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Monday, May 02, 2011

Stephen Dobyns and The Most Perfect Theater of the Absurd

I had a few days off from research work to re-read a text which I hold as one of the funniest and most humorous by any contemporary author alive.  I include the critical text here as a way of sharing the humor and the good times.  Last time I read this out loud to my students, I suffered from one of those belly-aching, hyperventilating, unable-to-stop laughing fits.  It lasted nearly 10 minutes and I frankly thought I was going to die of laughter (not a bad way to go).  At any rate, the following passage comes from Stephen Dobyns' "The Wrestler's Cruel Study."  This was a gift (during that incredible summer of 1997 in Washington DC) from Dr. M., a doctor who was involved in the mental health examination of some of the people involved in the Watergate investigation.  At any rate, the novel is the story of a celebrity wrestler whose fiance has been abducted from her apartment.  Along the way, the protagonist blends into a series of characters that is beyond the humorous.  The novel has been called "very, very funny," but also "a blending of philosophy, the gimmick of pro wrestling and a mixture of fairy tale and Gnosticism."  At any rate, in this scene, three English professors from Hunter College are discussing the future of literature and the language:

"Three English professors from Hunter College are having a colloquy, although the words 'English' and professor are no longer part of their vocabulary.  They are theorists in textual studies and it is only to their dean that they are still English professors.  As theorists they are engaged in the production of significant texts in the same way that Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton once produced significant texts, but while the texts of  Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton have been deconstructed--that is, they are going down--the texts of these three gentlemen from Hunter College have been superstructed--that is, they are going up....
    'Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste brought death into the world'--just what kind of bullshit is that, anyway?' says one of the three men, whose name is DeMaus.
   'By pointing to the man,' says the second of the three, whose name is Vogel, 'the problem becomes a gender issue.' 
    'Even the word 'first,' says the third, whose name is Sosage, 'privileges defunct mathematical systems.'
    'And what is disobedient?' asks DeMaus. 'Doesn't this valorize a methodology of behavior which it is our duty to question?'
    It might be assumed that DeMaus, Vogel and Sosage are up drinking rather early.  In fact, they are drinking rather late, having begun the previous evening.  As theorists they no longer have the tweed and facial hair of traditional academics; instead they wear black leather jackets and black pointed boots, and Vogel has an earring.  All three are in their thirty and clean-shaven.
    'Consider the phrase 'fruit of that forbidden tree,' says Sosage. 'Just what is 'fruit?'  To point to one part of the tree and argue it is better than another part and to call that valorized part of the tree 'fruit' is to abrogate other arboreal components which certainly have individual validity, and even to say that these other components lack the taste of the supposed 'fruit' is indubitably an attempt to objectify an experience which at best is subjective and ephemeral.'
     'Even 'forbidden' is problematic,' says Vogel.
     'To tell you the truth,' says Sosage, 'I'm astonished he ever got that fucking thing published.'
In comes Wally Wallski, one of the central characters of the novel, not expecting a confrontation but observing the professors from a safe distance at the bar...  the professors continue ranting about the canon.
   'Defunct' says DeMaus.
   'Dismanteled' says Vogel.
   'Demolished' says Sosage.
   'Devastated' says DeMaus.
   'Despoiled' says Vogel.
   'Destroyed' says Sosage.
   'It seems to me,' says DeMaus, with the air of one struck by a new idea, 'that since Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton have been deleted, we owe it to humanity to take their place in order to avoid the creation of an unfortunate vacuum, which, we understand, nature abhors.'
   'Shouldn't one of us be a woman?' asks Vogel.
   'Or gay?' asks Sosage.
   'Perhaps,' says DeMaus, 'they were.  Who's to say that Shakespeare wasn't a woman or gay or a writer of color? And isn't the same also true of Chaucer and Milton?....
  'In fact,' continues DeMaus, 'we could easily establish that our fellow drinkers are the entire male hegemonical canon.... You there, calls DeMaus. Come here a moment.'
   Wally Wallski slowly walks over carrying his fifth beer....
   'What dead writers have you heard of?' asks DeMaus.
   Wally Wallski isn't much of a reader but as a fisherman he has a soft spot for Ernest Hemingway and has listened to the cassette version of 'The Old Man and the Sea' several times.
   'Ernest Hemingway,' says Wally Wallski.
   'By the power invested in me by the Modern Language Association,' says DeMaus, 'I make you Ernest Hemingway. I warn you of your duties and remind you of your privileges.'
   Vogel shakes Wally Wallski's hand. 'Congratulations. I've always admired your stuff.'
   Sosage gives Wally Wallski a glass of gin and pats his back. 'I'm really looking forward to your next book,' he says.
   Wally Wallski feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. 'What does it mean to be Ernest Hemingway?' he asks. He's not even a very good speller.
   'It means you're a fisherman par excellence,' says DeMaus.
   'It means you're Papa Macho, the first twentieth-century tough guy,' says Vogel.
   'It means you are boss of the simple sentence,' says Sosage. 'See Spot run. See Spot rise. Sun also rises.'
   'Tough guy?' asks Wally Wallski.
   'No one can push you around,' says DeMaus. 'Can you imagine someone pushing around Papa Hemingway? Absolutement pas!'
   'Of course,' says Vogel, 'you gotta quit this sexist shit.'
   'You gotta stop privileging the male hegemony,' says Sosage.
   'Racial stereotypes are a thing of the past,' says DeMaus.
   'Toughness in the service of theory,' says Vogel. 'Macho correctness in the service of macha prerogatives.'
   'It's mean writing books,' says Sosage, 'in which no one will find a single word offensive or disturbing.'
   'Books where the author,' says DeMaus, 'will always defer to the point of view of the reader.'
   'But I can't write!' says Wally Wallski.
   'That's just the point,' says Sosage. 'The books of the new Papa Hemingway are wordless and silent.'
   'The moment you set down a word,' says DeMaus, 'you compromise your uniqueness.'
   'What makes you great,' says Vogel, 'is your refusal to commit yourself to meaning.'
   'By being nothing,' says Sosage, 'you become all things to all men and women.'
   'And this makes you tough,' says DeMaus.
   'Powerful,' says Vogel.
   'Magnificent,' says Sosage.
Hilarity ensues from the first page of this great novel from the first page to the very last word.  I really can't do the book justice, as this is simple one example of Dobyns' Perfect Theater of the Absurd... It's Beckett but with a modern popular culture/technology twist.
The three professors are really a parody for so many of us who, at one time or another, take ourselves way too serious while at the job.  This cartoon might convey the point better....

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At 9:39 PM, Blogger m caroline said...

He's not even a very good speller.

looking forward to reading this. i can always use a good laugh.

(nice picture kagemusha)


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