THE DAMP HAND OF MELANCHOLY

Restaurant Utopia. Five miles high , then, when you come to the fork in the road, take it.  The sign on the door stated ” Different Cultural Levels Eat Here”. On entering the host delivers a fortune cookie, in which they all contain the identical message , ” we are all here on another level”. Coats are hung on a moral hook. Above the kitchen door a plaque reads, ” I would be the last person to say that madness is not a solution” ( James Thurber )

Peter Sellers (Mr. Martin, The Catbird Seat, 1959)

Peter Sellers (Mr. Martin, The Catbird Seat, 1959)

The conjunction between surrealism and realism, has always been a fertile sweet spot, given that the narrative can remain anchored, yet take flights of fancy, drop its payload on the target, and return to base like a homing pigeon.The comedy, is, in effect, the seriousness. As Jesse Bier noted in ”The Rise and Fall of American Humour”, ”the conjunctions of realism and surrealism in American humor between the world wars are not to be dismissed as curiosities”. The idea of parody and satire as both retaining and mocking other aesthetic forms, but  also capable of a transformative power in creating new syntheses; ”Parody while often subversive, can also be conservative; in fact, parody is by nature, paradoxically, an authorized transgression.” ( Linda Hutcheon ) From the grimmer surrealism of Nathaniel West to Ring Lardner’s popularization of abnormal states of behavior.These were surreal fantasies that pre-figured the Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut work of the subsequent generation.

James Thurber

James Thurber

James Thurber, ( 1894-1961) was an American writer and cartoonist who, in a clear and concise prose style, dealt with the frustrations of the modern world. Two of his short stories, ”The Catbird Seat” and the ”Secret Life of Walter Mitty” are among the best known classics of American literature. The misogynist themes of ”war” between men and women has been criticized by feminist readers, whose analysis is no doubt accurate, but at the same time incomplete.There was more at work than simple exxageration. No doubt he had contempt, enmity and dislike towards women, but he also probably envied them and loved them; a combination of ambivalence and respect in a passive-aggressive manner. But, interpreting Thurber’s work in the context of gender also shows that he criticizes and rethinks values and relationships, and in fact undermines sexism through comic irony.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The dislike, notwithstanding, Thurber is genrally acknowledged as the greatest American humorist since Mark Twain.One of the more important themes of “The Catbird Seat” is the struggle for men and women to understand each other and live together. In Thurber’s work, the trials and tribulations are  always between a weak, nervous man and a strong, domineering woman. It was a recurring theme in his work, most notably in fictional works like The Owl in the Attic (1931) and the “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939). When “The Catbird Seat” was adapted as a movie in 1960, the film was called ”’The Battle of the Sexes”.These writings developed the element of Freudian theory regarding neurosis, which Thurber weaved into the narrative capitalizing on public obsession with dreams and anxiety at the time, and also using Freud as satiric grist to catalyze his relationship as battlefield scenarios.

Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Danny Kaye

Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Danny Kaye

What is remarkable, is Thurber was a near blind raconteur, like the master storyteller and blind Greek poet, Homer, so that his prose ”sounds” as if he had played it through his own ear first. The modulation of the prose, its ups and downs were measured,almost soothing, and a delicate low music comes of it. It is language as music. The subject matter, is well; in general comic essayists tend to work with the same worn deck of cards, getting their effects with small variations of patter and style. Thurber’s subject matter of sparring couples and quaint relatives, so P.G.Wodehouse has a bad hair day, seemed like the stock material of the baggy pants and cheap cigar writers hanging around Damon Runyan.

James Thurber, The New Yorker

James Thurber, The New Yorker

The question was why he was so idolized. The first idea, is to maintain that perhaps he wasn’t a humorist at all, which takes him out of the dreaded shallow middle-brow category and into something resembling art. However, he really was  a humorist in the Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner school of thinking. He was a wandering midwesterner, hot and restless  inside his understated prose who romanticised the ”New Yorker”, where he published. Thurber’s humorous style was not that unique, but does bring disparate threads together in a  fusion of several styles. The midwestern tall-story style was there, inherited from Mark Twain, speeded up slightly for Vaudeville slapstick effects and at the same time quieted down for the soft-spoken ”New Yorker” house style. Part absurd and part Dorothy Parker laconic. A real compendium of American h

.Thurber had a phenomenal memory and integrated many of the greats into a new synthesis.

''A Thurber Carnival'', Florida Atlantic University

''A Thurber Carnival'', Florida Atlantic University

”The little wheels of our invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy”  The tragedy of the aging clown is that he cannot feel melancholy. Thurber was not a mere humorist. Two noteworthy stories, ”The Cane in the Corridor” and ”Something to Say” , combine a comic phrasing with a panic and darkness of heart to produce a third emotion: a kind of nerve racked exhilaration, a mood you’ve never precisely had before; the test of Art. In ”The Curb in the Sky”the final scene has the wife correcting her husband’s dreams in a mental home. The stories have a strangled horror about them that is outside the scope of the funnymen. Thurber’s favorite author was Henry James, and his spirit is there in the quiet doom laden rooms, the desparate skirmishings of men and women. Thurber was critical of gender roles and his humor demonstrates that expectations for men and women to be socially masculine and feminine are often incongruous with their capabilities and natures. The roles create conflicted characters as well as conflict between characters that Thurbers draws out in his stories.

Many of Thurber’s stories and drawings explore the struggles between men and women in marriage. In “The Catbird Seat” the arena is the workplace. In Thurber’s world, men and women can never understand each other.An eternal struggle, in which he characterizes America as a matriarchal society,despite the oppression against women. Like Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows, they speak different languages; moreover, women always want to change things. Thurber invented the ”little man”, a comic antihero which marked a shift from the 19th century tradition. Contradictory gender roles and stereotypes were essential to Thurber’s humor. The ”Little man’s” function was to create sympathy rather than scorn and bring into question the values and behaviors of society rather than affirm them, as earlier comic figures did. The little man was urban, inept,frustrated, childlike, suspicious and stubborn. His female counterpoint was often a foil; confident and controlling enough to highlight his most pitiable and funniest features.

Underlying the inability of men and women to communicate is a deeper truth: all people are essentially alone. Men cannot communicate with women, but they cannot communicate with each other, either. The “battle” between men and women is simply the most visible demonstration of how isolated people are from one another.This is the great underlying theme in Thurber’s writing.

Sigmund Freud stated, ” Thus the humorist acquires his superiority by assuming the role of the grown up, identifying himself to some extent with the father, while he reduces the other people to the position of children… we ask ourselves what makes the humorist arrogate to himself this role? Here we must recall the other, perhaps the original and more important, situation in humor, in which a man adopts a humorous attitude towards himself in order to ward off possible suffering. Is there any sense in saying that someone is treating himself like a child and is at the same time playing the part of the superior adult in relation to this child? …we shall find a strong confirmation of it. Certainly, like many talented writers of his day, Thurber’s creations are not that easy to categorize, which is often the case with forms of literary genius. The melding of fact with fiction,and weaving variations of the autobiographical within a form of surreal memoir was unique and might have influenced Nabokov ( Lolita) and J.D. Salinger ( Holden Caulfield) as well as current bestseller’s like Paul Auster who have continued to refine the idea of author ”interventions” .

”But what is all this  fear of, and opposition to oblivion? What is the matter with the soft darkness, the dreamless sleep? ( James Thurber )

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