Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Word Addict Confesses


When the journalist Christopher Hitchens died a few weeks ago at the age of 62 of esophageal cancer, he departed at the height of his fame and influence, which is not a bad time to go, though a great loss, really, seeing how much knowledge the man had amassed.  Through a gift subscription to Vanity Fair, I’d been reading his articles and essays during the past year, and really was just getting to know him. He came to my attention first when he was voluntarily water-boarded during the Bush Administration’s barbaric return to torture as an interrogation technique. This man who had flown into the mouth of every war since the 1970s said being water-boarded was the most terrifying experience of his life. Hitchens was wildly controversial for supporting the Iraq war—a lefty gone right—and what pulled him back left was his awareness of the role that religious fanaticism was playing not only in the Islamic world but also in rightwing politics everywhere. His most famous book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, made the case for a return to secular humanism and Enlightenment values. He concluded that it was probably too late, since the religious right dreams of nothing greater than the total annihilation of the world, and now has the weapons capability to bring it about.

Yesterday I took a stroll on YouTube and found two interviews, one with Hitch, as he was known, on a Canadian show called The Hour, and another with Hitch’s friend, actor and writer Stephen Fry (half of Fry and Laurie, and Jeeves of Jeeves and Wooster). Fry said that while he, too, does not believe in God, or god, he disagrees with Hitchens in his assertion that religion is only a poison, in that Fry’s own great passions are ecclesiastical architecture and Bach. (Not only was I impressed with the subjects of the interviews and the intelligence with which they spoke, I was also impressed by how engaged the (not American) interviewers were.)

I started this Hitch-hunt as a result of reading the last of Christopher Hitchens’s pieces before his death, this for the February 2012 Vanity Fair, called “Charles Dickens’s Inner Child,” about the great writer’s use of novels to show respect for childhood and to offer personal atonement. The next article is an In Memoriam for Hitchens by Salman Rushdie, in which Rushdie, a longtime friend, reveals that the title of Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, came out of a game they and group of friends played, called Titles That Don’t Quite Make It. (Other such titles included A Farewell to Weapons, For Whom the Bell Rings, To Kill a Hummingbird, The Catcher in the Wheat, and Mr. Zhivago.) So for all the seriousness of purpose of Hitchens and Rushdie and their friends, laughter had pride of place at their social table.

Stephen Fry remarks in another TV spot (this on why his favorite book is James Joyce's Ulysses) that all good art is comic, and I agree with that. This is not to say that art must send you into paroxysms of laughter, but that it should include wit. What set Fry and Laurie apart in sketch comedy, for example, was their love of language and all it could do and suggest, especially by casual misuse: "I have to fornicate with you, there." Just as the titles game above shows, only through enjoying and understanding what language is capable of can you come to see how one word can destroy a good title.

Nearly eight years ago now, the year I turned 40, my friend Tom suggested that the five of us old high school pals—he, Scott, Steve, Greg, and I (though straight female by birth, I am in fact a gay man; clarification: they are straight, but since I'm not attracted to women and they, this just got even more awkward)—get together over Memorial Weekend in our old stomping grounds (only Scott didn’t have a parent residing in the area anymore) and just hang out to celebrate our 40th year—no kids, no spouses, just us. Tom realized that it most likely would be the last time we did such a thing when we were all living. Tom was in Chicago, Scott in Denver, Steve in Florida, Greg in Tucson, and Lisa in New York —what were the odds of bringing all five of us together again? The last of the weddings had more than likely happened, so that only left a funeral, and that’s nothing to look forward to.  For my part in arranging an event over the long weekend, I asked my dad if one morning he would mind having the guys over for breakfast, which sounds odd outside my family, but my dad (a former short-order cook in his youth) made a great breakfast, and it would be a chance for all of us to hang out with my parents (who are famously NOT night people). Afterward, we sat outside in the May sunshine, and my dad asked the best question of the visit: “What brought the five of you together as friends?”

What a good question, we all agreed. Hmmm. Tom ventured first, “Well, in school, we were all smart, but none of us were geniuses,” to which Greg quickly countered, “Speak for yourself,” and we all roared. Three of them had known each other since elementary or middle school, then high school introduced us all to each other, and in college and beyond we kept in touch, got together at holidays. Now, why?

I’ve thought about it over the years since my dad asked us about it. What I always remember are moments of talk: Riding with Greg to UVa to pick up Tom for Christmas break, and Greg’s idea to read every sign we saw backwards: “Stop” became “Pots,” “Yield” became “Dleiy,” “Exit,” “Tixe,” “Slow,” “Wols,” and “Pedestrian,” “Nairtsedep,” and you had to say it before you passed it. Really, it’s like driving in another country, much more exciting than only doing Rt. 29 through Culpeper, or rather, “Repepluc.”

