Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics

Infernal brutes, savage sommeliers, hetero Mounties — March 29, 2013

Infernal brutes, savage sommeliers, hetero Mounties

The truth is, God just doesn't have enough love for everybody
Biblical on yo ash

I feel pretty badly that I haven’t done a light-hearted obscure words post in a while, so here’s one today. It’s got some naughty words in it, so hurrah!

Sommelier, n.: a wine waiter. As in, I wouldn’t eat there, the sommeliers have a savage look to them. Pronounced “SOHM-mel-YAY.”

QI, or Quite Interesting, is a quiz show with a great theme: the questions are so archaic that nobody is really expected to be able to answer them. Panelists, almost always clever, charismatic British celebs, get points for giving interesting answers rather than correct ones, and the show has a tendency to descend into chaotic hilarity. Another highlight is Stephen Fry’s outrageous wardrobe. Watching it, I never fail to gain some ridiculous soupçon of knowledge to fillip at friends.

Trivia’s trivial, it’s true. It’s not likely that anything you learn from a quiz show will save your life or make you better at your job. But tidbits like “Did you know, the giant tortoise didn’t have a Latin name until three centuries after its discovery because they’re too goddamn delicious to make it the whole boat ride to London, where such taxonomical honorifics are bestowed?” and “Did I tell you that I’m actually a direct descendant of Charlemagne?” make great party stories and give the illusion that you’re smart and interesting.

Additionally, I cling to the concept that there’s something to gain from teasing an extra wrinkle or two (knowledge does not actually wrinkle the brain) into my brain on a daily basis; tossing another puzzle piece of awareness into the infinite void of ignorance that is my exiguous understanding of the universe and the infernal brutes (humans) currently running the tiny corner of it which I inhabit.

Speaking of infernal brutes, I also learn great new words on QI from time to time, and here’s one: a plethysmograph is an instrument used to measure changes in an organ. There are a number of different types of p-graphs for different types of organs; a blood-pressure cuff is an obvious one. But the funnest plethys are inarguably the penile and vaginal plethysmographs, also known as “fruit machines.”


The penile is basically a cock ring, and it measures blood-flow to the wing-wang; the vaginal is like a tiny little dildo, measuring the same thing in its coordinate organ. They’re gained the “fruit machine” when they were first used to ferret out a person’s sexual preference. The Canadian Mounties ran all of their members (get it) through the fruit machine in the 50’s. What they’d do is hook a guy up, show him a bunch of gay porn, and then if the sparks flew and the numbers went up, the Mounty would ship out.

If I was under the test, the very fact that I knew I wasn’t supposed to get aroused would trigger that precise reaction in me. Similarly, I know that I would fail a lie detector test. If someone suspects me of doing something wrong, I immediately act guilty. It’s a disastrous evolutionary adaptation, but I’ve hated getting into trouble since I was a child, and it has never stopped making me feel nervous. Imagine this: the person who just clamped a ring around your cock and showed you a bunch of ratty porn mags turns to you and saying, “No, I’m sorry, you’re just not police material.”

Fruit machines have also been used to test those who claimed to be gay to avoid military service.

A plethysmograph can be a useful medical tool, but keep it off my tool.

Another fun social test is called a shibboleth. The first definition of shibboleth is: a word, a pronunciation of a word, or a custom that marks someone as being part of a specific group. Actually, that was the second definition; the first definition was “stalk of a grain” from the Hebrew. See, back in Biblical times (approximately Judges BC) a group of socially progressive Jews in Jordan used this word to tell if someone was an Ephraimite (people they didn’t like) because Ephraim’s tribe couldn’t make the “sh” sound at the start. If someone lisped the word incorrectly, they would be killed. The method was efficient: the good book has a braggartly account of 42,000 Ephraimites killed in this way. Cuz that’s what the Old Testament is like.

Nobody saw this movie
This is about as masculine as you get

You could say that getting excited while looking at gay porn is a shibboleth which marks gay people as a group. You could also say that using porn to test if someone’s employee material is a douche-bag shibboleth. Similarly, saying “crick” instead of creek, midnight Wawa runs, and liking Dunkin Donuts more than Krispy Kreme are shibboleths which mark me indelibly as a Philadelphiite.

Apparently, deliberate misspellings and alliterations are shibboleths of the donut industry; I’d never noticed that before.

The various meanings of the word broaden out from here, all with their root in that bloody Biblical usage and having nothing to do with the original agricultural Hebrew meaning of “where the grains we make food from come from.”

A shibboleth can also be (third definition) anything that distinguishes somebody as an outsider (rather than as coming from a particular group). Like walking around a major city with a map, or looking strangers in the eyes anywhere on the American East Coast.

A shibboleth can be (fourth def) a catchphrase – like “Pop, pop!” “Did I do that?” and “Pizza time!” – for an individual, or for a group. So, “small government” is a Republican shibboleth; “equal rights” is a Democratic one. “Change” was Obama’s shibboleth when he was running in 2008. It was incredibly effective, in part because it was broad, powerful, and vague.

That brings us, elegantly, to the fifth meaning. Because these catchphrases are oftentimes used by politicians and political groups to garner support while distracting voters from their actual intentions, shibboleth has taken on another, kind of inevitable definition: a commonplace saying with little actual meaning. “Freedom,” for example has been bandied about by so many parties for so many purposes that now no one even asks what kind of freedom you’re talking about anymore. But it’s such a powerful American value that it immediately garners support for a cause and makes a person think twice about opposing it.

