Public Reaction to The Idiot
15 February 2016
Academic Book, biology, Boobs, booooooooooobs, Carinval, Catharsis, Clappy the Sad Clown with Clap, Clopin, death, Degredation, excrement, farting, fertility, Film, film review, Francois Rabelias, Les Miserables, Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, Literature, M.M. Bakhtin, music, Nicki Minaj, Pound the Alarm, Rabelias and His World, sexual display, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solstice, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Topsy Turvy, Victor Hugo
–Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke it’s true (Eric Idle, Life of Brian)
I watched the Pound the Alarm music video because of Nicki Minaj’s breasts. I’m gonna be honest here. I’m a horrible liar, even in prose, and so moving forward it just seemed like a bad idea to try and bullshit my way through this one especially when shit’s going to become so important later on. Back to Boobs. Pound the Alarm came on the FUSE network on one of the numerous “Best of [INSERT BAND NAME HERE]” series, I think it was “Videos of the Week,” but that’s not really important. The video caught me immediately because it began with a small island drum with a few HD shots of the Caribbean, a man hacking a melon with a machete, people on a beach, a few guys playing football (soccer to my American readers, one day we’ll join the club), before a siren begins as the viewer sees a sign that reads “Trinidad and Tobango The Home of Carnival.”
Not long after that I found myself transfixed by an electronic beat that severed me from my will power, and a pair of breasts constantly surrounded by other breasts decorated with gold beads, feathers, and curly blonde locks. I bought the song on itunes, when I still had an itunes account, along with the video which I watched over and over again. I should probably footnote this story by letting the reader know I was still a teenage boy at the time and I had yet to meet my wife. I wish I could honestly say that my first initial viewings were some intellectual effort on my part, but aging has a way of cutting through that bullshit and your previous actions take on a painful lucidity. I watched the video over and over again because the visuals of the song, and for the fact that the lyrics spoke of nothing but sex, and Nicki Minaj was gorgeous, and had breasts I’m not sure if that’s been made apparent.
My hormones calmed down eventually and I was able to manage the song over time to the point I listened to it at the most, three or four times a year. It became something I stumbled upon when I was searching for the right song, after a long shitty day or else something I needed to satisfy a “song-craving.” When I got to my first semester of graduate school however, I was finally able to justify my regular viewings of the video, principally by looking at it through the lens of a Stalinist era Russian Literary Theorist.
I’m beginning to recognize more and more why no girl ever went out with me in high school.
Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was a writer, philosopher, literary critic, Semiotician (someone who studies how human beings make meaning out of things) and remains one of the most respected and influential minds of his generation. His most prominent work remains The Dialogic Imagination, four long-as-fucking-fuck essays that probe into the language structure of the novel and how they are able to re-shape said language to reflect the ways in which humanity uses language to define reality, define “others,” and order the structure of the novel as an institution. Point being the dude was a real riot at parties and if you can get him to perform at your kid’s birthday party instead of a clown.
Kid’s dig Russian philosophy, and its way less creepy that hiring Clappy the Sad Clown with Clap.
Bakhtin principally worked with novels, often with Dostoyevsky, however for this piece I will focus on his work with François Rabelais, specifically his book Rabelias and His World. I should let my reader understand, I’m being awfully honest in this essay, that I haven’t read the book in its entirety. The first semester of grad school I took a Literary Theory course thinking that it would help me as I progressed further in my academic career and let the record reflect this was one of the few serendipitous moments in life when this wound up to be true. The class exposed me to great minds like Judith Butler, Karl Marx, Jaques Derrida, Jaques Lacan, Gayle Rubin, Michel Foucault, and Ferdinand de Saussure. We might also have talked about Freud at some point. Bakhtin was not in fact a required reading but my professor, whom I had taken at least three times as an undergraduate, required an in-class presentation and so I wanted to sign up earlier for the first round of presentations so I could get it out of the way. I didn’t know dick about Bakhtin but the name sounded Russian and so I leapt into the passage printed in my Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition.
