Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Mixed Mine by E. Nesbit.

I'm not sure whether or not it's possible to ever arrive at an original artist.  I am certain at least that the search for perfect artistic originality has been a long one.  Nor does it ever show signs of stopping.  In artistic-critical circles, the desire for the new has long since passed into something like the local totem of the trade.  Any writer whose book smacks of the least bit of "originality", or a filmmaker who is held to have discovered a "new image" is often hailed as a wunderkind for the very simple excuse of a bad habit getting in the way.  I can't say I know where this human addiction for novelty in the arts comes from.  All I can be sure of is two things.  The first is that it is very much a separate topic from politics.  The other is that the habit is very old.  Or at least that's how it seems to me.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to claim that it was around as far back as the Bronze Age, or anything like that.  There's just something far too modern about the whole thing to for it to ever be considered in any way ancient.  If I had to pinpoint where it all might have started, then I guess that would have to be sometime during or just after the middle of the 19th century, when the world of book publishing was established as an industry, and literacy was starting to achieve a mass level that has long since leveled off, and may never be reached quite ever again.

The desire for the novel and the unknown in storytelling seems to have been one of the unintended side-effects of a growing ability to read on behalf of the American public.  I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that an element of snobbery lay somewhere in back of the desire.  It's didn't take long for the birth of the literary critical establishment once the art of writing was able to become a Big Business of its own.  One of the perennial problems of arts criticism is that it didn't take long to find out that it also serves as a neat window into human nature.  This is a topic that comes in both good and bad varieties.  The biggest pitfall to be avoided is the kind of psychological arrogance that results in the phenomenon known as snobbery.  It's this particular mental malady that lead the charge for consigning books like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to the children's nursery back in the day (and that was an irony all its own), while also trying to establish various types of nonsense as a necessary, critical shibboleth.

One of these garbage ideas, seems to have hinged around a nebulous concept of newness.  The trouble with this kind of logic is that it's always difficult to maintain when actual literary practice keeps bursting your bubble.  Too often what happens is that the next written work of genius will reveal that the main reason it succeeds so well as a book is because the author wasn't concerned at all with making anything new.  He or she was just focused on trying to tell the story to the best of their abilities.  A book like Moby Dick sounds like it could be a revelation, until you learn that Melville was inspired to write his work based on reading material he'd manage to snag, telling about how an actual, real life whale was able to batter and sink an American harpooning ship not long ago, at the time.  It's the kind of situation that can serve as a blow to those dumb enough to place their egos up in the shooting gallery.

It's a bad habit that a lot of worthy names out there have had to fight tooth and nail against.  Edith Nesbit is one such author.  I've talked about her at least once before on this site.  Though this marks the first time I've ever taken a look at one of her own stories.  Before we get there, first, I think it helps to know what kind of a writer we're dealing with.  In her book-length study, Magic and the Magician, children's author and critic Noel Streatfeild makes this very interesting observation.  "The background and personality of a writer of adult fiction is not necessarily revealed in their books, but something of the background and personality of a good children's author is almost always discernible, for it is their ability to remember with all their senses their own childhood, and what it felt like to be a child, that makes their work outstanding.  E. Nesbit, because she has been read and loved by many generations of children, has established herself as one of the great, and today her books are ranked as classics (11)".  

Well, at least that how it probably still is in England.  I've never seen any proof that she ever made quite as big a splash here, across the pond.  Nesbit's reputation in America is the type that can be lumped in with the likes of P.L. Travers and Beatrix Potter.  These are the types of writers who are known more for their indirect impact on the culture and content of modern children's literature, rather than for their own efforts.  In other words, we might have heard of Mary Poppins.  So who on earth is this Pamela Travers when she's at home, then?  I mean, what's the big deal?  I'm also not certain whether telling anyone that a girl like Travers is the actual creator (or transcriber) of the world's most famous nanny will make that much of a difference.  It's one of those cases where the author is eclipsed by the impact she has left behind, while the work she wrote, the one that helped to set the type of narrative trends we are all familiar with now, has been relegated to an obscure corner of the nursery.

I'm afraid Edith has suffered a lot worse than Pamela, in this regard.  She's a trendsetter with barely any honor to her name as it is, at least here in the States.  This has resulted in a kind of schizoid form of creative irony.  We're able to enjoy the fruits of her labors, and yet we can't name the creator of a lot of the stories we now enjoy.  We've long grown used to the tropes of a lot of Young Adult and/or Fantasy fiction, and so most of us have no choice except to be clueless about where they came from, or who is responsible for a lot of it.  There's also a sort of double irony involved as well, once you realize just what kind of achievement Edith was able to pull off.  A huge part of the key to her success was the fact that in all that time, she never seems to have stopped to worry about the question of originality.  Rather than giving any sort of fig about creative novelty, Edith did the smart thing by first searching out for her creative strengths as a writer, and then putting them to good use once she'd found her natural pace.