Other popular shibboleths: “I’ll call you,” “award-winning,” “we’ll talk about that raise later;” arguably, filler words like “awesome” and “cool,” so wide-ranging in meaning as to mean almost nothing, are shibboleths as well.

So there you are. That’s the five meanings of shibboleth for you. Those Biblical stalks gave off their little seeds, which were then tossed all the fuck over the place by the crazy-ass winds of time. Ah, the beauty of language.

Fustiann.: 1. High-flown and affected speech. He described his point with so much fustian that none of us had any idea what he was saying. The speech was nothing but fustian; all we learned is that she’s great at saying nothing at all. It can be an adjective too: I want to learn all the words on Notes on Words so that I can be brutally fustian in my speech.
        2. Anything high-flown or affected in style. Girl, why you be walkin around with so much fustian, strap on some heels and let’s go to the bar.
        3. Strong cotton or linen fabric. “What’s that shirt made out of?” “Fustian.” “I don’t know what that is.” “Strong cotton or linen fabric.”

Aggregation, or as we call it Civilization — March 26, 2013

Aggregation, or as we call it Civilization

War's something we've always been good at
Spartans doing what they do. Image © Bettmann/CORBIS

I’m sitting in an over-hot bath reading Shaw defend Creative Evolution, waggling his hairy forefinger at the nihilistic Neo-Darwinians (us). I’ve just read a flatulent comedy by Aristophanes, trashing Reason and the liberalism of Socratic Logic and urging the audience to attend to the conservatives morals of the gods, or else be trampled to death, and cause the downfall of Athenian glory.

I can barely tell which to write about first; I favor, in the end, Shaw’s diligent narrative, fractured as it is in places by false logic and argumentative gaps.

He had to compress untold centuries of development into nine months before he was human enough to break loose as an independent being. [xxvi]

Continue reading

The macromania of hypercaffienated squidlings — March 23, 2013

The macromania of hypercaffienated squidlings

Squid, yum!
All of our struggles eventually lead to being dissected by a squadron of aliens . . . if we’re lucky.

Hope is wicked. Happiness is wicked. Certainty is blessed [17]

Our fearful brains clutch at the mystery of mortality like a hypercaffeinated squid. That is to say, we’re so close to the matter that we can’t see it clearly, just as we can never really see ourselves.

The first part of GB Shaw’s five-play cycle Back to Methuselah, titled In the Beginning, returns to a point of complete innocence in human evolution. The result is a peek at what lies under those tense tentacles at the closely-tied knots of mortality and morality.

Will you be having the life or the death today?

Adam and Eve, are the innocents and ignorants of the Garden of Eden. They know nothing about death, and are able to live forever, spending their days picking nettles off of the Garden floor and naming things.

Adam worries and mopes over eternity with his aimless thoughts. Eve makes sure he eats enough and cleans himself. Love is unknown to them, but the revelation of death, when a fawn slips and falls on a slippery rock, awakens in them fears of loneliness and the end of their species:

Adam: We have to live here for ever. Think of what for ever means! Sooner or later I shall trip and fall. It may be tomorrow; it may be after as many days as there are leaves in the garden and grains of sand by the river. No matter: some day I shall forget and stumble.
Eve: I too.
Adam: Oh no, no. I should be alone. Alone for ever. You must never put yourself in danger of stumbling […] You must sit still. [4]

Awareness of death upsets the torpor of the Garden’s endless days, and the Serpent tells Eve that she can bring other Adams and Eves into the world through childbirth. This gives them the ability to end their own lives without worry; the human race does not have to end with them.

Why be naked when you can wear naked clothes?
From David Fielding’s ’00 production of BTM

Pitter-patter of little feet

Before they bring more Adams and Eves into the world, they give birth to a number of crimes and bad habits, starting with politics:

Eve: [Y]ou could come softly up behind me and throw me down so that I should die. I should not dare to sleep if there were no reason why you should not make me die.
Adam: If I did not know that I loved Eve, at least I did not know that she might cease to love me, and come to love some other Adam and desire my death. Can you find a name for that knowledge?
The Serpent: Jealousy. Jealousy. Jealousy. [15-17]

Though they could not bear the prospect of immortality, the moment they know that they can die they also know that they do not want to die soon. From the very beginning of time, life is unbearable and death is unfathomable. This is the knot of our human minds which we can neither parse nor understand; we feel for sure that we are here for some reason, but it’s rare that anyone can satisfactorily define that purpose or its relationship with our inevitable decline to death and gruesome rot.

To solve this problem and others, they make a pact: they invent marriage, pledge their love to one another, and decide to live for 1000 years; no more, no less.

Shaw sticks a thermometer into the gristle of time and measures its effect on us and our attitudes to the world around us. The moment that Adam realizes that it is not his fate to spend eternity in the garden, and that there will be other men after him who can shoulder some of the labor, he considers being lazy and letting the garden go to seed. The moment there is the possibility of more Adams and Eves, the two begin to plot and suspect one-another, testing the possibilities of turning against each other. Fearful of one-another’s motives, and seeing no angle in betrayal, they invent social compacts and bind the future to their certainty.

