouchovian, Karl Marx pre-empted his namesake by observing that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."  

When I read recently that the Delhi high court in India issued a ruling decriminalizing begging in the streets,* it occurred to me that Marx’s observation could be expanded to claim also that “The content of satire eventually repeats itself as reality.”

In what was his most famous satiric gem, Anatole France (1844-1924) noted:
La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.
(In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.)

Well, at least in this one case, the law relaxed its “majestic equality” and saw fit to remove the interdiction against the destitute begging in the streets. May we presume that it is still verboten for the rich? 

Actually, as we know from our own experience in the US, it would be hard to find on the streets of any great city a plutocrat with his hand out. That is not to say that the rich are not beggars; they are—but not on the streets and generally not in person. They do their begging in the corridors of power—and by proxy, employing those smarmy lapdogs known as “lobbyists.” 


What is it with the poor, who, Jesus said, will always be with us? 

I think I have a clue. “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) asserted. The problem with the poor, it would seem therefore, is that they aren’t criminal enough.


* “Begging is their last resort to subsistence,” the judges ruled. “Criminalising begging is a wrong approach to deal with the underlying causes of the problem and violates the fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable people.”