Sunday, May 11, 2014

`Much of Her Charm Is in Her Mystery'

“[Comedy] loves it when Dan Quayle spells P-O-T-A-T-O-E, as spelling and vice presidents are equally boring, and part of her fun (as she is co-eval with civilization) is in knowing—but never telling—that Samuels Johnson and Beckett both wrote potatoe (Shakespeare got it right).” 

I once saw a hand-written sign in the window of a small grocery in Lakewood, Ohio: “PATATAS.” This was forty years ago and not a neighborhood where Romance languages were spoken. Someone had spelled the word phonetically, as he or she heard it, in the dialect of working-class Cleveland (in which the t would be pronounced almost like a d). I was young and reacted with snotty disdain tempered by the knowledge that someone was probably first- or second-generation American (the neighborhood was heavily Eastern European), that public schools are in steep decline and that at least one grocery clerk was showing up for work. 

The passage at the top is from Guy Davenport’s “The Comic Muse,” an essay collected in The Hunter Gracchus (1996). He refers to the vice president’s gaffe on June 15, 1992, when Quayle corrected the spelling of a Trenton, N.J., schoolboy, and the foundations of Western Civilization shuddered. I was no admirer of Quayle, but the self-righteous smirking that followed was embarrassing. As Davenport says, Quayle was a bore, like most politicians. It’s not their job to be interesting, and scintillating doesn’t necessarily imply intelligent, moral or effective. As a newspaper reporter, I once sat across from Quayle at a prayer breakfast during his first term as the junior U.S. senator from Indiana, and can confirm that he was at least as dull as the pancakes. But that didn’t distinguish him from ninety-eight others (Daniel Patrick Moynihan was then serving in the Senate). 

In his Dictionary (1755), Dr. Johnson indeed spells the singular form of the word as potatoe (“an esculent root”). During the Nazi occupation, Beckett fled Paris, joined the Resistance and posed as a French peasant harvesting potatoes in the Vaucluse, but I find no reference to “potatoe” in his work.

The potato is a New World plant. The first root vegetable bearing that name to reach Europe was Ipomoea batatas, what we would recognize as the sweet potato. The OED’s first citation dates from the year after Shakespeare’s birth. “Potato” in the sense of Solanum tuberosum, the white potato, shows up in 1597. The sweet potato especially, perhaps because of its shape, was reputed to be useful as an aphrodisiac, a bit of folklore that shows up in Shakespeare. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff says: 

“My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain
Potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green
Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let
there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.”

And Thersites says in Troilus and Cressida: 

“How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!”

“Potato-finger” sounds at once sexual and like the name of a side dish on the kid’s menu. Those immune to the rich comedy of language deserve not pity but riotous derision. As Davenport says:  “Comedy is a free spirit, full of fun, and has no intention of explaining herself. In fact, much of her charm is in her mystery, in eluding the serious as successfully as a kitten who doesn’t wish to be caught.”


drizzz said...

Then there's the old Fats Waller song "All That Meat and No Potatoes".

Guy Walker said...

Comedy is very close to the creative spirit in the way in which it subverts and destroys the phoney, leaving room for the re-creation of something more truthful and wholesome. Its a unlegislated joy.