The devil, he walks

I have imagined a glorious poem of many men, of more men than there are leaves on a thousand trees. I will divide them into two great hosts […] all those multitudes of men fighting, fighting, killing, killing! The four rivers running with blood! The shouts of triumph! the howls of rage! the curses of despair! the shrieks of torment! That will be life indeed: burning, overwhelming life. Every man who has not seen it, heard it, felt it, risked it, will feel a humbled fool in the presence of the man who has. [22]

Of course they don’t make more Adams and Eves—they make Cains and Abels.

Damn girl check out his tits
We’ve never really gotten over fetishizing war and warriors

The second half of In the Beginning traces the development of a morality of murder. Cain, raised under the yoke of his father’s dogma of digging and hard labor, stands for his new way of living: a violent, warlike, tribal lifestyle worshipping death, hunting, war, slavery, idleness, and pleasures of the flesh. Adam speaks for hard labor, vegetarianism, a relationship with the soil, peace, and simple, conservative pleasures. He is closed-minded, unprogressive, and easily riled by Cain’s philosophies.

Adam and Eve have listened to the Voice in the Garden since they were born there. The Voice might be their human consciousnesses; it might be God.

Cain: I have never in my soul listened willingly when you have told me of the Voice that whispers to you. There must be two Voices: one that gulls and despises you, and another that trusts and respects me. I call yours the Devil. Mine I call the Voice of God.
Adam: Mine is the Voice of Life: yours the Voice of Death.
Cain: Be it so. For it whispers to me that death is not really death: that it is the gate of another life: a life infinitely splendid and intense: a life of the soul alone: a life without clods or spades, hunger or fatigue.

Though of course Cain’s lifestyle is absolutely condemnable, and Adam more closely embodies the ethics laid out in the Ten Commandments, Cain’s more power-hungry philosophy will overwhelm Adam’s humble one and build a church on his claims of a life after death and God’s respect for bloody-mindedness. 

This being the font from which the world’s three dominant monotheisms spring, the Crusades, the auto-da-fé, slavery, brainwashing and genocide couldn’t be better predicted.

Digging and killing

Cain is born into a body with a limited lifespan, and into a world in which he has someone to rebel against—something Adam lacked. He finds a way of life to sets him apart and to be proud of, to create meaning out of meaninglessness, to while away the time, and even to shorten his already truncated lifespan.

Adam is not above condemnation—Shaw is careful never to let a single character score all the points, and he spurns Adam’s conservatism and ignorance. Adam is slow, self-centered, fearful, and lazy in his heart, though he labors day-to-day to stave off corruption.

Eve: I hardly know which of you satisfies me least, you with your dirty digging, or he with his dirty killing. I cannot think it was for either of these cheap ways of life that Lilith set you free. You dig roots and coax grains out of the earth: why do you not draw down a divine sustenance from the skies? He steals and kills for his food; and makes up idle poems of life after death; and dresses up his terror-ridden life with fine words and his disease-ridden body with fine clothes, so that men may glorify and honor him instead of cursing him as murderer and thief. [30]

Eve is far more interested in her sons and grandsons who neither kill nor dig, but the audacity to create art, philosophy, mathematics, music, divine musings, and other original things.

Though she is the (relative) voice of reason, she can do nothing but hope. She leaves the germination of ideas to her male descendants, and takes care of her husband. She has no answer to the problems, though she eagerly desires one.

Eve: Man need not always live by bread alone. There is something else. We do not yet know what it is; but some day we shall find out; and then we will live on that alone; and there shall be no more digging nor spinning, nor fighting nor killing.

Shaw says in his preface, “I never forgot that without knowledge even wisdom is more dangerous than mere opportunist ignorance,” [lxxxviii] elucidating Eve’s uselessness. She can hope, and strive for an answer better and higher than murder and labor, but being ignorant of the ways of the world and having no history of humanity to study, she could not predict Cain, Able, or any of their grandsons, and therefore could not tame them.

The beast

At the marriage ceremony, the Serpent, who had whispered into Eve’s ear the mystery of birth, says, “I fear certainty as you fear uncertainty. […] nothing is certain but uncertainty. If I bind the future I bind my will. If I bind my will I strangle creation.” Eve cries that she will continue to create, even if she has to tear herself to piece, and Adam interrupts them: “Be silent, both of you. I will bind the future. I will be delivered from fear.”

Unable to live with uncertainty, the men, in their efforts to make a world for themselves, commit crimes against the natural order of that world and their own species. The serpents are driven out of the garden. Meanwhile, Eve creates and hopes for the future, and Cain’s wife Lua masters Cain with her sexuality, making him wage war for her approval and skin animals for their furs. Their actions are at once reprehensible, flailingly pointless, and inevitable.

There is no way out of innocence but into the world, which is a brutal and unstable place; and in ignorance, we are left with no way forward but hope.

Part 2 of an exploration of Shaw’s interminable epic. Read Part 1 here.

Quotes in come from my ratty, six-volume Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962. I indicate the play but not the volume number. 

Plato’s Porno Cave — March 21, 2013
Step 2 / Vernal Vermin —

Step 2 / Vernal Vermin

Take that, Science!
The silliest holiday is right around the corner

I’ve been frustrated, since high school, by a vertiginous decline in my working vocabulary. Part of this is the drugs and alcohol, of course, which come along with any college education. Why else was I losing my words? Up until that point, I had only learned more and more of them; never had I lost them, or seen this kind of decline in my ability to learn new ones.

