Carlin considers the softening of language and political correctness bullshit. He illustrates how language is softened by examining the progress of the concept of shell shock. During World War I, shell shock was the term used to describe the condition that occurs when a soldier’s nervous system reaches a breaking point. During the Second World War, the term “shell shock” expanded to four syllables and was called “battle fatigue” and, during the Korean War, the term expanded to eight syllables and was called “operational exhaustion.” Finally, during the Vietnam War the term became eight syllables with a hyphen and was called “posttraumatic stress disorder.” Given that, in America, realism is the same thing as pessimism and pessimism is less popular than optimism, Carlin argues that this kind of softening of language is effective because it makes reality “less vivid” and therefore bullshit.
Another thing that Carlin considers bullshit is political correctness. In particular, he argues that political correctness is “America’s newest form of intolerance and it’s especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance.” Carlin sheds light on liberal tendencies to rename groups of victims with less offensive names, as if the new name somehow solves initial malfunction. For example, over the last few decades, the term “cripple” fell out of favor and has since been replaced by the term “physically challenged” or “differently abled.” Carlin mocks this transition by pointing out that liberals tend to focus on the external, changing offensive words, rather than the internal, the underlying bigotry and insensitivity.
I view many of Carlin’s observations as examples of hidden idealism. He doesn’t want language to soften with time because he wants the truth to hit people smack in the face. For example, he wants to call a person in a wheelchair who was hit by a drunk or texting driver a “cripple” rather than “differently abled.” He argues that rather than being offended by the word, society should be offended by what the word represents. I see this as the purest form of idealism. In other words, rather than calling a person in a wheelchair “differently abled” and going along our merry way, we as the society should call him a “cripple” and be outraged by this stupidity of the situation that caused him to be a cripple. Maybe then we will be outraged enough to change the situation so that the same thing doesn’t happen in the future.
I really enjoyed Regina Barreca’s analysis of approaches to literature in They used to call me Snow White… But I drifted. In the piece, Barreca points out that many women writers are considered secondhand because their subject matter has limited appeal. The same can probably be said about writers who write about the experiences of particular races. As a result, their work is put into categories of African-American, Chicano writing, etc. If we assume that these categories are not simply created by publishers to sell more books then we have to address why these categories exist. These categories remind me of the various types of genre fiction: western, mystery, romance, science fiction, horror writing etc. There are writers who work within these genres but their work is not necessarily considered genre. For example, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, can be easily classified as a Western but the work is so good that it transcends the genre and is actually a work of literary fiction. Similarly, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Everything that rises must converge, can easily be classified as women’s writing because the author is a woman but it’s so good that it transcends the category and is actually work of literary fiction. Finally, Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man can also easily be considered African-American writing but again the work is so good it transcends the category and becomes a work of literary fiction. Therefore, I would argue that it’s not that women or ethnic writers are considered second hand but rather that some of these writers are just not as good (the way that some genre writing is not as good). And the ones that are become literary fiction.
While Garrison Keillor’s Marooned is not ha-ha funny story, it is funny because it’s a serious story that uses humor to enlighten the reader’s experience. The stories focus on the narrator’s brother-in-law, Dave Grebe, an unremarkable and narcissistic stationery store clerk who tries on religions like socks. In the beginning, he renounces materialism, becomes a Tuan, the kind of Buddhist, and wanders around airport terminals holding up signs “your life is a lie.” His ego doesn’t allow him to keep his philosophy to himself (as someone with a real philosophy would) and he switches to a different religion called capitalism. Here he becomes one with Milo from Catch-22. Dave takes over the stationery store, makes it a huge success and then writes a book that turned “Tuanism inside out and restated it in capitalist terms, and made low cash flow seems like a denial of God’s love.” Naturally, the book sells millions. The narrator, a person entrenched in the American capitalist system as an advertiser, becomes its victim. Capitalism and the American dream are about boom and busts, not people who want a steady job and a good retirement. As a result, the brother-in-law is a success even though he’s a hack while the narrator is a failure even though he’s a hard worker who means well. Thankfully, things get turned around by end of the story.
In “Mr. Big,” a girl who pretends to be a nude model comes into the private investigator’s office. The girl is actually a philosophy major at Vassar, studying the history of Western thought. What is interesting about this and Woody Allen’s other stories is that they tend to set up or create a predicament in order to reveal the actual absurdity of everyday existence. For example, in this story, Heather wants the private investigator’s help in finding God so that she can turn in a non-speculative paper, pass the course, and get the Mercedes that her father promised her. The situation that the private investigator finds himself in is the artificial absurdity that is created in order to illustrate and reveal the actual absurdity of finding God. Once the setting is created, Woody Allen allows the natural absurdity to reveal itself. For example, the private investigator takes Heather to his first lead, Rabbi Wiseman who owes him the favor for rubbing pork off his hat. Rabbi Wiseman admits that though he’s never seen God (not unusual because he’s lucky to even see his grandchildren), he believes in him because his existence makes the Rabbi’s lifestyle possible. “Could I get a suit like this for $14 if there was no one up there?” Besides making the reader laugh, the Rabbi’s well-supported argument uncovers the already existing absurdity that is everyday life.
