We’re Getting Concerned Mr. Smith
3 October 2017
abuse of authority, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, chaos, Essay, film review, graphic novel, Happy Birthday, Humor, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, journalism, Libraries, Literature, metacognition, police brutality, science fiction, Spider Jerusalem, The Left Hand of Darkness, Transmetropolitan, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Ursula K. Le Guin, White Tower Musings, Writer's Social Role, Writing
So much can happen and change over the course of a year. That’s the stuff of sentimental platitudes, but I’m writing my yearly reflection essay since the anniversary of this shitty-blog is today. And, as always, when I write about White Tower Musings and writings, I tend to get either mopey or maudlin. But in this case so much has actually happened over the course of a year and so I wanted to take a moment and really reflect on what has happened.
My regular reader will have determined at this point that I’ve graduated college and started working at the Tyler Public Library. I say this with no hyperbole, this job has saved my life. Part of the life changes that have occurred since last year was graduated from college with my master’s degree and then figuring out what was next. I flourished in graduate school because, I say this without any ego here, I was one of the good students who gave a shit and so I managed to succeed. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I was making myself, in my head, into something I wasn’t. Instead preparing myself for life after college I clung to school never wanting to leave. This in turn created the idea in my head that I was going to be a college professor, teaching English and writing and hopefully literature to freshmen and sophomore students. But that didn’t happen, or at least, not right away, and so for a period of about five of six months I sat in my house, living off the money I had saved from work, occasionally going out and having coffee with friends, desperate for work. When an offer finally came from a local community college I snapped it up imagining that teaching would make me happy, or, to be honest, that I would find a group of people like the one I had in graduate school or the writing center at UT Tyler. This was anything but and I realized quickly that I had sold the idea of teaching college to myself because I was an egoist. I thought that teaching would make me happy because it would be a chance for me to flex my intellectual muscle and that I would change people’s lives. I might have succeeded in the latter, but it became observable fairly quickly that I wasn’t a great teacher, I was, at best, passable.
But these birthday essays are always about metacognition, or, thinking about thinking. While I was teaching I was also still writing for White Tower Musings, and these essays tended to be my lifeboat. They kept me happy, or, at least, they gave me an outlet from which I could focus away from the frustrations of day to day reality. I wasn’t always thinking about the students, and if I was thinking about them it usually wasn’t positive thoughts. And then the suicidal feelings kicked in.
All of these thoughts, all of these feelings are still with me (it’s only been a about seven months since I quit my job at the college and started working for the library) but as I continue to wake up everyday and try to get in my 300 words I realize what this site has really meant for me. But I still think about the students in that class, specifically what I failed to convey and instill in them which is that writing and writers really can enact change.
About a year or two back the graphic novel book club that I’m a part of got around to reading a book entitled Transmetropolitan. It was a science fiction “dystopian” story about a reporter named Spider Jerusalem who has retreated to the mountains where’s he disappeared from society. His publisher tracks him down and informs him that he owes them two books or else they will track him down and sue him into a state of emotional, physical, and psychological poverty. Jerusalem comes down from the mountain and returns to “The City.” This nameless urban territory is impossible to describe largely because Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson manage to assault the reader with near constant bombardments. In “The City” there are advertisements for the President, family cannibal restaurants, the famous kids cartoon show “Sex Puppets,” religious organizations with titles like “fuck the Holy Gut Wound of St. Marc” and “Thor Needs Virgins,” hostels for de-frozen cryogenic patrons, and I could literally fill pages with all the back-ground that Spider Jerusalem encounters.
The book is broken up into a ten part series and, apart from its eerie similarity to the 2016 United States Presidential election, I’ve started reading the books one by one and am currently working through number 7, and while
I would love to sit down and write reviews of every book I’ve come to recognize that such impulses are largely fools errands. These essays come about because of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about at a certain time, and as my “third birthday” comes around Transmetropolitan has reminded me about the power of writing because of one small scene in the first book.
Spider Jerusalem is writing a column about a Police Riot that is attacking a group of people known as Transients, human beings that have blended their DNA with that of aliens. Jerusalem manages to sneak into the riot, get to the roof of a strip-club, and there, surrounded by strippers, he starts to write.
There’s a jungle rhythm beating out below me; the sound of truncheons hammering on riot shields, police tradition when the streets get nasty. I’m in Angels 8, above what will doubtless be called the Transient Riot. History’s only written by the winners, after all, and if the cops want it called the Transient Riot, then that’s how it’ll be.
Because there’s going to be Transient blood all over the place. And you know something? It’s not their fault.
The Transients couldn’t have managed this on their own. They’re just big kids who thought it’d be fun to live inside an alien body. A sane society would’ve tagged them for the waterheads they are and bought them a big playground. But no one even checked to see if their silly claim for succession was feasible. Civic Center just decided to stamp on them instead. They payed a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration. Spontaneous violence, the only excuse Civic Center would have to send in the riot cops. These people are bleeding down there for a scam.
It’s a show of power. How dare anybody ignore the authority of Civic Center? How dare a bunch of freaks try and think for themselves. So let’s go out and stomp on children, lunatics and incompetent, because by damn it makes out balls feel big. I can see a blatantly unarmed Transient unarmed man with half his face hanging off, and three cops working him over anyway.
One of them is groping his own erection.
I’m sorry is that too harsh an observation for you. Does that sound too much like the Truth? If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be seeing a Transient woman with blood on her face huddled in a porn-store doorway, clutching her belly. I wouldn’t be looking down at a dead boy, thirteen, he’s a day, draped over the hood of a police wagon. No one’s eyes would be bleeding from incapacity sprays of the nerve bomblets the cops are launching from Cranberry. I wouldn’t be surrounded up here by the people who have to live and work here, weeping openly.
Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence. You see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. Your boss does what he likes. The asshole at the tollbooth, the bouncer at your local bar, the security guy who frisks you ate the clinic, the papers and feedsites that lie to you for the hell of it. They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.
This “riot” here, this terrible shit-rain visited upon a bunch of naïve and uppity fetishists; you paid for it. Lap it up. You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you. (62-7).
This was a rather long passage and partly because it was so long my contester will interrupt. What relevance does this passage have to anything or anyone? It just sounds like a bunch of sci-fi bullshit that doesn’t have any real connection to real life. Why should I give a damn about Spider Jerusalem or a bunch of alien-human hybrids?
My reader has a good point, and while I could answer it directly I’d prefer to let another writer do most of the work for me. Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve only recently discovered but already she’s secured a place in my heart for her essays about the craft of writing and the importance of science fiction. In the introduction of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness she explores the idea of science fiction and what it can do:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
Transmetropolitan is a science fiction story because it predicts a future where technology has led to opportunity and comfort, but by and large Warren Ellis writes the world in such a way that capitalism and urbanization has led to a kind of cultural explosion where every conceivable taboo is relinquished and human beings are a mass of apathetic sensualists who are either dead inside or else completely oblivious to the suffering of other people.
And where does metacognition come into it?
In the last three years I’ve watched my country change into something odd. Protests are becoming far more common, and tragically so is police action against such protests. In the last three years the social role of journalists seems to have improved, but by that same token the populace is splintered by their “news preferences” which has led to some institutions being labeled “fake news.” In the last three years the issue of race has become something that has invigorated social rights activists, and by the same measure “white-lashing” has increased as bigots have warped and twisted political slogans and mantras into something that benefits their own ideologies. In the last three years there have been enormous political and social strides for queer people, and at the same time political actions hellbent on labeling queer people as perverts and cretins has never been stronger.
Absorbing my culture I think back to the image of Spider Jerusalem perched on the roof writing his column. It’s a simple image, but one that has become iconic. The writer and their typewriter, or laptop if you prefer something more contemporary, represents intellectual activity, but it also tends to become synonymous with change and power. Writers observe and absorb their cultures before writing their take which can often translate exactly what people are thinking or feeling and inspire change.
Looking at the last lines in the film All the President’s Men you get a sense for what’s possible when writer’s do their job right:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
But what does any of that have to do with my shitty blog?
I don’t enact change, real change anyway. Most of my stats demonstrate that most the people who find this site are people looking for pornography or else help writing papers for their English 1301 course. I’ve said this all before in previous Happy Birthday essays, but it warrants repeating because after three years I realize I fucked up tremendously with those students because of my selfishness. I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a great writer, and while I do have some talent, the reality is what I’ve said it is: I’m just another nobody with a shitty blog.
But even if I haven’t accomplished something of great merit, I can rest on the fact that I’ve written and brought attention to other great writers whose work has and will continue to inspire the next generation of young thinkers and skeptics and journalists and novelist who will look at the world and see something wrong or beautiful and want to write about it.
I’ve thought more and more that I would love to publish the essays here as a book and title it The Work Thus Far. It seems fitting. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many essays I write, it never feels like there’s a real end. The writer, the Great Man, sits at his keyboard typing words out and throwing them into the great sea of the internet hoping somebody out there will care. The writer writes, and in the end that’s all I could ever really ask for.
Thanks for three years dear reader.