If the first step of learning a new word is to admit that you don’t know it, the second step is to actually look it up yourself.

But again and again, looking up a word only meant that I would forget it before I had a chance to use it. My mind lost them, I was a sieve, I could not actually add new words to my lexicon: a frankly depressing concept for a writer.

This is why steps 3 and 4 are so important, and I’ll get to them next week.

 Yesterday was the Vernal Equinox, or official first day of Spring.

The Equinox of course being Spring and Autumn’s version of the Solstice, which is what the Summer and Winter, the only real seasons anymore, get to have. Equinox means equal night—March 20th and September 20th being the only two days which have an equal amount of night.

Vernal means “having to do with spring.” When I learned this I was naturally disappointed, having thought to myself, “What does ‘vernal’ mean? Is it literally, ‘having to do with spring?’ I hope it has some tangential meaning like ‘rabbit-like,’ or ‘elongated’ or ‘perpetually disappointing.'” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it means—as in, The vernal buds of optimism spring upward, only to be snuffed out by a tardy frost.

Which thought process led me to literally, and how its definition is suddenly worth discussing.

Not really adapted to survival in the wild, though
Just too goddamn cute

Because literally has a new meaning going into dictionaries all over. A lot of people are in an uproar about this.

Understandably so. The alternate definition of “literally” is “emphatically,” which in turn means “so big that I needed to use a comparison or a metaphor,” which in turn means “figuratively,” which in turn means “not literally.” By which I mean, it’s a non-literal use of the word “literal.” As in, I literally love this band! Or, If I don’t get a drink in three seconds I am literally going to die. Or, People who use “literally” to mean “not literally” are literally retarded.

I’m not up in arms. Actually, I’m positively delighted about having the opportunity to talk about this.


The argument is one of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. In brief, prescriptivism is a linguistics principal that dictates that it is the job of dictionaries and other rulesy resources to tell people how language ought to be used. Therefore, dictionaries should only state the “correct” definitions. Descriptivism holds that, rather, dictionaries are there to describe how language is used. This way, if I see or hear a word and I don’t know it, I can ferret through all 3, 7, or 27 definitions of that word until I find the one that actually makes sense. (I.e., I can use a dictionary in the way it’s meant to be used.)

prescriptivist would likely be irked by the incorrect use of literally, and not want it in a dictionary; descriptivists will generally demand that all uses of all words be listed.

Most people these days tend, ideologically, towards descriptivism, as much out of a desire not to seem like a colonizing jerk as out of a genuine understanding of the benefits of having a complete lexicon of human verbiage/usage.

The plot twist

Meanwhile, no matter what we say with our mouths, most of us are actually much more prescriptivist in our tendencies. We subconsciously, or consciously, think that our personal rules of pronunciation and meaning-making are right, and want to impose them on other people, whether or not we’re backed up by resources like dictionaries..

Thus why, when I left Philly to go to school, people made fun of me for calling creeks cricks; thus why I make humiliate my friends for saying bagel wrong; thus why I immediately judge people who say “amble-ance” instead of “am-byoo-lance.”

"I literally love this fucking grass!"
Hooray for descriptivism, and tolerance of new things! cries bunny.

Children do this too, and they’re brutal about it. I’d go so far as to say that we’re instinctual prescriptivists all of us, trained to recognize subtlest differences in other people/things’ manners, in everything from linguistics, to accents, to styles of government, to what news agency you pay attention to, to what kinds of hats people in that country wear and how their food makes them smell weird. We’re so instinctually prescriptivist that we have a long history of starting wars and bar fights based on the pettiest distinctions: like which objectively unprovable deity you’re into, or whose wife you’re sleeping with.

I’m generally a descriptivist. Education and tolerance tend to make you one. Prescriptivism is generally irrational, fearful, cynical, and archaic.

When I read a definition, I find the original root, and trace the myriad complications and bastardizations of that root which had to occur before I could hold that word on my tongue. Every turn represents a point where some linguaphile or other was outraged, and then forgotten. A dictionary is the tingling flesh of the living thing which is language, and its million appendages are all proof of the miracle of the evolution of meaning.

As we stagger stumblingly toward my conclusion

Returning to literally, and its new usage (of which I am tolerant), I’m glad that they’re adding the new usage to the dictionaries.

“I’m literally lost,” says baby

Where did this meaning come from? Well, take for example usage sited in Webster’s: will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice. This does not suggest to me that the person who used it meant to say “emphatically”—rather, I think they meant to say “actually,” and actually did not know what that means in relation to figurative statements. That is to say, they don’t really know the meaning of “actually” or “figuratively” and have been bluffing their way the entire time.

So! Since the second meaning comes from people’s inability to tell the difference between the two, it is valuable to parse them on paper. It could be a valuable lesson for the people who do not understand this distinction. If we fail to do this, I fear that the one meaning might actually absorb the other, like a baby eating its twin in utero. Separating them is like dissecting a hemorrhaging appendix from an otherwise healthy body.

Additionally, like that appendix, that second definition should be put into a jar, and shown for the ugly growth that it is. It is the result of ignorance; in the definition a caveat should state this. The Oxford English Dictionary, somewhat gratifyingly, calls it “informal,” I propose that they indicate when a usage is actually a “misnomer.”Be aware of this meaning, the lexicon cries, but avoid it! It’ll make you sound ignorant! Because it does.

