Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Two Clowns

In “Why Clowns,” an essay available in Fellini on Fellini (edited by Christian Strich [NY: Delacourte, 1976]), the late, great Italian movie maestro meditates on the history and significance of clowns, a subject he had investigated in an autobiographical documentary made for Italian television in 1971.

In the European tradition, we learn, there are two archetypal clowns: the White Clown and the Auguste

The White Clown—named for the color of its pancake makeup—is traditionally a know-it-all, pompous, over-bearing, abstract, stiff, self-righteous, arrogant, moralistic.

His Auguste partner-in-crime, on the other hand, is a screw-up, a schlemiel, a klutz, a carnal sinner, one who can do nothing right, especially in the eyes of a White.

In "Why Clowns" Fellini suggests that the dichotomy might well be applicable outside the big top. Did not Adolf Hitler, he asks, play White Clown to Fellini's fellow Italian, the Auguste dictator Benito Mussolini (the object of the maestro's satire in Amarcord)? And was not Carl Jung, one of Fellini's own great inspirations, an Auguste to psychoanalysis' patriarchal White Clown Sigmund Freud?

We can go much further: do not most comedy pairs fit the White/Auguste mold? Consider the following pairs:

White | Auguste
Oliver Hardy | Stan Laurel
Bud Abbott | Lou Costello
Moe | Curly (from the Three Stooges)
Dan Rowan | Dick Martin
Dick Smothers | Tom Smothers
Dean Martin | Jerry Lewis
Johnny Carson | Ed McMahon
Ricky Ricardo | Lucy Ricardo
Gracie Burns | George Burns
Jerry Seinfeld | George Costanza

Though cartoon characters, John Kricfalusi's Ren (the supercilous chihuahua) and Stimpy (a corpulent cat) are a classic White/Auguste pair, As are Marge Simpson (she of the tall blue hair), and Homer (whose signature "D'oh!" is the cry of all Augustes).

Taking a cue from Fellini, who found the Two Clowns alive and well in the polis, would it be too much to suggest that former First Lady and now Presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton plays White to her husband, Auguste former President Bill Clinton? Or that Vice-President Dick Cheney is habitual fuck-up George W. Bush's commanding White partner? (W's dad, however, President George H. W. Bush, was clearly a White President to insipid, Auguste VP Dan Quayle.)

Without question the pair can be extrapolated even further. Is not the domineering, ultra-rational left hemisphere of the human brain as scientists now understand it a kind of White Clown to the right hemisphere's more Auguste proclivities? I remember reading several years ago (in a book by Howard Gardner, or was it Robert Ornstein?) about a man with a severed brain, the hemispheres working independently, and often at cross-purposes. When asked to identify a color--a right hemisphere sort of intelligence--the man's right hand (controlled by the left brain of course, for we are cross-wired) reached out and tried to pull back his own fellow--right-brain- governed--appendage, angry, apparently, that it knew the answer. A very White Clown way of behaving!

Are not many a married couple engaged in a White/Auguste shtick even if they have never run off with the circus?

Is it not possible that Male, historically a know-it-all White (read Susan Griffen's Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her or Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology if you don't believe that to be true; go here to read more about Griffin), and Female, throughout the centuries, from Eve to the present, blamed for all wrongs, all sins, may be the primordial, archetypal clowns?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Pronouncing Hyundai

On British television a week ago an advert for the Korean car manufacturer caught my attention because the very British announcer pronounced the name "High-an-die." It made me wonder if I had been pronouncing the name wrong all these years.

But watching Fox News (trying to keep up-to-speed on what the enemy thinks) on my newly installed SKY satellite television I heard an American Hyundai commercial. "Hun-die" the voice-over intoned, the pronunciation with which I was familiar.

"Two countries separated by a common language" (George Bernard Shaw)--a paradox I thought I understood. But "two countries separated by different pronunciations of a third language"--that will need further explanation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Queen Dream

I am teaching a continuing education/adult learners course, which for some reason is meeting on a bus.

One of the students, it turns out, is Queen Elizabeth II (the actual one, not Helen Mirren), and she is doing some kind of "Prince and the Pauper" thing, without any security or anything.

The queen keeps insisting, like the "unconvincing transvestite" on Little Britain, that she's a "laydee."

I kept saying to myself (in the dream) that I need to get up and go get my camera to take a picture of the queen but couldn't manage to stand up.