This strength manifested itself less in the creation of new images.  Instead, it's more truthful to say that she made her way back to the nursery and saw a lot of the older images and legends just lying around, rusted and disused, like an entire island of lost toys, and then found the right way to put them to good use once more.  A lot of it seems to be down to what Streatfeild observed earlier.  Edith had a good knack for recalling all the golden times of her childhood, and a lot of it seems to have revolved around the fun she had in being regaled by stories of ancient myth and legend.  Whether it was the Brothers' Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, or the various retellings of Greco-Roman and Norse epics and sagas by anthologists such as Andrew Lang, Edith's experience as a writer bears at least this much similarity with someone like Tolkien.  Both of them had to start their careers as writers by first learning how to be good readers and listeners.  It's one of those vital skills that are so easy to overlook.  Most of it is probably because the task itself appears to be so simple enough, that it's kind of easy to lose sight of the obvious work involved, especially if you're busy caught up in the shuffle of things.  

Nesbit and Tolkien were both good learners, in that sense.  Each of them was able to first pinpoint the type of stories they liked to hear or read.  Next, they developed their own literary skills to a point that left them in a position to be able to tell more of the type of stories they liked as children once they were adults.  In both of their cases, this amounted less to any sense of novelty in their writings (there's noting all that original about Middle Earth, once you stop to take a closer look at the layout and nature of its contents and characters).  It's more do to with the matter of literary expression, if that makes any sense.  Each of them was able to find the right narrative voice that would help breath new life into old images.  What they discovered was that there was no need to reinvent the dragon.  All you needed to do was find the right type of story for it, told in a way that appealed to, or was able to draw in, the modern sensibilities.  Once Edith and Tolkien were able to do this, the rest has sort of become history.

It's an achievement for which she plays just as integral a part as that of the more familiar Bard of Hobbiton.  And yet she never seems to have gotten as much of the credit and recognition that I believe she rightly deserves.  That's why I'd like to take some time to examine one of her early efforts in this endeavor of making the old new again.  It's one her minor short pieces, and yet I don't that's any slight against her effort.  Sometimes it turns out that one of the early efforts in the career of a talented writer can hold the DNA for the later output that cement their names in the annals of creative history.  With this in mind, let's see if this is the case with The Mixed Mine.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (2015).

Let me make one thing clear.  I just can't set much store in things like horoscopes, and astrology.  Say sorry, yet there it is.  It's just not me.  For the longest time now, I've never been able to see the point of it all, really.  If I had to give anything like a reasoned argument for why I've never set any kind of stock in the idea, then I'd have to say its on account of how I kind of like keeping a free will and mind of my own.  It's just this weird sort of thing I discovered on my own.  It's called having a personality, not that it's saying much.  If it were, do you think I'd be hanging around here all the damn time?  Trust me, though.  It's a hell of a lot better than having to worry about what kind of shape you're in based on stuff like the position of the Earth's trajectory in relation to Saturn.  Or whether or not that dream you had last night about two doves humping each other means anything of significance.  I think once you've reached that sort of level, you've kind of placed yourself up the creak without so much as a prayer-wheel for a paddle.  So yeah, no offense, but no thanks either.  For some strange reason I just can't kick this crazy habit I've got.  It's called thinking.  Granted, I can't say even this has taken me all that far in my dubious exploits through life.  However, it's like Billy Joel says, "It's better than drinking alone".  

Anyway, the reason I even bring up the most overlooked section of the newspaper at all is because I've got another problem.  For whatever reason, I've been blessed or cursed with a sharp enough sense of irony.  You think that's bad?  It gets worse, trust me.  I also have a bad case of sarcasm.  Yeah, that's right.  Sarcasm!  The knowing angle, the ironic gaze, followed by the appropriate comment, the quip remark, the perfect put down.  I got it all!  The punchline is I'm not all that sure how I got into it in the first place.  All I know for sure is that somewhere around high school I learned about this hip, new-old thing called Satire.  It's the kind of topic that's even harder to explain than astrology, if I'm being honest.  At least with Satire, you're on firmer ground.  I think the best description I got for it is the artistic practice of nailing a chosen target to the wall for the purposes of some sort of moral or ethical endpoint or goal.  Most often this practice is utilized in the form of comedy, though it can also find or have its uses in straight-forward drama.  However, comedy seems to remain it's most natural metere.  It's sort of like the format's natural home base.  Not that it makes any sense.

Anyway, why am I even bring this whole mess of stuff up at all, anyway?  Well, apart from always needing a place to put your stuff, I'd have to say that I've got a few in mind, here.  The first, and most important, is because I want to talk about an old magazine that used to be one of the biggest cultural forces for satirical humor in this country.  It least it used to be for one bright and shining moment.  Either that or I'm letting the Sun get in my eyes too much.  Just a moment, let me shut the window here, and take care of that for ya.  Anyway, the second point is kind of nebulous, yet I find it interesting.  While I still don't believe in astrology, I am aware of a perfect irony that's involved, even in my circumstance.  Those who do believe in horoscopes would claim, for instance, that the reason for my interest in humor and satire is all on account that I was born a Gemini.  It's the kind if thing that sounds like it's off-topic, yet it's also kind of relevant, sort of, anyway.  It's all to do with what people used to believe back in the days before indoor plumbing was a thing.