Life is too short for men to take it seriously — March 19, 2013

Life is too short for men to take it seriously

Confucius [shaking his head, shocked at the President’s impoliteness]: No. No, no, no, no, no. Oh, these English! these crude young civilizations! Their manners! Hogs. Hogs. [Back to Methuselah, 135]

I somehow can't imagine that Shaw was happy about them building him a statue
Shaw poses by a statue of Shaw, lets some guy choke him.

Back to Methuselah is George Bernard Shaw’s epic “Metabiological Pentateuch,” a five-play cycle vaulting across time from the Garden of Eden all the way to 31,920 AD. It is concerned with time, Socialism, ethics, human wisdom and development, life, and the psychological importance of mortality. Perhaps so that people would take it seriously, Shaw made it 260 pages long; with its extensive prefaces, it clocks in at over 400.

Shaw’s agnostic, universal, common-sense approach to ethics in this and his other works make him an invaluable source of social wisdom in a time when we are led at every turn to compromise our ethics. He combines biting commentary on enduring social issues with witty aristocrats and dramatic stories, so by all rights he should be a regular visitor to our stages; but somehow, he is rarely produced.

Ethics! Ethics!

Shaw has a remarkable dedication to his own ethics, and is uncannily able to reverse the “common sense” hypocrisies of his time—which somehow endure into our own—on themselves, and show us what we know in our brains already to be true.

Haslam: [One] can’t help it. If there’s a living in the family, or one’s Governor knows a patron, one gets shoved into the Church by one’s parents.
Franklyn: One gets shoved out of it, sometimes, by one’s conscience.
Haslam: Oh yes; but where is a chap like me to go? [38-39]

As an Irishman living in London out of necessity, of course Shaw would see the church as an amoral organization. They freely supported British conquest, though it resulted in devastation, death, and ongoing war for his own people and for many others. I doubt that Shaw would be shocked to hear that the Church, in our time, was sheltering and facilitating pedophiles. He would only comment that of course the Pope was never arrested for the crime.

Assassination on the scaffold is the worst form of assassination, because there it is invested with the approval of society. [The Revolutionist’s Handbook, 735]

Always with the great beard, Shaw
Having grown up in poverty, Shaw had a lucid understanding of it

Throughout his career his works attacked not just the church but also slum-landlordism, party politics, classism, the self-appointed moral superiority of the rich, the self-interest of the medical profession, romanticism, warmongering and the cult of courage; and defended prostitutes, cowards/pacifists, feminism, polyamory, the poor and simple, and other concepts and groups which remain under attack today.

In keeping with these virtues, he wrote a host of powerful, independent female leads in a time when this was unheard of including Joan of Arc, Mrs. Warren the procuress and her accountant daughter, and even Eliza Doolittle, the flowergirl in Pygmalion who learns from Henry Higgins how to pass for a duchess, and then liberates herself from his oppressive, dogmatic influence.

Back to Methuselah

It was hard enough to stand the party politicians before the war; but now that they have managed to half kill Europe between them, I can’t be civil to them, and I don’t see why I should be. [Back to Methuselah, 46]

The plot of Back to Methuselah is that, directly after the First World War, a pair of brothers decide that humans must live to be 300 in order to develop any sense of responsibility. In the wake of the terrible crimes and follies of the global catastrophe, it is clear to them that we must live much longer than we currently do in order to behave in anything like the civilized manners we pretend to. 60 or 80 is a blink of an eye, they argue; we barely have time to learn anything. “Wisdom with age” is a sophistry of the worst kind, otherwise old men would never lead us to war, and commit the same follies that young men do.

What’s more, because of shortness of our lives, we don’t have to live with the repercussions of most of our actions. A politician with 250 years ahead of them, knowing that they will be in and out of power in a fraction of their lifespan, might take their actions more seriously, and look to create a better world for themselves, rather than pad their throne.

This change, remarkably, happens, and humans progress from the violent, ignorant, sensualist, chaotic creatures which made the original entrance into the Garden of Eden, into a slow-moving, erudite, ascetic masterpiece of evolution.


Children with anything wrong do not live here, my child. Life is not cheap with us. But you would not have felt anything. [217]

There are a few fairly objective problems with Back to Methuselah as a play. As a matter of fact, despite being identified as a World Classic in its own time, it could today be called his longest, most problematic, dated, and even in its own time difficult to grasp work. It is a proponent of the anti-Darwinist theory of Creative Evolution, which held that a species can will itself to change—the giraffe’s neck is long because the giraffe wanted the leaves at the top of the trees—along with a couple of other more distasteful concepts from the time.

But it’s also his most ambitious play, coming to grips with God and the Devil themselves, not to mention the origins of crime, fear, and humanity. It reaches out to the extremes of knowledge and fantasy, then dares to grasps at a solution to the world’s problems, and presents it. Of his plays, it’s the least pandering to public opinion, offering original, and in some cases radical, ideas on a variety of topics, ideals and issues. It’s also extremely funny in its satire, and spares no human institutions.

I’m setting out today to tackle this contradiction, and the mystery of Shaw’s odd absence from our stages, with my final goal being to develop an intelligent response to this monolith of a drama, by addressing each of the five plays in the Back to Methuselah cycle individually, in a series of short essays to follow this one.

