Half-baked thoughts, then, toward an AWP presentation that won’t be:
Jokes, the good Dr. Freud said famously, are often “hostile.” (That, or obscene: the jokes of “exposure.”) Aggressiveness, satire, and defense belong to the “hostile” camp, and I’m interested in how sharp-edged jokes are used to cut the threat of physical violence. My idea is that satire, if that’s what I’m talking about here, pretends to embrace the values and rules of a given situation, then takes them too far (by a step or a mile), producing a backlash against the original situation.
I started thinking about this while reading Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln. One passage recounts how Lincoln was challenged to a duel in 1842. The challenger, James Shields, was a 32-year old lawyer, former member of the Illinois legislature with Lincoln, and then state auditor of accounts. Several biting articles about him had appeared in the Sangamo Journal under a pen name. One was written by Lincoln, but the others were by his girlfriend, Mary Todd, and one of her friends. Shields demanded to know the true identity of author “Rebecca,” and Lincoln took full responsibility. Shields demanded satisfaction.
The story goes that Lincoln, who got to pick the weapons, said, “How about cow dung at five paces?” This is low-grade defensive humor, meant to disarm, by good-naturedly denigrating the chivalric code that insists on the fight. When Shields wouldn’t back down, Lincoln said, Okay, let's use cavalry broadswords, on a plank of wood 10 feet long and nine inches wide.
Dueling was already illegal in Illinois by then, so the two parties (the duelists, their seconds, assorted friends, lawyers, hangers-on, gawkers) had to travel (all day?) by horse-and-buggy, then horse-ferry, to a sandbar in the Mississippi River. Lincoln took off his coat and hat and began to warm up. He was, of course, a giant man, with enormous reach and the muscles of a lifetime of hard work. He slashed and stabbed at the air with the heavy sword.
Shields saw, for the first time, the reality of the situation. I can easily imagine the look on his face as he watched Lincoln thrash. He looked down at the weapon in his own hand. It didn’t feel right. In his imagination he’d seen a delicate little rapier, none too sharp, and a fight to first blood only. A scratched arm, some drinks and war stories at the tavern later. But this fucking thing could lop off your head.
At his word, his associates got together on the spot with Lincoln’s and drafted a statement that said Lincoln meant no harm with the articles. They all went home. Sandburg says the duel became “a joke but Lincoln never afterward mentioned it and his friends saw it was a sore point that shouldn’t be spoken of to him.”
It was never a joke at all, of course, until Shields backed down, and Lincoln knew it. Lincoln grew up on the frontier, brawled, knew the guys who knew about horse racing and cards and boozing. He called them his “shrewd wild boys”—rough men recently cultivated, and he would make one of them, Billy Herndon, his law partner. Lincoln intended to go through with the duel, but he didn’t have to, because he used a kind of physical satire, a mild amplification of Shields’ own rules, to make the blustering, humorless bully see his own romantic foolishness.
The joke, if I may call it that, is a fairly common one in literature, and when I was reading Sandburg, I thought I remembered Mark Twain using it. I had to troll several books to catch it, but there it was, in A Tramp Abroad. It comes right after four frightening journalistic chapters on actual German student dueling societies (see the contemporary painting)—imagine Pikes and Skulls lopping off each other’s noses and ears in the kegger rooms of their frat houses.
Then Twain pretends he’s asked to be the second for one of two peeved French politicians, and the details for the duel are left to him. He goes to the other second and innocently proposes axes at daybreak. The man shudders and says severely that since bloodshed might come of it, such weapons were barred by French code. Twain proposes Gatling guns at 15 paces, then “rifles; then double-barrelled shot-guns; then Colt’s navy revolvers. These being all rejected, I reflected a while, and sarcastically suggested brick-bats at three-quarters of a mile. I always hate to fool away a humorous thing on a person who has no perception of humor; and it filled me with bitterness when this man went soberly away to submit the last proposition to his principal…[who] was charmed with the idea…but [had to] decline on account of the danger to disinterested parties passing between.”
The other second shows Twain what will be acceptable: “very dainty and pretty” keychain derringers with bullets the size of pinheads. The duelists are to engage with these toys at a distance of 65 yards.
“Sixty-five yards, with these instruments?” Twain says to the other second. “Squirt-guns would be deadlier at fifty. Consider, my friend, you and I are banded together to destroy life, not make it eternal.” Twain’s primary “swoons” at the sight of the tiny pistol, then again when Twain tells him the agreed-upon distance. Twain pours water down his back to bring him around. It’s only a larger version of the Lincoln story.
A more recent example of satire-in-the-face-of-violence is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He has been drilling his young Marine trainees on an absolute code: “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle. It is your killer instinct which must be harnessed if you expect to survive in combat. Your rifle is only a tool. It is a hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong you will hesitate at the moment of truth.”
Kubrick then uses the code’s own processes to condemn it. He has Hartman refer to Lee Harvey Oswald and the mass-murderer Charles Whitman.
Gunny Hartman: Do any of you people know where these individuals learned how to shoot?...Private Joker.
Private Joker: Sir. In the Marines, Sir.
Gunny Hartman: In the Marines. Outstanding. Those individuals showed what one motivated Marine and his rifle can do. And before you ladies leave my Island, you will all be able to do the same thing.
Finally, I’d point back again to Twain’s “Grief and Mourning for the Night,” in which he pretends to glow with patriotic fervor at the slaughter of 600 men, women, and children in the Philippines, by US troops. The joke sticks grimly to its intent, as the soldiers did, taking no prisoners, forcing you to face the insanity of giving no quarter.