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Original Essays

The Necessary Tonnage of Hilarity and Awe

by Rudolph Delson
 
  1. Maynard and Jennica
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    Maynard and Jennica

    Rudolph Delson
    "[B]oldly inventive....[L]ike a contemporary spin-off of Vonnegut, this work has something fresh that needs to be embraced and will resonate with a wide audience." Library Journal

1.

I have been to Powell's Books once, in the summer of 2003. That was the summer that I was hunting for books about misanthropes, or anyway books about misanthropy, or anyway books about the virtues of hating other people — "other people" being so easy to hate. For example:

Say you're in Yosemite, say you're on a hike, say you've spent your dusty morning mounting switchbacks, ascending through a colony of sugar pines. Say you're hoping to eat breakfast at the top of a waterfall half way between Half Dome and the valley floor. And say what you're listening to, as you pull yourself up the mountainside legful by legful, is the braying of the human jackasses, a quarter mile ahead of you, quoting their television lines.

"Hey! What's Mike doing? Hey! What's Mike doing?"

"Dude, he's touching log!"

"What?"

"I said, he's touching log!"

You decide to take a water break and let the jokers move out of earshot; but even after you've waited for ten minutes, you can still hear their bellows, because apparently they have decided to stop for water, too. You quickly cancel your water break and decide to hurry past them, but as soon as you begin to move again, so do they.

"Woo! Woo! So Mike, were you touching log…?"

"…What…?"

"…or were you pinching loaf?"

"…What…?"

You reflect, as you hike, that such exchanges are what your fellow citizens — collectively, as a nation — do with the surplus of energy afforded them by their Power Bars. Because you have got to assume that these jackasses are eating Power Bars. Just like you have got to assume they drove into Yosemite in an SUV. You reflect, further, that it is in order to gratify the whims of dudes like these that the world will cook to death in a carbon oven. As you hike you perfect your image of the philistines a quarter mile ahead of you, your hatred carving your thoughts like a glacier easing its path though granite.

 

2.

The summer of 2003 was also the summer that I abandoned the first draft of Maynard and Jennica. In that draft, it was a novel about Maynard alone, and I was considering calling it The Misanthrope. So I was confronting the problem that will confront anyone who writes a novel titled The Misanthrope, the problem of Molière. I read a translation of his play, hoping to find an appropriate mot to use as an epigram — because if I included an epigram from Molière, who could accuse me of expropriating his title unjustly? — but the best I discovered was...

Ce chagrin philosophe est un peu trop sauvage.
Je ris des noirs accès où je vous envisage...

(This philosophical fury is simply too much.
It's laughable to see how you rant and rave and such...)
Le Misanthrope, I. i. l. 97-98

... which, as an epigram, doesn't explode with the necessary tonnage of hilarity and awe. And besides, reading Molière's play, I didn't feel like he deserved much homage: the plot of his comedy is too silly; the misanthropy of his main character is too flimsy; and anyway it would be preposterous to provide an epigram in French, a language that I can't even read. I toyed with the idea of including, at the beginning of my The Misanthrope, a "Note on the Title," in which I would accuse Molière of being a second-rate playwright and Le Misanthrope of being a third-rate play, and in which I would insist that neither the man nor the play had any legitimate claim on such a first-rate title — but that seemed un peu trop sauvage.

Or maybe not. A few weeks after reading Molière, I read a second famous play about a second famous misanthrope, and, in the appendix to that second play, I learned of yet a third play about yet a third misanthrope:

The basic legend of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens began in antiquity. Early in the fifth century B.C., Timon's picturesque misanthropy was a theme of Greek comic poets. The hero of The Misanthrope, by Phrynichus, remarks, "I live like Timon. I have no wife, no servant, I am irritable and hard to get on with. I never laugh, I never talk, and my opinions are all my own."
—Stanley T. Williams, Appendix A to Timon of Athens (Yale, 1966)

This was excellent news. Phrynichus, it turns out, was a contemporary of Aristophanes. His work survives in only the most threadbare fragments, but we know that his The Misanthrope took third prize for comedy in Athens in 414 BCE, the same year that Aristophanes' The Birds took first. Which means Molière, whose Le Misanthrope was produced in 1666 CE, was 2080 years too late to claim title to the title — which makes the title The Misanthrope common literary property.