With our minds freed from pretense and falsehood we could enter into the heritage of all the faiths. [Prefaces to Back to Methuselah, lxxix]

All of the quotes in these essays come from my ratty, six-volume Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962. I indicate the play but not the volume number.

The title of this essay is from Back to Methuselah, page 39.

Step 1 / We are the laughing animals — March 17, 2013

Step 1 / We are the laughing animals

The first step to learning anything is admitting that you don’t know it.

Sounds simple, but many people—maybe most peoplecan’t do it. At my part-time job, with an in-school literacy program, I see this tendency, to lie low in the face of ignorance, present as early as 1st grade.

He does it with a better grace, but I do it more natural
Bill Waterson’s gelastic comic strip

My boss at that job, a source of wisdom and strong opinions on many subjects, condemns this tendency as a downward spiral of suffering and self-fulfilling ignorance. The majority of people, she insists, spend their lives not understanding what’s said to them and never knowing why; the reason behind this, the reason that you lose track of what a person’s saying, or get bored while reading a book or learning a lesson, is because you heard a word or concept you didn’t know, or which you thought you knew, but couldn’t understand in the context because you didn’t actually fully know it. You didn’t stop the lesson and learn the word, and your brain, distressed by this, derailed.

This simple revelation is part of the reason I started this blog, I told a new friend today. We got on this subject because we met at the coffee shop and became friends over the mutual task of avoiding the work we were at the coffee shop to do by telling one another about the work we were at the coffee shop to do. Procrastacquaintances, I call us.

There’s more to it, of course, which I’ll get to in later posts. But he’d asked me what the most useful word I’d learned thus far was—which word that I’d covered did I use most in regular conversation? I realized that the most useful word I’d learned in this project is one I hadn’t covered in the blog yet.

The most truculent of roommates
He’s pissed off that you didn’t wash your dishes

Truculentadj.: 1. Eager or quick to fight or argue, pugnacious. I’ve been using the word truculent a lot lately, as it’s a good way to describe several real-life people who’ve been pissing me off. The best cats I know are unpredictable, touchy, destructive, truculent.
       2. Expressing bitter opposition; scathing, vitriolic. His truculent speech against the president gained him ardent support. Truculent opposition is bringing widespread attention to the proposed school closings.

Fantastn.: A visionary, a dreamer. Comes from the Greek for “boaster,” which is a nice correlation, because it implies that “fantasy” and “fantastic” come from the concept of boasting. There’s a thin line in our own culture between idiocy and optimism; there’s pressure both to accept the cold facts of reality and to “follow your dreams” and outshine your neighbors. Scott Meslow’s proposed resurrection of Twin Peaks makes him look like a fantast, but here’s hoping he’s more of a prophet.

Who likes laughing? I do. I don’t think I’m particularly prone to it, but I think it’s healthy, I love to do it. Some people laugh all of the time. And we’ve all known one of those particularly grim folks who never laugh.

Why don’t they laugh? Maybe they think that by focusing intently on the practicalia of their lives, and by keeping anyone from seeing under their efficacious surface, they will somehow be more productive, more effective, or maybe more impressive.

A stern agelast, Spock was
I’m not trying to take the piss out of Spock. It’s not his fault he’s an agelast; he wasn’t human.

I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I do know that there’s a word for these people. An agelast is a person who does not laugh. They are agelastic. The Greek root is agelastos, “not laughing.”

While this word does not have to mean literally never laughing—it can mean “joyless” or “grim”—there are a few people who have been recorded as total agelasts. Isaac Newtown is said to have laughed only once in his life. Stalin, big surprise, was described as a literal agelast by several people.

Non-human animals, incidentally, cannot laughthey are all agelastic, though not by choice.

We are the laughing animals.

A gelast is a person who laughs a lot. Gelastic can mean prone to laughter, but it can also refer to anything that is used in or meant to be the subject of laughtera gelastic statement, a gelastic insult, a gelastic death threat, a gelastic dildo.

It also refers to certain epileptic fits, very severe ones, apparently.

A hypergelast is a cachinator, someone excessively prone to laughter. Anthony Trollope, who wrote lots of books I’ve never read, was supposed to laugh all the time, and is said even to have died giggling.

A fine gelast
Dude knows how to LAUGH

Laughter can eradicate meaning by making a thing ridiculous, or relieve tension, or cause joy, but the act is gravid with unexplored meaning. There are many different theories on where laughter comes from and why we do it. Freud believed that it was related to inhibited desires (of course); some believe that it has to do with a feeling of superiority and security over the suffering of others. My college theater’s lead designer held that laughter is a response to perceived danger being escaped; we laugh instead of running away, to show that the threat is an absurd one.

There’s obviously no consensus. What we can say is that Trollope knew how to go out: laughing in the face of the unknown, asserting his gelastic humanity to the universe’s humorless darkness.

Small Town City — March 15, 2013
In Live in Philly and I Like Theater – March — March 14, 2013

In Live in Philly and I Like Theater – March

Wide Awake: A Civil War Cabaret
Fake beards and corsets!

I’m always surprised at Philly’s arbitrary scope on “classics.” Shakespeare’s got a strong hold here, even just with the Philly Shakes (who does three per year) and the Lantern’s one. (I frankly don’t need to see more than four Shakespeare plays per year). Somehow Gogol’s made a comeback (which I love), and Gombrowicz pops up from time to time (which is a treat).

