The Over-Under

It is a safe bet that, if one’s voice naturally found its tenor at what might be constituted as a disputatious row, we would, rather quickly, cease to believe he be perpetually angry, but merely irritating. If one’s eyes resembled the First Flood at the sight of every minor misdeed the world put forth, we would equally decipher this candidate as not to embody Empathy itself, but Shallowness. If it were one’s predilection to encode all of one’s statements with hidden meanings, we would likewise understand this character as not infinitely interesting, but rather a purveyor of falsified information. And it is this healthy suspicion of the abject that may be safely translated in understanding why most contrivances of humor today are so outrageously unfunny: there lacks a baseline, irreverence palls as the new orthodoxy, and the signaling that one was “just kidding” makes the whole thing into a total joke. Luckily for us, no philosophical exploration is required to better ourselves as regards this matter. The formula? Euphemism, Understatement, Overstatement

Why does this combination work? It greatly enhances the most important elements of humor: tension, misdirection, unpredictability. If things were, as they currently are, one giant, ostentatious break of decorum, then all Funny ceases to exist, and one is merely in observance of a kind of anarchy, a form of government entirely without nuance: pooh-pooh. For a fix, seek no further than a therapeutically winsome dose of nineteenth-century irony. The art of laughter reached perfection in Jerome K. Jerome’s 1889 novel Three Men in a Boat, a novel teeming with decorous interpretations of the indecorous, deadpan observance of the grotesque, and—with the good conscience not to laugh at itself—tasteful overreaction to the mundane; a novel I should wager as a remedy for the recent comedic unpleasantness.

By those much wiser than we, the gentle Euphemism has been exposed over the last hundred years or so as “being fake” or “not keeping it real;” the sagacious horde responsible for this social enlightenment reminds us that not all of us have been blessed with such significant neurodiversity as to know the “real” to be better represented by grunts and bludgeonings. However, we press onward in our ignorance, for we know euphemisms to be the direct path to a good laugh, and that is, after all, what we Cretans desire most. 

Euphemisms are our baseline—a place of secure inoffensiveness—and come ready-made for humor, as their very existence depends on irony. Consider J., the narrator and main character of Three Men in a Boat, and his delineation to a local doctor of his many maladies. Whereupon, said medical professional sniffs out a hypochondriac and writes J. a helpful prescription, which J. “did not open,” and on which was written:

1 lb beefsteak, with

                                                1 pt bitter beer

Every six hours.

                                                1 ten-mile walk every morning.

                                                1 bed at 11 sharp every night.

                        And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.

When J. tenders this prescription to a chemist, who “read it, and then handed it back,” and “said he didn’t keep it,” J. is inclined to ask if the man truly is a chemist, whereupon a wonderful euphemism occurs: “I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.” Through just this wee smidgen of propriety, humor is created. The Wise Ones would have preferred this line to read a bit more in the imperative, contain a few four-letter imprecations, and a gun to someone’s head, but that’s why we remain the unenlightened.

If the Euphemism is our baseline, then the Understatement is our gentlemen’s agreement, a subtle handshake of understanding that the writer enjoys with the reader without offending his sensibilities by asking if he “gets it” or by reminding him it was a joke. The Understatement is the king of humorous narrative-modes. According to Thomas Whissen in his book A Way with Words, the Understatement “is a sophisticated type of irony in which the speaker wants to be tactful and truthful at the same time.” Additionally, Whissen writes that true irony, much like the definition of true wit, is difficult to master, for it requires “two meanings [to be] conveyed, one literal, the other intended.” Furthermore, he reassures us that “[i]t is the tension between the two meanings that produces the ironic effect.”

As a general thing, Three Men in a Boat is laden with Understatement, indeed to the extent wherein one laughs even more at the consideration that he might not be reading humor at all. Consider the simple example of J. describing what it is like to eat whilst camping in the rain: “[r]ainwater is the chief article of diet at supper.” Or, if one enjoys something a little more highbrow, consider J.’s depiction of his aunt and uncle during a bit of DIY around the home: “Aunt Maria would mildly observe that, next time Uncle Poger was going to hammer a nail into a wall, she hoped he’d let her know in time, so that she could make arrangements to go and spend a week with her mother while it was being done.”