It was a wonderful moment when I began to realize that this wonderful essay about parties and shit would fit perfectly with Pound the Alarm but also with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Bakhtin’s essay explores a facet of Rabelais’s novels, specifically the instances of Carnival, a seasonal party that traced back to the solstice and the changing of the seasons. Many Americans would probably recognize their own form of the event in Mardi Gras or Spring Break, though the Carnival of Rabelais’s world is distinct for its own reasons. Bakhtin observes:
As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchal rank, privileges, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed
On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. (686)
It’s hard, as an American at least, to really process how profound such a situation or gathering would allow for something like this, given the fact that there isn’t an established nobility in America. I suspect however that they might understand it in economic terms. If the same people who gather in private country clubs joined you for a beer at a Honky-Tonk their presence would have an effect upon you, likewise if you were allowed free access to private golf courses and five star restaurants without a reservation or uproar from the clientele there would likely be some kind of culture shock taking place.
The song Topsy Turvy was my first choice to compare Bahktin’s ideas to Minaj’s video and I wouldn’t realize until I was well into it that I had made the right choice. Looking at just the opening lyrics it’s clear how this dynamic of power and social disruption is dominating the people’s consciousness:
Once a year we throw a party here in town
Once a year we turn all Paris upside down
Ev’ry man’s a king and ev’ry king’s a clown
Once again it’s Topsy Turvy Day
It’s the day the devil in us gets released
It’s the day we mock the prig and shock the priest
Ev’rything is topsy turvy at the Feast of Fools!
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is loosely based, emphasis on loosely based, on the novel by Victor Hugo, the man who wrote Les Miserables and was one of those authors who could never write a happy book. Because of this watching the film and reading the book are entirely different experiences, but that’s for another essay. The point is that looking at Clopin’s song, yes that was his name but I had to Google it so don’t be that impressed, many audiences were able to understand and recognize Carnival because we celebrate Madri Gras in America which on the surface seems similar. We wear masks. We act goofy. There’s Pole dancing.
Wait what was that?
I’ll come back to that one. The problem with this mindset is that it isn’t accurate to the true spirit of a medieval Carnival, or at least the presentation that Rabelias covered in his novels which tended to employ, what Bahktin often refers to a “grotesque realism.” He says:
The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity…
Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation builds a bodily grace for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. (688)
If you didn’t follow all of that don’t worry I’m about to get back to boobs here in a minute. Bahktin in this passage is just trying to lay out a concept of what degradation is so that he can analyze Rabelias and show how that concept is present throughout the entire work before explaining why it’s important. From afar this passage may just sound like the typical, esoteric bullshit that academics tends to peddle in, and in many ways it is, but, it should be noted that Bahktin never becomes so complex that he becomes incoherent. The man has something to say, namely that Carnival is not just about craziness and boobs. Carnival being a seasonal holiday wrapped up in the solstice, and the changing of the earth’s seasons would create a need for human beings to understand the death of the world as well as its rebirth. Because human beings are a meaning making species that favors rituals over psychological probing, they began to create parties and celebrations that would revel in death as much as life in order to cope with this seeming absurdity.
The problem is that somewhere along the line the idea of life became far more entertaining, specifically sex. This development is understandable because after all, sex is fun. When you’re having sex you’re not thinking about dying, you’re not wondering why the world dies and is reborn several months later. In fact you’re not really thinking at all, you’re just behaving and acting.
Looking at the song Topsy Turvy the sex may not be apparent at first sight, but going back and watching the scene there an extended scene of Esmerelda pole dancing. The scene’s easy to miss when you’re a kid, but then again so is Frolo’s sexual frustration that manifests in many well-hidden boners, and then one obvious symbolic one that sends him falling into the fiery pit of molten lead. It’s not enough though she simply grabs a spear and spins around in a motion your step-mom tries to imitate for her friends when she’s drunk, it’s also the regular hip pops, the hair twirls, and the endless series of her breasts jiggling in her red dress. The fact that at the end of her dance the people throw gold coins onto the stage doesn’t exactly help either.
But what’s missing from the scene is any kind of physical degradation.
Looking to Pound the Alarm it fares no better. The lyrics of the second verse alone suggest that Nicki likewise is pushing the idea of carnival as an erotic spectacle rather than one of earth, death, and rebirth:
I wanna do it for the night, night
So get me now, and knock this over
I wanna do it like you like, like
Come get me, baby, we’re not getting younger
I just want you tonight, night
Baby, we won’t do it for life, life
Music, makes me, high
Oh, oh, oh, come fill my glass up a little more
We ’bout to get up, and burn this floor
You know we getting hotter, and hotter
Sexy and hotter, let’s shut it down
Pound the alarm!
