By Mary Grabar
My fellow mammal in residence, Sparky the Orange Cat, wanted out at a party at my home one cold and rainy night, but I knew what would happen--the ritual cat delay in the doorway: a long period of staring and hesitation while I shivered in the cold, followed by his running back into the warm house.
This made me recall a collection of hilarious poems, Henry Beard's Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Feline Verse. Beard captures Sparky's indecision perfectly as he re-writes Hamlet's soliloquy from the cat's perspective:
To go outside, and there perchance to stay
Or to remain within: that is the question:
Whether 'tis better for a cat to suffer
The cuffs and buffets of inclement weather
That Nature rains on those who roam abroad,
Or take a nap upon a scrap of carpet,
And so by dozing melt the solid hours
That clog the clock's bright gears with sullen time
And stall the dinner bell. To sit, to stare
Outdoors, and by a stare to seem to state
A wish to venture forth without delay,
Then when the portal's opened up, to stand
As if transfixed by doubt. To prowl; to sleep;
To choose not knowing when we may once more
Our re-admittance gain: aye, there's the hairball. . . .
One of my guests laughed along with me recognizing the soliloquy as well as Beard's adaption of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":
Let us roam then, you and I,
When the evening is splayed out across the sky...
Paths that follow like a nagging accusation
Of a minor violation
To lead you to the ultimate reproof ...
Oh, do not say, 'Bad kitty!'
Let us go and prowl the city.
In the rooms the cats run to and fro
Auditioning for a Broadway show."
Of late, we've been hearing a lot about political polarization. I think much of it comes from a loss of cultural cohesion. It struck me that these spoofs should help political adversaries come together, briefly at least. They should be funny to conservatives and liberals alike. But they probably aren't any more. I remember my T.S. Eliot professor in the early 1990s who began the first day of class by announcing that he hated Eliot. He spent the rest of the semester reading from his book manuscript and leading us through investigations and denunciations of Eliot for anti-Semitism, anti-Irish sentiment, misogyny, elitism, solipsism, etc. The entire seminar, one of my first as a master's level student, was a semester-long exercise in savaging Eliot. Finally, one of the creative-writing majors asked the professor if Eliot's poetry was good. Well, yes, answered the professor: that went without saying. Eliot was a skilled poet. But the more important matters were his political sins, so that is what we studied.
I believe that much of the professor's anti-Eliot animus was related to a general misanthropy. He felt human beings who believe in hierarchies are bad, and language by its nature is hierarchical (with grammar and signifiers). His subsequent scholarship focused on animal communication--a more "pure" form. Those in this new field--the end game of reading literature only for evidence of evil motives--would view our little party's laughter at Sparky and how he so well illustrated Beard's poem, as evidence of another sin, species-ism. Randy Malamud insists that staring at animals in zoos is wrong, so our laughter at the expense of Sparky could be taken in the same vein.
Along with the demolishing of Eliot's poetry is the demonization of a person, who in spite of his all too human foibles, loved cats, as witnessed by his collection of poetry on them. Shakespeare too is demolished, his poetry destroyed in the service of a political agenda, most recently by gay rights activists, as they scour his writing for evidence of homosexual themes. This is witnessed by a Shakesqueer conference, which then produced a collection titled Shakesqueer, now a staple text in many graduate seminars.
Academics have been at work for decades systematically destroying and subverting the literary canon for college students. Colleges of education have also done their part. Now the federal government with Common Core is finishing off the job for K-12 by mandating the replacement of literary works with "informational texts," with proportions for informational text taking up 70 percent of the readings by high school. In place of Eliot and Shakespeare, students will be reading such things as EPA directives and non-fiction books about social justice.
The strains of blank verse will not be coming from the EPA directives. Nor will students enjoy gentle laughter from Barbara Ehrenreich's socialist polemics. As we lose these common cultural references, we lose our ability to bond and enjoy gentle humor. Our humor becomes more personal and political, emerging not from a common cultural bond, but dependent on the latest gossip--from a celebrity or a political enemy.
With the loss of literary knowledge our language becomes coarse and vulgar. Hardly any comedian on stage these days doesn't rely on profanity or crass sexual references. This is especially true for those who appeal to young audiences. The humor of Jon Stewart relies on the political and celebrity news of the day, and predictably ridicules those who are not "in," or who vote for the political party Stewart opposes.
The novels, especially for "young adults," being written today are also dark, and deal with themes of the occult, vampires and zombies. Few satires, like A Confederacy of Dunces, are being written. Those who have as broad an understanding of cultural shifts from the medieval to the modern and the resistance to the modern in his time as John Kennedy Toole are rare. And it took a conservative, who bemoaned that shift, to appreciate Toole's humor and get the novel published.
If we conservatives had our way, we would have a traditional literary canon so that everyone could enjoy Beard's parodies and understand Toole's allusions. But in the academy we are outnumbered, especially in English departments.
I have often wondered why most comedians are leftists. But then I discovered a site called The People's Cube, "America Through the Eyes of a Former Soviet Agitprop Artist," Soviet émigré Oleg Atbashian. The all red "people's cube" ($21.99), unlike the maddening Rubik's Cube, ensures equality of outcomes. Everyone wins. Alas, I wonder if those under a certain age will get it. Several years ago, I'd have a few college freshmen who had heard of Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Today, I rarely have one who has heard the name or would likely recognize the references in The People's Cube. They've been taught that the evils of Communism--the censorship, the show trials, the gulags--were largely part of a "red scare." (Another way comedians mock conservatives is by pointing out their references to Communism.)
Alas, perhaps we should all just drink a toast (of "beet vodka") to the new Commissar of Educational Unity and Civility, who will ensure that in our socially aware perfect equality, no cats will be the object of our elitist, specieist humor.