MODERN WISDOM: AMERICA’S ONLY HUMOR MAGAZINE
Copyright 2017 Francis DiMenno
1. WHAT IS “IRONY”?
Is Irony real?
Or is it “real”?
Or “quirk”? (see Michael Hirshorn, Atlantic Monthly 9-07)
Or is irony merely “comic book irony”?
Is there any such thing as too much irony?
For that matter, is there any such thing as “too much” irony?
Has anyone ever “read” Norman Knox. The Word Irony and Its Context,
1500-1755. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1961?
Do you still not “know” what irony “is”? Then “read” the “definition”
by Norman D. Knox:
Sentimental irony is a dog that bays at the moon while pissing on graves.
Irony is the gaiety of reflection and the joy of wisdom.
Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.
A taste for irony has kept more hearts from breaking than a sense of
humor for it takes irony to appreciate the joke which is on oneself.
Irony is an insult conveyed in the form of a compliment.
–Edwin P. Whipple
Neither irony nor sarcasm is argument.
2. DEFINITIONS OF SATIRE
“All satire is blind to the forces liberated by decay. Which is why
total decay has absorbed the forces of satire.”–Theodor Adorno
For those of you unclear on the definition of Satire I sugggest you
consult Norman Knox’s valuable work THE WORD IRONY AND ITS CONTEXT
1500-1755, especially pp. 187-8:
“Some writers,” remarks John W. Draper, “use the comic, the ludicrous,
the ridiculous, wit, raillery, humour and satire in a loosely
synonymous fashion….” It was the excetional writer who used any of
these terms with precision. Anthony Collins, for instance, in his
DISCOURSE CONCERNING RIDICULE AND IRONY often seems to consider all of
them available for naming any kind of levity. His usage was
representative of run-of-the-mill authors of the age. But distinctions
were available and can be ferreted out.
Of satire, David Worcester points out that the “soul of the word has
shown a progressive change from a specific, narrow meaning to an
abstact, broad one.” Just as satire itself developed from the
crabbedly conventional verse satires of Joseph hall abd Donne through
the freer verse satires of Dryden into the variety of prose froms used
by Swifyt and Addison and Mandeville, so the word itself widened in
its reference from the formal verse satire to any mode of literature
which displayed a certain motive and spirit.
“More than any other people, the English have associated virulence and
malevlence with the idea of satire,” Worcester comments.
Dryden…supports this view:
…in English, to say satire, is to mean reflection, as we use that
word in the worst sense….
It was probably this sense of the word which necessitated a stock
phrase of the Augustan age, “satire and ridicule.” Ridicule was felt
to indicate something less malevolent and lighter in tone than satire,
to depend on a real or imagined incongruity that had at least
something of the comic in it.–Rufus Choate
“I’ll publish, right or wrong: / Fools are my theme, let satire be my
song.” –Lord Byron
“Why should we fear; and what? The laws? They all are armed in
virtue’s cause; And aiming at the self-same end, Satire is always
virtue’s friend.”–Charles Churchill
“Unless a love of virtue light the flame, Satire is, more than those
he brands, to blame; He hides behind a magisterial air He own
offences, and strips others’ bare.” –William Cowper
“Satire should, like a polished razor keen, Wound with a touch that’s
scarcely felt or seen. Thine is an oyster knife, that hacks and hews;
The rage but not the talent to abuse.”–Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
“Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer, And without sneering
teach the rest to sneer; Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike; Alike reserv’d to blame, or
to commend, A tim’rous foe, and a suspicious friend.”–Alexander Pope
3. ON STEREOTYPES
Q:Do monkeys bite?
A: Yes, monkeys will bite.
Stereotypes are generalizations and, as such, are valid, but
ultimately have limited universal applicability.
Maybe stereotypes, rumors, folklore, et al., are just a form of the
party game “Chinese Whispers” or “telephone” on a mass scale.
Stereotypes seem to be promulgated and kept into circulation by people
with blinders fashioned inextricably upon a crucial portion of their
sensory apparatus. Setting purely cultural preferences aside, there
seems to be no scientific basis for stereotypes based upon any
race-based differences. But trying to say in our current
image-obsessed culture is like trying to shout down Cotton Mather
while he hangs people accused of being witches.
“Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” –August Bebel
The Science of Stereotyping
Ewen: Defining people according to simplified categories dates back to
antiquity, and is probably an intrinsic part of human cultures.
Traditional myths, rituals and dramas routinely employed identifiable
types, but they usually symbolized different aspects of humanity
With the rise of democratic ideas, traditional ideas about the
God-given differences that justified social hierarchy fell into
disfavor. By the late 18th century, the “Divine Right of Kings” or the
idea of “Papal Infallibility” were being challenged by the ideas of
“natural rights,” “popular sovereignty” and human “inequality.” While
traditional hierarchies fought back, new caste systems arose in the
shadow of democracy. These used “scientific” tools as an argument for
social difference, as a line of defense designed to maintain social
and economic inequities. A scientific stamp of approval now certified
dividing humanity into simple, unequal categories according to race,
gender and economic status. In the 19th and 20th centuries, this
tendency accelerated and many of these simple categories became the
basic vocabulary of popular culture.