All quotes from Transmetropolitan Vol 1 were taken from the Vertigo paperback edition. The quote from All the President’s Men was provided by IMBD. The quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness can be found by following the link below:
anal penetration, Art, artist, big dicks, Bisexuality, blowjob, F. Valentine Hooven III, Female Masculinity, Gay, Gay Leather Fetish, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, giant cocks, Homosexuality, Homosexuality as mental illness, Humor, Jack Halberstam, Kake, leather, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Pornography, Queer Theory, sexual Education, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, soldiers, Sucking Cock is a Great Way to Spend a Friday Night, The Advocate, The Complete Kake Comics, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Well of Loneliness, Tom of Finland, Tom of Finland: His Life and Times, Touko Laaksonen, uniforms, Working Class Men
A man goes into a bathroom to take a piss. Another man walks up, whips it out, and starts to pee. The men look at each other’s cocks, smile, and start to fool around. In the middle of their fun another man walks in and joins in, the next man who walks in is a sailor, this is followed by a young student, then a black man in a suit, and finally a biker dressed in rough denim and a sleeveless leather vest. The story ends with all the men fucking butt to butt to butt to butt to butt, and my reader gets it from there. Despite the graphic intensity of this image what is absolutely important about this story, which is told as a series of pictures, is that all the men who are having sex in this bathroom are smiling.
That may not seem terribly important, but for the time this story was drawn out it was not only controversial, it was unprecedented.
I don’t apologize for admitting that I’m a consumer of pornography. And to be perfectly honest, there isn’t anyone living in this contemporary period who should. Pornography has transcended its previous space in society which, until recently, was at the bottom of your dad’s sock drawer or filing cabinets. The days when little boys (and some girls, let’s be fair here) would steal their father’s Playboys and tremble as they turned pages discovering the awesome power of airbrushing has passed, and now generations of little boys (and girls, again, let’s be fair) now have an unlimited supply of images and videos of naked people fucking. Now there’s plenty of discourse about whether this new openness and ease of access to pornography is negatively affecting the population, but that’s for another essay.
I am a consumer of pornography, and while at times this is a fact that can be embarrassing there is one crucial fact that needs to be observed: I watch and consume gay porn because I’m queer and I want to remain faithful to my wife.
It’s taken quite a while to develop the kind of confidence to admit this, both out loud and to millions of anonymous strangers on the internet, but it’s a fact nonetheless. Since I came out I’ve begun to read more and more about bisexual identity, homosexual identity, and more specifically about sexual intimacy between men. My growing Queer library is almost completely dominated by men (phrasing) and one book in this ever-rising mountain of same-sex intimacy has become not only one of my favorite books, but also the most important: The Complete Kake Comics.
Kake, pronounced Kah-ke or cake, dealer’s choice, is the creation of a man by the name of Touko Laaksonen and has become since his early appearance in the 1950s and 60s, and icon of gay and bisexual male culture. With his leather jacket, slim moustache, and black leather cap Kake established a visual ideal from which gay men the world over identified and mimicked in their dress and overall behavior. If the reader has never observed or read any of the Kake comics I’ve provided some images within the body of this essay, some of which are obviously hyperbolic and purely pornographic. I
discovered Kake, and his creator Tom of Finland, completely by accident. I wish there was a dignified way of explaining this serendipity other than “I googled hot guys and look what came out” but, yeah, again, dignity, that’s a thing I don’t possess.
In my defense, however, after discovering the snippets of online content of Tom’s work I managed to track down a complete book on Amazon which I purchased and read. Studying the drawings was entertaining, not just for the obvious perverted reason, but because Tom of Finland manages to illustrate beautiful scenes of men fucking in a wide variety of contexts and locations and each page is beautiful for the perspective and attention to detail. Reading the book I enjoyed seeing these handsome men having fun and enjoying themselves and fucking with abandon because, unlike most of the pornography in the contemporary market, these men looked like they were actually having fun while they fucked. The sex wasn’t about berating your partner, calling him a bitch or a fag, and then relishing in any pain. The sex was just about enjoying yourself.
That, and there’s also lots of gargantuan cocks.
This is a long introduction however to my real focus which is a book that few people will ever actually read. Tom of Finland: His Life and Times by F. Valentine Hooven III is out of print and so it’s unlikely that outside of a few die-hard fans the book will ever be encountered by the casual reader of queer studies. It’s because the book is out of print that I felt compelled to write about it, but also because, as I noted before, Tom’s men are beautiful examples of what sex between men (and sex between people) should look like.
Hooven observes this as he examines Tom’s men:
The Third element of Tom’s art was its sense of humor. For whatever reason, sex and laughter have been linked throughout history. From Lysistrata to Tom Jones to Lolita, the preponderance of the great works of erotica have been comedies and even in the narrower field of hard-core pornography a large number of better works […] combine humor with their graphic depiction of sex. Tom followed
firmly in this tradition and consciously imbued his drawings with a general sense of light-hearted play. No heavy-handed drama, no sense of “the love that dare not speak its name” was permitted to intrude. Even when Tom’s men steal and fight and tie one another up, there is an overall feeling of “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again!” (92-3).
It’s a pathetic state of affairs when this paragraph hits a familiar ear. Hooven I would argue accurately sums up the problem of much of the early pornographic writing, or even simply romantic writing, of the time because anyone who has ever read much early queer fiction recognizes that much of it is nothing but queer people mourning their very existence. This isn’t just my own observation, for even queer critics and historians have noted this tragedy in works that are now cannon of queer literature, the most obvious example being Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness.
The novel is a romance that was published in 1928 and told the story of two lesbians, one of which assumed a kind of personality and physical make-up that many would refer to as butch. It’s a mode of being that assumes what some in culture would refer to as “masculine traits” but it retains the gender identification of female. The Well of Loneliness was made a bit of hubbub when it was first published, and in their book Female Masculinity Jack Halberstam observes the gender matter in the novel, while observing this narrative trend:
Both novels [The Well of Loneliness & The Picture of Dorian Grey] depict homosexuality as congruent with some kind of gender inversion, and both depict the subterranean worlds of homosexuals as lonely drug dens filled with moral perversion. […] Some lesbian critics have begun the work of recuperating The Well of Loneliness by referencing it as a brave depiction of butch sexuality that replaces a model of lesbianism as a sin with medical and sociological models of the lesbian as invert and victim respectively. (98).
I could get into a long explanation as to why many of the early queer authors were forced to write about homosexual existence as a morbid affair, but the simplest explanation is the fact that homosexuality was still considered either a vice or else a mental disorder. Many homosexual people could face outright persecution, exile from loved ones, incarceration in mental hospitals where all manner of tragedies including lobotomy and electroshock could occur, and outright death sentences. Is it any wonder then that homosexual life, and sex, was often portrayed by writers as gloomy and miserable?
Taking this knowledge into account Tom of Finland’s work is simply incredible for its time. It’s not just that the art work is provocative and satisfies what is sometimes referred to as “hard-core pornography.” One crucial element makes his work as powerful and dynamic as it is and Hooven explains it to his reader.
But there was one aspect of Tom’s work above all the others that made it unforgettable. This element was the very one Tom worked the harde
st to add to his drawings. It was partly a compendium of the three qualities already mentioned: the sense of humor, the feeling of immediacy, and the more and more blatant homosexuality; but it was more than just a sum of these three. It could be as simple as a smile, yet it was one of the hardest things to draw deliberately; Tom managed to portray it. Namely, his men were unmistakably happy.
Happy homosexuals? That was new! (94).
If the reader is not familiar with the history of homosexual people, this sentence could almost be eyerolling in its sentiment. Current media being what it is, many people might immediately push back and wonder why this presentation was so unique. Hell, just a casual glance through the perverted landscape of Tumblr is enough to make anyone question why would the presentation of happy queer men be so shocking or important? My response to this, dear reader, is exactly the last line of Hooven’s analysis. These happy homosexuals were new.
Queer artists interested in presenting homosexual sex, both in terms of serious art as well as pornography owe their freedom in this capacity to Tom of Finland because the man’s work established a precedent where men could illustrate sex between men as something that was fun. And considering the presentation of sex that often occurs in art this is still something relevant. Watching sex scenes in movies and T.V. shows and even in pornography, most of it isn’t about fun. Sex is often just about scratching an itch, completing one’s sense of identity, showing it as part of a lifestyle, filling an emotional void, or at its worse, proving your virility. There really hasn’t been any presentation of sex as something fun as far as I can see apart from a few obscure artists and Tom of Finland.
In fact, to be honest, the last sex scene I watched on television that made it appear that sex was something fun was the sex between Gabe and Samantha White on the Netflix show Dear White People, or the masturbation scene with Lionel. Both of these scenes show people have sex or masturbating and at the end it’s clear that the act was about enjoying yourself and just having fun.
Looking at my own desire I think this is the reason why I keep returning to Tom of Finland over and over again, because while it is just about the itch of masturbation, there’s always another level in it for me. I want my desire to be something healthy, and I want the expression of it to be something fun. Even if I can’t have sex with another man, if I could I wouldn’t want the experience to be just about proving my virility or enjoying a lifestyle. There should be an honest joy in fucking because fucking is supposed to be fun.
