CULTURAL LAG.

I never actually regret having dropped out of grad school, but there are times when I’m particularly glad that I didn’t become an academic, such as when I’m reminded how out of touch academics can be. (This does not apply, of course, to academics who read LH, who are totally hip.) I just read Thomas Keymer’s LRB review of Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century by Simon Dickie, becoming more and more astonished at the attitude expressed and assumed therein toward low humor:

In Cruelty and Laughter, Simon Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm’, by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that revelled in human suffering and physical affliction. … Dickie painstakingly retrieves the older pleasures from fugitive jestbooks and trashy ephemera: an archive little studied not only because of low survival rates – the books he describes were read to pieces – but also because of its content. With their unrepentant nastiness and gloating delight in other people’s pain, the ubiquitous jestbooks gleefully up-end the official values of the age. The humanitarian sensibilities we associate with the Enlightenment are nowhere to be seen. In compilations with titles like England’s Witty and Ingenious Jester, The Buck’s Pocket Companion and Fun for the Parlour, blind women are walked into walls, crutches are stolen from one-legged beggars, dwarfs are picked up and tossed from windows and starving paupers are fed shit pies. Some of the most rebarbative jests, often whole sequences of them, reappear across the decades. Even works like The Delicate Jester; or, Wit and Humour Divested of Ribaldry (a lucus a non lucendo kind of title) reprint them without any softening. … To what extent can we put these unendearing but popular texts down to cultural lag, to the persistence of the coarsely medieval in the age of reason?

The persistence of the coarsely medieval? Has the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto never gone online? Did he not have school friends who told exactly such jokes with boisterous relish? Is he really not aware that cruel jokes about women, the blind, paupers, and indeed every identifiable subgroup of people have been told and laughed at since the beginning of time and will doubtless continue to be told and laughed at until the human race evolves into the kind of ethereal beings foretold by the more high-minded sort of sf writer a century or so ago? I’m not defending that class of jokes (though I have laughed at them), but words like “rebarbative” and “unendearing” reek of an arm’s-length distaste that makes me want to recite from Fun for the Parlour in his class. And “medieval”? Really, professor! Wake up and smell the crooked timber of humanity!

Comments

  1. Well, y’see, such things aren’t in books any more. And if it’s not in a book, by Ghu, it’s Just Not Real.
    More seriously, a case could be made that what we have in (post)modern times is a recrudescence of the mediaeval, with its pervasive orality and face-to-face (well, face-to-video) culture. After all, it’s not like vulgarity ever went away, but sometimes it’s more submerged than other times.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    Such things were certainly in books in the not-too-distant past, such as the “Truly Tasteless Jokes” series, which sold millions in the 1980′s and perhaps thereafter. That was a best-selling tip of a pretty-large iceberg. When I started patronizing bookstores in the later 1970′s there was always a shelf or two of books of crude/offensive/often-ethnically-derogatory humor – usually pretty clearly labeled as likely to be offensive, whether as fair warning or a marketing strategy. And that’s w/o even getting into subsequent publishing phenomena like “100 Uses for a Dead Cat”, the complete works of the National Lampoon and affiliated personnel, etc. These were generally low-budget paperbacks, admittedly . . . but these 18th century items sound like cheaply-printed chapbooks, not vellum-bound quarto editions.

  3. Jeffry House says:

    Here in Toronto, a student of Professor Keymer tells me that the professor has also denounced “curlism”, which turns out to be “the sale of salacious books.” Many people do this, it seems.
    His students, out of class, are known to point to one another and shout “You curlist!”
    It is unknown whether the word will thereby be revived.

  4. Ever since I saw this page from an Archie’s Parables comics, I’ve thought that the “Filthy Books” bookstore would be quite the neat project & a great aid in the education of youth.
    For what is worth, my Semiotics professor is openly a BD⁠SM enthusiast who often drew examples from comics, sci-fi, and erotica during lectures. It’s not all snotty elitists keeping humanity at arms’ length (though, sure, there are more than one who would fit the bill…)
    By the way, the blogging software wanted to refuse this comment because of “questionable content” (=the word “BD⁠SM”).

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    On Curlism, here’s a discussion by Keymer that I found pretty entertaining to read http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n24/thomas-keymer/rogering-in-merryland even though the paywall blocks the majority of it. I love how he notes that while even the OED lacks “curlism” it does credit Mr. Curll with the earliest attested usages of two words of salacious meaning.

  6. mollymooly says:

    “Curlicism” is in Curll’s Wikipedia article and seems more common than “Curlism”, though still not in OED1.

  7. Yup, the descriptions sound Keymerian:

    Curll’s culminating succès de scandale was A New Description of Merryland (1740), the first in a quickfire series of ribald, innuendo-laden publications about the lush topography of a fantasy island, all playing relentlessly on a sexual sense of merry that was standard early modern slang. … Curll’s obscene publication, flogging a single schoolboy joke to death, apparently also won an avid readership and a reputation for daring wit.

