The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

RETICENCE: It goes without saying, which is not really true, since by definition if it went without saying then I would stop talking about whatever it is that goes without saying right now instead of going on and on at interminable length about something you probably don’t care about one way or the other. Lots of things in life are like that, when you think about it, like local politics, gossip about people you don’t know, or long abstruse sociological discussions of why quantum mechanics routinely refuse to join labor unions. The list of things that ought to go without saying is practically endless, as well it should be.

The state of your health is one of those things that go without saying, but you’d hardly know it these days, especially after you’ve asked the dread question, how are you doing? For years, decades, perhaps even centuries the standard response to this question everywhere in the Anglophonic portions of North America has been, fine, and you, calling forth the further response, I’m fine or I’m okay, thanks. Having established the essential fineness of everyone’s health, everyone involved in the conversation would then proceed at once to the business at hand, be it slave trading, shipping opium to the Chinese, or selling rotgut whiskey to the Indians before robbing them of their lands. It didn’t matter if you were not fine, that you could drive railroad spikes through granite with your liver or that your fallen arches came crashing down on a school bus full of kids on their way to school; it went without saying that you kept the gruesome details to yourself. Americans were a much more stoical lot in those days. Nowadays, of course, no sooner have you asked, how are you doing, than you are getting a blow by blow description of your best friend’s cousin’s colonoscopy, complete with a running commentary of how his Uncle Sid and nearly everyone else in that family died of some horrific colon-related disease, except for his great-aunt Myrtle, who went down with the Lusitania in 1915 and never had the opportunity to develop a truly loathsome intestinal complaint.

Equally frightening is the gusto with which people will recount their tales of chronic ill health. There’s no surer way to stop dinner party conversation, for example, than to grandly announce that your latest spell in the hospital was for surgery to repair a fistula so large the Vistula could flow through it complete with ore barges and sailboats stopping for a light lunch of prosciutto and pasta salad at that nice Italian restaurant the Times gave a good review to on one of the isles of Golgi. This sudden silence will not last, however; when you are finished with your tale of medical misfortune everyone within a five mile radius will want to get in on the act as well, trying to top your tale of woe and disaster with one of their own, or if they are in disgustingly good health and therefore unable to contribute a story of their own they will tell you about what happened to their brother, cousin, grandparent, neighbor, and so on and so forth, in an ever widening circle of ill health and malpractice on a scale so vast that the imagination does not exist that cannot boggle at the sheer immensity of it all, leaving you to wonder if choosing to go to medical school is prima facie evidence of either dedication or dementia.

Another thing that goes without saying, but seldom does, are the details of one’s own sexual activities. I think it was Somerset Maugham, and if it wasn’t him then it was someone else, who said that the sexual details of even the blandest of us would still be enough to shock the public if such details became common knowledge. There is a pleasant, almost anachronistic flavor to that statement, something akin to eating homemade chocolate chip cookies made from scratch, bespeaking a reticence that no longer exists in this our Great Republic. We now live in a world where the details of the private lives of ordinary citizens are fodder for public spectacles unrivalled in their profound freakishness since the declining days of the Roman Empire. Even at that time, Roman historians did not write about the Empress Messalina’s experiences as a belle du jour or Caligula’s antics with his sister until well after their deaths, if only to keep themselves from dying in a loud and extremely painful Mel Gibsonish manner. (Caligula is best known these days for making his horse, Incitatus, a senator, an appointment lauded at the time by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] and other animal rights and environmental groups. Incitatus was a grave disappointment for them, however, proving a much more conservative politician than his shaggy mane of hair would otherwise indicate. He voted neigh {ouch!} to proposals to clean the gladiator remains out of the Tiber River, to give slaves equal rights with non-edible fungi, and to reform the campaign finance laws, amongst other things. Incitatus only served two terms in the Senate, the voters turning him out of office because of a corruption scandal in which the senator supposedly solicited sugar cubes, apples, and bags of oats from a government defense contractor. The scandal ended the old warhorse’s political career, the voters replacing him with a hardworking, self-made billionaire blond honey badger named Bruce.)

But nowadays the media barrage of all titillation all the time leaves very little that goes without saying, and more’s the pity, I think, since so much of this sort of thing could go without saying and we’d all be the better for it. For a long time in this country you didn’t have to convince people of the virtues of reticence, that private lives are best left private, but the past is another country, as they say—they do things differently there. As with so many other things I loathe, I blame the 1960’s and Sigmund Freud for all of this. Somehow or other Freud got into his head that spilling your psychological guts all over the floor without a mop nearby was somehow or other conducive to promoting good mental health. This, of course, is poppycock raised to the nth degree, but Freud didn’t want to hear that his pet ideas were twaddle. He went on and on and on, yammering day in and day out about gated Oedipus apartment complexes with Electrafied fences in the suburbs and egos and ids ad infinitum and ad nauseam to the brew and it gets truly disgusting, and saying all these ridiculous things in a thick Viennese accent. There are all too many Americans, I fear, who are more than willing to give oddball foreigners and their equally oddball ideas a pass if those ideas come packaged in a foreigner’s somewhat mangled English—how else do you explain the strange fascination with French philosophy and literary theory in American academia since the end of World War II?

Freud’s silliness came to its fullest fruition in the 1960’s, a decade dedicated to the notion that doing your own thing was always a good idea, that free love was always free, especially with the advent of birth control and antibiotics, and that all we need is love, is love, love is all we need, and that we should all just let it all hang out, whatever it is, and I suppose I shouldn’t ask. These were the crackpot ideas of a crackpot worshipping time, and we all know that yesterday’s crackpot ideas, if packaged in a modern sensibility, can become today’s horrifying reality. Freud proposed that a certain openness about sexual matters might not be such a bad idea, and a century later, we have daytime television talk shows daily broadcasting the antics of grotesques straight out of the pages of Kraft-Ebbing for the voyeuristic entertainment of millions of people with nothing better to do in the middle of the day. This, for me, always brings up the question of just who in the blue blazes are these people and why don’t they have jobs to go to? It just seems to me that these folks have way too much free time on their hands and that someone ought to do something about this before it gets entirely out of control. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, as all of our grandmothers used to say, but I’m sure you knew that already, as it just goes without saying.


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