When I mentioned to one of my coworkers my desire to write about this song she had never heard of it, and after pulling up the video of Nicki dancing around, waving her butt and boobs, and more butt, and more boobs, her only response was “Pound, the alarm. Pound it. Pound.” She essentially did all the work for me. Anyone looking for death and rebirth within this song will not only be disappointed, they will be actively rebuffed, most likely against Nicki’s curvaceousness, for this song represents a growing trend in most popular music. The visuals of the video are enough to try and cancel any thought of death for Nicki’s body is endlessly presented in a vibrant and fertile display of breasts,
Allright I’ve made my point. One more. Boobs.
Nicki Minaj becomes a kind of fertility goddess as her body is presented with round…luscious…fleshy…Yeah I think you get it. Her lyrics present her body as the site for sexual interaction, but the way she directs most of the visuals in the video she recreates it as a kind of fertility symbol, allowing her large breasts and butt to become part of the fertility ritual that is in fact a desperate attempt to escape death.
At this point there’s really only one important question: if either of these songs involved references to, or displays of people taking a crap, would they retain the popularity they currently possess?
The answer of course is…of course not. Why did you even pause? Weirdo.
Obviously the sight of Nicki Minaj taking a dump on stage is enough to kill most of the boners currently existing on the internet, but this question is important when you consider the original intent behind Carnival as a festival of life. Life is meaningless without death and Bakhtin observes this in Rabelias’s work:
It would be a mistake to think that the Rabelaisian debasement of fear and suffering was prompted by coarse cynicism. We must not forget that the image of defecation, like all the images of the lower stratum, is ambivalent and that the element of reproductive force, and renewal is alive in it.
Excrement is gay matter; in the ancient scatological images, as we have said, it is linked to the generating force and to fertility. On the other hand, excrement is conceived as something intermediate between earth and body, as something relating the one to the other. It is also an intermediate between the living body and dead disintegrating matter that is being transformed into earth, into manure. The living body returns to the earth its excrement, which fertilizes the earth as does the body of the dead. Rabelias was able to distinguish these nuances clearly. (691)
I tutored biology for four years and the woman who taught the class had a charming expression concerning cellular respiration and photosynthesis. In a nutshell plants breath in our carbon dioxide to make sugars and produce oxygen as a waste product. In return human beings inhale the oxygen to make ATP (a chemical most species use for energy) and produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. This would follow with the statement: “So plants breath in our poo and produce their own poo, oxygen, which we breath in. Take a deep breath. You just breathed in plant poop!” This of course created the expected reaction, many people would groan or else gag, and as I’ve noted before in a previous essay this reaction is based in human beings paranoia about death.
Poop is gross and sticky, loaded with germs, and of course it smells awful. This is not up for debate. Nor am I calling for everyone to stop saying that poop is gross and seeing it and smelling it is gross. What is important to recognize however is that the inability to laugh at poop and fart related humor is the real conflict, and ultimately a key part of Bakhtin’s claim. Rabelias as a novelist captured the spirit of Carnival because the festival was about death, and poop by its nature is concentrated waste which amounts to the “death” of millions of cells, food particles, bacteria, and chemicals that the body simply cannot digest. When human beings observe this waste it unnerves us because recognize that at some point our lives are going to end and become waste that in turn will return to the earth. Being a narcissistic species this terrifies us and so we’re left scrambling to combat this realization often through intense displays or carnality.
Carnival was always a carnal affair (oh my god I just got that), and sex was certainly an important component to it. As the earth was dying or being reborn human beings felt an overwhelming desire to procreate and bring new life back into the territory that seemed to be dying or else being reborn. Most contemporary displays of Carnival, including contemporary re-imaginings, also touch upon this idea but what is missing is the acknowledgement of death. Every person on earth is going to die, and Carnival was not about escaping that fact, it was about embracing it. Human beings gathered together to drink, eat, tell jokes, fuck, and revel in their humanity as a way of achieving some kind of catharsis.
Laughing at a joke about poop allowed people the chance to laugh in the face of death even when it was all around them. Nicki Minaj’s breasts are nice to look at, and Esmerelda certainly looks lovely as she rocks that stripper pole/spear, but neither of these displays of wild and liberating sexuality really tries to embrace death for the sake of defeating it or at least coping with it. Both films ultimately try to run from death, hoping that sex and youth will ultimately win out the race, but death is patient and always returns man to the ground.
In the face of our own mortality the way to beat death is not trying to outrun it, but instead to laugh at a cheap fart joke when you can. Life is far too short and absurd not to.