It would be enough to observe that Hooven notes Tom’s approach to illustrating gay men as happy and content, but one other characteristic of his work is noted and catalogued in this biography. The reader will probably observe in the images of Tom’s work an attention to clothes, specifically the way men are dressed in jeans, leather, or military uniforms. I’ll admit freely this is also part of the appeal of these men for me. I’ve noted in several essays that growing up I felt less than fully confident in my masculinity, not out of misidentification with my gender, but because I didn’t feel like I was a “real man.” This still exists to some extent (it’s hard to feel any kind of macho when you spend most of your working hours in dress pants and bow-ties), but part of the fun of my bisexuality has been discovering what kind of man turns me on, and it’s almost always working class men.
These men embody the kind of masculine ethos that I lacked with their denim, callused hands, and their down-to-earth attitudes. And, if I can speak plainly, it’s mostly because they’re fucking hot as fuck.
This image of queer men however was something that, much like images of happy men, were unheard of. Queer men of the previous era were resigned to the “invert” or else the “fairy,” characters who were effeminate, flambouyant, and almost always self-loathing. It should be noted that effeminate queer men were and are legitimate personality types, and while not every queer man subscribes to that label no one should feel bad if they are a queen. Still for many men this gender presentation wasn’t true to their selves and so they found in Tom of Finland’s work a mode of dress that matched their perception of what masculinity was.
From 1957 on, Tom’s Work set up a series of powerfully masculine images for large numbers of gay men. In the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay pride, many of those men were no longer satisfied to merely lust after Tom’s men. In the seventies, San Francisco’s “Castro clone” look—Levi’s, boots, and work shirts—swept the gay scene, and gay men began to try to be Tom’s men. Even as the baby-boom gays aged during the eighties, they strove to emulate the Tom of Finland ideal. More and more of them began working out; super-butch haircuts and outfits and attitudes spread in popularity. So Tom’s work in the eighties presented an older but butcher male. In a way, this alteration was a reflection of changes in gay male society that were in turn partially a reflection of Tom’s work in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. (164-5).
I’ve divulged a lot about myself in this essay, and probably revealed aspects of my personal life many people were probably happy never knowing, but after I finished Tom of Finland: His Life and Times I realized that I had to write about this book, not just because of what Tom’s work has meant for me and my personal sexual development, but for millions of men across the world. New generations of gay, bisexual, and queer young men will discover the man’s work and find in his images their own erotic truth. They’ll find images of men that satisfy their erotic interest, and some of them will be so inspired that they’ll pick up a pen and start drawing.
Pornography as a mode of art does not receive a great deal of credit or respect, and studying it as I have it’s pretty clear not much of it deserves credit. Pornography as an art is usually a back-scratcher: it’s designed to take care of an itch and then be laid aside and quickly forgotten. Growing up the way I did, I realize however that pornography was an intimate part of my sexual development and has been for millions of young people. As human beings progress forward into this Information age, online pornography is going to shape the sexual lives of young people and so the work of someone like Tom of Finland is not just an esoteric study, it’s something important to talk about.
If people are going to be exposed to pornography at young ages, it’s important then that they understand what healthy sex is. Looking at the landscape of pornography Tom of Finland’s work is a beautiful exception because it encourages people to be themselves and be happy. Rather than present sexuality as something violent or misogynistic, Tom’s work is just sexual play. It’s appeal to the imagination where human beings can just imagine fun situations that can be repeated over and over again by turning the page and seeing a new angle or a new position. It may be pornography, but at least it offers a healthy view into sexuality.
And, if I can make at least one more appeal, it offers a firm reminder that there’s something about a man in uniform.
All quotes taken from Tom of Finland: His Life and Times were provided from the First edition St. Martin’s Press hardback copy.
NOTE: This book is currently out of print, therefore tracking a copy down for yourself will be difficult…unless you follow the link below to amazon where you can buy a copy. Tom of Finland is just too important to be forgotten
And if the reader would be interested in finding The Complete Kake Comics, you can follow the link below:
My reader may have observed me using the word Queer in place of Gay for most of this essay. I’ve decided that whenever I write about same-sex intimacy between men that I will use queer in place of Gay, not out of a desire of homosexual erasure, but more as a way of leveling the playing field. I’m a bisexual man who prefers the term queer because my desire is pretty open ended. Plus, not knowing the sexual identity of my reader I feel queer provides more of a safety net. Writing out “queer man” is far simpler than “gay, bisexual, pansexual, man.”
If you hate me for this please remember that we’re all united in our love of cock. It is, to quote the great philosopher, just fantastic.
I also found, during research, a link to an article about a film recently made about the life of Tom of Finland. If the reader is interested simply follow the link below:
I also found an article published in The Advocate about the lasting importance of Tom of Finland:
"D'Artagnan Motherfucker!", "I like the way you die boy", Academic Book, Alexander Dumas, Broomhilda, Calvin Candie, Candy Land, D'Artagnan, dehumanization, Django Unchained, Dr. King Schultz, Fairy Tale, Film, film review, German Legend, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Historical Accuracy, history, Human Body, humanity, Humor, Jaimee Fox, Jane Tompkins, John Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mandingo Fighting, myth, mythology, N-Word, Nigger, Politics, Quentin Tarantino, race, Race relations, racial slurs, racism, Revenge Story, Satire, Siegfried, slavery, The Gaurdian, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns
I’m pretty sure John Wayne would hate Django Unchained, but only because Jaimee Fox looks fine-as-hell in those glasses. John Wayne could rock jeans and a bandanna…and that’s pretty much it. Sorry John.
The first image or memory I have of Django Unchained was seeing it opening day, which was Christmas. Apart from the snowstorm that damn near killed me as I drove home in my piss-for-shit 95 Ford Truck that had no heater at the time, I distinctly remember being the only person in the theater, apart from a family of African Americans to my right, who were laughing. I just remember that family laughing because most of the rest of the theater were white people who gave me nasty looks as I was walked out of the theater. I just couldn’t help it. There’s something about watching a group of white men complain about not being able to see through their hoods that’s just pathetic and hilarious.
And because I’m feeling indulgent, why not just quote the scene directly. Big Daddy a plantation owner, and part-time Colonel Sanders impersonator, has tracked Django and Dr. King Schultz with a posse of men to lynch the pair of them. Before they ride in to attack them they plan their attack and the conversation eventually takes place:
Big Daddy: [instructing raiding party] Now unless they start shooting first, nobody shoot ’em. That’s way too simple for these jokers. We’re gonna whoop that nigger lover to death! And I am personally gonna strip and clip that gaboon myself!
[puts on bag]
Big Daddy: Damn! I can’t see fuckin’ shit outta this thing.
Unnamed Baghead: We ready or what?
Big Daddy: Naw, hold on, I’m fuckin’ with my eye holes.
Big Daddy: Oh. Oh, shit.
[takes off bag]
Big Daddy: Ah, I just made it worse.
Unnamed Baghead: Who made this goddamn shit?
Other Unnamed Baghead: Willard’s wife.
Willard: Well, make your own goddamn mask!
Big Daddy: Look. Nobody’s sayin’ they don’t appreciate what Jenny did.
Unnamed Baghead: Well, if all I had to do was cut a hole in a bag, I coulda cut it better than this!
Other Unnamed Baghead: What about you, Robert? Can you see?
Robert: Not too good. I mean, if I don’t move my head I can see you pretty good, more or less. But when I start ridin’, the bag’s movin’ all over, and I – I’m ridin’ blind.
Bag Head #2: [rips bag] Shit. I just made mine worse. Anybody bring any extra bags?
Unnamed Baghead: No! Nobody brought an extra bag!
Unnamed Baghead: [raiding party is discussing their bags] Do we have to wear ’em when we ride?
Big Daddy: Oh, well shitfire! If you don’t wear ’em as you ride up, that just defeats the purpose!
Unnamed Baghead: Well, I can’t see in this fuckin’ thing! [takes bag off] I can’t breathe in this fuckin’ thing, and I can’t ride in this fuckin’ thing!
Willard: Well fuck all y’all! I’m going home! You know, I watched my wife work all day gettin’ thirty bags together for you ungrateful sons of bitches! And all I can hear is criticize, criticize, criticize! From now on, don’t ask me or mine for nothin’!
Big Daddy: Now look. Let’s not forget why we’re here. We gotta kill a nigger over that hill there! And we gotta make a lesson out of him!
Bag Head #2: Okay, I’m confused. Are the bags on or off?
Robert: I think… we all think the bag was a nice idea. But – not pointin’ any fingers – they coulda been done better. So, how ’bout, no bags this time – but next time, we do the bags right, and then we go full regalia.
Big Daddy: Wait a minute! I didn’t say ‘no bags’!
Bag Head #2: But nobody can see.
Big Daddy: So?
Bag Head #2: So, it’d be nice to see.
Big Daddy: Goddammit! This is a raid! I can’t see! You can’t see! So what? All that matters is can the fuckin’ horse see? That’s a raid!