A Bit Under It

However, it is the Overstatement that best expresses the novel notion of incongruity through the unpredictable. Different from the recent Modern phenomena of comedy as a screaming-match of ill-conceived jokes regarding genitalia, classic Overstatement is closer to a form of well-crafted word-level hyperbole. According to Whissen, this effect can be easily achieved with something as simple as adding a “contradictory” adverb to a verb, creating a type of oxymoron: “remarkably unnoticeable… devastatingly plain… bewilderingly simple…distressingly soothing….” For a well-developed Overstatement, we may again consult J.’s rendering of his uncle performing some minor home-improvements: “And then he would have another try, and, at the second blow, the nail would go clean through the plaster, and half the hammer after it, and Uncle Poger be precipitated against the wall with force nearly sufficient to flatten his nose.” Now that is quite a hammer swing. 

Hammer Time

One may also refer to J.’s account of a local mode of transportation: “I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse.” One indeed wonders how J. is privy to this horse’s habits of slumber. These are the more important questions to ask oneself.

It seems, in this case, the old soporific of less is more lives up to its thrice-beaten name. To shamelessly gormandize upon embellishment whilst blatantly semaphoring one’s every half-baked machination are the witless ways of humorless clowns. Do not be like these people. Do not be fooled by the masses who laugh at solemnity masquerading as a good time. Instead, seek a good time masquerading as what seems like solemnity. Seek the bad news turned good. Seek the grotesque turned commonplace. Seek the ludicrous turned monotonous. Seek help. 

Home Alone: Waugh, The Wandering Wit

I find this one a fitting piece to be born 35,000 feet into the welkin.

The Home is a place of infinite comfort and belonging, an inviolable bower to one’s identity. A Home may, but need not be, a physical place; its entreaties can be procured through such means as adherences to hierarchies of being, objective moralities, powers of the Divine, a profound mystification with Nature, and purposeful relations toward existence. But Homes, though secure, are solemn, immobile creatures, and therefore not conducive to the allusive wanderings of wit. Wit may never come home, for, if it did, it would cease to resemble wit at all, taking on instead the stoic visage of soporific sermon. Wit is secular; it allows positively zero room for worship. The eminent Wit, Evelyn Waugh, is known, anomalously, for both his wildly waggish prose and his religious obsession with The Home. In Waugh’s Complete Short Stories, the despotic fact nevertheless remains that, despite his musings on the like, Waugh’s wit-filled romps are riddled with homelessness. They say it feels good to have a home; for the rest of us, there is wit.

One may begin an examination of Waugh’s thirty-five-year diasporic odyssey with wit in his 1930 short story “The Manager of “‘The Kremlin.’” Boris, a wandering defector of the Russian military, is described as “ill-dressed and friendless, in another strange city…lost in a waste land, patrolled by enemy troops and inhabited by savage(s).” The additional allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem about the secular rootlessness of Modernity, The Wasteland, and the character’s being lastly depicted as having “lost one’s country” serve as further connotation. “Love in the Slump” describes one man’s experience in a strange part of the English countryside after a horseback hunting accident as awaking “quite alone in a totally strange country.” “Out of depth” contains a more blatant reference to this theme in its character, Rip, and his surreal encounter with occult visions of a dark, dystopian future: 

The officers and officials came and went. There was a talk of sending him “home.” Home, thought Rip and beyond the next official town, vague and more distant, he saw the orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, the cabin trunks and promenade decks, the casinos and bars and supper restaurants that were his home(;)

Such descriptions responds to the Romantic fantasy of returning to the halcyon past with the Modern answer of suggesting its laughably quixotic impossibility. 

A close analysis of language is not required to find Waugh’s most highly recurrent leitmotif; it may also be easily recognized by a moment’s attention to the stories’ more overt themes. “The Man Who Liked Dickens” follows a man who, after a failed African expedition, is marooned and held captive by a local madman, and therefore entirely without the possibility of return to his English home. Similar themes can be gleaned in “On Guard”, wherein a young husband is rendered unable, on account of a lengthy and failing African farming endeavor, to return to both England and his unfaithful wife therein. Related themes, such as leaving one’s intellectual home by way of daydreaming, can be found throughout the collection, suggesting each character’s difficulties with a type of cognitive dissonance as concomitant to the phenomenon of the loss of the Home.