4. SINCLAIR LEWIS, NOVELIST
An important American novelist.
Though more than a bit facile.
In Babbitt, the language, as always, is superb:
“That little fuzzy-face there, why, he could make me or break me! If
he told my banker to call my loans—! Gosh! That quarter-sized squirt!
And looking like he hadn’t got a single bit of hustle to him! I
wonder—Do we Boosters throw too many fits about pep?”
(I love the passages with Chum Frink…)
Babbitt was right on the cusp; just before Lewis started listening to
his own press releases and started showing off his knowledge of
Main Street was more devastating, but kind of dull.
Elmer Gantry was overlong.
And, in my opinion,Arrowsmith was just plain embarrassing….
“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and
carrying a cross.”
“Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure
and very dead.”
“There are two insults no human being will endure: that he has no sense
of humor, and that he has never known trouble.”
“People will buy anything that is ‘one to a customer.'”
“The middle class, that prisoner of the barbarian 20th century. ”
5. PIMPLE COMMERCIALS
Here’s one that has haunted me for nearly 50 years:
I’m an acne blemish as lonely as can be
Don’t cry pimple, I’ll keep you company
Say, fellow pimples, would three be a crowd?
All together pimples, sing real loud:
Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh
Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh
Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh
6. HEY THERE, TOUGH GUY
How ya doin’, Doc?
How’s they hangin’, Evil Genius?
Long time no see, Moose.
Hey there, Mister.
Whatta you have, Chum.
Ahoy there, Mookie.
Name yer poison, Big Man.
Whatever you need, Chilly Willy.
You’re the man, Sarge.
Whoa! Easy there, Beerheart.
What? Your name ain’t ‘Beerheart’?
Ya got a fresh mouth on you there, Lard.
Hey you, Scumbozo!
Lissen up, Punko.
We don’t need no sass, Chiefy.
Take it outside, Boss.
Sez me, Assface.
Don’t start no trouble, Tuffy.
Yo, Dog, I’m talkin’ to YOU.
Yeah, Satan, you.
You must think you’re a Ruff Tuff Creampuff.
Don’t start nuthin, yuh Lousy Pillhead.
G’wan, beat it, Lusho.
Take a hike, Boozeheart, or I’m callin’ the fuzz.
Can you believe the nerve of that pencil-necked geek? Comin’ in here,
tryin’ ta start somethin’? This is a respectable dive!
HEY! Panama Red! Smoke that shit outside!
7. GANSER’S GYM
COME TO GANSER’S GYM (NEXT TO WOLFIE COHEN’S RASCAL HOUSE DELI) !
YOUR TRAINER: A CONVICTED FELON WITH A MAD-ON AGAINST THE WORLD!
SPECIAL: ONE WORK OUT FREE WITH LETTER FROM YOUR PROBATION OFFICER!
8. THAT’S NOT WHAT I CALL MUSIC!
People have always made the uninformed statement that such and such a
genre “isn’t music”.
They said it about Wagner.
About Rock and Roll.
About Free Jazz.
About Third Stream.
About Acid Rock.
About heavy metal.
And they will go on saying it, to the last syllable of recorded time,
on every occasion they are confronted with a type of music that
doesn’t fit their pre-conceived notions of aesthetic rectitude.
Perhaps they don’t mean it literally. Perhaps what they’re saying is
“These sounds are outside of my comfort zone.”
But rather than make a defensible statement that may put them
one-down, they simply resort to utter rejection, the first and often
sole resort of the aesthetically challenged.
We’re hard-wired to turn away from noxious stimuli. In babies it’s
called “gaze aversion”.
Like when children cover their eyes when they’re about to look at
something they don’t want to see.
Or when they pick at unfamiliar food.
Or when they cover their ears and say “I’m not listening! I’m not listening!”
Or when they get all their information about politics from Fox News.
9. TOO FAT POLKA
“I no wanna dance ’cause she too fat for me. Hey!–“Too Fat Polka”
Geez, you sure can deduce a lot from the lyrics of folk music. Polkas
seem to be all about eating and drinking a lot. Mexican songs such as
Corridas seem to talk a lot about criminals, as do quite a few English
and American folk songs. German folk songs seem to focus on murder and
war. Irish songs talk a lot about booze.
And various eras of American popular music seem to betray certain
prevalent attitudes of their day. The fifties: Women as commodities
(“Chantilly Lace”). The late sixties: drug-induced utopian torpor (“If
You’re Going to San Francisco”). The early 70s: Satan ‘n’ solipsism.
The early 80s: tainted love. The early 90s: teen angst. And on and on.