I’m reminded, though, of the huge gaps in our repertory when one is, briefly, filled. Next month George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man is playing at Quintessence Theatre. Despite the fact that Shaw has written about 60 plays, had a particular propensity for both witty and insightful dialogue, and a body of work which ranges from the hugely popular Pygmalion (famously adapted into the musical My Fair Lady) to the dense, verbose, difficult to grasp, 260 page-long (over 400 pgs with the prefaces) Back to Methuselah (my favorite), I’ve absolutely never seen a Shaw playing in Philly before now.

Down and dirty contemporary theater gets a satisfying breadth of expression, and a lot of new shows are created right here. There are a number theater groups staging readings of new plays, or creating their own shows from scratch. There is an exclusivity developing here, including world-renowned institutions like Pig Iron and FringeArts, which make me happy to be located here rather than anywhere else.

Philly’s homegrown shows often feature an intriguing combination of arts, hitting on painting, sculpture, improv, puppetry, and music on their way to theater. Some, like the Plato’s Porno Cave programming at Little Berlin, promise to incorporate performance or film into a multidisciplinary event with its focus on visual arts or even philosophical titillations.

Here’s a brief calendar of shows/events to see between now and April 1st.

Now-3/28: A Play, a Pie and a Pint – Tiny Dynamite. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays this month (check site for specific dates and performances) Tiny Dynamite is continuing their A Play, a Pie and a Pint series. This concept combines your love for pizza and beer with your loves for low-key theater and cheap nights out.

I have a beard, a drink, and a ride
Me drinking a cocktail with the Lord of Motion at Plato’s Porno Cave reception party last week.

Now-3/29: Plato’s Porno Cave – Little Berlin. This month-long project is curated by Philadelphia artists/performers/writers Gus Depenbrock and Marshall James Kavanaugh. The programming, which ranges from musical folklore to shamans to movie nights to acrobatics, freakshows and knife-throwing, ushers in a New World of expression, being, and alternative finances. Really, though – Depenbrock, Kavanaugh and their collaborators have invented a space and a reality in Kensington which defy your normal expectations of a night out, and will disorient, charm, entertain and maybe unsettle you.

Now-4/14: Henry V – Lantern. This is on here mainly because Henry V is definitely Shakespeare’s best history, though I will say that the Lantern does a good job with their Shakey.

3/18: Bad Monster – Theatre Exile. Staged reading, part of a new play development series.

3/20 – 4/7: The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini – EgoPo. EgoPo has put on some of the best productions I have seen in Philadelphia: Woyzeck, Marat/Sade, Endgame. Unfortunately, none of these landmarks productions have been recent. However, that doesn’t mean that Houdini won’t be fantastic – after all, it’s directed by Brenna Geffers, who doesn’t shy away from the grim and violent.

This is what the New World of American theater looks like
The Disease Lord serves drinks at Plato’s Porno Cave

3/27-4/6: Wide Awake: a Civil War Cabaret – Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Cross-dressing and bawdiness ensured. The last show I saw by the BLC was their homage to German expressionism and Marlene Dietrich featuring re-workings of songs by Paul McCartney, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple and Mr. Rogers. Absolutely over the top, bizarre, charming and unpredictable. Expect more of the same.

4/1: Scratch Night – Painted Bride. Gritty, personal, and interactive. One of the most exciting developments in Philadelphia theater, the The Live Arts Festival – now called FringeArts – gives two or three artists, on the first Monday of every month, the space to show a working chunk of whatever it is they’re developing. Followed by a question-answer session.

Men in Dresses — March 13, 2013

Men in Dresses

The Ship of Fools (L to R) John D’Alonzo as Jorge; Bob Schmidt as Morton; Heather Cole as Darling; Tomas Dura as Mortimer; Robb Hutter as Edgar and Michael Dura as Charlie.
IRC’s Paradise Park. Photo credit: Johanna Austin

Charles Mee’s Paradise Park, put up this February by Philadelphia’s Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (“We bring good nothingness to life,” says their mission statement), presents a circus of bizarre characters and bent story lines as disparate as the rides in a carnival. The raucous characters and their absurd trajectories stand out against a dramatic structure which flows almost seamlessly from one event to the next, drawing the audience along until  they give up trying to ascribe meaning and let the ineluctable events unfold.

Anna Kiraly’s set was loud in color—mostly bright reds and whites—but in function was bewitchingly uncomplicated. It adopted the mercurial flow of the Charles Mee’s play into its function: with the removal or placement of a bench or two, and the shift of video projections or lighting cues, the same space becomes a forest, a dining room, a carnival ride, or a car on a highway.

Though the set was submissive to the action of the play, Mee’s setting is vital to the atmosphere the text creates. He uses the carnival—the labyrinthine, hyperactive, at times malicious Disneyland of Paradise Park—as a setting-off point for his explorations into the twin absurdities of human existence and traditional theater. It is within Kiraly’s easily-manipulated setting that Charles Mee’s text variously adopts, modifies, and scorns the habits of traditional theater to create his own dramatic form, to satirize the human struggle for meaning in art and in life, and to make some staggering statements about normality in America.

“Frankly there is such a thing as normal”

If there is a core story in Paradise Park, it is the comically awkward courtship of Billy and Ella, a romance doomed to failure. Things aren’t so grim at first; Ella leaps off of the Ship of Fools to help Billy, and the two flirt inexpertly. At their second meeting, a dance, obstacles begin to appear: Benny is terrified to even approach Ella, who in turn is too shy to do more than glance in his direction.

