"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Life As Bedlam–We Are All A Little Nuts, And Thank Goodness For It

In ‘The Devil - Ivan’s Nightmare’ Chapter of The Brothers Karamazov Dostoyevsky creates a very different kind of Devil, one dressed in the slightly shabby clothes of a diminished aristocrat; one with a sense of humor, irony, even vaudeville.  Where would you all be without me, the Devil, asks.  Life would be a bloody bore.


God preserve me from it, but one can't help complaining sometimes. I am a slandered man. You upbraid me every moment with being stupid. One can see you are young. My dear fellow, intelligence isn't the only thing! I have naturally a kind and merry heart. ‘I also write vaudevilles of all sorts.’
Without criticism [life] would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. But I don't meddle in that, I didn't create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they've chosen their scapegoat, they've made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there'd be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events.
So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what's irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.
Life without the Devil ‘would be holy, but tedious’.  Indeed and no more true than in today’s punctilious world.  It seems as though we are hectored from all sides to do the right thing, to be upstanding, righteous, moral and proper.  To respect the Earth and civil rights.  To demand truth, honesty, rectitude.  To be abstemious, sage, and reasonable.  Without such commitment to correct behavior, the path to a better world will remain tortuous and rocky.

Fortunately, no matter how much reformists may try, human nature can never be straightened out. It will always be self-interested, territorial, aggressive, and mean-spirited – and that is just the beginning.  The twists and turns, combinations and permutations of that nature are endless.
Small towns are always called up and criticized for their inbred incivility - especially in the South where the Gothic novel holds sway; and where weird, twisted stories come out of ordinarily God-fearing communities like Eupora, Hope, and Rice Corners. 

There was the case, for example, of Mrs. Prentice Lee, a distant but recognized relative of the great Southern general, who shoved her husband down three flights of stairs in their elegant antebellum home because of what we would now recognize as a chemical disorder, but in those days was the result of a fevered, jealous mind.  Prentice Lee was a known philanderer and abusive husband, but for some unknown reason his wife loved him desperately and despaired when he went tomcatting in Jackson.

When she found him buggering the downstairs maid in the pantry, something in her snapped.  She calmly picked up a slice of pound cake, quietly shut the door, and the next day sent poor Prentice tumbling down the elegant staircase to his death. 



The only difference between a small Southern town and a major metropolitan area like Washington, DC, is that you hear about these minor depravities more often in small communities because everybody knows everyone else. Not only do you hear of murders, suicides, pedophilia, and embezzlement, but also run-of-the-mill oddness.

Whenever Elizabeth Baines’ name is mentioned in Drake, Alabama, people raise their eyebrows and give a knowing, wry smile.  Elizabeth is a dotty as they come.  “As nutty as a fruitcake”, said a congregant at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church who lived down the street from her. “She waters her geraniums at three in the morning”.

Imelda Figgins made dolls from scratch. She made her own heads from plaster molds, bought standard plastic bodies, and made all the doll clothes. She had made dolls of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler), George W. Bush, Jefferson Davis, and Jose Marti; copies of Barbie and the Cabbage Patch kids; and her own variations of religious figures – Jesus as a cowboy and Peter as a bass fisherman with a miniature fly rod and bass boat. Her main interest, however, was portrait dolls – people would sit for her, and she would make little replicas of them. She would cast the head, paint the eyes, give the cheeks color, and tailor the clothes.

Despite all the attention and care she put into the dolls, few people actually bought them. She never got the proportions right and there was always something deformed and gnome-like about the bodies. While the faces were recognizable, they all came out with creepy vacant stares. They were more like totems or voodoo dolls than kind resemblances, and when people saw them, the found some excuse not to take them. Imelda didn’t need the money, so she never objected, and displayed the dolls throughout the house. There were creepy dolls on the bannister, sitting in the Victorian chairs in the parlor, and even propped up on chairs in the breakfast nook.