The narrator of “The Whore of Mensa” is a private investigator who is approached by a man in distress who doesn’t want his secret revealed his wife. Apparently, he’s been paying a young girl to come over and discuss intellectual subjects with him. This story satirizes married men who get prostitutes for sexual gratification. Just like men with wives who are either unwilling or unable to fulfill them sexually, the husband in this story is married to a woman who is unwilling or unable to fulfill him intellectually. The man’s wife isn’t intellectually experienced enough to discuss Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot so he makes up for it with a whore with “quick intellectual experience” who leaves after the discussion is over. Besides ridiculing contemporary society for its lack of intellectual vitality, the story also draws comparisons between two types of stagnant marriages, those with little or no sexual activity and those with little or no intellectual activity. As a result, Woody Allen’s story is absurd and hilarious because it is an inversion of the typical reason why unfulfilled married men seek companionship with prostitutes.
Social satire in Langston Hughes’ “Laughing to Keep from Crying” is both funny and poignant. The excerpt plays with the idea of race in order to satirize the social convention that says that whites are more educated, better behaved, and just more upper class then Negroes. Upon meeting fellow deceivers, an African-American couple who is “passing for white” to make more money, the African-American narrators drop their “professionally self-conscious Negro manners” and “became natural… kidded around like colored folks do when there are no white folks around.” The narrators feel free to be themselves because they’ve met people who are like them. However the joke is actually on them. The couple gets into the cab and the woman reveals that they’re white, not “really colored at all. We just thought we’d kid you by passing for colored a little while-just as you said Negroes sometimes pass for white.” The surprising ending satirizes the idea, and the absurdity that race is a defining characteristic of an individual. The story is also an interesting approach to the familiar story of a rich person who disguises himself as a poor person or a poor person who pretends that he is rich. Stories that use these disguises all satirize society by poking fun at the idea of character being defined by external characteristics like clothing or color.
Ambrose Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” is an interesting approach to witticism. Rather than present the witticisms in a story, Bierce presents them in a dictionary style. He analyzes words and turns their definitions on their head. An important consideration of his approach is the reader’s knowledge of what the actual word means. In other words, the reader must be familiar with the word’s original definition in order to get the joke. For example, the word “apologize” is defined as “to lay the foundation for a future offense.” Here Bierce is playing with the idea of an apology. When an individual commits an act that went off course in some way that results in ill-treatment of someone else, he apologizes and expects to be forgiven by the party who has been treated badly. In his definition, Bierce inverts this understanding of the word apology and instead presents it as something that allows for future ill-treatment. Similarly, the word “corporation” is defined as “an ingenious device for securing individual profit without individual responsibility.” When this definition was written, almost a century ago, it was likewise an inversion of the actual meaning of “corporation.” However, given the reality of how government and business relate to one another in today’s world, Bierce’s definition might not be much of an exaggeration or inversion at all.
In Mark Twain’s “Political Economy,” the main character is continuously interrupted by a lightning rod installer while he discusses the concept of political economy with the reader. The story is an illustration of real versus theoretical knowledge. The narrator attempts to write about political economy but is so involved with his thoughts that he does not notice when he gets duped into buying more lightning rods than anyone could ever need. The narrator in this case represents theoretical knowledge while the lightning rod salesman represents real-world knowledge. This position that real knowledge is more useful than theoretical knowledge has always been prevalent in America and is perhaps a way to rebel against the traditions of European society. Nevertheless, to me, it seems un-recommended since book knowledge, as opposed to experience learning, is easiest and fastest way to learn something.
In Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Simon Wheeler told the story of a gambler, Jim Smiley, and his frog. In describing Smiley’s love for betting, Twain mentions a number of animals including dogs and frogs. The humor within the story is twofold. First is the story of the stranger who messes with Smiley’s frog and scams him out of his money. And second is the fact that the retelling of the story appears to be pointless altogether, since Jim Smiley isn’t of any relation to Leonidas W. Smiley whom the narrator was actually looking for. Therefore, as it often happens with gossip, the information is not central to what someone was actually trying to find out.
Mark Twain’s “A True Story” is an interesting approach to the first-person narrator that contributes and elevates the story as a whole. The story begins in first-person from the point of view of Misto C– but then transitions to the first person point of view of Aunt Rachel, as she tells the story of losing her family to the practice of slavery. The power of the story is contained in the question that Misto C–asks Aunt Rachel in the beginning and in the answer that she provides him. Misto C—asks, “Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived the two years and never had any trouble?” Aunt Rachel tells him a tragic tale of her family and then concludes with “Oh no, Misto C–, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!” While throughout the story her response doesn’t seem sarcastic, this reply appears to be so. Perhaps, it’s Mark Twain’s way of portraying comic irony, as if to make her say that without trouble, there would be no joy.
“A True Story” is an excellent example of Mark Twain’s gift as a storyteller who ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells.’ His intentions are hard to figure out because he is rendering the contradictions, the absurdity, the irony, and the hypocrisy that exists in the world all around us without much apparent judgment. Since essays are written for the purpose of constructing and arguing a position, the power of this story would be greatly diminished if it were presented in that way. Instead the power comes from the reader and the reader’s ability to draw his own conclusions regarding meaning.