Sunday, January 11, 2015

"The First Family" (1962)

Not that he needs another portrait, but freezing weather demands a bed on the denim jeans.
Some folks feel that pets' comfort in sleeping on unwashed clothes that retain their owner's personal scent betrays nasty taste.  They forget that dogs follow scents and that cats who couldn't care less what an opossum looks like are greatly put off by their specific odor.  I have a neighbor whose cat for years found his way around quite easily when he'd been blinded by glaucoma.  As for Buster and my bluejeans, they are to him recognizable as a cub's den, where kits find one another and pile up till their mother returns from hunting.

I had in mind to head this posting by (a) a cartoon, and (b) by an album cover:  All the dozens of reproductions of (b) are under copyright, and, I guess, so is the cartoon (a), which I recall seeing in The New Yorker just after the death of Pope John XXIII; some of you will recall that he called Vatican Council II and that he was famous for having come of peasant stock and being far more open-minded than Pius XII.  The caption was, "He was a good pharaoh" and it illustrated some rather housewifely Egyptian women (water jars on their heads) processing past pyramids, palms, and camels.  I have searched and searched for the cartoon but only located the caption for it.  So Buster is their stand-in.
As I recall, the Kennedys did not object very much to the LP record, and I never heard of the Church objecting to the pyramids.  Queen Victoria's offense at all sorts of improprieties (which astonishes us) was not something she'd deign to mention, and her subjects, one gathers, took for granted their license to be somewhat rude in their humor, just as Halévy and Offenbach used Jupiter's hypocritical womanizing when they figured him as Napoleon III and represented the personified Public Opinion as a rigorously judgmental Victorian lady in black.  When all bored Olympus begged 'Jupin' to take them along with Orpheus when Propriety demanded his return there, no one thought that the preference for Hades/Hell was sacrilegious.

My generation, which since WW II had regarded our presidents (and the UK royal family, too), and the Church, both Catholic and Protestant (consider Norman Rockwell pictures) as inherently serious, loved Pope John XXIII, even if some of us were non-believers who privately loved "The Merry Minuet" and did not take the words of Christmas songs literally, inwardly whooped and hollered at "The First Family" (which is still available from Amazon, by the way) when it came out, not least because we really enjoyed the Kennedy family, with Jackie speaking French in France, with the lovely little children, and all.  How great to make fun of grass-roots idealization of them!  It wasn't as if Pres. Kennedy hadn't real problems to deal with.  It wasn't as if they were really plaster saints, either.  But what joy to laugh with the songs on the LP record, how great to be free to do so.
Then, of course, he was shot.  Me, without a word, I put away the record.  Sure, they weren't saints, but their human loss...

It is not, of course, that France was the first nation to turn the unbearable into comedy.  Greece and Rome  (Japan, too) had done so, and gloriously.
Our European tradition springs from Greece.  I'll just mention Aristophanes.  At least as irreverent as CharlieHebdo, and still profoundly funny.
The Athenian Theophrastus encapsulated tiresome Athenian types in his Characteres, and in the 17th century Jean de la Bruyère published a French version that is quite faithful to Theophrastus (himself a follower of Aristotle). for Jean de la Bruyère's close version of Theophrastus.
The old Loeb classical library for Jebb's edition, Greek facing English, is available at   Jebb is hard to compete with: the text of the Characcteres is lucid Attic Greek, but you do need to know the finer meaning of the key words in context (just using the Latin equivalent given in a standard dictionary is often unenlightening at best and robs the work of its edge).  One English edition offered in Amazon is not only unedited (OCR not checked; punctuation abused) but just plain bad.  It is the one touted for having illustrations of the types.
If there's a new Loeb volume, I'll come back to add it.

How can any of our talking heads forget Rabelais?  Some of CharlieHebdo is Gargantua indeed.

Even the best broadcast commentary, the best I have found being that on NPR's "On the Media", does not mention the Greek and Roman (think of Juvenal!) roots of our tradition.  These roots are in fact older than Islam (not that a few centuries matter, of course).  Here are some links to start with: for Jean de la Bruyère's close version of Theophrastes for Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel

Some of the broadcast commentary explaining the problems in refraining from reproducing CharlieHebom has been especially good: