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

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jerks–And How They Get So Dumb

Dennis Frankel was a jerk, no two ways about it. He was clueless, as insensitive as a chunk of granite, and had about as little to offer the rest of us as a burger-flipper at McDonald’s.

The thing of it was, Dennis thought he was the smartest person in the room.  He was a PhD and taught at a university; but how he could have convoluted a degree from East Tennessee State and an associate professorship at SUNY Stony Brook into an elite pedigree was beyond me.  He taught the same courses year after year to freshmen who were one generation removed from illiterate immigrants from Honduras and Bangladesh, managed only one or two articles in sketchy journals, and never made full professor even after twenty years at Long Island.

When the Antwerp Journal of English Literature published his paper King Lear – Incestuous Dreams, Murderous Intent he sent reprints around to all his friends and colleagues.  Why no one had suspected Goneril of a gay, illicit relationship with her sister was beyond him; but he corrected the scholarship with his trenchant and current analysis of sister-sister love.

When Dennis stepped out of his SUNY office, he was as dazed as deer in headlights, and as befuddled as a moron in Times Square. He had all the trappings of intelligence.  He could string sentences together, compose paragraphs that built a hypothesis and led to a conclusion, even populate his prose with references from Milton and Donne; but when he left his hermetic world of third rate academia, he was lost.

His first wife left him after twenty years of marriage because she couldn’t stand any more of his insufferable pompousness and arrogance.  He combed his hair before coming to bed, for Christ’s sake, and he never let up on Falstaff’s witticisms.  His puns were lame and flat. His double-entendres were single and prosaic.  His reflections on Hamlet were simplistic and obvious. “Imagine”, he said, “if Polonius had not been behind the arras.  What would have become of Hamlet?”

He had no clue about the incestuous passions of Hamlet for Gertrude, nor could he imagine the visceral, jealous hatred he had for the King.  Ophelia to him was simply an ingénue, romantically and desperately in love with the Prince. Dennis had no idea about her own incestuous feelings for her brother, Oedipal relations with her father, and naïve love for Hamlet.  Whether Polonius had or had not been behind the arras was totally irrelevant; but leave it to Dennis to totally miss the point.

Dennis was not a bad sort.  He treated his second wife with respect although that was because he completely misunderstood women.  Jeannine Perkins has also been married before, divorced after only 10 years of marriage, and cast out by her first husband who was intimidated by her passion and sexual hunger.  He bragged about his wife to his male friends, but in reality watched the clock with increasing anxiety as bedtime rolled around and he would once again have his virility challenged by Jeannine’s feral appetites.

Jeannine was no nymphomaniac, nor even close to the end of the bell curve of sexual desire.  The problem lay with her first husband who had been given the Holy Mary, Mother of God litany by his equally sexually timid father.  Poor Herb would not have been the equal of the most reclining and timid woman in bed.  Befitting his sexual frustration and incapacity, he cast Jeannine out like a Biblical prophet.  “Out, Jezebel”, he shouted one morning after she had clawed him for hours looking for some small release from her own sexual frustration.

So when Jeannine Perkins realized she had made the same mistake twice, she was ready to hit the road.  How could she have been so….clueless… to have married such a dolt; such a social ignoramus; such a namby-pamby academic?

Dennis, of course, had no idea about the psychic turmoil that was going on with his wife.  He thought that she admired him for his intellectual acumen, intelligent insights, and quick witticisms; while she was seething with resentment and anger – not so much at the poor boob across the breakfast table, but at herself for having been so stupid.

Dennis Frankel was born a jerk. He had just enough brains to make it out of Wheeling, but not enough to know what was what. He was destined by his DNA and indifferent parents to succeed, but not too far. What made him a jerk will never be known. Was it the overweening attention paid to him by Mildred Argo, a pinsetter at the bowling lanes in Virginia Beach where Dennis spent his summers?  Mildred was far dumber than Dennis and didn’t  know shit from Shinola when it came to brains and ability, and despite his ham-handed, awkward, and backwoods overtures, pulled him into her bed.  Dennis mistook her ardor for intelligent choice and assumed that he was one of the sexually chosen.

It could have been his first year at East Tennessee when an adjunct professor took Dennis’s Jewishness for brilliance, passed him with all A’s, and asked him to write a poem for the school literary journal.  Or his welcome at SUNY which he misinterpreted as a recognition of his talent.  The dean commented on Dennis’ dissertation – Comedy or Tragedy?  Rape, Dismemberment, and a Good Appetite in Titus Andronicus – with great praise, and addressed the assembled members of the English Department in terms usually reserved for a much older and feted luminary.

More than likely Dennis Frankel was simply dealt a bad hand.  He never asked for the genetic bits from his reprobate Great Uncle Hymie or those strands from Great Grandmother Mable who had been ridden out of the shtetl on a rail for her obscenity and outrageous apostasy; but he got them anyway.

The larger question is what to do with these poor people who have been disfavored by Nature and Environment.  When Dennis walked into a room full of people he saw only clothed bodies. He didn’t notice that Alisa Hobbins, the wife of the Dean of Students, was about to walk out with Harry Fleece.  Or that Bud Burris was hitting on the gym instructor. Or that the whole affair was an inane Dostoyevskian exercise in the unreasonable dictates of Nature.

Dostoyevsky himself divided people into those with will, abandon, and defiance of social norms; and those who followed the prescriptions of bourgeois society.  Those ‘normal’ Russians should be ignored, shunted aside, and dismissed as social detritus.  For some reason Nature created smart and dumb, and it was up to the willful individual to sweep aside the flotsam and jetsam of life to make way for talent and genius. 

Modern society is far more tolerant than in times past, and has chosen to overlook the fundamental differences in endowment and ability.  The theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ confirms our progressive view of a populist, egalitarian society.  Nevertheless, there isn’t a smart person abroad who wants to take a stiff broom to the dummies.

Worst of all are the jerks. Intelligent people can always find room in their moral closet for those with lesser abilities.  They take up space and consumed resources, but all in all, they don’t do much damage.  Jerks on the other hand clutter up the airwaves, pollute the intellectual waterways, and gum up the collective synapses of the quick and mentally agile.

The only thing we can do is to try to keep clear of their waterways.  No point in getting fouled in stray lines or ill-cast nets.  Of course one never knows when one will pop up.  The bow-tied gentleman by the martini snifter, the casually-dressed young man looking at the Klimt print, or the animated hipster by the pool. Jerks come in all sizes, shapes, and manner of dress.  But no one ever said that life’s path would be clear and dry, unlittered and ready for smooth sailing.  Life is short, so that the treatment of jerks should be merciless and without pity.

The irony of it all is that jerks have no idea at all that they are jerks or that anyone with a modicum of intelligence and savvy wants no part of them.  They think they are hot shit and are too stupid to be disabused of that silly notion.  So on they prattle and bore until they are shuffled into the grave.  An old colleague may give a lukewarm elegy – how Dennis parsed a poem like no other, and how he gave new meaning to Timon of Athens – but the mourners will be few and far between, for most sensible people gave him wide berth.

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