These scene in particular drew the most laughs, and thinking on it later I wondered why the only people laughing was that family of black people and myself. But reflecting on it I suppose I understand. There’s a lot of dialogue which surrounds the film Django Unchained and a lot of it has to do with history.
If the reader has never seen Django Unchained it’s a film about a former slave who is rescued by a mysterious German dentists named Dr. King Schultz who is in fact not a dentist but a bounty hunter. Schultz saves Django because the man used to work on a plantation where three of his bounties used to work as well. The pair of them track the men down, kill them, escape the afore quoted inept posse, and during a conversation they decide to save Django’s wife who’s been sold, as they discover, to one of the largest plantation owners in Mississippi Calvin Candy. The two men draft an elaborate plan to rescue her, which ultimately fails, and costs Schultz his life. Escaping chains once again Django fights through and slaughters everyone in his path and finally saves his wife from Candyland.
When the film was released Quentin Tarantino suffered all manner of bad press for the free and prolific use of the word nigger in the film. Spike Lee made his usual appearance on the “Fuck Tarantino” program, and people on Facebook got into really nasty arguments about who’s allowed to use the word “nigger” and when and in what context and then someone said “reverse racism” and everybody who liked their brain left the room before that bullshit polluted their frontal lobes. And when the issue of Slavery and historical accuracy was thrown down, I like most people tuned out. Not because there wasn’t an argument to be made, but because I had already assured myself that this interpretation was the best reason to enjoy the film. I enjoy Tarantino movies period and will regularly defend the man’s work. But since I’ve seen the film around ten times since it came out I’ve realized more and more than this argument can only go so far. Tarantino movies tend to be hyperbolic in terms of violence and persona and sometimes plot structure, and within the film there is another, and I’d argue far more interesting, analysis that few people really discussed.
Django Unchained is a fairy tale about racism.
After Django and Schultz have defeated the Brittle Brothers and Big Daddy’s posse, the two men are having coffee and beans in a rocky valley, and while they talk Django mentions his wife Broomhilda and Schultz tells him the story of Siegfried:
Dr. King Schultz: Well, Broomhilda was a princess. She was a daughter of Wotan, god of all gods. Anyways, Her father is really mad at her.
Django: What she do?
Dr. King Schultz: I can’t exactly remember. She disobeys him in some way. So he puts her on top of the mountain.
Django: Broomhilda’s on a mountain?
Dr. King Schultz: It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. And he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there, Broomhilda shall remain. Unless a hero arises brave enough to save her.
Django: Does a fella arise?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes, Django, as a matter of fact, he does. A fella named Siegfried.
Django: Does Siegfried save her?
Dr. King Schultz: [Nods] Quiet spectacularly so. He scales the mountain, because he’s not afraid of it. He slays the dragon, because he’s not afraid of him. And he walks through hellfire… because Broomhilda’s worth it.
Django: I know how he feel.
Watching the movie for the first time I failed to see how Tarantino was using this scene. I simply chocked it up to the man’s recent fascination with Christoph Waltz. Inglorious Basterds for me was a bit of a let-down the first time I watched it, but that was only because I was a Tarantino Junkie and had heard his original idea for the film. In place of a quad of black commandoes fighting across Europe I got a two-and-a-half-hour dialogue piece complete with film and lots of subtitles. Still, the redeeming element of the film was Waltz and his performance of Hans Landa. When Waltz returned in Django, it was just a continuation of the German aesthetic.
But like I said before there’s more to this passage because it ultimately reveals the creative goal of Django Unchained, which is to create an American fairy tale about slavery.
I think it’s a mistake to make the argument that Django is “historically accurate” as a film. There are numerous elements which satisfy historical reality (such as the headwear slaves were sometimes manacled with and bullshit eugenist views which I’ll talk about later), however people in the past typically didn’t bleed explosive corn syrup. The regular splash and sploosh of blood erupting in geyser like quality is Tarantino’s usual hyperbolic cinematic style and reveals his love of B-movies. But the main reason I reject this argument as the sole interpretation or defense of the film is that it limits the plot by history which often can be anti-climactic to narrative structure.
The reason Django becomes the character he does is because Tarantino is making
a Western, and as I’ve explored that genre before in numerous other essays, it’s important to understand how Westerns operate. I’ve said it once before, several times, but Jane Tompkin’s book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns is a wonderful book because it lays out the skeleton of the Western genre, how it operates, who established it, why it continues to appeal to audiences, and finally what is the creative goal of it.
In an early passage she explains the general outline of the western:
First of all, in Westerns (which are generally written by men), the main character is always a full-grown adult male, and either outdoors—on the prairie, on the main street—or in public places—the saloon, the sheriff’s office, the barber shop, the livery stable. The action concerns physical struggles between the hero and a rival or rivals, and culminates in a fight to the death with guns. In the course of these struggles the hero frequently forms a bond with another man—sometimes his rival, more often a comrade—a bond that is more important than any relationship he has with a woman and is frequently tinged with homoeroticism. There is very little free expression of the emotions. The hero is a man of few words who expresses himself through physical action—usually fighting. And when death occurs it is never at home in bed but always sudden death, usually murder. (38-9).
Now I can anticipate the reader’s reaction immediately: Django doesn’t exhibit any of these last qualities. In fact he doesn’t even die. This is a fair point, however if you observe the quote in it’s entirety you’ll see that Tarantino’s movie matches this skeleton because ultimately Django is a physical creature who isn’t defined by his introspection. Django Unchained seems to break this structure because he’s principally motivated to save his wife Broomhilda, however Tompkins notes that women typically receive this treatment in westerns when she notes:
Westerns either push women out of the picture completely or assign them roles in which they exist only to serve the needs of men (39-40).
Broomhilda never really manifests much of a personal character other than the fact that she’s Django’s wife. And while this certainly means Django Unchained fails the Bechdel test, it simply follows that it is in fact a Western. Django fights through the power structure and bodies of Candy Land in order to save his wife, literally spraying the white walls red with blood, until he’s overpowered and sent back, temporarily, into slavery. All this death only further Tompkins arguments about westerns:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and anti-feminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of male violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted (28).
But that just leads me back to my original argument.
Tarantino movie is remaking the genre of the western by blending it with the fairy-tale, myth, of Siegfried. Fairy-tales, much like myth, are stories that are purposefully hyperbolic in order to explain phenomena in the world. Zeus and Thor are non-scientific means explain lightning, and likewise the story of Siegfried is designed to explain the absurd state of being in love. One of the best examples of the fairy-tale is George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm which, when it first published, had the subtitle of “A Modern Fairy Tale.” In Animal Farm Orwell was using the structure of the fairy tale to tell a modern story about the terrors of Stalinism, but also of political corruption in general.
In Django Unchained, the fairy tale is exploring the history of violence and race, but instead of simply reminding the viewer about the travesties of slavery, the story is told so that instead of remaining victims of oppression black people overcome the violence by becoming the hero of a traditionally white genre.
Django becomes a mythic, or fairy-tale hero, charging into the fire that is the Candy Land plantation, pretending to be a black slaver, watching a slave named D’Artagnan being ripped apart my dogs, listening to Calvin Candie’s long lecture about the mental feebleness of blacks, killing dozens of field hands in Candy Land being captured, killing his captors, and returning to kill every last living member of Candy Land before blowing it up. While all of this is the usually Tarantinoesque hyperbole it follows point-by-point the struggles of Siegfried’s struggle.
The Dragon may be a slave owner with bad teeth who believes in eugenics and drinks rum from a coconut, but the hero faces it nonetheless because, as Dr. King Schultz noted before, Broomhilda’s worth it.
And then just a final note about one crucial element of the film. Consistently in Django Unchained, there are shots of white surfaces being sprayed with blood. First it’s the cotton of Big Daddy’s farm being sprayed with Ellis Brittle’s blood, Big Daddy’s white horse being sprayed with blood, and finally the white walls of Candy Lands interior being sprayed with blood of the various field hands who die trying to kill Django. As before I’ve heard arguments about how this is historic symbolism for how “white power” was “stained” by the blood of Africa Americans. I like this argument, and I stand by the idea that in the humanities you can make any argument you want as long as you support it with evidence. However, as I’ve noted before, Django Unchained is not historically accurate the way 12 Years a Slave was. The Tarantino factor has to be accounted for.
There is certainly a gratuitous element to it, but I’d argue that this constant staining imagery is just another way of building the “fairy-tale.” Often myths and fairy-tales pay attention to the body, blood, organs, etc. And so blood being such a precious fluid that it is, it’s being used to demonstrate what the hero is willing to perform and sacrifice in order to get back to his wife.
I didn’t get a chance to use it in the review, but this small exchange between Dr. King Schultz and Calvin Candie remains one of my favorite dialogue pieces simply because it made me realize a fact about an author I’ve loved all my life and never knew:
Calvin Candie: White cake?
Dr. King Schultz: I don’t go in for sweets, thank you.
Calvin Candie: Are you brooding ’bout me getting the best of ya, huh?
Dr. King Schultz: Actually, I was thinking of that poor devil you fed to the dogs today, D’Artagnan. And I was wondering what Dumas would make of all this.