Imelda began to turn out dolls that were creepier and creepier. People stopped coming in for sittings, and she began to make her own dolls that were weird replicas of people in the city. She did a very accurate depiction of Mrs. Wentworth, the grande dame of the town. She dressed her in the vaguely Victorian clothes she wore, meticulously reproduced her silvery hairdo; but made her face morbid and frightened as though she had just heard the Angel of Death. She made one of Mrs. Corning, the Chairwoman of Pilgrimage that looked like a Francis Bacon painting – scary teeth, and all her other features scrambled up but somehow looking like her.



Bert told me that these dolls were keeping people away, especially since she had started making them larger and more lifelike. She had worked out a way to stiffen them up and pose them in various places in the house. She stood the Mayor on the top step of the front stairs and when anyone came in the front door, they could see a ghoulish zombie looking exactly like Henry Creighton taking his first step towards them.



Everyone in Natchez except Bert saw that Imelda was going around the bend, and if he didn’t watch out she would go to ‘the place of no return’, the scary institution on the top of Jefferson Hill to which many mentally deranged sons and daughters of Mississippi had been committed.
Ivan’s Devil has his own favorite stories:
Those Jesuit confessionals are really my most delightful diversion at melancholy moments. Here's another incident that happened only the other day. A little blonde Norman girl of twenty—a buxom, unsophisticated beauty that would make your mouth water—comes to an old priest. She bends down and whispers her sin into the grating. ‘Why, my daughter, have you fallen again already?’ cries the priest. ‘O Sancta Maria, what do I hear! Not the same man this time, how long is this going on? Aren't you ashamed!’
‘Ah, mon père,’ answers the sinner with tears of penitence, ‘ça lui fait tant de plaisir, et à moi si peu de peine!’ Fancy, such an answer! I drew back. It was the cry of nature, better than innocence itself, if you like. I absolved her sin on the spot…
‘Nuts and Sluts’ was the popular street title for Psychology 101 at Yale a number of years back.  Perhaps to recruit students for the more tedious and scientific studies of the discipline, the course was sensational.  Rather than go into the clinical nature of emotional disturbance, categorize mental illness, or present various taxonomies of imbalance, the Department was content to provide freshman with a pastiche of craziness.

We are each of us twitchy, hangdog, perky, purposeful, down-at-the-heels, or morose. Our eyes flutter or squint.  We grimace, hard smile for the camera, bouncing along or drag our feet.  We are all just a few steps and a few bits of DNA shy of Black Maria who goose-steps down Broadway, doing military turns at the corners.

Ivan’s Devil had a hand in all this.  He admitted that he was a vaudevillian and a prankster.   His acts  help us to keep our psychic balance.  Life is not quite as serious as progressives claim. Donald Trump is the Devil’s own man– a huckster, vaudevillian, circus performer, outsized, outrageous, full of bluster and hot air.  The Donald Trump Show has been one hilarious political episode since it first premiered.  

Of course he is no different from any other politician– philanderers, thieves, opportunists caught with their hands in the till or up a pretty intern’s dress;.  Or any buggering priest or mega-church preacher who rakes in the cash and gets rich on little widows’ mites.  Or hysterical environmentalists who are convinced that the sky is falling and that Armageddon is just around the corner.  Nut cases all, crazies who never ride the rails but prefer to bushwhack in Indian country, have a good time on their way to their millions.

We Americans have become waaaayyy too serious – about our rights, our dignity, our aspirations, our identities and opportunities.  Looked at from an alien perspective, life on Earth is bedlam; and those who survive best are those who see it for what it is –purposeless, amoral, random, and hilarious. 
Of course wars, natural disasters, brutality, and criminal violence are not funny at all; but the context of strange, weird, insane justification for them is hilarious.
“You'll kill me? No, excuse me, I will speak. I came to treat myself to that pleasure. Oh, I love the dreams of my ardent young friends, quivering with eagerness for life! ‘There are new men,’ you decided last spring, when you were meaning to come here, ‘they propose to destroy everything and begin with cannibalism. Stupid fellows! they didn't ask my advice! I maintain that nothing need be destroyed, that we only need to destroy the idea of God in man, that's how we have to set to work. It's that, that we must begin with. Oh, blind race of men who have no understanding!

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