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Moment of Truth: December 3 2016

Planet of the Pig

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.

The great British socialist standup comic, Stewart Lee, does a bit where he talks about the "iconic final scene" of the original Planet of the Apes movie, "one of the truly iconic scenes in cinema. Apparently, on their world, the apes have made an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty. And it's never explained why ... and Charlton Heston is angry, he goes, 'Dammit, why have you done this, you dirty apes, why? It's a society of apes, why would you make a statue of a human?' And the apes go, 'We don't know, we've just done it.' It's one of the most iconic scenes in cinema and it's completely meaningless and stupid."

He then goes on to explain that the author of the original novel the movie was based on, Pierre Boulle, was a socialist, thus the novel was clearly meant as satire, and he then helpfully defines satire this way: "If any ever asks you what satire is, and you want to appear clever, just say, 'Satire is where it's the same as it is now, except there's animals in it.'"

I haven't read the book, Durov's Pig: Clowns, Politics and Theatre, by Joel Schecter, in over twenty-five years, but it came to mind late this week. I'm not sure I ever owned a copy. I've had the chance to refer to a very difficult-to-navigate PDF copy I downloaded yesterday afternoon. In it, Schecter quotes US playwright George S. Kaufman's definition of satire: "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

I now quote Schecter's description of Vladimir Durov's performance with his pig in Berlin in 1907:

"Durov placed a German officer's cap, or 'helm' as he called it, in the circus ring, and his trained pig ran to retrieve it. Using ventriloquism, Durov made the pig appear to be saying 'Ich will helm,' meaning 'I want the helmet.' But the phrase could also be translated 'I am Wilhelm,' thereby equating Germany’s Emperor, Wilhelm II, with a trained pig. 'The audience understood the pun at once and applauded it. The German police understood it too,' according to Russian critic Emanuel Dvinsky’s account of the event. Durov was arrested. The pig escaped without prosecution."

Schecter goes on to discuss politically satirical clowning in far greater depth than I can synopsize here. But he seems to conclude that theatrical satire as it was understood at this prewar moment, and between and during the wars as well, was not something that could happen in a place as genteel as the theater. It happened in beer halls, circus rings, and the public streets. It was low comedy, the point of which was to bring the powerful down to the level of the public, or even to the level of a pig, where they could be judged by those they presumed to rule.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was a vain man, and easily offended by mockery – remind you of anyone? – and developed a habit of imprisoning people who pricked his delicate ego.

Who is the Durov's pig of today? Clearly, Alec Baldwin has been chosen to play the part of the pig. But then who is Durov? Lorne Michaels? No, we can't really consider Michaels the ventriloquist who voices the pig – he just doesn't have the chops. Vladimir Durov was a brilliant clown and animal trainer. We might have to go all the way back to the beginning of Second City, and among all those present I'd nominate the late Del Close as the legacy trainer of all those animals.

Stephen Colbert, before he took over from David Letterman, was a Durov's pig, but he was also his own ventriloquist – he and his writers – bringing low, in his way, the rightwing pundits he mimicked.

But despite the best efforts of Vladimir Durov and his fellow satirists of the time, such as writer Frank Wedekind, and transgressive artists like Picasso, Europe was eventually plunged into World War I. Then, despite the best efforts of the German Expressionists and the Dadaists and the satirists of their time, Europe was plunged into World War II.

So we have no reason to believe the Alec Baldwins, or even the Samantha Bees and John Olivers and their ilk, will have any more luck in preventing World War III than their predecessors did preventing the first two.

It's all well and good to bring the mighty low in order to pass judgment on them. But if the people don't then rise up and execute a sentence upon the real pigs, the whole effort is Pyrrhic. Or at best Sisyphean. Not to say that revolution itself, violent or velvet, is not itself a Sisyphean endeavor. But at least you get the appearance of progress.

Feeling despondent, I flipped ahead in Schecter's book to Chapter 7, entitled "The Clown Who Says No." It begins with a quotation from Bertolt Brecht: "I have no backbone for being exterminated. There is only one way to fight authority . . . outlive it."

Brecht did indeed outlive one singular authority, and though he wasn't a Jew he was subversive and "deranged" enough, by Nazi standards, to have to flee Germany. So I don't take his advice lightly.

A majority of the chapter is taken up with discussing a character called, originally, "Svejk." Svejk is a classic ne'er-do-well who somehow accidentally does well. Svejk was the invention of anarchist writer Jaroslav Hasek, who also founded a tongue-in- cheek political party called The Party of Moderate Progress Within the Bounds of the Law. Between the world wars, director Erwin Piscator adapted Hasek's novel The Good Soldier Svejk for the stage as a picaresque play. Brecht later took up the character himself in his play, "Schwejk in World War II."

In discussing the plot and comic devices of Brecht's play, Shecter says this:

"The Little Man's cowardice, feigned idiocy and exploitation of 'what minute opportunities are left' lead to comic departures from the Great Man's plan. The plan requires total order, total submission and self-sacrifice... Remnants of individuality and an instinct for survival disrupt the plan."

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of me or the drivel I espouse as my "philosophy" will recognize me in Schecter's description of the Little Man. Anyone who's had an hourly job in a large organization, it needn't be an army, will recognize some of her co-workers if not herself.

Totalitarianism is a lost cause. It doesn't work because nothing "total" ever works on humans. Democracy attempts to adjust to dissent. Capitalism attempts to co-opt dissent. But I promise you, anti-productivity can defeat them all. I'll be discussing this further in the future.

The time will soon come when each of us will be called upon to do a turn as Svejk, to sabotage the machine by following its orders to the letter but not the spirit, or by heeling too closely to the spirit, or simply to gum up the works with the flesh of our inconvenient existence.

We now have a pig dressed up as Kaiser Wilhelm ready to inhabit the White House. We're already great at laughing at and judging pigs, so we've got that covered. We're seeing at Standing Rock, and wherever else marginalized citizens protest the excesses of the oligarchy and its policing organizations, what kind of violence their resistance provokes from the rulers.

I know I'm ahead of my time in advocating anti-productivity, strategic lethargy, and uncivil skepticism of civilization. But history is rapidly catching up to me. See you when you all get here! I'll be the one in the hammock. Wake me up when the bacon is ready.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!

Moment of Truth


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