And then there’s rap.
In America, those who don’t excel in commodity training are left
behind. It’s no coincidence that people who live in housing projects
know to the penny the price of such non-essentials as sneakers and
caps. Conspicuous consumption among the undrerclass is one way of
showing the world you aren’t a loser. Consequently, the lyrics of rap
songs are potent statements regarding anti-matriarchical attitudes and
commodity fetishism–tough-guy manifestoes that serve to compensate
for the impotence felt by people with no share of the real power.
But what do I know?
Back when I lived in Pittsburgh (a town with a lotta Poles) that song
was frequently advertised as part of a Polka compilation disc: “Beer
Barrel Polka (Roll out the barrel…)! Too Fat Polka (I no wanna dance
’cause she’s to fat for me–hey!)!….”
I’ve discovered, to my surprise, that the northern corner of Rhode
Island, as well as Central and Western Mass., all have a lot of
persons of Polish ancestry, as well as recent immigrants from Poland.
There’s a Polish restaurant in Webster (haven’t eaten there).
Other Polish enclaves of note are Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago. A
large Polish presence practically screams “Rust Belt”.
As for Poles and their predilection for fatty food, we need only look
to the chicken soup with egg noodles sold in jars; the various forms
of potato products (pancakes, bread, vodka, and pierogis); kielbasa,
braunschweiger, scrapple, and other super-fatty meats, and the
invariable New Years delicacies such as pickled herring in cream sauce
and duck’s blood soup.
Stuffed cabbage is one of my favorites. My Uncle Bob Plawski’s wife
Eileen would cook it for me whenever I came to visit.
I mostly grew up in the Bloomfield Neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which
was nearly all Italian. But I specifically spent my earliest childhood
in the adjacent Lawrenceville section, which was and is largely
Polish. July 4th Fireworks at Arsenal Park; fried fish sandwiches; the
Stephen Foster memorial; one of the first Carnegie Libraries ever
built; St. Augustine’s; the Washington Crossing 40th Street Bridge….
Them days are gone forever.
That the Poles want to eat thier fill without getting fat points to a
crucial attribute in their nature: they tend to be both impractical
Nonetheless, I am proud of my Polish heritage.
But I could do without the Polkas.
I guess I’m too assimilated to appreciate that part of my heritage.
10. WHAT I’D LIKE FOR MY EPITAPH
“A fly went by.”
הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
“Oh God! You sank my battleship!”
THE PLOT THICKENS
I TOLD YOU NOT TO TAZE ME, BRO
POST NO BILLS
Five minutes, five minutes more, please! Let me stay five minutes more!
Can’t I just finish the castle I’m building on the floor?
Can’t I just finish the story I’m reading here in my book?
Can’t I just finish my bead-chain– it almost is finished, look!
Can’t I just finish this game, please? When a game’s once begun
It’s a pity never to find out whether you’ve lost or won.
Can’t I just stay five minutes? Well, can’t I stay just four?
Three minutes, then? Two minutes? Can’t I stay one minute more?
One suspects that, in the USA, mildly subversive irony thrives best in
a period of comparatively casual concerns. In those eras in which such
concerns are not casual, it becomes known as subversive irony, and is
During the 1920s, in common with writers such as Sinclair Lewis and
H.L. Mencken, DiMenno was derided by literary eminentoes for what was
deemed his “angry man thesaurus” style. However, during the 1930s,
many of those same critics claimed to detect a degree of social
conciousness, ala Theodore Dreiser, that obviated the “pompous and
zany” thrust of his “Odd looniness.”
In the aftermath of World War Two and the ensuing Red Scare, DiMenno
fell radically out of favor among the “establishment critics” and even
among the avant-garde “beat” school he was seldom dicussed save in the
condescending terms reserved for Pulitzer Prizewinning authors such as
Booth Tarkington and Edna Ferber.
The late 60s and early 70s were a period that fostered a brief revival
of interest in his work. However, the early 1980s found him once more
under attack for his late-life satiric sallies against “the power in
However, though they deplored his elitist and somewhat dated and even
solipsistic concerns, in the 1990s, some of his more ardent adherents
on the left found great value in his more radical writings, similar to
the revival in interest in the works of Mark Twain during the 1960s.
However, in the first part of the 21st century, the events of 9/11
lead many to conclude that leaders were being assassinated, democracy
was being attacked, and that DiMenno was guilty of “giving aid and
comfort to our enemies,” since his writings were the source of a great
deal of vaguely anti-American rhetoric that foreign intellectuals were
using as ammunition against would-be American hegemony.
Only in the wake of the “Recession Panic of 2008” and the ensuing “liberal
reaction” against “the politics of greed” has the work of DiMenno, to
some degree, been reassessed, and found “good…without regard to the
purposes of mankind.” However, decades may pass before scholars decide
upon its rightful place in the literary history of the United States.