Calvin Candie: Come again?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas. He wrote “The Three Musketeers.” I figured you must be an admirer. You named your slave after his novel’s lead character. If Alexander Dumas had been there today, I wonder what he would have made of it?
Calvin Candie: You doubt he’d approve?
Dr. King Schultz: Yes. His approval would be a dubious proposition at best.
Calvin Candie: Soft hearted Frenchy?
Dr. King Schultz: Alexander Dumas is black.
Maybe it’s indulgent on my part, or cathartic, but there’s something about watching Django burst into the house of the slave catcher’s shouting “D’Artagnan, motherfuckers!” And shooting them all.
Although I’ll also note there’s just something about watching a former slave whip the field hands that made him watch as they whipped his wife with their own whip before shooting them that is just…well it’s just fun to watch.
While I was polishing this essay I found a review from The Gaurdian of the film. Enjoy:
Finally I just wanted to leave the reader with some extra material. Here’s an interview with noted African American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr and Quentin Tarantino shortly after Django Unchained was released. Enjoy:
Alec Baldwin, Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin, Barack Obama, Catch-22, Chris Jones, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Donald Trump Alec Baldwin, Essay, fart jokes, George W. Bush, Humor, Joseph Heller, Literature, Lorne Michaels, Novel, Political Cartoon, Political Discourse, Political Satire, Politics, President Donald Trump, Presidential Satire, Satire, Saturday Night Live, SNL, television, The Atlantic, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel, Yossarian
“Things could be much worse,” She cried.
“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.
–Catch-22, Joseph Heller
I am not a political writer, and the only real political identification I’m comfortable with is alcoholic. It’s an honest position, and it tends to get you far more friends than any partisan group or congregation. You buy some beer, or maybe some top-shelf booze, you bring your deck of Cards Against Humanity, and then you spend an evening googling bukkake and object permanence while your wife eventually beats you with that card about two midgets shitting into a bucket. I’m currently on the wait-list to add stoner to my political resume, but only because it seems a far more dignified title than republican or democrat.
This is why it irks me to write about President Trump, or really the version of Trump which seems to possess the only real power: Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump.
The last few decades have been a wonderful time for political satire largely because of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Both of these institutions have educated the American populace about what’s going on in government, but they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t bore, or cause nauseous indigestion. Dana Carvey’s George Herbert Walker Bush became iconic with the “it’s bad, it’s bad,” Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin virtually eradicated her political ethos, and Will Ferrel’s George W. Bush is still in effect the satirical portrait of the last century, that is until Alec Baldwin starred as Trump in a cold open of the Presidential debate.
But this essay is not so much just about Trump himself, it’s in fact about an essay which was recently published in The Atlantic: Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin. My regular reader will remember that I work at the Tyler Public Library, and part of my job is making the rounds and making sure the magazines are in order. Everyday someone has picked up seven copies of the Dallas Morning News and scattered them over a table before leaving, someone has left copies of The Economist in the areas reserved for Red Book or Seventeen, and of course on the other side of the library someone has left an enormous stack of magazines and decided not to return them to their original space. Working this gig has left me sympathetic for people who work in retail who have to deal with this crap every second of every day. While I was rearranging the magazines however I noticed that the new Atlantic was out and on the cover was Alec Baldwin, holding his Trump wig, and being dressed in the nameless orange hue make-up. I would have checked the magazine out right there (because you can check out magazines at the library) but unfortunately it still had the “new” blue sticker on it so I had to wait a month.
It should be noted I apparently forgot that magazines publish in print and online these days. Hindsight and all that. I read the article in under half and hour and I was left so impressed by it I knew that I had to write about it.
As I noted before, the entertainment industry has hit a golden stride in the last few decades with wonderful political satire that often feels more real than the actual people it’s mocking and the American people have been better off for it. These characters and impressions have allowed common people to laugh at their representatives, which is, I would argue, a healthy power dynamic. Chris Jones, the writer of the Atlantic article, briefly notes this:
Michaels has long vowed to keep the show politically agnostic. Whatever the leanings of its stars and hosts, Saturday Night Live is an agent of chaos, as victim-blind as a bomb. It can seem these days that the show is single-minded in its pursuit of the Trump administration, but SNL has always gone after presidents, beginning with Chevy Chase staging some remarkable pratfalls as Gerald Ford. A grinning Dan Aykroyd was the principal Jimmy Carter (“Inflation is our friend”); no fewer than seven performers took their shots at Ronald Reagan, Joe Piscopo most reliably; Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush (“Not gonna do it”) became synonymous with the man himself. Phil Hartman jogged into McDonald’s as Bill Clinton, and Darrell Hammond played him as a glad-handing hound. Will Ferrell made for the best George W. Bush, an innocent, distractible child. The show sometimes struggled with Obama—his single most memorable Saturday-night incarnation was arguably Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock Obama”—but it’s hard to satirize competence.
Trump just makes comedy easy.
Before I dig into this I just had one comment concerning Obama. I don’t deny that I liked, and continue to like, former President Obama, however the last eight years was rather disappointing in terms of political satire because no one could ever make fun of the man. Key and Peele provided the only real substantial character parody, but the problem there was that their parody was based on the fact that Obama was competent and paid careful attention to being eloquent, patient, and intelligent only occasionally letting his inner self out. This absence of satire though created an issue because there were plenty of problems with the Obama administration, like there are in every administration.
Watching the first 100 days of the Trump administration however has been akin to watching…well, I’m a writer and I can’t even come up with an effective metaphor. I was going to come up with something clever and revolting like a rotting frog sucking it’s own festering erection while babies crawl out of it’s back and fall into the “drained swamp” already dead, but my lawyers informed me that this would probably somehow warrant copyright infringement. The only word that feels accurate is tiring. There’s been relentless displays of incompetence, and as Jones notes, this only makes it easy for comedians to parody the man and the people who work for him.
Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Trump Presidency however has been its reaction to the public image, or perception of the administration as something corrupt, self-parodying, and completely inept. Every week Alec Baldwin’s performances seem to garner reaction from President Trump, and it’s telling when the man making fun of him notes how easy it would be to kill that image:
Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.
“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
That’s it. That’s really all it would take. It may seem like a simplified analysis, but this action would in fact speak volumes, and at the start of Trump’s campaign for President this seemed the case of what would be. Trump appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and he did a guest spot on SNL alongside two actors portraying him. However, at some point the comedy stopped and President Trump no longer seemed to appreciate the parody, and not long after he began his public bemoaning of being mistreated by the modern media. And even after winning President Trump could do nothing but talk about the size of the crowd at his inauguration or complain that the press was mistreating him.
While I was reading Jones’s article, and thinking about the last few weeks this idea of a leader wanting nothing more than to be liked was eerily similar to Catch-22. Now my regular reader may remember, then again it’s been a while, that I read and reviewed Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 observing how the work is a wonderful satire about the abuse of authority. The novel is about a group of fighter pilots in World War II who are required to run “bombing runs” that are, by their nature, suicide missions. The pilots have to fly a certain number of missions before they’re released, and after that trying to explain is ridiculous and so I’ll let Heller’s characters try to explain it to the reader:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he has to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and he let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” He observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” (46)
The Catch of Catch-22 has lingered so efficiently in the culture that it’s an actual word now, and Heller’s novel has also lasted as one of the funniest books ever written along with being one of the most tragically accurate presentations of what happens when there is an abuse of authority. Soldiers are expected to follow the orders of their leaders without question, but this creates a conflict because not every leader is going to be intelligent, sly, or even sympathetic. Reading Catch-22 the reader is constantly reminded that the protagonist Yossarian is a sane man living in a world of bloody madness and that it could stop at any time if someone would just recognize that the commanders in power were morons and bullies.
My reader may object at this point, wondering what Heller’s novel about World War II fighter pilots has to do with the Trump Administration and Jones’s article. If my reader will allow me one more quote from the book hopefully my thesis will become clear.
Near the end of the novel Yossarian has rebelled against the leaders and commanders of the squadron, at one point sitting naked in a tree refusing to go on any more missions, and he is confronted by Colonels Korn and Cathcart, the bumbling commanding officers. The two men confront Yossarian about his rebellious impulses and offer him a way out of the war. In its own way, it is deceptively simple, but a close examination reveals it’s anything but:
“—and we have to send you home. Just do a few little things for us and—.”
“What sort of things?” Yossarian interrupted.
“Oh, tiny, insignificant things. Really, this is a very generous deal we’re making with you. We will issue orders returning you to the States—really, we will—and all you have to do in return is…”
“What? What must I do?”
Colonel Korn laughed curtly. “Like us.”
Yossarian blinked. “Like you?”
“That’s right,” said Colonel Korn, nodding, gratified immeasurably by Yossarian’s guileless surprise and bewilderment. “Like us. Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us here and back in the States. Become one of the boys. Now, that isn’t asking too much, is it?” (426).