Somehow, through mutual determination and attraction, they manage to dance together, and to find private moments throughout the show to speak together. Much in line with a traditional comedy, obstacles continue to develop: Benny proves to be not only shy but awkward, unthreatening, and uncertain of how to get what he wants. Ella is ostensibly flirtatious, but every time they come close, we get a glimpse of some past trauma, and she lashes out at him. At one point, during a heartfelt conversation, she tells him that when she thinks of them together she imagines being caught in a terrorist attack and being put up on top of an elephant which wraps its trunk around her waist and tells her it had fallen in love with her and would never let go. Though both want romance, again and again one accidentally insults the other, until their original chemistry has almost completely cooled off.

Traditional comedy relies on the meeting of unlikely lovers. One or both of them is young, innocent, and beautiful. Between them is some obstacle which seems insurmountable but which is eventually overcome. It’s so thematic in modern storytelling that we can predict the outcome of most movies from the beginning. Mee takes this trope, but bends the archetypes until they become believable representations of our own busted mental realities.

At the prom, which closes the play, they do end up together. But it’s clear that the two of them have really gotten to know one-another, and have already made sacrifices and compromises to make their romance work.

Well, it has a happy ending”

Billy wears a frilly dress to the prom. Every character, from the teenage girls to the aged Edgar and his puppets, shows up at the prom in a prom dress. Seeing two old men in pink dresses waltzing together put me in mind of the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for the very reason that this conclusion doesn’t make sense.

Twelfth Night has been called a “problem play”: to many, the ending is too neat, and suggests either an exasperated, deadline-crunched twisting-together of loose ends, or a subtle joke being played on a lowbrow audience. Olivia is just too human and intelligent for some to believe that she would swap her love from one twin to the other so easily, and though Malvolio is generally unlikeable, Feste still comes off as looking like either a jerk or an anarchist for justifying driving a man to near madness with the fact that he’d insulted him twice. The oddness comes from the disparity between the play’s message and our own judgements: we cannot completely forgive these characters, but the play’s action does.

Mee’s eleventh-hour unity and happy ending, however, is pitched with a knowing look: he’s sending us one last message to say that the whole play is absurd. Mee is writing for a subculture audience which is ready to question those norms, and therefore gives a solution so ridiculous that it cannot be bought. How do you create unity out of chaos, how do you bring together these characters who have nothing in common, how do you twist reality into the claustrophobic rules of the traditional comedy and its happy ending? Put everybody in a dress.

The improbable denouement is not the first element of Mee’s play which puts the viewer in mind of Shakespeare’s. Both have subplots which override the main romance. Both use the theme of the carnival to explore themes of madness, reality, illusion, love, chaos, revenge, violence, trickery, clowning, and naked human needs. Both culminate in an imbroglio which attempts to twist all of the plot lines together. Twelfth Night finale song vigorously asserts the concluding unity; in Paradise Park, it’s a dance.

“Utopia! Utopia!”

Once the mercurial setting of the carnival has been established, and we’ve learned that time is not capable of being pinned down, nor place, we find the boys sitting around talking politics. The conversation is confused and bafflingly ignorant. They harangue one-another about legislation and litigation, self-sustainability and paying your dues, entitlement, the American Dream, freedom, and the desire to be a winner.

“Too much and not enough!” they cry. “Isn’t this America?” What comes out of this is not so much that they have no idea what they are talking about, but that the blunt themes which are considered American are labile, easily manipulated. More laws or less, either could be called constitutional. The very offices and individuals which are placed to expand our rights routinely restrict them. The law which expands one person’s freedom, in fact, restricts another’s.

They are interrupted by Bob, the pizza delivery guy, who says on his entrance: “And yet, I think, nonetheless / forgiveness is possible.” The interesting thing about Bob is that he’s committed a triple murder. But he, too, hopes for absolution, forgiveness, and happiness. His theory of salvation is attractive: “If I forgive myself I’m forgiven […] I’m the captain of my own ship.” Like a lot of pop, self-empowerment psychology, it’s scuttled by the main fact of the story: as he goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that he is still unhinged, bitter and confused, and what’s more, after having murdered his family, he is now out among society, delivering pizza and getting angry and confused. And as much as he wants to return to the ranks of the normal, he is not able to forgive or to rehabilitate himself.

“I’ll meet you later, at the malt shop”

According to their mission statement, the IRC’s plays “highlight the tragedy and absurdity of living that stems from our desire for omnipotence and immortality, when our actual condition is that of impotence and mortality.”

What Mee is saying to us is that theater is at its best when it does not attempt to avoid or escape abnormality and chaos, but when, instead, it exhibits them for all to see. The messy, overlapping plot lines, the lack of a central character, the inconsistent, nebulous characterizations; while he does bring them all together in a rising action, climax and denouement, instead of trying to cover them like the conclusion of Twelfth Night and so many other comedies would, he exposes them.

In doing so, he gives us all the opportunity to see a bunch of men in dresses, which, after all, is what theater is all about.

Paradise Park’s run at the IRC is complete, unfortunately, but in September they will be showing a new adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Surely, it will be an uplifting show.

Charles Mee’s the (re)making project features all of his plays, online, full text, for public consumption – suggested donation of $0 – $200,000. What a good guy! Read Paradise Park there.



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