It is this kind of cerebral eccentricity, however, that is necessary for the development of wit. Just as one must, when without a physical home in the world, devise an intellectual hovel for oneself, does wit’s roguish associative logic develop. Wit may not indulge; it must remain entirely phlegmatic in its flitting, lest it take an unironic stance, and with this pious misstep lose all of its fleetfooted secularity. Wit makes a deliberate end of its interminable process, and, in this way, makes a puckish home of its inherent homelessness. 

The Distinction Dossier: Eluding the Allusion Illusion

Elusionallusion, and illusion are not quite homophones, though dashed close; here and hear are homophones (which word, by those in strong agreement, is exclaimed twice in the Palace of Westminster?). And, despite how much popular belief and practice might lead you to believe, neither are the words in this trio interchangeable. 

Elusion is the successful hiding or escaping from someone or something. “Attempts to elude police” might be a telling phrase for some of our hotter-blooded readers. Elusion is most understood, however, at places like work or when in mortal danger. To elude either an elating stack paperwork or the curious sensation of a speeding FEDEX truck to the solar plexus is preferrable. To do both in the same day is elusory to the point of high rarity, as evading the one usually causes the other and vice vera.

An illusion is something deceptive in appearance or impression, and therefore wrongly perceived by the senses. Examples of an illusion might include the optical confoundment within a parlor trick, the thirst-driven shenanigans of a desert oasis, or the psychological prank when the person navigating every car, bike, or walking path is your former significant other. These events would serve only to illude your feeble mind further, for they are illusory. 

An allusion is something for writers and other bags of hot air. I have never used one, as I believe there to be small choice in rotten apples. But others find them to be such stuff as dreams are made on. Allusions are indirect expressions or passing suggestions that are designed to call another source to mind without ever mentioning that other source explicitly. An allusive person, however, does not refer to things. 

Allusion is oft confused with reference. If to allude to something requires oblique intimations that conjure association with other sources, then to refer to something requires direct and explicit indication. Therefore, in reference to the aforementioned allusive hot bags, I should refer you to both Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare’s Tempest. 

Just Strolling Through

One of my favorite English words and perhaps concepts: Flaneur, meaning a stroller, loafer, or lounger. And lazing alongside the common noun flaneur are the abstract noun, flânerie (the carrot above the a is called a circumflex), and the verb flâner, which mean idleness and to loaf about, respectively. Obviously, these words are French.

But there is much nuance to loafing. Ultimately denoting a literary type from 19th-century France, flaneurs differ much from your average sluggard, slug-a-bed, or slacker. Flaneur carries with it not so much of the pejorative sense, rather it suggests a collection of lavishly maundering traits: “the man of leisure, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street.” 

Perhaps, if it were one’s desire to insult a Frenchman, faineant might be the better choice, as it is a French adjective connoting a lazy, good-for-nothing person.

This concept, however, is not sui generis to the French.

Stalko comes from Anglo-Irish dialect and has a very particular meaning: “an impecunious idler posing as a gentleman.” Stalko, as listed in the OED, means those “who have nothing to do, and no fortune to support them, but who style themselves esquire.”

My favorite rendition of this idea comes from the English writer Jerome K. Jerome, after whose work this blog has devised its theme. Jerome K. Jerome spent much of his life devoted to the study of what he called idleness and even wrote a book on the topic, titled “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.” Jerome’s definition of idleness is unique:

“Idling always has been my strong point. I take no credit to myself in the matter—it is a gift. Few possess it. There are plenty of lazy people and plenty of slow-coaches, but a genuine idler is a rarity. He is not a man who slouches about with his hands in his pockets. On the contrary, his most startling characteristic is that he is always intensely busy.”

Indeed, sir.

And this all reminds me of masturbation. Masturbation, one might imagine, would be left for different article. But it felt too good to pass up mentioning my French friend’s testament of what a “masturbator” is in France—a person who leans up against a wall outside all day with his one leg up and with nothing to do. 