I’ve included a link to Pound the Alarm below. I tried to find Topsy Turvy but all of the editions on the internet cut out the Esmeralda dance sequences.
All selections from Bakhtin’s analysis were cited in Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd Edition.
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
Let’s see if you learned anything. Enjoy the following poop related jokes:
I ate four cans of alphabet soup yesterday.
Then I had probably the biggest vowel movement ever.
What’s brown and sticky?
If you didn’t laugh at either of those, you’ve got some attitude buster.
Banned Book Week, Banned Books, body humor, Dav Pilkey, Essay, excrement, God's Little Acre, James Joyce, Jessica Roake, Literature, Mark Twain, One Nation, The Adventures of Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, Underpants
Recently I received the opportunity to read a banned book. I’m fortunate enough to attend a university in which Banned Book Week is not only a vital activity, but also a yearly one. Along with a basic introduction from librarians, as well as displays in the library following the history and practice of censorship, there is the opportunity to be filmed reading banned books. Last year I was unfortunate to discover that Banned Book had passed without my knowing and so the chance to raise a middle finger to censorship was denied to me. This year I was determined to remind censorship to go fuck itself, and so I arrived at the table ten minutes before anyone else showed up with my copy of Ulysses in tow. I was the first person of the week to read book, as per my pre-meditation. I sat before the camera and once I was given the signal began to read. After two minutes I received the signal to wrap up and so I finished. I’ve included a link below to YouTube in case you would care to watch. I’m not sure why you would, but if you feel so inclined here it is. I’ve also added a clip from two years ago when I was able to read the book God’s Little Acre.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du-9_ClGoas (God’s Little Acre)
I felt proud in this moment for I had denied the censor the chance to stifle my voice, as well as the voice of Joyce. This was my choice.
Now the selection of Ulysses is in part due to a recent fascination I’ve had with the author and his work. Regular readers of this blog will understand this. I approached the table with a firm dedication in mind to read Ulysses or else Catch-22. What a conundrum. In fact I had brought along three books, in case I had been outmaneuvered and someone had beaten me to the punch of actually reading first. Struggling already with three different books in mind I recognized a cart of readily prepared “offensive material” and discovered a forgotten tome. Resting in the stack was a copy of The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. At once I had a conflict of interest. It may surprise some, but when I was younger I had some problems with actually reading. I enjoyed films such as the Pagemaster and television programs like Wishbone that encouraged reading, but Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda had a way of sneaking into my day and stealing most of my attention(though in my defense I was an avid reader of Calvin and Hobbes and remain so to this day). However, about the time I reached the fourth grade I discovered a book that instilled, devotion is too pale a word so intense passion for reading will have to suffice. Captain Underpants became my entire reading life. It began with the first tome followed by the attack of The Talking Toilets, The Alien Lunch Ladies, the threat of Professor Poopy Pants, and the books continued to collect until I had a respectable library. Picking the book up the morning of my reading I read the first two chapters in a heartbeat and at once I was conflicted. I chose Ulysses in the end because it seemed unlikely anyone would bring their own copy of the book, and the novel is just too important not to be read.
Captain Underpants, much like Leopold Bloom when his own book was first published, has in recent times become a figure of controversy. In fact, the slim tome that constitutes the first volume of the multi-part series is the most banned book in America as of this writing. Consider that statement for a moment. A book designed for children about a superhero who runs around in underwear has been banned more than Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Invisible Man, Fahrenheit 451, and the list goes on and on.
Any steady reader of this blog may begin to question why I would waste my time concerned over a book that appears, upon examination of the plot, anything but literary. Two young boys by the name of George and Harold are tricksters who enjoy making comic books about a superhero named Captain Underpants. While not making these comic books they are re-arranging sign lettering into jokes about smelly armpits and peeing on rugs (and no, that is not a Big Lebowski reference). The teachers at their school are tyrannical bullies that enjoy punishing students with homework or else torturing them with homework assignments, the worst of all is Principle Krupp. George and Harold pull off the ultimate prank by ruining the State Football championship by filling the marching Bands instruments with soap, the cheerleader’s pom-poms with pepper, and finally in an almost orgasmic dénouement they fill the football with helium sending it miles into the air after it is kicked. Of course Krupp manages to catch them in the act and blackmails them until George and Harold decide enough is enough and they hypnotize him with the 3-D Hypno Ring (a call back to parents who remember such ads in the back of magazines and comic books that promised opportunities of X-ray glasses and Superman Muscle kits). Taking back the power from Krupp they decide to have a little fun and convince the man that he is really Captain Underpants. Krupp bounds heroically from the school however and the boy, fearing for the man but mostly fearing for their own skins (they are kids after all, or perhaps human beings is more fair) they pursue him until they find themselves caught up in the plot of the nefarious Dr. Diaper, a dwarfish man with razor sharp teeth who plans with to blow up the moon with his Laser Matic 2000 and take over the world.