I’ve avoided words like autocrat, dictatorship, and totalitarianism because the internet and media are already awash with voices screaming such words at the current administration, and while some of those voices are coming from rational and thinking people, this constant call is reducing the power of these words and the realities that they express. The problem with dictatorship is not that the citizens are living in a system where power is controlled in one central office, it’s that the populace at large can easily become prey to inept or ridiculous leaders who may demand adoration and affection. The platitude that “power corrupts absolutely” can be tiresome to hear, but human beings are narcissistic creatures by nature, and providing some of them opportunities where their ego can fester into something corrosive and brutish only adds to the problem. Dictators, autocrats, emperors, Kings, and even Presidents can allow this power complex to become something terrible, and at the heart of it all there is a desire to be liked.
I said, before the quote, that Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart’s questions was deceptively simple,
and that’s true. It’s an easy request at first to “like” somebody, but beneath comes a deeper implication. “Liking” an individual can sometimes blind you to their faults. I mentioned before that I “liked” and “still like” former President Obama, and at times that blinded me to problems in his administration that became clearer as time when on. Each reader has their own experience, that may or may not even be political. It might be a family member who’s abusive, a friend who’s an alcoholic, or a celebrity crush that blinds them to the fact that the person they adore is an egoist or an outright moron. The “simple request” to like the person who can bring you to harm is in fact a test of integrity.
Those in power will always desire citizenry beneath them to like them or to be sympathetic to their cause, because that approval allows them more power to accomplish their personal and political goals. It’s for this reason that “liking” someone in politics can often lead to ruin or disappointment because human beings are fallible and tend to fuck-up a lot.
I’ve done my best to avoid the outright politics because I don’t want this site to be a political site, but at 2000 words it’s best not to bullshit. So I’ll be clear:
I wrote this essay because watching the Trump administration I’ve become more and more concerned that the United States has elected an irrational egoist who can’t take a joke.
That’s probably why Jones’s article has the appeal that it does. Looking back to his article the character of Trump and his persecution complex only seems more and more clear:
So much of Trump’s popularity hinges on his image as a self-made miracle, a winner, a strong and successful man who is the best at everything and always gets his way. Baldwin has become our deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon. Every time Trump tweets a wounded Sunday-morning response, every time Spicer laughs off McCarthy’s portrayal but then tries a little harder to bury his rage, every time Conway shows up on TV looking a little more challenged and broken, Baldwin can tell himself that SNL is not just making laughs but effecting change.
“Any administration wants the opposite of what Trump is getting now: They want to be saluted for what they’re doing,” he says. “They want to do their job and have people blow trumpets and worship them and throw confetti. They’re like movie stars in that way.” Trump lashes out at Hollywood, but it’s his dream to belong there. “I think that the comedy is effective—I believe that it’s absolutely, 100 percent effective—in that it’s achieving the opposite results,” Baldwin says.
Jones’s article is an important insight into the current zeitgeist, and as time goes on it may not seem as terribly relevant as a literary document. Nevertheless it felt important to bring attention to the essay because the cartoon character of President Trump, that Alec Baldwin brings to life week after week, is something timeless.
Throughout history human beings have mocked and parodied figures of power and influence (often through excellently timed fart jokes)* and it’s been the mark of great leaders who managed to laugh alongside them. Theodore Roosevelt was known to adore every cartoon parody of himself, even at their most biting. Former President George W. Bush opened up a presidential themed hour of SNL alongside Al Gore. And if nothing else, former President Obama invited Kegan Michael Key to play his “anger translator” Luther at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Politicians need to be laughed at so they, and the citizens they govern, don’t take themselves too seriously.
Humor and jokes bring people back to reality, and it’s rather tragic when reality is somehow only a fraction less goofy than the cartoon image.
On one final note I find it rather disappointing that few people have taken the time to make fun of President Trump using flatulence. Fart jokes have unlimited potential for reducing the ego, because it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when they’re farting. Put President Trump on a golden toilet eating a bean burrito, and I shall show you the stuff that comedy gods are made of.
Please find below this text every video of Alec Baldwin’s performance of President Trump to date. My reader may wonder why I’m including these. The best answer I can give, is fuck him that’s why.
Before I get accused of partisanship, it’s important to remember something. President Trump IS the President, and Democrats are partly to blame for that. There’s been plenty said about the results of the election, but what is important to remember is that Democrats consistently screwed themselves by fucking with the Bernie Sanders campaign which was drawing mass appeal from young voters, veteran’s groups, Black Lives Matter organizations, and white working class voters, the last group who would eventually go to Trump. They are also to blame for the fact that they allowed themselves to get cocky and smug during the campaign which only instilled in them the idea that they had already won which allowed the Trump Campaign to move through rural areas which won them the election.
Democrats fucked themselves, hard.
I just wanted to make sure my reader, who may be a self-righteous liberal or conservative, knew exactly where I stand before they share my article on Facebook or twitter.
My political position remains firm by the conviction: fuck democrats, fuck republicans, fuck liberals, and fuck conservatives. And just to be safe fuck libertarians too.
All quotes from Catch-22 came from the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. All quotes from Alec Baldwin Gets Under Donald Trump’s Skin came from The Atlantic.
If the reader would be interested in reading the article for themselves I’ve included a link below that they can follow to it. Enjoy:
Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Book Review, Circles, Edith Hamilton, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Freya's Unusual Wedding, gods, Heimdall, Humor, Literature, Loki, MJolnir, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, Odin, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Ragnarock, Reimagined Narratives, Sexy Norse Gods, story, The Sandman, The World Tree, Thor, Writing
I believe there is a quote that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but that sumbitch never read Neil Gaiman.
I was annoyed and frustrated with myself a few weeks back because Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris were both giving public readings in Dallas this year, and by the time I discovered the where and when of the venue the performance halls were already sold out. This was painful because not only were two of my favorite authors coming close enough to me to actually hear them read and speak in public, but every person attending these events were going to receive a free signed copy of their most recent books with a purchase of a ticket. So probably not actually free, but it feels free. I have no one but myself to blame for this missed chance, and since I already suffer from undiagnosed depression and give myself a pretty hard time I needed something to lift my spirits.
To Amazon I went.
Now I was aware of the fact that Neil Gaiman had started a new book, and once some of the early advertisements started appearing I knew I had to read Norse Mythology. I was originally just going to pre-order it, but then life happened I forgot, but once I started working at the Tyler Public Library and saw that we had ordered a copy I placed the first hold. Ever since I’ve begun working at the library my compulsive book shopping has, no stopped exactly, but at least dwindled to manageable levels. Why purchase a book when I can simply check it out and know that it’s there just a ten minute drive away? The book came in and I just devoured it, but halfway through reading it I realized that I needed my own copy. And so one night while searching through amazon I spotted, not just a hardback first edition, but an autographed copy. I’m a poor man, but also a fool, and so I proved the philosopher correct and divorced myself from 60 of my hard earned dollars. I don’t regret a thing.
Norse Mythology as a book has been a revelation because, like many people who went through the educational system in the United States I assume, I never learned much, or anything really, about the Norse Gods. Going to the school I did I was steeped in the classical tradition. We read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Aeneid, Medea, Julius Caesar, and in the seventh grade I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s standard Mythology. This book, which still sits in my shelf today, was a great resource and a wonderful opening to the complicated world of Greek Myth, but I noted at the time that there was a small portion in the back of the book that my teacher never got around to assigning to us. In the back of Hamilton’s book is 24 pages (I counted) dedicated to the Norse Gods and their mythos. I forgie Edith Hamilton for the sparseness of this section since hard written records of Norse myth aren’t as prevalent as Greek or Roman records, but something has always irked me about the way this section of myth feels simply tacked on, when an in-depth reading and study of these myths reveals a great bounty of lore and stories.
As soon as my copy of Norse Mythology came in I showed it to my friend TJ, the founder of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of, and we both briefly compared the book, and it’s ambition, to Edith Hamilton’s work speculating that there now exists the possibility that within a few years it could be assigned in schools for a similar purpose. I honestly believe this, and after completing the book my assessment remains. Neil Gaiman has achieved through his efforts a beautiful book which has made me slap my head repeatedly wondering why it took me so long to read, and enjoy, Norse Myths.
To begin with I have to briefly mention “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which is the story of how the god Thor lost his now iconic hammer Mjolnir. Though Gaiman opens the book with individual descriptions of each god and their affinities and powers, each story on occasion provides some background material. The chapter that covers the “wedding” begins with such a description of Thor’s Hammer.
Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It has been made by the dwarf’s Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always flay back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one handed.
The hammer kept the gods of Asgaurd safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer. (109-110).
As it turns out the giants stole Thor’s hammer one night while he was asleep, and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgaurd who sees all, comes up with a plan on how to infiltrate the giant’s keep and steal the hammer back. The gods are discussing how to retreave Mjollnir when the most hilarious passage in the book is related:
“Well?” said Loki. “What about you Heimdall? Doyou have any suggestions?”
“I do,” said Heimdall. “But you won’t like it.”
Thor banged his fist down upon the table. “It does not matter whether or not we like it,” he said. “We are gods! There is nothing that any of us gathered here would not do to get back Mjollnir, the hammer of the gods. Tell us your idea, and it is a good idea, we will like it.”