It's hard not to feel compassion for a writer who is twenty-four centuries dead and whose works are lost to rot, however. And so, freed from having to pay tribute to Molière, I decided to try to find a good epigram for my The Misanthrope in what's left of Phrynichus. Which is how I wound up in Powell's in the summer of 2003, scouring the classics shelves.

3.

Say you visit an old friend in Portland. Say the two of you decide, one lazy morning, to bicycle out to Sauvie Island and have a picnic on a beach by the river.

It's a harrowing ride — along the noisy shoulder of Highway 30 the trucks spit gravel at you and slap you with waves of exhaust — but over the bridge and on the island, the roads are quiet, and, since it's August, the blackberries are in season. You and your friend fill your empty water bottles with the fruit, and talk about making pancakes the next morning.

But when you finally reach the end of the bicycle ride and settle down for your picnic, you find yourself just up the beach from a family: a bulky father on a blanket (refinishing his tan), and his slight little daughter (tiptoeing in the river foam). The father is yelling to his daughter not to go so far away, and clearly, she cannot hear anything he is saying; she keeps wandering farther off, and he keeps yelling. This goes on for some time. She's in a frilly one-piece, carrying a plastic spade, absorbed in play; you're watching her pretty closely yourself, because you are closer to her than her father is. You will have to be the one to sprint to the rescue, if she ever wades too deep. Five minutes more pass and a big wave gives her a scare — it's just the wake from a passing boat, the little girl is fine, but it is enough to put her father into a panic. He bounds across the sand, plucks his daughter from the water, and lugs her, wailing, back to the blanket.

He doesn't look at you, but, as he passes your picnic blanket — in a voice loud enough so that you will hear what a good parent he is — he tells his three-year-old:

"You don't even know how bad I want to spank you right now."

"No! No! No!"

"I want to spank you so bad. You should have listened to me."

You and your friend reflect on how nice it would be to have your own houses, your own beaches, your own blackberry hedges to keep the public out. You've come to your misanthropic moment. Today is the day when every stranger you meet reminds you that you never want to meet another.

4.

There was no book of fragments by Phrynichus at Powell's Books the weekend that I made my visit. But there was an edition of Menander — another Greek, a century younger than Phrynichus, and likewise known largely through fragments.

For the last hundred years, however, Menander has gotten lucky. It seems that during the Roman era, some lover of drama had in his library a set of scrolls that included the collected Menander. This literate Roman, our accidental benefactor, fell on hard times and sold his library to an Egyptian funeral parlor — papyrus scrolls being a valuable recyclable — and the funeral parlor used the old scrolls to mummify a merchant. (Even in Roman times, merchants had more to spend on their funerals than professors did on their libraries). The merchant lay undisturbed for centuries while Africa and Europe burned, but then, in the twentieth century, a wily grave robber exhumed his mummified body and made a penny selling it to an English buccaneer, an archeologist with a working knowledge of Greek. The archeologist scraped the bits of fleshy dust from the fragile burial wrappings, and, voila, Menander.

And so it was that in 1959 Menander's comedy Dyskolos was published intact. Dyskolos is usually translated as The Grouch — but Grouch, Misanthrope, whatever — there it was for me, shelved with the other classics in Powell's, a translation of the oldest surviving work about somebody who hates everybody. I carried Dyskolos with me out to Sauvie Island and...

