Here are three moments of mine. They are more personal, therefore harder to shake off, than the run-of-the-mill shock of alienation, which typically occurs when you’re on the phone to someone at customer service.
As late as the beginning of Trump Presidency, when a conversation ended up in a sort of jocular morbidness, as it often does, I would dust off an old quip: the worst thing about dying is not knowing what comes next. Even though everyone had already heard it, it usually raised a reluctant chuckle.
Relaxed, lengthy conversations are few and far between now, but recently, with some old friends, after dinner and in our cups, the moment seemed right for that morbid quip.
Then, with what amounted to a psychic shock, I realized that not knowing what comes next had become a consolation. I am glad I won’t be around, ten or twenty years from now, to see where this new, sudden world, born in full bloom like an electronically charged Athena from the head of a binary Zeus, will have ended up.
I put my quip away for good. That was another country and besides, the joke is dead.
This anecdote also involves a quip—a joke really, a joke in the form of an aphorism in the form of a question. (There should be a word for it: hypocomiphorism [accent on the 4th syllable].) I don’t remember where I first heard it or read it—twenty years ago, maybe—but I thought it was funny enough to add to my store of one-liners to dine out on or to derail a dreary conversation with.
If a man says something, and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?
The joke, like at least 50% of all jokes, is based on an exaggeration of some aspect of the relationship between the sexes. In this case it is the domineering female and submissive male. The pair have been around, usually as nagging wife and henpecked husband, since before Aristophanes. She is most straightforwardly funny as Hilda Rumpole, whom John Mortimer dubs with the same epithet as H. Rider Haggard did his beautiful and tyrannical savage queen: “She Who Must be Obeyed.” He is most heroically funny as Dickens’ Mr. Bumble who, on being told that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction," replies, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass.”
Not only its longevity, but its endless stock emanations in movies and on television have made the henpecked husband trope stale. What makes If a man says something funny is its iteration of the henpecked husband joke in the form of a metaphysical paradox—quite a well-known one (so well-known that you only have to say “if a tree falls in the forest” and everyone knows what you’re referring to). If a tree falls in the forest has been tapped for its comic potential before, but never more ludicrously than in conjunction with the farce of the henpecked husband.
When my old and close friend, Annabelle, first heard If a man says something twenty-odd years ago, she cracked up.
Like most close friends, Annabelle I have always been more or less on the same wavelength; especially true, for Annabelle and me, when it came to our sense of humor. Annabelle and I always saw the same things as funny, and funny in exactly the same way.
The next-to-last time I unpacked If a man says something with Annabelle present, she was as delighted to hear it again as I was in having remembered it. The last time was about a year ago. I was already an exile in a strange world, but I’d often forget and think I was still back home in the 20th century. (My grandmother would refer to “the old country.” Now I too, although I live twenty miles from where I was born, have “an old country” to tell my grandson stories about.) Annabelle, with her grim, frowning reaction to “is he still wrong?” reminded me where we were and, for the first time, who, in terms of gender, we were.
In this new world, jokes about the relations between the sexes are allowed only if they have been honed and smoothed out to be only mildly funny; if they provoke anything more than a chortle, they are not funny at all.
I was always a patriotic American. In fact, contrary to what might be expected, my patriotism was never more fervent than when I was demonstrating against the Viet Nam War. The country I loved—unconditionally I might say—was an entity that stretched out over 300 years and 3 million square miles; its government, Washington, D. C., was just a source of embarrassing twitches and painful tics.
About ten years ago, when I matter-of-factly told my French friend, Claude, that I considered myself a patriotic American, he was surprised and rather horrified. Claude replied that he was not, nor ever had been, a patriotic Frenchman—the idea clearly seemed absurd to him—although he did concede that he had patriotic feelings about the French language.
(Claude and I met near Grenoble sixty-three years ago. I was driving my MG-A from Paris to Naples to meet an ocean liner carrying my lover from Brooklyn. Claude was a hitchhiker on his way to a Communist Youth Convention in northern Italy.)
About a year ago, the moment came when I realized that I was no longer a patriot. I don’t remember the moment itself—when it was or what I was doing—the shock of recognition eclipsed whatever particulars brought it on. Probably I was reading the headlines in The Times on my I-pad over breakfast. (I seldom go on to read the stories; usually the headlines tell me all I care to know.) My reaction to the headline—something along the lines of “Fuck this country! It’s impossible!”—made it clear as day that I was no longer a patriot; I didn’t have to think about it. (I reported this metamorphosis to Claude in my next e-mail.)
When someone or an anthropomorphic something, like a country, does something nasty, you feel anger. When someone you love—in this case, the country you love—does something nasty it doesn’t alienate you. It is distressing, but it doesn’t effect the love you feel. “How can she (the U. S., in this case) do that?” you wail; the most distressing thing is not how nasty is what was done, but how it makes the loved one look.
(Now that I think about it: while my fellow anti-war demonstrators were angry about the evils of Viet Nam—the massacres of peasants, the carpet-bombing, fellow Americans killing and dying for no reason at all but political inertia—while I shared their anger, the pain I felt most deeply was how bad the massacres, the bombing, the irrational injustice made America look.)
A patriot is “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors,” as defined by the Google/Oxford dictionary. (Note the use of the new and improved—and evidently approved—indefinite third person singular personal pronoun.) I once was that (a patriot), but no longer. My country now is the place I happen to live, and it clearly is going to hell. While I still have no truck with its enemies, I cannot defend it against all detractors; in fact, I am in sympathy with many of them.
One cannot be a patriot of a country which has become history. I still love the America I have always loved, but I no longer live there; it is only in my mind. I love America the way I love the Paris I remember, not the city of that name as it is now, which I belleieve has become an even more shallow, crass, generic 21st century interconnected (“etherized” is the word I prefer) urban environment than when I last visited it.
I can say that, like Claude, I do have patriotic feelings about my native language. In fact, in my last e-mail to him, I boasted about the superiority of English over French. “English is capable of a depth—the possibility for many layers of meaning—that seems unavailable in French,” I said, pointing out, for example, that French lacks a present perfect verb tense.
I hope that in his next e-mail Claude will defend the French language. There are few things better at momentarily taking one’s mind off the insalubrious present than a squabble over words.