What a pleasure it is to discover that a writer we never suspected of having a sense of humor could actually, on occasion, be quite funny. I remember when it dawned on me that Ishmael was something of a stand-up comic. That changed the way I read Moby-Dick. The same goes for Proust. And Yvor Winters.
In 1948, in the English literary journal Windmill, Louis MacNeice published “An Alphabet of Literary Prejudices.” As H.L. Mencken taught us, prejudices are excellent occasions for satire, lampooning and sarcasm. The big attraction of writing a negative review is that it gives you more opportunities to be funny. And having an arbitrary A-to-Z form in place is always welcome. (In 1990 I heard Steven Millhauser read a story titled “An Alphabet of Women,” which he has never published.) Humor is not central to MacNeice’s work but he treats the writing of “Alphabet” as a lark, combining equal parts wit and legitimate literary criticism. Under “D” for “Dark God,” for instance, he writes:
“[D.H.] Lawrence had imagination without common sense—and got away with it—but in most people this divorce will degrade imagination itself. Thus we find Mr. Henry Miller writing turgid tatty old-fangled romantic exhibitionist prose, trying so hard to be virile and turning out ham.” Karl Shapiro was a wonderful poet but in 1960 he sullied his memory by describing Henry Miller as “the greatest living author.”
“B” is for “Book Reviewers,” of which he says: “Their worst habit is assuming they know the questions to which the work reviewed provides the answers.” Second-guessing and psychoanalyzing a writer whose book you are reviewing is rude, presumptuous and doomed to failure. Stick to the text.
Here’s a good one: “Enfants Terribles should also be born and not made. The influence of Rimbaud on modern poets, especially in America, is disastrous. Rimbaud was magnificent but a freak. It is not for people like me—nor most probably for people like you—to self-consciously befreak our own Unconsciouses.” Too bad Ginsberg and Co. weren’t paying attention.
More Irish common sense: “Free Verse had to be tried but now—with rare exceptions—ought to be dropped. . . . Verse is a precision instrument and owes its precision very largely to the many and subtle differences which an ordinary word can acquire from its place in a rhythmical scheme.”
“J” is for “Jargon,” which MacNeice calls an “aesthetic evil.” Mandatory reading for the faculty of all English departments.
Here, about the “hard-boiled school”: “Tough Fiction is usually soft at the core. See all hardboiled Americans, including Hemingway. This very easy formula seemed new about 1920, but Hollywood has long done its worst with it.”
Finally, “X Squared Minus Y Squared. A flower is never a formula, the concrete cannot be reduced to the abstract. . . . [T]oo many people besides physicists still have a hangover from old-fashioned science and assume, consciously or unconsciously, that the abstract is more real than the concrete. This childish and vicious heresy must be kept out of literature.”
[“An Alphabet of Literary Prejudices” is collected in Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser, Clarendon Press, 1986.]
My belief is that all great writers are, in varying degrees, funny.
I can't think of one who isn't at least occasionally funny.
The first thing I ever read by MacNeice was "Bagpipe Music," his most anthologized poem in these United States. With that as introduction, there never was any need for me to suspect him of a sense of humor -- it was certified.
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