I believe this is enough to get my point across.
The Adventures of Captain Underpants is certainly not a masterwork of literary achievement, but the book was good enough to make me want to pick up books when I was George and Harold’s age. As was stated before despite my near obsession with reading I was actually not much of a reader as a child. I enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, but beyond that I found reading to be a chore. The text books I was required to pick up for school promised only cold facts and reinforcement of the idea that I was JUST a child. The Adventures of Captain Underpants appears into the narrative of my life rather mysteriously. I believe it was at the school book fair that I discovered the first volume, or perhaps it was Barnes & Noble? I can’t remember. What I do remember was the impact that it made. While I did not manage to hypnotize my teacher, I did manage to collect the second, third, fourth, and fifth books as they were published and bought by my parents who were thrilled that I was reading anything and not simply trying to beat the sixth castle on Super Mario World (for the record I have beat it, but I still cannot get past the eighth castle). In hindsight however I understand why the book at first appears to be so threatening to the established quo.
Jessica Roake, in her essay One Nation, Underpants examines the novel excellently when she says:
The teachers are the real villains here: narrow-minded, cruel idiots who taunt George and Harold, throw parties upon their suspensions, and generally delight in punishing children. They are Roald Dahl’s evil adults, but even more broadly-drawn; like Dahl, Pilkey does not sugarcoat the unfairness of childhood or the petty tyrannies of adults on power trips. At Jerome Horwitz Elementary, drawn from Pilkey’s own childhood experience, teachers punish creativity and praise blind obedience. They force the students to obey soul-crushing rules, oppose independent thought, and feed them poisonous cafeteria food and aggressively mind-numbing lessons.
This gross caricature of the villainous teacher may not be appreciated by the underpaid, overworked educators who toil thanklessly to educate the nation’s children–I don’t know any teachers who actually relish the pain of children the way Pilkey’s do (except the gym teachers of my youth). But with all due respect to the dedicated teachers (and none to the gym teacher), so what? Any teacher/student power dynamic is tipped in the adult’s favor, and children need to feel like someone understands the fundamental unfairness of their world. Pilkey may be overly hard on teachers, but there can sometimes be nothing harder than a terrible teacher for a struggling kid.
And anyway, Pilkey, like Dahl, does not demand that his youthful protagonists be better than the adults who torment them. The boys sabotage the work of their fellow students (“nerds” come in for an unsettling amount of scorn from the usually underdog-rooting Pilkey) and often cross the line from pranksters to genuine terrors. Pilkey, though, is defiant in his refusal to judge the boys as anything other than good, rowdy kids ill-served by an authoritarian education system intent on medicating them into submission. Pilkey was just such a kid, and on his website writes, “I had a pretty tough time in school. I’ve always had reading problems, and I didn’t learn the same way that most of the kids in my class learned (being severely hyperactive didn’t help much, either). I was discouraged a lot, and sometimes I felt like a total failure.”
In this way I believe it is not that far off the mark to compare Captain Underpants to Leopold Bloom and Huckleberry Finn, for all three protagonists have inspired a sense of revulsion in the cruel who despise their honesty, and a refuge for those who appreciate just that.
Bloom, as I have stated in a previous essay, is a carnal being and bracingly frank. Describing the “smell of his wife” while eying the young woman on the beach that he will soon enough rub-one-out to he says:
Clings to everything she takes off. Vamp of her stockings. Warm shoe. Strays. Drawers: little knick, taking them off. Byby till next time. Also the cat likes to sniff in her shift on the bed. Knows her smell in a thousand. Bathwater too. Reminds me of Strawberries and cream. Wonder where it is really. There or the armpits or under the neck. Because you get it out of all holes and corners.
