07 March 2017

Non-Laughter, Laughter, Perhaps Syllables, or Only Phonemes in Western Civilization

I have long been interested in the representation and musicalization of laughter, or that representation of that which we take as laughter. It is a long history, and a rich one. I offer, here, only a small sample, a cross-section, an intersection, of texts, the crossroads, where Death--or its undead refusal, its burial, or the deal with the Devil--and the Devil, as the God, always seems to be, and be in the details.

My aunt, who is a nun, once said to me, a long time ago, "How can we know what other people know, when we can barely know ourselves?" She has since repudiated this remark, but for me, it was foundational. And psychoanalysis--and our current political situation--bears this observation out. How can we know another, when we can barely know ourselves? We insist on imputing intentions and meanings to others, when we barely understand our own. The lie tells the truth. The tangled web we weave, when we practice to deceive, tells a better truth than when we try to tell the truth. And our understanding of another, tells us so much more about ourselves. Is someone laughing, or just extending her lips and making a sound?

Of course, we begin with Mozart.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,

Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Death and despair flame about me!

Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
If Sarastro does not through you feel

The pain of death,

So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Disowned may you be forever,

Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Destroyed be forever

Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Abandoned may you be forever,

Alle Bande der Natur
All the bonds of nature,

Wenn nicht durch dich!
If not through you

Sarastro wird erblassen!
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)

Hört, Rachegötter,
Hear, Gods of Revenge,

Hört der Mutter Schwur!
Hear a mother's oath!

W. A. Mozart (music), Emanuel Schikaneder, (libretto), Lucia Popp (vocal), "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen," Die Zauberflöte, 1791.

Glitter and be Gay

And, here I am,
my heart breaking,
Forced to glitter,
Forced to be gay.

Glitter and be gay,
That's the part I play;
Here I am in Paris, France,
Forced to bend my soul
To a sordid role,
Victimized by bitter, bitter circumstance.
Alas for me! Had I remained
Beside my lady mother,
My virtue had remained unstained
Until my maiden hand was gained
By some Grand Duke or other.

Ah, 'twas not to be;
Harsh necessity
Brought me to this gilded cage.
Born to higher things,
Here I droop my wings,
Ah! Singing of a sorrow nothing can assuage.

And yet of course I rather like to revel,
Ha ha!
I have no strong objection to champagne,
Ha ha!
My wardrobe is expensive as the devil,
Ha ha!
Perhaps it is ignoble to complain...
Enough, enough
Of being basely tearful!
I'll show my noble stuff
By being bright and cheerful!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Pearls and ruby rings...
Ah, how can worldly things
Take the place of honor lost?
Can they compensate
For my fallen state,
Purchased as they were at such an awful cost?

Bracelets... lavalieres
Can they dry my tears?
Can they blind my eyes to shame?
Can the brightest brooch
Shield me from reproach?
Can the purest diamond purify my name?
And yet of course these trinkets are endearing,
Ha ha!
I'm oh, so glad my sapphire is a star,
Ha ha!
I rather like a twenty-carat earring,
Ha ha!
If I'm not pure, at least my jewels are!

Enough! Enough!
I'll take their diamond necklace
And show my noble stuff
By being gay and reckless!
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha!

Observe how bravely I conceal
The dreadful, dreadful shame I feel.
Ha ha ha ha!

Leonard Bernstein (music), Richard Wilbur (lyrics), Barbara Cook (vocal), "Glitter and be Gay," Candide, 1956.

O Superman (for Massenet)

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...

O Superman.
O Judge.
O Mom and Dad.
Mom and Dad.

Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

O Superman,
O Judge,
O Mom and Dad,
Mom and Dad.

Ah, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Hi! I'm not home right now,
But if you want to leave a message,
Just start talking at the sound of the tone.

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

Hello? This is your Mother.
Are you there?
Are you coming home?

Ah, ah, ah, ah-ah, ah, ah.

Hello? Is anybody home?

Well, you don't know me,
but I know you,
And I've got a message
to give to you,
Here come the planes.

So, you better get ready,
Ready to go;
You can come as you are,
but pay as you go,
Pay as you go.

Ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah.

And I said: Okay,
Who is this really?

And the voice said:

This is the hand,
the hand that takes.
This is the hand,
the hand that takes.
This is the hand,
the hand that takes.

Here come the planes.

They're American planes,
Made in America,
or non-smoking?

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah.

And the voice said:
Neither snow nor rain,
nor gloom of night,
Shall stay these couriers
from the swift completion
Of their appointed rounds.

Ah, ah-ah,
Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah-ah.

'Cause when Love is gone,
there's always Justice;

And when Justice is gone,
there's always Force;

And when Force is gone,
there's always Mom.

Hi Mom!

Ah, ah,
Ah, ah-ah.

So hold me, Mom,
in your long arms,
So hold me, Mom,
in your long arms,
In your automatic arms,
Your electronic arms,
In your arms.

So hold me, Mah-ahm,
in your long arms,
Your petrochemical arms,
Your military arms,
In your electronic arms.

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah....

Laurie Anderson, "O Superman (for Massenet)," Big Science, 1982.

I have written a poem for a woman who rides a bus in New York City. She's a maid. She has two shopping bags. When the bus stops abruptly, she laughs. If the bus stops slowly, she laughs. If the bus picks up someone, she laughs. If the bus misses someone, she AH-ha-ha-ha. So, I watched her for about nine months. I thought, "Mm, uh-huh." Now, if you don't know black features, you may think she's laughing, But she wasn't laughing, she was simply extending her lips and making a sound, Eh, heh-heh-heh! I said, "Oh, I see. That's that survival apparatus. Now, let me write about that to honor this woman, who helps us to survive." By her very survival--Miss Rosie--through your destruction, I stand up. So, I use the poem with Mister Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "Masks," and my own poem for old black men. Mister Dunbar wrote "Masks" in 1892.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O my God, our tears
To thee from tortured souls arise.
And we sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that’s walked,
A song was spoke,

I laugh so hard, Ha-ha! I almost choke,
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world.
The child I works for calls me "girl";
I say, “HA-HA-HA, Yes ma’am,” for working’s sake.
I'm too proud to bend
And too poor to break,
So, I laugh, until my stomach ache,
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side,
I laughed so hard, HA-HA-HA, I nearly died.
The tales they tell, sound just like lyin',
They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh, AH-HA-HA-HA, until I start to cryin',
When I think about myself,
And my folks, and the little children.

My Fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank,

And they nod, like broken candles,
All waxed and burnt profound
They say "But, Sugar, it was our submission
That made your world go round."

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block,
The chains and slavery's coffles,
The whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound,
They say, "But Sugar, it was our submission
And that made your world go round."

They laughed to shield their crying ,
They shuffled through their dreams
They step 'n' fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,
It could and did derive,
From living on the ledge of death,
They kept my race alive.
By wearing the mask.

Ah, HA, HA, HA, HA!

Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou, We Wear the Mask/When I Think about Myself/Song for the Old Ones, 1892, 19-something, Angelou's poem dating is not coming up on Google, which is its failure. The colloquium on Evil, from which this performance was taken, was held in Texas in 1988.

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