And of course it turns out there is a terrorist onboard.

And then I wake up.

What does this say about my Englishization?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Getting Lost: A Brief Review

When Unlocking the Meaning of Lost: An Unauthorized Guide (co-authored with Lynnette Porter, with the assistance of Hillary Robson) first appeared in April of 2006, the authors of a rival Lost book (a vanity-published print-on-demand work) went out of their way to trash ours in the reviews. Their negative comments brought down our own customer rankings but did not appear to damage sales of Unlocking, which were extraordinarily good.

Not wanting to be accused of similar chicanery, I post my brief comments on BenBella Books' Getting Lost: Survival, Baggage and Starting Over in J. J. Abrams' Lost, edited by noted science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, here, far from the Amazon.

You have to mistrust a book that calls the show, in its very title, "J. J. Abrams'." As all more then casual watchers of the series know, Abrams abandoned Lost in the first season (in order to direct MI3 with Tom Cruise), and crediting an ungoing work as complex as Lost solely to its AWOL co-creator is, well, ignorant.

But my favorite dumb thing in the book: Robert Burke Richardson's essay (a reading of Lost against the backdrop of the history of philosophy) begins by situating Descartes (1596-1650) in the fifteenth century! Good grief. This sort of thing destroys a book's credibility.

Still, the intro by Card (on Lost and television narrative) and the essay by the always-brilliant TV critic Joyce Millman on games in Lost (and Lost as a game) are themselves worth the price of admission. But the book as a whole, like many of BenBella's "Smart Pop" volumes, seems padded, put on the rack in order to be stretched to an unnantural length--the torture metapbor is quasi-intentional.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Keeping Up with Appearances

One of the most influential books I have ever read is Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry by the British philologist Owen Barfield (1898-1997). “Saving the appearances” refers, of course, to the idea that the true mission of a scientific theory—the Copernican explanation of the makeup of the cosmos, say, or the Darwinian take on the nature of evolution—is to make sense of what we know and see and hear, to put the world into some kind of order, thereby “saving” it.

The “appearances” I want to write about here are not nearly so philosophical as those Barfield contemplated on this same small island a half century ago. My “appearances” are more likely to cavort with fellow travelers like “keeping up with” than “saving the.”

As I walk the residential streets of Haringey in the Turnpike Lane/Crouch End area of London (and, not having a car, I do a lot of walking), admittedly not exactly an upper crust neighborhood, I am struck by how, well, disheveled the houses are. These modest homes, almost all what in America we would call duplexes (several individual units sharing a common set of walls), all with tiny, postage-stamp front yards and (one presumes based on the homes I have entered) small narrow backyards/gardens inaccessible to the street, do not, on the face of it, appear to be interested in keeping up appearances.

Inside, the homes may be beautiful, fitted with all the latest in furniture, appliances, and home entertainment technology, but outside, many (most?) seem, to my suburban American eye at least, pretty much oblivious to the impression they make. A few exhibit (mostly untended) foliage, all the ubiquitous “Property of Haringey Council” plastic rubbish bins, but a flaneur is also likely to spot outside-the-bin trash, discarded building materials, and the occasional rotting piece of furniture. If I were back home, back in Tennessee--that state a (Georgian) Flannery O’Connor character once called a “hillbilly dumping ground”--my “white trash detector” would be going off; Jeff Foxworthy would be lining up jokes. But London, needless to say, ain’t no “hillbilly dumping ground.”

At least where I live superficial (a word that literally means “on the face of”) appearances don’t seem to count for much. No doubt the impression surfaces make matter more in more upscale London, but I only visit there; those neighborhoods are not my home. No doubt race and class are contributors to the different value put on appearance in my neighborhood, though I am not knowledgeable enough yet about where I live and who I live with to offer an explanation. But I will engage in a bit of speculation.

I recall reading a book many years ago (Kent C. Bloomer and Charles W. Moore, Body, Memory, and Architecture. New Haven: Yale U P, 1977) that suggested that the typical American home, with its prominent front lawn, side, and back yards, neatly represents/encapsulates the American sense of self, with the foreground being the public self we present to the world, the appearance we wish to be known by, and the back fifty the venue for our unconscious, non-public self. Assuming Bloomer and Moore were right, the houses of Haringey might just be more psychological representations than sociological, the dwellings of souls not taking much trouble with the face they present to the world, perhaps more concerned than Americans with the inner life.