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click opera
February 2010
September 1st, 2007
Sat, Sep. 1st, 2007 12:40 pm

My Book of Jokes (now 50,000 words into a projected 80,000) is basically a series of ludicrous, scurrilous episodes in the life of a single family with a super-eccentric, sexually rapacious father. The episodes are presented by the young narrator, a bland boy straight out of a bildungsroman, but they're mostly retellings -- in an incongruously serious, autobiographical mode -- of jokes. Imagine all the jokes you know being cast with the same set of family members. Since jokes tend to depict extreme situations, the family in question quickly becomes luridly dysfunctional. My narrator becomes aware of what's going on, but the only way he can deflect the family's tragi-comic fate is by trying to tell better jokes, or just waiting for the one-dimensionality of the jokes to change into some kind of complexity by sheer multiplication.

This clash of genres -- kunstlerbildungsroman autobiographical mode with joke mode -- could also be characterised as a class clash, a tone clash, and a historical time period clash. Jokes are lower class, ribald, vulgar, whereas the "artist coming of age" mode is precious, Proustian, bourgeois. The tones don't match. And if the subjective coming-of-age novel is essentially a 19th or 20th century form, jokes go much further back.

But the interesting thing is that if you go back 500 years, you find that modern distinctions between sacred and profane, respectable and vulgar, refined and ribald, collapse. Some of the most vulgar humorous writers of the renaissance were connected to princes and popes, and worked for the church and the state. Chaucer was a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant. He was writing about pokers being rammed up randy students' arses on quiet days during his time as a customs officer, or managing the king's forests.

Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) is often credited with compiling the first book of jokes, the Liber Facetiarum, published in 1451. Some of his Facetiae Erotica (sex jokes, basically) have been supplying material for my book. Poggio was a secretary at the Vatican. He was such a close friend of successive popes that they formed a sort of regular comedy club, the Bugiale, where various guests gathered of an evening to tell stories, jokes and anecdotes about bishops, princes and "scurvy peasants".

"This society," says the prudish editor of one modern collection of Poggio's jokes, "was a natural product of the decadent Rome of the quintocento. Its members, comprising the enlightened spirits of the Roman curia, had brought humanism to the point of complete agnosticism and disrespect for all authority. In their reaction against the religious and moral hypocrisy of the medieval church, they mistook licentiousness for freedom and lewdness for knowledge... a frank concern with the bodily functions did not carry in those days the reproach that it bears today... Poggio, like his comrades of the “Bugiale,” delighted in broad humor and odorous jest. In his facetiae he portrays a material world of earthly desire, impiety and jocular cynicism. In this world, the women are all unfaithful and the men cuckolds; and the clergy and royalty are mercilessly ridiculed. The picture is undoubtedly exaggerated and unfair. But to a large extent it was the world which he and his comrades knew."

You can sort of see why the clergy would enjoy describing a tainted world -- condemning vice and laughing at it aren't really so far apart. There's also something nice about the fact that these dirty stories were told in "the purest Latin Poggio could command". Here's one, in English:

Of a Jealous Man Who Took Extreme Measures to Learn if His Wife Was Faithful
A man from Gubbio, called Giovanni, was fearfully jealous of his wife and did not know by what means he could positively assure himself that she was not deceiving him with other men. Finally he hit upon a plan worthy of a jealous man; he castrated himself, saying: “Now, if my wife should become with child, I will be convinced that she has committed adultery.”

Francois Rabelais (1494-1553) is the undisputed master of fabulous muck, though. Rabelais was a medical doctor and publisher's editor. He enjoyed the protection of King Francois the First and the influential de Bellay family.

From his masterpiece (or should we call it a "masterpiss"?) Gargantua and Pantagruel, here's a fabulous, um, passage about wiping your bottom:

I have, answered Gargantua, by a long and curious experience, found out a means to wipe my bum, the most lordly, the most excellent, and the most convenient that ever was seen.

What is that? said Grangousier, how is it?

I will tell you by-and-by, said Gargantua. Once I did wipe me with a gentle-woman's velvet mask, and found it to be good; for the softness of the silk was very voluptuous and pleasant to my fundament. Another time with one of their hoods, and in like manner that was comfortable. At another time with a lady's neckerchief, and after that I wiped me with some ear-pieces of hers made of crimson satin, but there was such a number of golden spangles in them (turdy round things, a pox take them) that they fetched away all the skin of my tail with a vengeance. Now I wish St. Antony's fire burn the bum-gut of the goldsmith that made them, and of her that wore them! This hurt I cured by wiping myself with a page's cap, garnished with a feather after the Switzers' fashion.

Afterwards, in dunging behind a bush, I found a March-cat, and with it I wiped my breech, but her claws were so sharp that they scratched and exulcerated all my perinee. Of this I recovered the next morning thereafter, by wiping myself with my mother's gloves, of a most excellent perfume and scent of the Arabian Benin. After that I wiped me with sage, with fennel, with anet, with marjoram, with roses, with gourd-leaves, with beets, with colewort, with leaves of the vine-tree, with mallows, wool-blade, which is a tail-scarlet, with lettuce, and with spinach leaves. All this did very great good to my leg.

Then with mercury, with parsley, with nettles, with comfrey, but that gave me the bloody flux of Lombardy, which I healed by wiping me with my braguette. Then I wiped my tail in the sheets, in the coverlet, in the curtains, with a cushion, with arras hangings, with a green carpet, with a table-cloth, with a napkin, with a handkerchief, with a combing-cloth; in all which I found more pleasure than do the mangy dogs when you rub them.

Yea, but, said Grangousier, which torchecul did you find to be the best?

I was coming to it, said Gargantua, and by-and-by shall you hear the tu autem, and know the whole mystery and knot of the matter. I wiped myself with hay, with straw, with thatch-rushes, with flax, with wool, with paper, but,

Who his foul tail with paper wipes
Shall at his ballocks leave some chips.

Speaking of chips, Graham Linehan's comedy about computer repairmen, The IT Crowd, is now two episodes into its second series; watch it here. It's funny enough, but essentially middle class fare about embarrassing oneself at the office. Pale fire indeed beside Rabelais.