... And it was disappointing. Because the real joy of misanthropic comedy is hearing the misanthrope rage, but the grouch for whom Dyskolos is named never gets much chance to articulate his discontent. Early in the play, for example, a slave approaches the grouch to inquire about the grouch's pretty daughter. (The slave's young master has spied the lass, and fallen in love.) The grouch is tending his meager pear trees and is displeased at being interrupted by a slave. But instead of going into a rant — instead of a riot of invective about what the world has come to — Menander's grouch responds wordlessly. As the slave tells it:

... He pelted me with mud
and stones, and when all else failed, with pears! ...
Dyskolos, l. 120-21

Dramatically, it isn't much. If one character is going to bombard another with stones, it should happen on stage, not off. And, if the stage is too small to permit such a scene, at least let the misanthrope speak for himself, as Shakespeare lets Timon do, when he announces that he is going to break off all relations with Athens:

I have a tree, which grows here in my close,
That mine own use invited me to cut down,
And shortly must I fell it: tell my friends,
Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree,
From high to low throughout, that whoso please
To stop affliction, let him take his haste,
Come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe,
And hang himself.
Timon of Athens, V. i. 210-17

Still, there is one similarity between these two scenes, the one by Menander, the other by Shakespeare. Shakespeare relied on Plutarch for the legend of Timon, and Plutarch informs us that Timon's tree was a fig. Thus, in both Dyskolos and Timon we see one of the great motifs of misanthropic drama, the violent misuse of fruit trees.

I began to wonder, that summer of 2003, how I might have my misanthrope, Maynard Gogarty, abuse a fruit tree. And then I began to think about the greatest abuse of fruit trees yet perpetuated in America, the destruction of the orchards of Santa Clara County, California. Which — obliquely, obliquely — was tied up with the question of who exactly my misanthrope might love, and whether she might come from San Jose, California, and whether I might name her Jennica.

5.

Emotions are not like colors, there are no primary feelings from which all other moods in the human spectrum can be mixed. Still, certain feelings are more cardinal than others, and we know the cardinals because they manifest so specifically and so physiologically.

We know that pleasure and sorrow are cardinal, because when we have fun we laugh, and when we are in grief we weep, and there isn't much we can do about it; laughing or weeping, like pleasure and sorrow, are just in our blood. Similarly, we cower when we are afraid, we become red and loud when angry, we flush and swell when we want to get laid. Consider, by contrast, homesickness, or envy, or enlightenment, or ennui. However universal those feelings may be, they don't have signature spasm to serve as their signals — you can't tell that someone is homesick just by listening to how they breath, just by looking into their eyes — and so those feelings seem less essential. More subtle maybe, more sophisticated maybe, but less fundamental.

Let us consider, then, a particular, universal reflex: The Cringe. It is a wince in the face; a clamping of the jaw; a tightening of the fingers and perhaps the buttocks; a drawing in or forcing out of breath that makes the sound "Thhhhh," of "Oooo." Watch a hospital documentary or a prison-break movie, The Cringe will be the reaction of the audience when the surgeon makes her first incision, or when the hero gets caught in razor wire.

Or, more to the point, watch a Woody Allen film. An adulterous intellectual arrives at a cocktail party with his shapely yet mindless girlfriend; the hosts of the party and their sophisticated friends try to make conversation with her; she is flattered and flustered; but she is a fool, and the hosts can see it; they see what their friend, the intellectual, has chosen for himself. The adulterer, his vanity and bad judgment suddenly exposed to his colleagues and himself, tugs his girlfriend out of the party; she shrieks her protests; he manhandles her; the other guests watch him in shock and concern, and wonder what's become of his wife. And, we in the audience cringe.

In Greece, comedians wore masks that laughed and tragedians wore masks that wept. The misanthrope ought to have worn a mask drawn up into a cringe. Perhaps this sounds too strident? Still, a tradition binds Dyskolos and Timon of Athens and Le Misanthrope to the films of Woody Allen and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater — these stories of wild-minded men, who rail at the hypocrisies and knaveries and foolishness of their neighbors, and who face the misanthrope's dilemma. It is a dilemma played out in the contrast between the closing lines of Timon's epitaph...

Here lie I, Timon: who, alive, all living men did hate:
Pass by, and curse they fill; but pass by and stay not here
thy gait.
Timon of Athens, V, iv, l. 72-73

... and the final words of Mickey Sabbath ...