While this is hardly sling-shotting a fake dog turd under Dr. Diaper’s butt to distract him, the impact of this line could not be underestimated. Smells in the more classical or Victorian presentation would only ever be positive when referring to a man’s wife. While Bloom is not negating his wife’s particular aroma, every image presented is not necessarily flattering. “Holes and corners” would have been scandalous to an audience unaccustomed to such bracing honesty. And if my reader will indulge me I shall recite a passage I have noted before, because it is the best damn example I have:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big to bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! […] He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
Bloom’s content dumps however have not inspired the same level of ferocity as Huck Finn’s free moving lips. I have begun reading the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn recently, slowly however. Grad School is a mean bitch that eats your life one precious day at a time (worth every second). Now I had begun my reading of the book with the understanding the text was loaded with racial slurs that was indefensible and employed only for the sake of providing white men the excuse to employ that pathetic rhetoric devise of “I’m not a racist…but.” However, upon beginning the actual text I was reminded of my usual appreciation of Twain. The story is often sold to us as a harrowing allegory of possession and racism in humanity, when in fact it is simply the narration of a fourteen year old boy who possess little luck in life. Huck Finn has an abusive Pa who reappears in his life once Huck has discovered gold in the previous text of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (a book which I will admit I don’t care too much for). Huck, wanting not to hurt the man he should have every reason to despise, fakes his own death and escapes to the River where he encounters Jim, a run-away slave who is blamed for his death.
A professor of mine discussed a portion of the novel during a meeting in her office hours, and I later learned she had written a paper over the section entitled “the Story of Sollermun’”. In it the former slave Jim discusses the passage in the Bible in which Solomon proposes to cut the child in half. Jim says:
“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ‘bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ‘bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ‘bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ‘bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”
“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”
“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder—it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; hecan’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ‘em. But you take a man dat’s
got ‘bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. Achile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
I never see such a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see. So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide.
Before you continue, ask yourself a question. Did you really listen to Jim, or were you just waiting for the word nigger to pop up?
So I return to the issue of a banned book and the necessity of reading them. We should encourage the reading of banned books, because they eliminate confirmation bias, the psychological condition that enforces negative or positive opinions despite the coincidence or logical correlation between two points. People searching for racism in Huck’s behavior will obviously find it once they observe the word they are looking for, but they have missed the forest for the trees. While Jim is referred to as nigger by Huck, Twain, through Jim, has observed the condition of slave ownership. It is impossible to truly love something if it is bounteous. Much like Midas would come to loathe or become apathetic to gold, so Solomon grew to children, so too many people would grow to “niggers.” Because many of the richer landholders would be able to afford great quantities of slaves, they could afford the apathy toward the sadism and injustice that could occur on their plantation. Here begins a fascinating conversation about the travesty that is the slavery institution (and before anyone suggests that slavery is over and done with the World Cup of 2022 will be held in Qatar, which is a modern day slave state).
Though we may be uncomfortable with the ideas expressed by Huck, that is no reason to abandon the conversation altogether. Both Huck, and Bloom, and yes, even Captain Underpants all have perspectives of life and humanity that need to be observed. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, like Much of Twain’s books, begins with a notice by the author which reads:
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be pros-
ecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; per-
sons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
So it does in The Adventures of Captain Underpants, however Pilkey is a little more accommodating:
Sturgeon General’s Warning
Some material in this book may be considered offensive by people who don’t wear underwear.
Reading a banned book is a rewarding and depressing experience, because you are quick to discover that the books will only make you laugh, or, perhaps even worse, they will make you think.
I have included a link to the rest of the article which I would highly advise, for it is beautifully written and the most intelligent defense of the book I have yet to read.
Arundhati Roy, authorial freedom, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, excrement, farting, Freedom, Irish Writers, James Joyce, Johnathan Franzen, Joyce in Bloom, Leopold Bloom, Literature, Sensuality, The God of Small Things, Ulysses
I find it fitting and hilarious that the passage of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom empties his bowels while reading the paper happens to occur on page 69 of my personal paperback copy of the novel. Had Joyce lived to see our current age of sexual punnage I have no doubt such a fact would have pleased him all the more.
I will not lie, the novel is difficult to read. In fact to this day it is rated one of the three books PhD’s are supposed to lie the most about actually reading (followed by Moby Dick, which I have read, and Finnegan’s Wake, which I have yet to sit down and read, though I most certainly want to). The real power of Ulysses cannot, in my experience, be felt by simply sitting down and reading it as one would read any other novel. The diction alone almost competes with such an effort. Instead I have found that sampling the text a few pages at a time infects the reader with a sense of the real potential of what language can accomplish when given reign to simply explore. But back to the potty talk.
