Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Some laughs, or, "A dark, even-handed misanthropy"

To leaven yesterday's tales of robbery, killing, and general amorality, today let's have some humor!

I've really just got a few funny items for you, but I think that can be excused when this first one is, I venture, the funniest thing I've ever read. It is, not unexpectedly, by P. G. Wodehouse, and it opens the story "Buried Treasure," a tale of the Angler's Rest club that is collected in Lord Emsworth and Others (1937). The only additional introduction you need is the knowledge that in Angler's Rest stories Wodehouse identifies each speaker by the name of his drink. And now, to the joke:
The situation in Germany had come up for discussion in the bar parlour of the Angler's Rest, and it was generally agreed that Hitler was standing at the crossroads and would soon be compelled to do something definite. His present policy, said a Whisky and Splash, was mere shilly-shallying.

"He'll have to let it grow or shave it off," said the Whisky and Splash. "He can't go on sitting on the fence like this. Either a man has a moustache or he has not. There can be no middle course."
Wodehouse's most impressive achievement in those paragraphs is to maintain complete surprise: even though you know a joke's coming, his opening lines get your thoughts running so completely in one particular track that the sudden jump to another, previously unconsidered track is hilarious.

Now let's shift from the verbal to the visual, and from the twentieth century to the eighteenth, where I've been spending so much of my reading time lately. One of the books that's been holding me in that period is Tom Jones (1749), and the designer of the Penguin Classics edition deserves plaudits for choosing the perfect cover image, James Gillray's print Fashionable Contrasts;--or--The Duchess's Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke's Feet (1792).



Created to celebrate and satirize the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York, the print's simplicity is stunning, especially when contrasted with the other works of Gillray and his contemporaries, which tended to be overloaded with characters and symbols. And what a title!

Gillray, whose work I've noted before, was a contemporary of Blake, Rowlandson and Isaac Cruikshank, an artistic descendant of Hogarth, and an influence on Goya. As Vic Gatrell tells us in his spectacularly entertaining City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006),
Gillray was an enigmatic fellow, and we're not going to like him. In appearance he seems to have been rather daunting, so it comes as no surprise to learn that, with his "slouching gait and careless habits," he was too taciturn to have intimate friends. As the artist-journalist W. H. Pyne remembered, he was "meanly mischievous" to other people and as lazy in his personal relationships as in his art, and "a stranger to the feelings of friendship." But although he was "a careless sort of cynic, one who neither loved, nor hated society," "his aberrations were more the results of low habits and the want of self-esteem, than from malignity, envy, or meanness."
And though, as Gatrell points out,
Artistic London was a small world, and he grew into his trade alongside significant others. . . . [and in] their tavern lives, these men mingled with literary and theatrical hacks as well as each other, acting out the fashionable cult of dissolute genius with growing conviction,
Gillray seems never quite to have been fully a member of that fraternity of artists, standing decidedly aloof.
Except for a few depictions of St James's characters from life, his works lack warmth or affection. . . . Many are moved by a dark, even-handed misanthropy--by something approaching hatred, mixed with sadism.
That certainly seems the case when you look at some of Gillray's other works, such as this celebration of Nelson's victory on the Nile, Destruction of the French Collossus, which could with some adjustments have been slipped into the pages of an EC comic of the 1950s:



Given the horrors clearly available to Gillray's imagination, it may not surprise you to learn that he went insane in his later years. In his last days he thought George Cruikshank (later to be celebrated for his illustrations of Dickens) was Sir Joshua Reynolds and he himself was Rubens, while a suicide attempt in 1811 inadvertently recreated some of the grotesquely comic air of his prints:
He once tried to throw himself out of [his patron] Hannah Humphrey's upper window, and was saved because he jammed his head and was spotted from White's club across the street.

But now I've allowed my interest in Gillray to derail me from my initial intention to leaven your day with humor--can anything be further from the comedic than suicidal insanity? I'll try to make up for it with, first, another Gillray, this one with none of the elegance of Fashionable Contrasts--for as any Swift fan could tell you, when all else fails, one can always opt for scatology, which Gillray did in his 1793 take on the possibility of a French invasion, The French Invasion;--or--John Bull, Bombarding the Bum-Boats:



Gross, yes, but hard not to smile at, and presumably effective politically. The French, it seems, may find themselves needing the services of the Poopsmith.

Having descended into the gutter, I'll stay there and close with this pleasantly scurillous anecdote that Henry Fielding tosses off in Tom Jones regarding actress Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II and good friend of I've Been Reading Lately favorite Lord Rochester:
On this subject, reader, I must stop a moment, to tell thee a story. "The famous Nell Gwynn, stepping one day, from a house where she had made a short visit, into her coach, saw a great mob assembled, and her footman all bloody and dirty; the fellow, being asked by his mistress the reason of his being in that condition, answered, `I have been fighting, madam, with an impudent rascal who called your ladyship a wh--re.' `You blockhead,' replied Mrs Gwynn, `at this rate you must fight every day of your life; why, you fool, all the world knows it.'

`Do they?' cries the fellow, in a muttering voice, after he had shut the coach-door, `they shan't call me a whore's footman for all that.'"
Finally, since it's a day of visuals, and I've already violated all bounds of good taste, I may as well add some nudity. Here's a 1672 engraving by Richard Thomson of a painting by Peter Cross depicting Nell Gwyn as Cupid:



Gwyn's sly smile and, um . . . perkiness . . . may be NSFW these days, but they must have been just fine in Samuel Pepys's day, for he reportedly kept a copy hanging over his desk at the Admiralty.

2 comments:

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  2. selfdivider8:20 AM

    love this post, levi. really brilliant. whenever i read the penguin edition of tom jones in public, somebody almost always commented on the gillray print.

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