In earlier ages, your birth date on a horoscope was determined by whichever planet in the solar system was ruling the month of the year in which you were born.  Traditionally, the Gemini, both as a constellation and as a zodiac sign were linked, both mythically and scientifically, with the orbit of Mercury.  Why is that important?  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure myself.  All I know is that over the course time, it was this one single planet, out in the cesspool end of the galaxy, that wound up getting tagged as the Great Trickster of Universe.  That means our ancestors used to look up to Mercury as a symbol for the source of all humor in the world.  They even used to go so far as to make it a kind of intergalactic patron of satirists, humorists, and clowns, such as those featured in the old Commedia Dell'arte.  As a result, we Geminis have often been saddled with a reputation for being jokers and pranksters, with an easy and natural sense of humor.  Why that should ultimately be the case is a long story, like I said.  Let's just call it one of the natural quirks of the Imagination for now, and leave it at that.

So why should I care, just because it puts me in a month ruled by the galaxy's great joker?  Why should that have any effect on my life?  What's all that supposed to mean, anyway?........(Sighs) The net result has been that I developed an early interest in Humor as an artistic medium....And then when I got older, and found out about things like Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live, or stand-up comedy and its practitioners like Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor....(Sighs again) The whole thing was like picking up a really cool motorcycle and discovering you were a natural at it.  No need for any instruction manual, either.  It was like a duck taking to water.  I don't ever recall having to wade in, at all.  Once I got the first notion that humor could involve in the correct use of Seven Words that You Can't Say on TV, then it was like arriving at a home place that I never even knew I owned.  And by the way, no, this doesn't convince me of astrology.  Though it has made me curious as to how many of the great modern clowns out there were born under the same sign.  As it turns out, the most important case I'm thinking of, the one with the most relevance to this article, was in fact not born in the Month of Mercury, but on the 10th of December, 1946.  So there's that, at least.

What is sort of funny, however, is that even though he was never a Gemini, there is a sense in which I guess you could kind of say guys like Doug Kenney have devoted their whole lives to a planet like Mercury.  Or, you could also state it the other way, and claim that Mercury has been a loyal patron of Kenney's efforts, ever since the little snot-rag was taken under the wing.  Or maybe it was more like he was found on the underside of a rock, I'm not sure anymore.  You know what, I'm probably starting to ramble, and not making much sense.  I get that.  It happens.  Tell ya what, let's take things one at a time, before I start to get ahead of myself.  Perhaps it's best is I start out with some introductions.

Hey kids, Al's the name, Al Sleet.  Never heard of me, huh?  Yeah, I get that a lot.  I used to be a local weatherman for a time.  Then I had to give it up.  Actually, it's more like I was fired, if ya wanna get technical about it.  I made the mistake of telling the truth, live on air, you see.  I gave away the ultimate secret about the weather.  "The weather," I said, "will continue to change, on and off, for a long, long time (web)".  Yeah, to be fair, I might have been high as a kite at the time.  Which probably explains how things have been going so far, if you stop and think it over.  

Well, that was the end of the weather for me.  Ever since then I've been what I guess you might call a Gonzo Journalist, of sorts.  Lately, however, as time goes on, I've found it almost necessary to become a Gonzo Archivist, if that makes any sense.  Not that it does, really.  We'll all just play along for the moment, and pretend like I'm talking sense here.  My reason for wanting archive stuff is pretty simple, I think.  I occurred to me that there's a lot of good humor out there that was in danger of melting through the cracks of time, and disappearing forever.  I was there when a lot of it was made, so I count myself very lucky to have been allowed to witness a lot of it.  I suppose you could say I've led an accidental charmed life, in that regard.

Well, whatever the reason, it's led me to get all nostalgic of late.  I'd like to think back on all those heady days, for a moment or two of your time.  It's fun to reminisce on what it was like back then.  My main reason for saying that is on account of a feature-length look-back I managed to catch not too long ago.  It's called Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon.  It's a documentary directed by Douglas Tirola, is all about Doug Kenney, his friends (or else they were more like his partners in crime; you might have heard of some of them) and the magazine that they all created together, and helped put out there for the world in all its glory.  Yeah, maybe you should keep a bucket nearby, just in case.  It probably wouldn't hurt, as it's going to be that kind of story.  Either way, they staked a name for themselves.  In fact, I think they all might have done a whole lot more.  The Lampoon used to be a pretty big deal for a time, there.  You might not believe it, but there were also live shows, radio plays, records albums.  Never did find out if they managed to make it all the way to the breakfast cereal and the flame-thrower, though.  Still, they left one hell of a legacy behind.  The way it all began, of course, was with just two college friends, and a shared sense of humor.