The critique of Joyce that often rings the second loudest (for the call of “what the fuck is this crap?” resounds as persistently as a Sunday Church bell) is Joyce’s frank carnality in his text. A sample of the novel proves this:
Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently, that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too big to bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! […] He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell.
On a side note, this scene of honest defecation actually caused some conflict of interest for T.S. Eliot while composing his masterpiece The Waste Land, for in it was reference to urination, but let us remain focused upon Joyce’s contribution to “Fine Literature.” The honest presentation of carnal satisfaction through depositing feces is a human moment. We all shit, and the ability of a writer to present something so commonplace and re-invent it is the surest sign of ability. But the carnality does not stop there. Bloom’s sexual eccentricity becomes forefront as he masturbates on a public beach, attends a Turkish bathhouse where his penis is described as hanging limp like a flower, he visits a brothel with the hero of Joyce’s previous efforts Stephen Daedelus, he dines on kidneys, and, to quote his wife Molly the symbolic Persephone of the piece, enjoys kissing his wife’s rump.
Without sitting down to actually read the novel, this summary of actions may lead someone to believe the original misconception that Ulysses was somehow pornographic. The original publication was banned in America for this reason, which seems to remind us all that Americans weren’t really reading even back in the 1920s. Ulysses cannot be pornography for no pornographer takes the same level of dedication to create defamiliarization (for those unfamiliar with Literary theory this is the practice of describing an object or action in such a way that it seems new to us the reader). Observe Joyce’s description of Bloom kissing his wife’s bottom:
He kissed the plump mellow yellow smellow melons of her rump, on each plump melonous hemisphere, in their mellow yellow furrow, with obscure prolonged provocative melons mellonous osculation.
The visible signs of postsatisfaction?
A silent contemplation: a tentative velation: a gradual abasement: a solicitous aversion: a proximate erection.
What followed this silent action?
Somnolent invocation, less somnolent recognition, incipient excitation, catechetical interrogation.
One wonders briefly how many sweaty palmed readers opened the pages of Ulysses hoping to discover orgies and sticky sentences but instead found only a modern masterpiece of prose that left even academics stumped. Observe the presentation again of Molly’s ass. “Mellow yellow smellow melons of her her rump,” is more Dr. Seus than it is Jesse Jane. Joyce’s carnality is wrapped in poetry of prose that has yet to be truly mastered or re-imitated by anyone in the twentieth or twenty-first century.
Very well you say, but so what? I don’t understand why I should care about a book that’s just about un-readable, even to literary critics. More to the point, why should I care about bodily functions?
I believe I shall allow another to speak first before I answer this question. Christopher Hitchens elaborated upon this carnality in language with his essay Joyce in Bloom when he says:
Talking of lubrication…for all its soaring, Ulysses repeatedly comes back to earth in the earthiest sense, and reminds us that natural functions and decay and sexual frustrations are part of the common lot. Here Joyce’s childishness about potty humor and playing with yourself was an enormous help to him. We are familiar now with the idea of “interior monologue” and “stream of consciousness,” but nobody before Joyce has shown us a man—Bloom—partly planning his day around his hand jobs.
As per usual, Mr. Hitchens’s pen speaks truth with efficient tact. Ulysses rocked the literary world because of its honest use of what I prefer to recognize as “sensual
honesty.” Joyce freely shows Leopold Bloom masturbating in public and dumping in order to accurately reflect the human condition to reassert reality through their sensuous activity.
Before you protest further allow me to ask you a few questions. Please answer honestly. How do you feel as voiding your bowels? Have you ever orgasmed? What is your overall sensation as releasing a fart? Is there anything better than fried chicken? How many times do you lick your lips after eating a bag full of chips? These should be adequate for my argument. If you answered honestly to all of these questions there should be a general conclusion that each of these actions bring you some kind of closure through satisfaction. It is not intellectual inquiry; it’s just doing what feels good. Our mind registers such feeling without dedicating much more thought than is necessary because they are purely part of the body experience.
Literature before Joyce had acknowledged sexual activity but only through labyrinthine language that left everything suggested or symbolic. As for daily constitutions there was no mention, period. Joyce’s effort in Ulysses then is to strip away that language and show human beings on a more sensual plane. Some may suggest that this eliminates the escapist aspect of literature but I do not believe this. Escapism is not simply about car chases, bubble-boobed bimbos in halter tops, and Skittles. Escapism, at its core, is about leaving your perception of reality and experiencing someone else’s view of the world. Joyce most certainly accomplishes this. More importantly, he totally recreates literature to allow writers to explore and understand the more basic sensual impulses of humanity affording readers the chance to observe every aspect of humanity.