How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.
Sabbath's Theater, p. 451

To find peace by fleeing the despicable company of other people; or to insist on staying in their midst, because hatred is invigorating?

6.

It's true! Hatred is invigorating, hatred is life-giving!

The caller who tells the talk-show host with pride, "Now that I'm a mom, I don't have time to read." The real-estate developer who, just up your block, crams five four-bedroom "homes" into a single quarter-acre lot. The Johnny Appleseeds who planted CNN screens every fifteen yards in every airport in America. The Johnny Appleseeds who stocked every placid Western watershed with predacious Asian fish. The motormen who race four-wheel drives across the tender crust of Western deserts; the moneymen who turn public lands into private timber yards. The zealots who boast about their bigotry with bumper-stickers. All of them, all of them! They bring you to life! Oh, hearing about them, listening to them, living among them — how your heart pounds!

The sanctimonious busybodies! The puritanical killjoys! The fools and the megalomaniacs who lead your nation into war, the cowards and the compromisers you have to vote for to force a peace, the liars, the cheats, the corrupters of liberty, the international bankers who buy up your local newspaper only to shut it down, the unaccountable conglomerate who buys up your local radio station only to kill its sound, the Supreme Court who cites your constitution only to ignore it. Oh!

The bastards who call it "Socialist" to reduce, reuse, recycle; the bastards who consider it "Communist" to have secular public schools; the bastards who actually consider "Socialist" and "Communist" to be argument-ending slurs; the bastards who think they are so right; the bastards who think their instant wants are so eternally important; the bastards who, if they get their way, will leave the world asphalt, asphyxiated, as seen on TV.

The fuckers!

7.

Here are three paradoxes that any intellectually respectable theory of misanthropy would account for.

First: That misanthropes, as humans who hate humanity, must sometimes hate themselves. You may sit in a traffic jam on Route 120 into Yosemite, and your denunciation of all these people driving their horrible SUVs into the park may be exquisite and irrefutable — but it doesn't change the fact that you, too, are in an automobile. You may read the newspaper, and your outrage at the crimes of your president and his cabinet may be immaculate — but it doesn't change the fact that, every year, you pay your federal taxes. You may howl at the tele-journalists who, instead of reporting on anything of importance (anything at all!) occupy the public's airwaves with the petty gossip of the celebrity class — but it doesn't change the fact that you, too, kind of want to know which actress showed her vagina to the paparazzi. The misanthrope, like the essayist, shouts You! but means I.

Second, an old yawner: that misanthropes want to be loved. Think of Alceste's desire to get married in Le Misanthrope, or of Ignatius P. Reilly's departure for New York at the end of A Confederacy of Dunces. If you are done with the human race, where does this need for a companion come from? Why don't you bike to Sauvie Island alone?

Third: That misanthropes hope for reform. If you are through with humanity, why bother denouncing them, why bother speechifying about them? Indeed, only an optimist of the highest order would believe that humanity could, with enough rhetoric and rage, be cured of its disloyalty, its dishonesty, its baseness. But that seems to be, at different points, what Timon and Alceste and Ignatius P. Reilly believe. It's enough to make you think that only a romantic could be a misanthrope.

But again, perhaps I am too strident. Because, at least in literature, the misanthrope and the romantic are opposites. In the misanthropic comedy, we laugh at the follies of a man who loathes the misery of the people he sees around him; in the romantic comedy, we laugh at the fancies of a woman who longs to be happy like the people she sees around her. Similarly, there are two things you can do with blackberries: plant them along your fence to keep the world out, or pick them from the roadside for pancakes.

Anyway, when I'm back at Powell's — October 8th, 2007, to read from Maynard and Jennica — that is what I will be scouring the shelves for, an intellectually respectable theory of misanthropy.

÷ ÷ ÷

Rudy Delson, a "recovering lawyer," quit his job on the eve of his 30th birthday to write this, his first novel. He was raised in San Jose, graduated from Stanford, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. spacer

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