    But at least he’s not as clueless as Paul Baines and Pat Rogers, the authors of the book he’s reviewing:

    That said, there are some strange loose ends. Although they eventually reject the attribution, they for some reason take seriously a preface in which Stretzer claims to have inherited the work in manuscript from a recently deceased Irishman called ‘Roger Pheuquewell’, and their analysis of Stretzer’s preface ends in the guarded conclusion that ‘Pheuquewell emerges more as a representative type than as the portrait of a real individual.’ But we learn from Stretzer that the Pheuquewell family are ‘remarkable for their being Red-Headed . . . and of long standing in that Country,’ and it is hard not to suspect that we are in the territory of what linguists call a coincidental homophone.

    Yes, it is… hard.

  8. Sort of off topic, but the LRB — which I, in fact, adore — is also not above distorting history, or at least repeating its popular but inaccurate cliff notes, to further an argument. From David Bromwich’s article, A Bad President, about Obama (an article I actually otherwise enjoyed):

    [Obama] has often echoed Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the canonical American speech of reconciliation. It has not occurred to him that our time may be more suited to the House Divided speech, in which Lincoln in 1858 showed why the slavery question was so important it might make the two sides irreconcilable.

    Lincoln’s House Divided speech did no such thing. That would have made him a radical, an image he was desperate and meticulous to avoid at that time, just before his debates with Douglas. He wasn’t saying that the house was divided; he was saying that the house might become divided if Democratic policies and court decisions, like the Kansas Nebraska Act and Dred Scott, were allowed to wreak their potential havoc.

  9. I should add that what I objected to most in Bromwich’s description of the speech was the word “showed” — “. . . in which Lincoln in 1858 showed why the slavery question was so important . . .”; that word implies that Lincoln demonstrated the importance of lsavery in the speech, whereas really he just asserted it before attacking certain policies in great, frankly demagogic detail — accusing Douglas of being in cahoots in some great pro-slavery cabal with the people who in fact were his ideological rivals in his own party. Not that this makes Lincoln bad or anything; on the contrary, it makes him a good politician, on the right side, in a time when the country desperately needed one.

  10. Shit, I just saw that may last comment is full of typos. That’s what happened when you don’t really sleep from 1:26 a.m. to 8:26 a.m.

  11. Prof. Keymer sounds like a holdover from the high-modernist days when Classicism v. Romanticism was still a live controversy, and to be a scholar of one or the other you pretty much had to be fer it. In those days a lot of Romantic scholars were woowoos with irregular lives, and a lot of Enlightenment scholars were very flatfooted rationalists with strangely limited perceptions.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    I appreciated the link to the Bromwich article, which was mostly a good read. Apart from the obscurity of the 1858 reference (what issue or issues is he trying to suggest are the modern parallel?), there is of course the problem that while Lincoln seems to be universally regarded as the winner of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the immediate purpose of the debates was to influence whether Lincoln or Douglas would be the next U.S. Senator from Illinois and . . . Douglas won. (As a political analyst, I would say Bromwich makes a pretty good Ivy League English professor, but the interesting take on the President as author and his relationship with the fictional character of the same name in the book he wrote is perhaps a demonstration that the tools of literary scholarship are not wholly irrelevant to political analysis.)

  13. there is of course the problem that while Lincoln seems to be universally regarded as the winner of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the immediate purpose of the debates was to influence whether Lincoln or Douglas would be the next U.S. Senator from Illinois and
    But the debates also launched Lincoln into the national spotlight; nobody expected him to do so well: he and his party actually won the popular vote. If not for those debates, he never would have become president.
    As a political analyst, I would say Bromwich makes a pretty good Ivy League English professor, but the interesting take on the President as author and his relationship with the fictional character of the same name in the book he wrote is perhaps a demonstration that the tools of literary scholarship are not wholly irrelevant to political analysis.
    Bromwich is a damn good political analyst, perhaps my favorite after David Runciman. I’ll bet he even knew better than the precis he wrote about the House Divided speech — probably the reason he used “might” instead of “would”: “. . . slavery question was so important it might make the two sides irreconcilable.” I’m guessing he relied on popular history because it was a shorter article for the LRB, in their “Diary” format. Word counts are a bitch. Not that I don’t think he should have left the reference out altogether; as you say, it’s somewhat obscure as to how it relates to the current political situation. There are plenty of other ways to say that the sides are more reconcilable than most people would like to admit and that Obama should be more aggressive in general. Civil war, after all, is not exactly in the offing.

  14. There are plenty of other ways to say that the sides are more reconcilable
    Sorry — should have been, “. . . less reconcilable.”

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Well, Douglas did well enough out of it to get nominated for the Presidency himself (with the irony that when push came to shove he was not sufficiently pro-slavery to keep the Slave Power faction of his party from bolting), and it’s hard to see the counterfactual in which Lincoln being a sitting Senator during the run-up to the 1860 election would have had a worse shot at his party’s nomination, although maybe he would have had more chances to piss people off by actually voting on things whereas not being in office enabled him to be a bit more tabula rasa.