“You won’t like it,” said Heimdall.”
“We will like it!”
“Well,” said Heimdall, “I think we should dress Thor as a bride. Have him put on the necklace of Brisings. Have him wear a bridal crown. Stuff his dress so he looks like a woman. Veil his face. We’ll have him wears keys that jingle, as women do, drape him in jewels—”
“I don’t like it!” said Thor. “People will think…well, for a start they’ll think I dress up in women’s clothes.” (115-6).
I noted that this passage was one of the most hilarious passages, rightfully so I would argue, and that distinction is important for too often in myth there seems to be an absence of humor. Perhaps it’s just the education I received growing up, but myth seems to be steeped in relentless tragedy, violence, rape, depravity, or anguish. I cannot recall any real humor in the Greek Pantheon, and seeing as how that was the only real pantheon apart from the Egyptians I was exposed to, the fact that a moment of humor could exist in mythology was a breath of fresh air. Thor eventually gets his hammer back after a long series of jokes and gags that rely on the uber masculine worldview of the ancient Nords, and promptly slaughters the giants. Still no word though on whether the catering was good or not.
Gaimans Norse Mythology relates the world and the gods and creatures that inhabit the world of the Nordic mythos, however unlike Edith Hamilton, who seemed to retain a kind of academic distance from her topic, Neil Gaiman allows his retelling of myth to be imbued with a little more character. Gaiman has explored these characters before and so this gives him a great edge. Any and all readers who have ever taken the time to read his graphic novel The Sandman Season of Mist is sure to remember the blustering oaf that is Thor and the sly demonic figure of Loki who would aid the Dream King in a way that would not be made entirely clear until the later Sandman volumes. I’d relate more but I’m preparing myself mentally to review those books one by one by one so the reader will have to be patient.
Now I can hear the contester. By the sounds of it Gaiman is taking a self-indulgent exercise by simply retelling the stories of the Norse Myth, why should I bother with that? If I want the stories of the Norse gods I should just read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda if I hate myself and life in general?
I should first remind my contester that if you hate yourself, you should really be reading the collected works of James Patterson. There’s a great difference between crap and art, and then there is work which tries to be neither because it is really nothing at all.
But as to the real complaint Neil Gaiman himself provides some response in his introduction to the work as he notes the fate of the original written materials and oral tales:
We have lost so much. (14)
He goes on to say:
I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.
Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside the small hours, awake in the unending lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight or midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from. (14-15).
Gaiman’s book is not an academic reproduction of the Norse Myths, and if the reader is truly interested in such a work translations exist and are constantly being produced. Gaiman is honest in the fact that he just wants to retell these stories, and that’s all the creative justification he needs. Because he is working with myth, and not a more contemporary story, he can rewrite these stories and incorporate more personality and dialogue into them, and while some might argue that that is “corrupting” the original myths they fail to see that this is a fallacy. Myths by their very nature are fluid beings that have shifted and altered over time. They adapt and change depending on the teller, and while written documents are considered sacred, it’s important to remember that when readers encounter such written documents, particularly ancient ones, the conflict of authorial intent becomes tricky and messy. I’m trying to say, sloppily, is that because these are myths Gaiman doesn’t have to make these a new Prose Edda. Instead he can, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, simply tell the stories that have been told over and over again, but bring a new life or light to them that feels relevant to the age he’s writing in.
That’s what’s marvelous about myth is that it can change.
I was taught in school, briefly, that Norse Myths were dark, gloomy, depressing stories in which every god was ultimately doomed to die. This eventual end, referred often to as Ragnarock, is inevitable and Edith Hamilton briefly describes this reality in her Mythology:
The World of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a gave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know a day will come when they will be destroyed. (443)
She continues this gloomy description a few days later:
All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women wh go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (446).
This being my only real exposure to these myths at first I honestly thought that Norse Mythology was going to be a dark read of nothing but hopelessness. Obviously, I forgot every Neil Gaiman story I had ever read. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths can be dark, but each story is told in such a way that the reader is able to see Gaiman’s passion and dedication to these stories and that energy translates into a beautiful story that, even at it’s most grotesque or horrifying, still manages to sound lovely.
But what’s important ultimately is the way in which Neil Gaiman completes his book. Rather than end on Ragnarok, and end with death and destruction, Gaiman demonstrates his lasting importance as a story teller for he leaves these characters not with death, but a circle.
After the final battle in which Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and all the gods of Asgard are destroyed there is left a small party including the gods Balder and Magni who are looking over the battlefield. Balder spots something:
They go down on their knees in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grassm and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden caring of Odin, the all father, on his high thrones: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here. Half buried in the black soil, are Loki and the monstrous children. There is a frost giant. There is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.
And the game begins anew. (280-283).
At the end of this review I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about the future readers who find Gaiman’s book. I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I’ve never gotten rid of my copy of the book, because no matter how many times I’ve tried I’ve yet to find someone who made the Greek myths so accessible. Having a book like Mythology allowed me the chance to actually understand and process the myths that have inspired thousands of years of writers, poets, playwrights, and artists who have shaped our culture. The Norse Myths have often, it seems, fallen upon deaf ears, but in the last few decades I have observed new legions of people discover and invest themselves in the characters and stories of Thor, Loki, Balder, Freya, and the old clever Odin. Gaiman’s book then is a boon to a new generation, and humanity period because it, like Mythology, will expose a generation to these myths which have too often been ignored or written off as hopelessly bleak.
Yes the gods die, and yes their stories are filled with bloody mahem, but the final image reveals, to me at least, a far more final conclusion than the Greek pantheon. Rather than simply live on a mountain and occasionally step down to rape the local girls, the Norse gods are aware of their ultimate end, but as Gaiman reveals it there is no real end. The gods die but are then ultimately remade. Their stories end and then start anew meaning that there is no true end or true beginning.
The stories continue ever afterwards, and there is no better testament to the quality of myth.
All quotes taken from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman were taken from the W.W. Norton & Company hardback first edition. All quotes from Mythology by Edith Wharton were taken from the Little, Brown & Company Paperback.
For the record Red of Overly Sarcastic Reviews still probably has the best rendition of Norse Mythology after Gaiman and most of what I knew before reading his book came from this video.
While looking up images to include in this article I stumbled upon, what appears to be a sexy pin-up calendar using the Norse Gods, all of them men. I couldn’t find a good place for them in the article, so I included them here. Enjoy…how could you not?
Appalachia, Book Review, Deliverance, farting, folklore, fuck, fucking, He did it with a bucket, Hillbillies, Humor, Literature, mythology, Orgasm, Pissing in the Snow, procreational, pyramus and thisbe, sex, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Short Story, The Baby Lost Weight, Vance Randolph
I distrust someone who admits to not enjoying sex or fart jokes. Part of this is because the individuals who profess such opinions typically reveal themselves as elitists. There’s an attitude that only uneducated people enjoy hearing stories about people fucking or farting or farting while fucking, and of course nothing like that would ever happen in real life. Anyone who has actually had sex before however knows that that’s simply not the case. Beer exists and seeks to make fools of us all.
Speaking of beer, it’s partly because of that that I stumbled across the book Pissing in the Snow & Other Ozark Folktales. Two years ago I attended an academic conference for members of Alpha Chi, an academic fraternity that spans the entire United States. Students from chapters all across the country came to give lectures and presentations from virtually every field. Lecture topics could range from Pre-Med students discussing the nature of telomeres in DNA to discussing the Indian Boy in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For my own special I brought in a lecture about Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger which was rather eventful given the fact that one of my slides dealt with blackface and one of the moderators in the room was black. It was a fun couple of days when I wandered through the streets of Chicago (feeling the mean bite of “The Hawk”) with a few friends and a man name Jim Koukl.
Somewhere between the Jazz Bar (where I wrote the start of poem that would eventually get published) and on the ride home, Dr. Koukl mentioned a book. I admit freely that part of the impulse to look the book up was some kind of fan-boy on my end. Most of my friends new Koukl and had dozens of fun stories about him and so I think I just wanted him to like me. In the car, tucked between the driver and a fellow SI leader I pulled up a story called “He did it with a Bucket.” Describing the story wouldn’t do it justice, so instead here’s the whole story:
One time there was a boy got arrested for screwing a girl, and they claimed he done it standing up, behind the door at the schoolhouse. But the girl stood pretty neat six-foot-tall, and the boy was a little bit of runt. The Justice of the Peace says he don’t see how the boy could reach high enough. The people said he done it with a milk bucket. The constable fetched the biggest bucket in the town and made the boy stand on it, but he still lacked a foot. So the Justice of the Peace says the whole case looks fishy to him, and they turned the boy loose for lack of evidence
After the whole thing blowed over, the girl told some of her friends what really happened. “We was both standing up,” she says, “and it was the damndest fucking I ever had in my life!” The ladies all wanted to know how little Johnney could reach that high. The girl just laughed. “The little booger put the bucket on my head,” she says, “and then he hung onto the handle like a woodpecker!” (14)
There wasn’t anyone in the car who wasn’t laughing and I scrambled to Amazon to immediately buy a copy.