My masturbating all over the Philly street:

In the Mood

It has been indicated by highly qualified representatives with compelling signs on their front yards that we live in an age of Science. As I understand it, today’s Scientific Method, an evolved offspring of the Enlightenment Era’s model, is an empirical method of acquiring social ghost-knowledge, whose rigorous dogmas are roughly as follows: Conjure Issue, React Violently, Subvert Data, Hunt for Justification, and Terminate All Opposers. I have never claimed to be a member of the scientific community, but I should like perhaps to venture a contrary assertion.

Many English-speakers, much as the ultracrepidarian proposes to know any and all, are too willing to impose upon others the indicative mood, which suggests far too much certainty. Other languages have not deteriorated as far. Luckily a more scientific mood exists.

English’s subjunctive mood is a verbal form that, in main contrast to the indicative mood’s indication of certain information, denotes what is imagined, wished, asserted, exhorted, proposed, or otherwise expresses possibility or hypothesis. 

The subjunctive mood may be achieved in a few ways.

The use of be and were instead of the indicative forms, am/is/are/was:

Indicative mistake: If it is in the interest of the court, I’d like to sell my lawn mower to the witness.

Subjunctive: If it be in the interest of the court, I’d like to refuse the prosecutor’s offer. 

Indicative Mistake: If I was to accuse the witness of passing up a perfectly good lawn mower, would your honor find merit in it?

Subjunctive: If you were to accuse the witness at all, I would doubt your sense of honor in the main.

The absence of the final -s in the third-person singular tense:

Indicative Mistake: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he sees a medicine man. 

Subjunctive: If Gordon’s doctor were again to refuse treatment, then I suggest he see another medical professional.

The subjunctive form may also inhabit the following patterns:

After As If/ As Though. 

  • As if the possession of money were a kind of curse, he eschewed work altogether. 
  • Feeling as though he were the target of a workplace harassment, Jimmy began to air indiscriminately personal grievances at what was previously a dispassionate meeting about third-quarter federal tax reductions. 

After That-clauses (following a verb connoting suggestion)

  • This minor indiscretion suggests that Jimmy be either very stressed or very bad at interpreting metrics. 
  • He insisted that Natalia sit across from him.
  • That she were a Soviet Sleeper Agent was entirely unknown to him, but her legs were otherwise.

Be/Were at the head of a clause

  • Were I to get drunk this evening, I might find temporary satisfaction about my state with kings.
  • Be they Christian or otherwise, I shall still give them a proper good kicking.
  • I might have done a better job with the heart surgery, were I a qualified surgeon. 

And here are a few familiar, according to Fowler, “fossilized clauses” that express a wish, “whose realization depends on conditions beyond the power or control of the speaker”/writer. 

  • Be that as it may
  • So be it
  • Come what may
  • Far be it from me to
  • God forbid
  • God save the Queen
  • The powers that be
  • So be it

Suffice it to say that.

For further enquires as regards the subjunctive mood, you may contact my recently qualified representative, Tristan Farnon.

Dickens Describes Your First Apartment

Young men like to drink. This is what is called a fact, and facts, as Dickens has taught us, are all that matter. Young men are also dumb. Dickens knew this as well; therefore, he decided to infuse these two deep truths into his depiction of the twenty-year-old first-apartment experience. David Copperfield’s twenty-fourth chapter renders the Young Drunkard’s psychology through prose; and, in this frightening accuracy of a well-oiled sophomore there exists enough potency to turn any beer-frothed bachelor into a love-seeking teetotaler.

But who wasn’t excited about his first apartment? Sure, the heat didn’t work, the walls were made of paper, and the neighbors dealt drugs, but that didn’t take away from the certitude that you had a “wonderfully fine…lofty castle to (your)self.” You could “let (your)self in and out,” and perform that particularly lovely ritual of “com(ing) and go(ing) without a word to anyone.” Furthermore, it was a “wonderfully fine thing to walk about town with the key of (your) house in (your) pocket,” which supported the notion that you could likely open the door once you returned, and bring in with you anyone who tickled your fancy.