  16. I can’t prove it, but I suspect you’re more likely to find mistakes in the LRB about US history than you would be about modern European history, so that even if the writer is from the US a mistake may not be picked up by the magazine. Schoolchildren studying for History A Level in Britain wouldn’t necessarily learn any post-1776 North American history at all (I didn’t: for me my only option, a side order of “The American Civil War”, wasn’t as attractive as its alternative, a double portion of “Gladstone & Disraeli”).

  17. I suspect you’re more likely to find mistakes in the LRB about US history than you would be about modern European history
    I suspect you’re right.

  18. Well, Douglas did well enough out of it to get nominated for the Presidency himself
    Douglas’s candidacy didn’t hinge on his performance in those debates; he was already a prominent national figure, having finally gotten the Compromise of 1850 passed — Henry Clay’s brainchild of course, though Clay was too old and sick to see it through himself. In today’s politics Douglas’s advisers never would have let him debate an unknown like Lincoln, who had hitherto been resorting to following Douglas around the state, countering Douglas’s own speeches uninvited, just to get some attention; back then, it was deemed more cowardly to turn down a debate than it is now.
    it’s hard to see the counterfactual in which Lincoln being a sitting Senator during the run-up to the 1860 election would have had a worse shot at his party’s nomination
    The counterfactual would be Lincoln never getting into the Senate at all — quite possible if he hadn’t shocked the nation by going blow for blow with the “Little Giant,” if not knocking him to the canvas (which at least the Republican papers of course said he had).

  19. Lincoln was totally broke after the debates, that whole campaign, having put up all his own money to see it through. If he hadn’t done so well, the party wouldn’t have supported him — there would have been no new campaign for the senate.

  20. so that even if the writer is from the US a mistake may not be picked up by the magazine.
    I was just about to say that Bromwich writes about as often for the NYRB as the LRB, but there you have it — you’re probably right.

  21. it’s hard to see the counterfactual in which Lincoln being a sitting Senator during the run-up to the 1860 election would have had a worse shot at his party’s nomination
    I do know that some people have put forward the notion that Lincoln lost the election on purpose, positioning himself for a run at the presidency. Of course, that’s preposterous — for reasons we’ve both noted. Maybe that’s what you had in mind.

  22. there would have been no new campaign for the senate.
    The senate? What am I talking about? “There would have been no new campaigns at all,” is what I’d meant.

  23. Jesus Christ, I did it again:
    The counterfactual would be Lincoln never getting into the Senate at all
    I’m punch-drunk from a night of no sleep. The counterfactual is that his political career would have been over. Where I got the idea this morning that Lincoln became a senator between 1858 and 1860, I have no idea. I was just brushing up on Lincoln last night.

  24. what does “rebarbative” even mean? Something that is so awful it makes you beard curl back on itself?

  25. OED sez: “probably literally ‘to stand beard to beard against’.”

  26. But I like your explanation better.

  27. I always took it to be from the verb, and meaning the feeling you get when something scrapes you repetitively.

  28. About ‘rebarbative’: I always assumed it meant with backward-pointing barbs like a fishhook. Checking http://www.dictionary.com just now, it says ‘barb’ as in fishhooks comes from the Latin word for ‘beard’, but does not make any connection between ‘rebarbative’ and barbs.
    As for the Pheuquewell family, “remarkable for their being Red-Headed . . . and of long standing in that Country”, is that two more dirty jokes? I’ve forgotten the number, but Martial has an epigram about a man who is red-headed, bald, and one-eyed, and it’s only the most recent commentators who’ve figured out that he’s calling him a prick. Perhaps others already noted the appropriateness of red-headedness and “long standing” without spelling it out. I wonder what was in the ellipsis in between. (I don’t wonder enough to bother trying to find out, though.)

  29. is that two more dirty jokes?
    I count three (red-headed, standing, country = cunt).

  30. Trond Engen says:

    As for the Pheuquewell family, “remarkable for their being Red-Headed . . . and of long standing in that Country”, is that two more dirty jokes?
    Who siad that? Balsac?

  31. Martial has an epigram … and it’s only the most recent commentators who’ve figured out
    2.33? Cur non basio te, Philæni?
    Philænis was a woman and Calderinus understood it just fine.

  32. Fuckin’ A, man, fuckin’ A. ;)
    All aspects of language are valuable and can be learned from–high or low, clean or dirty, nice or mean, etc.–dismissing and degrading them them in such a manner is indicative of someone who is not only out of touch but who also has a very sensitive ego and perhaps some self-esteem issues they deal with by putting others down in order to feel superior themselves.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

  33. People who talk about the “age of reason” as some homogeneous mass of manners and enlightenment are almost as stupid as those who thought classical Greece a monolithic paragon of “rationality” (whatever that might mean). I was always a bit surprised Dodds felt the need to mount his argument against that fallacy.

  34. Re-read the introduction, Conrad.

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