Words: the mountains of funny letters we used to exchange, often with bogus return addresses; the indecipherable postcards; and watching shitty movies while making derisive commentary (a practice later stolen from us, apparently, for profit by MST3K) that made bad movies into brilliant fun. Our group favorite was Megaforce, a sci-fi adventure in a futuristic desert land where super choppers are the transport of choice, starring Barry Bostwick, Andy Gibb, and Edward Mulhare (the ghost of Captain Craig on the TV series, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). Oh, lawdy. (When Tom married in 1999, we all watched this celluloid masterpiece-of-shit again the night before the wedding, sharing it now with a few more of Tom’s friends—Miss O’ still the only girl—and the other guys just didn’t get it. They were computer engineers, and language wasn’t their thing. But at least they could enjoy the really cheap special "effects" that no computer could have created.)

Given our vastly different lives at that time, our politics that ranged from rightwing capitalist to moderate to liberal to liberal socialist to Communist; our various landscapes; our chosen fields of endeavor; our interests—I now think that the secret link to our group friendship must have been, and is, the overwhelming love of language.

All of us were and are enthusiastic and sometimes great writers and talkers and wits, and our humor always language-based rather than physical. We “hear” the world differently, and in the same way. “You love ’em in blue, you love ’em in red,” Barry Bostwick intones to Andy Gibb, “but mostly, you love ’em in red.” We’d all stared at the screen. Finally, one of us said:

“What the fuck does that even MEAN?”

“What’s wrong with the other colors?”

“So you can only love by color code?”

“Why are we watching this?”

“Wait.  Here’s Captain Craig. He’ll explain it.”

And this would go on for hours. It’s gone on, as it turns out, for three decades.


One summer at the Bread Loaf School of English, my friends George and Hugh told me about a situation in a men’s room on campus. The partition between two of the urinals had fallen down, leaving a kind of trench in the wall. On one side of this gap someone had written, “The Naked,” and on the other side another hand had written, “The Dead.” Below that, still another hand wrote, “The Sound,” and across the gap a new hand scrawled, “The Fury”; then, “The Agony” [gap] “The Ecstasy.”  So now George and Hugh actually looked forward to having to pee there, just to see what the urinal-titles list around the understood "and" would contain, and to think what they might add. By summer’s end the list had devolved to “Beavis,” “Butthead,” and the literary allusions were gone. Hugh remarked that it made him sad to think about what this lack of literacy meant for our esteemed school of English; then again, the surprise of the aberrant or vulgar is also a joy of language. (After all, another title-that-missed created by the Hitchens-Rushdie crowd was: Toby-Dick; a.k.a., Moby-Cock.) (The next summer the partition was fixed and the wall painted, so no evidence of genius or of culture brought low remained. And so it goes.)


One of my former students, Nichole, wrote me on Facebook recently to tell me how she remembered my lesson in puns, and that she had loved puns ever since. My brother Pat is great at puns, and he had taught me about them. I used to groan at puns—I thought that dismissing them made me seem more intelligent. (At Bread Loaf, the poet Robert Pack said to me, “Everybody thinks puns are low and awful, but only because they wish they could do it.”) Here's how he taught me: I got mad at Pat once and said, “Spare me.” And Pat got a little twinkle and said, “That doesn’t STRIKE me at funny. Get it? Spare? Strike?” and I had to think, and said, “You could have BOWLED me over with that,” and Pat said quickly, “Don’t PIN this on me,” and then, “I’m ROLLING in the GUTTER”—this last being less a pun than a metaphor, but you get the idea. Let us not SPLIT hairs….

In grad school at Bread Loaf, it was George who reminded me of the joy of punning. As we walked through the woods, he asked, “Should we STICK to this path, or should be BRANCH out?” and his now-wife Jean said, “I’m LEAVING.” I think that pun helped bring them together.

In all of this LANGUAGE is laughter. It is the use of language to not so much move us as to make us laugh, and laugh, that is the true reason for any addiction to words and all they can mean. This plays out equally in sophisticated comedies as seemingly unlike as The Simpsons and The Muppets—one a bit blue, the other gently green—but both based on the understanding and love of language.

Or as Barry Bostwick might say, “You love ’em in blue, you love ’em in green, but mostly, you love ’em in…”

Cue the Monty Python foot.

No comments:

Post a Comment