If the efforts of Joyce are not enough perhaps another example is necessary. Arundhati Roy’s sole book The God of Small Things, tends to experiment with language as much as Joyce (though some might suggest that Roy at attempts to be understood which is moderately fair), and much like Joyce Roy is free in her use of body imagery to examine corruption and humanity:
Ammu coughed up a wad of phlegm into her handkerchief and showed it to Rahel. “You must always check it,” she whispered hoarsely, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in “When it’s white, it means it isn’t ripe. When it’s yellow and has a rotten smell, it’s ripe and ready to be coughed out. Phlegm is like fruit. Ripe or raw. You have to be able to tell.
One can almost taste the phlegm as it works its way up the throat. The way it clings to the roof of the mouth leaving a thin membrane of flavor upon the tongue. Roy’s novel has been received with some controversy in her native land of India for her frank portrayal of the corruption that plagues her country, whether it be the external influence of foreign nations or else the internal vise of the caste system which leaves numerous individuals with no potential to escape the horridness of their cultural situation. Roy’s effort to incorporate sensuality in her novel can be attributed more to her desire to reveal corruption than to make an honest statement about sensuality in general. It is not my effort to damn her for this, but instead to reveal the honesty of prose. Such a description would be thought unheard of in a novel by Austen, Dickens, Hardy, or any of the great masters of the past. Even more freely tongued authors such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Twain, or Woolf would be averse to describe such a raw moment of corporeality. This is because even today honest demonstrations of excrement offend us.
Perhaps the only modern exception to this that springs to mind is the novel Freedom by Johnathan Franzen. Most recently the book, as well as the author, has been praised as the last real effort of an American to produce the definitive novel (whatever that truly means) and in many ways I must agree with them. Tracking the progress of a family from the East coast we come into contact with the son Joey who swallows his wedding ring and is forced to eventually retrieve it. Franzen is unsparing as he is excellent.
Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad it seemed evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with the fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of a fork had been a wishful fantasy. […]He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through his fingers. […] He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Franzen’s moment of sensuality retains that discretion towards excrement that will remain rigid, for many good reasons, but the honesty of presenting such a scene is dependent upon an original foundation. Were it not for Joyce, such a moment would not be experienced in text and in some ways, enjoyed by modern audiences. We are horrified by what is described, but by this point poop has become so much a part of our public consciousness we are willing to allow authors to use it in plot devices, as long we see it as a serious character developing moment.
Our body is not perfect, and in fact it seems to enjoy tormenting us with cramps, odors, and general pains that leave us scampering after the shattered remnants of our dignity. Our society does not seem to object to praising and celebrating the various sexual reactions our body may generate, but should any attempt to laugh or examine fecal material and “potty humor” they are treated with hostility. Biologically it makes, feces is ridden with harmful bacteria, not to mention various nematodes that may infect and spread should they enter one of our numerous orifices. However as I reminded my reader before, the sensual satisfaction derived from, for lack of a better phrase, “dropping a deuce” is a psychologically sound form of closure. It feels good to release. Those who object most to these kind of presentations of sensual satisfaction usually tend to be those who derive the most enjoyment from them and are uncomfortable acknowledging such satisfactions. Literature such as Ulysses, The God of Small Things, and Freedom then are necessary, for they open the doorway to conversations about the human body. Literature at its core is designed to make us unfamiliar with the world we know and re-create it so that we come to new understanding of our own reality.
I’m told it’s always best to end it with a joke, but instead I will conclude with a poem:
A fart can be quiet,
A fart can be loud,
Some leave a powerful,
A fart can be short,
Or a fart can be long,
Some farts have been known,
To sound just like a song.
A fart can create
A most-curious medley,
A fart can be harmless,
Or silent, but deadly.
A fart can occur
In a number of places,
And leave everyone
With strange looks on their faces.
From wide-open prairies,
To small elevators,
A fart will find all of us
Sooner or later.
So be not afraid
Of the invisible gas,
For always remember,
That farts, too, shall pass.
Not quite to the level of Joyce himself, but as the song suggests our body’s woes and highs are not to be dwelled on severely but merely to be experienced. Laugh it off and move on; otherwise you’ll just be another poophead who can’t take a joke.