Thursday, August 30, 2012

AM I CRANKY, GROUCHO? YOU BET YOUR LIFE!

Dedicated to the memory of
Julius Henry Marx
(1890-1977)

For someone who advocates the regular practice of mindfulness and other spiritual practices I have to admit---with all self-honesty and with a little (but not too much) guilt---that I have become a most cranky ‘old’ man.

I remember the day so very well. It was April 13, 1969. (I still have the newspaper---well, the relevant page---to prove it.) It was early on a Sunday morning, and I went outside my parents’ house to collect the newspaper, which would have been somewhere on the nature strip or driveway. The paper was The Sun-Herald. On page 58 there was an article about my all-time favourite comedian Groucho Marx [pictured right and below]. The article (with a byline by Don Riseborough 'in New York') was headed ‘Groucho Gets the Grouches,’ but it was a reworking of a widely syndicated article that I’ve traced to an article entitled ‘Is Groucho Serious? You Bet Your Life!’ published in The New York Times on April 8, 1969 (on page 40) with a byline by Israel Shenker.

I read the article with great interest and gusto, but I was devastated. Yes, devastated---totally. My hero Groucho had turned into a cranky---indeed very angry---and bitter old man. So sad, I thought, that this funny man could say that he was tired of being funny. Now, he was deadly serious, and it seemed to me that he would remain that way. No more funny stuff would issue from his mouth. Fortunately, I was wrong on all that. (I was aged 14 at the time.) Mr Marx would have a couple more showbiz and literary hurrahs before he joined his brothers Chico, Harpo and Gummo in death on August 19, 1977. Regrettably, that did not stop The New Republic---a liberal periodical Groucho liked---writing, not long before his death, that Groucho 'has made more than an old man's share of cranky and bigoted remarks in the past few years' (May 21, 1977, p 61).

Now, back to this article which, by the way, I carried round on my person for several days thereafter, hoping as many people as possible would see it ... as if that might somehow persuade Groucho to be 'funny' again. Groucho railed against the churches, organized religion, and the folly of belief in any sort of afterlife. ‘You only live once, despite what Jesus or somebody said … Go out to the garden and tear a flower in four. It won’t be a flower again.’ He railed against the military-industrial complex, saying, ‘You know there are 1,800 retired admirals and generals hustling business for the various munitions companies. I’d have them shot.’ He railed against crime, of which there was plenty at that time. He railed against militant students---the ones for whom he was a hero, a god---saying, ‘Kids today are detestable, and thank God mine are grown up.’ He railed against the war in Vietnam, saying, ‘It would be different if we were fighting a just war, if there is any such thing. … We have no right to be in Vietnam.’ He railed against nudity in the theatre … and many other things. Most of all, he railed against his own country---the United States of America---which, he felt, had lost its way in the world. (I fear the latter is true even more so today. Lost its way---and lost the plot.) Yes, Groucho railed against almost everyone and everything. Groucho---the Groucho I had loved for years (I still do)---had turned into a cranky and embittered old man.

I, too, have become a cranky ‘old’ man of 57. (At least Groucho was 78---but generally thought to be 73---at the time of the above mentioned articles and interview.) Actually, I think I have been a cranky ‘old’ man for quite some time now. Still, I would like to think I am not quite as cranky and bigoted as Groucho---bless him---appeared to be in his later years, notwithstanding that his political views were generally leftist over a very long period of time.

So, what am I cranky about? Well, many things---far too many to mention in this one post. You see, I've got more than a little list. For starters, I am cranky about the lack of manners in society these days. When manners go, we risk returning to the law of the jungle. Manners---not so much the rule of law---hold society together. I am cranky about the crap that is on commercial television these days (has it ever been any different?), especially so-called reality television. I am cranky about the ascendancy of a most nasty and selfish form of conservatism in politics and religion---especially in the United States of America, but also in Australia and many other countries. Damn you. I am cranky that countries such as China and, yes, the US are not taking climate change seriously enough. Damn you. (At least Australia has a tax on carbon.) I am angry that American political leaders---including the current President (whose record on human rights issues has been most disappointing, indeed worse than that of his immediate predecessor)---don't have the guts to take on the powerful gun lobby in that country. Damn you.

I'm not finished by any means. I am also cranky about the lies all our politicians routinely tell us---and how they ‘stay on message’ (oh, how I hate those words) without ever answering the question nor saying anything meaningful. Damn you. I am cranky about the effects that postmodernism has had on educational and literacy standards---the dumbing down of education and all that. Terrible stuff. I saw it happen with my own eyes during the many years that I taught some 9,000 law students, but I was totally powerless to do anything about it. Damn all those responsible. I am cranky about ambulance-chasing lawyers who claim they are only interested in their injured clients. Damn them (the lawyers, that is). I am cranky about the inequitable distribution of income and wealth in this country (Australia) and elsewhere. Like Groucho, a certain thought---followed by certain words---takes form within my mind from time to time---‘I’d have them shot.’ Then, I recoil, as did Groucho, who went on to say in that 1969 interview, ‘That was facetious about having them shot. But it wouldn’t be a great loss if those pot-bellied thieves were put out of their misery.’ No, it wouldn't. Well, Groucho, the thieves in the big end of town are less pot-bellied today---many of them go to the gym and work out regularly---but they are still thieves for all that. And, in the words of W S Gilbert (whom Groucho especially admired), ‘I don't think they'd be missed, I'm sure they'd not be missed!’ Yes, damn them all. Strong stuff? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m sure we all feel that way at times.

Yes, Groucho was serious---and angry. So am I ... even though I will never be in the same league as Julius Henry Marx (his real name). Not even in the same ballpark. Nor even in the same city or county.

Well, what am I going to do about it? Well, for one thing, I will continue to watch Marx Brothers movies as well as episodes of Groucho’s long-running quiz show You Bet Your Life ...




That may not be a cure for my crankiness---indeed, it may even worsen the condition---but I don’t care. I will die laughing, no matter what.


Yes, I am serious. In Groucho's own words, 'I'm the brash, realistic type,' the guy who says the emperor has no clothes on. Shoot me if you wish.


POSTSCRIPT. Since I first wrote this post Australia has had a change of government at the federal level. The carbon tax referred to above has been abolished, and a bunch of climate change skeptics are now in power. The US is now doing better than Australia as respects action on climate chnage. Shame, Australia, shame. IEJ.


NOTE. Here's a tribute to Groucho Marx that I wrote in August 1978 when I was aged 23. IEJ.


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