Pissing in the Snow is the work of Vance Randolph, an American folklorist who published around five books over the course of his life. All of his books dealt with the Ozark region, an area of hilly forest region found in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri (pronounced Mizz-ur-ee or Mizz-ur-uh depending on what part of the state you’re from). This region is probably familiar to the reader who has ever watched the film Deliverance and believed that that is a good representation of entire South of the United States. For the record Deliverance took place in Georgia, however it has unfortunately come to embody the imagery of the “hillbilly” who is in fact not a gap-toothed lunatic who enjoys raping people in the woods. Well, okay, there’s probably one of those out there, but I promise you that ass-clown is in the minority. Also ass-clown was probably the wrong word to use there and now I’m going to have nightmares.
Randolph’s work is important because it collects the sentiments, moods, feelings, and general humor of a people who lived and made a life in the woods of Ozarks. The reader may wonder what value such stories have to the general culture given the fact that most of them are nothing but stories about people fucking, talking about fucking, or horny priests, prostitutes, or men measuring their dicks. I suppose this concern is a fair criticism and the first story from the collection doesn’t necessarily help that much:
One time there was two farmers that lived out on the road to Carrico. They was always good friends, and Bill’s oldest boy had been a-sparking one of Sam’s daughters. Everything was going fine till the morning they met down by the creek, and was pretty goddam mad. “Bill,” says he, “from now on I don’t want that boy of yours to set foot on my place.”
“Why what’s he done?”
“He pissed in the snow, that’s what he done, right in front of my house!”
“But surely, there ain’t great harm in that,” Bill says.
“No Harm!” hollered Sam. “Hell’s fire, he pissed so it spelled Lucy’s name, right there in the snow!”
“The boy shouldn’t have done that,” says Bill. “But I don’t see nothing so terrible bad about it.”
“Well, by God, I do!” yelled Sam. “There was two sets of tracks. And besides, don’t you think I know my own daughter’s handwriting!” (5).
It took me three readings of this one before I realized Lucy used Bill’s son’s penis to spell her own name. This story at first appears to be a simple joke, just a random story about two teenagers engaging in a little debauchery for the sake of it, but upon reflection I’m struck by the fact that my first thought is the myth of Piramus and Thisbe. Growing up in a private school I was exposed to mythology early. Despite the fact it was a Christian school it was also a college prep institution and so they wanted you to excel. Once we hit eighth grade we were assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. That dense tome that can always be found in your local college book-store or else the book section of Goodwill, and of course always bent back with a broken spine and riddled with doodles or highlighting. Before my teacher assigned us A Midsummer Night’s Dream to read in class she covered the myth of Piramus and Thisbe, and I was already familiar with the book because I had read Romeo & Juliet the year before and we had gone over the myth. To those who don’t know there are two warring families with a son and a daughter named Pyramus and Thisbe respectively. The pair fall in love but can only communicate by sending messages through a crack in the wall that separates both families. Eventually overcome with lust Piramus arranges to meet Thisbe and tun away with her. She says yes, but of course because this is myth everything goes wrong. Thisbe spots a lion and runs away dropping her sash, Pyramus comes upon it later and spots lion tracks. Believing his lover is dead he drives his sword into his side, and when Thisbe discovers him slain by his own hand she removes the sword and kills herself with it.
My reader may read this and wonder immediately: how the fuck do you get Piramus and Thisbe from a story about Pissing in the Snow? That’s absurd.
My response: Is it though. Folk-lore and myth and divided by time and repetitive story-telling. Looking at Hamilton’s Mythology in hindsight I was also taught at the time the legends or folk-lore of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed. Unfortunately, these heroes have not lasted the way Zeus, Aphrodite, and Hera have, nevertheless both pantheons linger on in their own way. The stories of Pecos Bill, like the stories of Zeus, and also the stories contained in Pissing in the Snow are perpetuated by story-tellers who were inspired by some original action. Was there ever a god named Zeus? Of course not, but there was a storm where a man was struck by lightning. Was there ever a Pecos Bill, of course not, but there was most likely a man who was a sure-fire shot and who was great at breaking horses. Were there ever two kids who spelled their names in the snow using piss?
Yes there was, that one probably happened, but over time the names and situation changed.
Stories develop over time to fit the world views of the audience that preserves them and enjoys hearing them. Jokes then follow myth, however the fundamental difference being they are often designed to reaffirm or subvert reality. Pissing in the Snow isn’t interested in that however, for even if the stories are imbued with humor their aim is to present human beings at their most fallible.
The stories almost all center around sex in some form or fashion, and while some border on the crude there are others which are fascinating from a feminist perspective. Take for instance the story Have You Ever Been Diddled:
One time there was a town girl and a country girl got to talking about the boys they had went with. The town girl told what kind of car her boyfriends used to drive, and how much money their folks has got. But the country girl didn’t take no interest in things like that, and she says the fellows are always trying to get into her pants.
So finally the town girls says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The country girl giggled, and she says yes, a little bit. “How much says the town girl.” “Oh, about like that,” says the country girl, and she held up her finger to show an inch, or maybe an inch and a half.
The town girl just laughed, and pretty soon the country girl says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The town girl says of course she has, lots of times. “How much?” says the country girl. “Oh, about like that,” says the town girl, and she marked off about eight inches, or maybe nine.
The country girl just set there goggle-eyed, and she drawed a deep breath. “My God,” says the country girl, “that ain’t diddling! Why, you’ve been fucked!” (110-11)
A story like this is an excellent opportunity for folklorists to dig into the rhetoric of everything. The use of the words “town-girl” verses “country girl” as a way of expressing familiarity with the world. Then there’s also the class element as the “town girl” seems to enjoy high priced objects. And of course there’s the linguistic opportunity to observe how the scene culminates in the “fuck” to deliver the powerful finale to this brief exchange, but that gets into far more academic territory than I’m willing to explore here, and besides why should I put rhetoricians and folklorists out of a job? They’re good people with great unions but lousy tippers.
This story seems to present the total essence of Pissing in the Snow, partly because it’s the least fantastic. There are stories ranging from the dick measuring contests of locals, the horny priests being wooed by windows, prostitutes enacting vengeance, and endless stories of young lovers winding up embarrassed or mocked by the community they live in but the final component is everything. Pissing in the Snow feels communal while the reader actually reads it, and in fact the only real way to read it is out loud. These are recorded stories by average everyday people who had these stories memorized, who lived with these stories that had most likely been passed down by generations. Their earthiness and near-constant crudeness reveals a people who lived and interacted with sexuality without any kind of real shame, and while some would suggest that this is wrong, Pissing in the Snow shows a people who wouldn’t really care about this response.
And to be honest I don’t care much about it either.
These stories show a people who were able to find a beautiful absurdity in the body. Penises, vaginas, breasts, and butts are what drives these narratives, and while this at first doesn’t seem to reveal much intellectual potential, I would argue otherwise. Reading Pissing in the Snow is a chance to see how another culture has framed sexuality in its own paradigm. The people of the Ozarks are not prudes about it, they recognize that people fuck, and, clearly, they enjoy doing it. While some members of the community sometimes suffer from it, what is constant is that the people of the Ozarks recognize sex as something natural and more important, a source of amusement.
Take for instance the story The Baby Lost Weight:
One time there was a young woman fetched a baby into Doc Henderson’s office, and she says it is losing weight. Doc examined the baby awhile, and asked the woman about her victuals, but she says, “What I eat ain’t got nothing to do with the baby being skinny.” Doc figured she must be kind of stupid, so he didn’t ask no more questions.
Doc examined her mighty careful, anyhow. And he pulled her dress open, to see if something is the matter with her tits, first one and then the other. There wasn’t no milk at all. Finally, she says, “That’s my sister’s baby, you know.”
Old Doc Henderson was considerable set back when he heard that, because he never thought but what it was her baby. “Hell’s fire,” he says, “you shouldn’t have come!” The young woman just kind of giggled. “I didn’t,” she says, “till you started a-sucking on the second one.” (130).
I honestly found myself laughing while I read this book, and too often it becomes undervalued that reaction. Books are an intellectual exercise, and if I wanted to I could sit down and find real intellectual merit beneath the endless penis and fart jokes in this book, and in fact I already have. Human beings have progressed in their evolution and that is partly because of the way sex has become something recreational rather than simply procreational.*
That’s a fancy-pants way of saying people enjoy having sex not just because they want to make a baby.
Because our species has developed an imagination, and because that imagination is often employed constructing sexual fantasies, it makes sense that a rural people, people who lived off the land and would know the proper way of breeding livestock, would eventually come to see sex as something funny and absurd, but ultimately uniting because in the end these stories helped shape a community’s, as well as a region’s, attitudes about sexuality.
Laughing at sex is the sanest way to begin talking about it and teaching it. And if you can start by telling a story about an old man masturbating while across the way a young man is porking a rabbit, it’s gonna be a whole lot easier telling people about condoms later.
For the record “procreational is NOT a word, but I liked the way it sounded. If you are repulsed by this invention of mine petition Websters and Oxford to add the word to the dictionary so that your disgust is unmerited. Prude.