Ultimately, however, you were lonely; “(you) wanted somebody to talk to,”and “after two days and nights, (you) felt as if (you) had lived there for a year.” Your friends had yet to show up at your new place, which lead you to suspect that “ (they) must be ill,” so you left your beloved apartment with any excuse to bring anyone back to it. This plan did not work. Therefore, when your friend, by chance, stumbled into your forgotten orifice the next morning, it was to “(your) unbounded joy.” From there, “(you) showed him over the establishment, not omitting the pantry, with no little pride, and (your friend) commended it highly.” After your friend denied breakfasting with you, you asked him to come over for dinner, to which he mentioned that he “can’t upon (his) life,” as he had plans with The Boys tonight. So, you blurted, “then bring them to dinner here.” Reluctance was at all-time high. But somehow you were to play the host. 

You made food of questionable quality in great amounts, and, after this browsing was completed “did not spare the wine.” Your friends appreciated the booze, but, somehow there lingered inside of you a feeling that you were with “not quite such good company during dinner as (you) could have wished to be.” 

Once the wine began to alter the consistency of your blood, however, things became “singularly cheerful and light-hearted.” After this vinous change in mood, there were “half-forgotten things to talk about.” The inclination to “laugh heartily at (your) own jokes” was as strong as the inclination to laugh at “everyone else’s.” You then announced that you “meant to have a dinner party like that, once a week, until further notice,” which was followed with the “passing of wine faster and faster yet, and continually starting up with a corkscrew to open more wine, long before any was needed.” You mentioned that an acquaintance of yours was “(your) dearest friend,” moreover stating to that very same acquaintance that “you’retheguidingstarofmyexistence.”

Then, things got rowdy. Someone said something objectionable, whereupon you “took objection to (it), and (you) couldn’t allow it,” to which that someone remonstrated that “a man was not to be dictated to,” against which you firmly disagreed. This led him to “confess(ed) that (you) (were) a devilish good fellow, and then you “instantly proposed to his health.”

Then you realized that “somebody was smoking…(you) were all smoking.” It was not soon after that hazy moment that you realized “somebody was hanging out of (your) bedroom window, refreshing his forehead against the cool stone of the parapet.” And just when things were at their rowdiest, someone shouted “‘Let us go to the theatre!” This, as well as every other idea, sounded great, so you took the proper precautions to exit, however: 

“owing to some confusion in the dark, the door was gone. (You) were feeling for it in the window-curtains, when (your friend), laughing, took (you) by the arm and led (you) out. (You) went down-stairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell and rolled down. Somebody else said it was (you). (You) were angry at that false report, until, finding (your)self on (your) back in the passage, (you) began to think there might be some foundation for it.”

After getting out the door, which was no easy task, there was “indistinct talk,” and, when someone asked if you were “all right” you told him that you were “‘Neverberrer’.” 

This group promenade complete, you found yourself “very high up in a very hot theatre,” which had “a stage with people upon it, talking about something or other, but not at all intelligible.” This theatre assailed you with its “abundance of bright lights…music…ladies…and (you) don’t know what more,” and “the whole building looked to (you) as if it were learning to swim; it conducted itself in such an unaccountable manner, when (you) tried to steady it.” Amorous as you always were when you were drunk, on somebody’s suggestion that you all “go downstairs to the dress-boxes, where the ladies were,” naturally, you followed. The result of these adventures with young women was not altogether positive, the total of your correspondence with one young lady being that of “Lorblessmer…I”mafraidyou’renorwell…Amigoarawaysoo…” Then, you got home, and, while attempting to dose off, “the bed [was] a rocking sea that was never still.”

What you said after that evening’s gallivant was the precursor to maturity. You mentioned how drinking had made you feel “the agony of mind, the remorse, and the shame … next day! (Your) horror of having committed a thousand offences (you) had forgotten…(your) disgust in the very sight of the room where the revel had been held—(your) racking head—the smell of smoke, the sight of glasses, the impossibility of going out, or even getting up!

I think it was that day when you swore off drinking. And I think it was that night when we did it all over again.