Monday, September 26, 2016

On "The Sons of the Desert"


In 1933, Hal Roach Studios released Laurel and Hardy’s The Sons of the Desert. Very few films can be called flawless, but, I think, The Sons of the Desert deserves that praise. Only 69 minutes long, The Sons of the Desert is effortlessly profound, a film that is both hilarious and terrifying. Curiously, many of Laurel and Hardy’s best pictures have this effect: they are very funny, but there is something disquieting lurking behind the slapstick humor. Most people that I know report that they first encountered Laurel and Hardy pictures when they were small children and, almost everyone, says that the movies frightened them. The Sons of the Desert, in particular, has an almost classical aspect of Nemesis that would not be foreign to Greek tragedy – a crime committed shall be a crime punished. By nature, children are lawless and cruel. In the best Laurel and Hardy comedies, moral defects – that is breaches of the moral law – are savagely punished. Children live in a carnal world of a blow given and a blow received – this is the law governing Laurel and Hardy comedies as well.

The story of The Sons of the Desert is simple, although the 69 minute film is packed with events. In the movie, Stan and Ollie are members of a fraternal organization, more than a little like the Masonic Shrine, "the Sons of the Desert". At a meeting of their lodge, called an "Oasis," the members swear and oath that they will all attend the fraternal order’s national convention in Chicago – the boys live in Los Angeles, a city whose name Hardy pronounces with exaggerated vowels and a hard "g" sound. Stan knows that his wife will not let him go to the convention. By contrast, Hardy boastfully declares that he is the "master of his castle" and that his wife will not dare to prevent his attendance. Of course, Laurel and Hardy live in a Spanish-style stucco duplex with side by side doors labeled 2220 and 2222. As expected, Hardy’s wife refuse to allow him to go to the convention – indeed, she smashes a lot of crockery over his head when he attempts to defy her. Hardy, then, feigns an illness and gets a doctor – actually a veterinarian – to declare that he has suffered a nervous breakdown and can be cured only by a trip to Honolulu. The wives fall for this gimmick and Laurel and Hardy depart, ostensibly for Honolulu, but, instead, to Chicago. After the convention, Stan and Ollie return to Los Angeles. But, unbeknownst to them, a steamer returning from Honolulu, the vessel on which they are supposedly traveling, founders in a storm. Many souls our lost at sea and the boys’ wives are frantic with worry. The two women attend a matinee movie to distract themselves from their worries and see a short news-clip about the Sons of the Desert convention in Chicago – just as they are commiserating about having sent their husbands to their doom in the Pacific Ocean, the screen shows Laurel and Hardy marching happily in the Sons of the Desert parade: Stan and Ollie are spinning parasols merrily and flirting with local women. The wives get into an argument about whose husband is most truthful – both women assert that, if their husband is challenged, he will tell the truth. After some misadventures, the climactic confrontation occurs between the erring husbands and their wives. Needless to say, Laurel immediately confesses his sins. Hardy persists in lying and is savagely beaten by his wife.

The film is exceptionally plain. The camera rarely moves – a couple of times, there is some slight readjustment to keep a character in the frame. There is an abundance of action in the film, including even a song and dance number filmed with some pretense toward Busby Berkeley style visuals, but everything is staged on very sober, well-lit studio sets. Many Laurel and Hardy pictures are prized for their vistas of twenties and depression-era Los Angeles – but there are almost no exterior shots in this film. No one owns a car and we see people exiting taxi-cabs from time to time, but there are no long shots of the city or suburbs. Unusual for a Laurel and Hardy film, there are a number of sequences involving fairly large numbers of people – there are 30 fez-capped Sons of the Desert at the Los Angeles Oasis, all of them dressed like bargain basement sheiks; we see the interior of a crowded speakeasy in Chicago and chaos at the offices of the steamer company, a mob of people desperate to learn the whether their loved ones have survived the calamity at sea. Laurel and Hardy march with forty or fifty extras spinning parasols as they march down a sunny street between crowds of people and the two wives attend a movie in a theater packed with people. I suspect that these scenes were shot on the sets of other, bigger budget movies in that happened to be in production when the film was made – I don’t think we see the women in the shot of the bedlam at the steam ship headquarters; the image seems inserted from some other context and has a tone inconsistent with the rest of the film. There are several lustrous night shots – Laurel and Hardy standing on a rooftop in pouring rain and, then, later apprehended by a cop on their wet lawn. The rain falls steadily and predictably – an effective soaking studio-managed downpour. Nothing distracts the viewer from the film’s principal focus, Laurel and Hardy’s relationship with their wives – this is a domestic comedy set in a comfortable, if modest, lower middle-class milieu. Although it is stylized, the acting in these scenes from a marriage is every bit as good as anything that you might see in a film by Bergman or Dreyer.




When I was a young man, I traveled to Chicago for some depositions. The case is forgotten and I don’t remember who I deposed, but I can recall that my work was finished in the early afternoon. It was a fine Autumn day and a crisp, invigorating wind was blowing off the lake. I came from the stuffy conference room high in one of the skyscrapers down to the marble lobby, gloomy as a cave compared to the bright day outside, and, then, stepped outside. I heard drums and trumpets and walked a couple blocks to Michigan Avenue where a great parade was underway.

A convention of African-American freemasons had come to town and their lodges were marching in the brilliant sunshine down Michigan Avenue. The head of huge parade was crossing the river between the great figured pylons and the tail of the procession was somewhere far to the south, beyond the low acropolis where the Field Museum gleamed like a white Athenian temple. The men marching were dressed in elaborate regalia: they wore hats and uniforms like admirals of the ocean seas and their shoulders were decorated with brilliant epaulettes; some of the men wore tasseled fezzes and scarlet cummerbunds with matching ruby bow-ties and sashes dripping with jeweled medals and ornaments. Bands passed, comprised of men in fantastic finery, harem-pants and towering turbans, blasting out notes on big, glittering coils of brass. There were floats occupied by maidens dressed like Cleopatra and surrounded by phalanxes of heavy-set middle-aged women wearing huge hats with peacock plumes. Some of the drum majors were dressed in leopard-skin or wore manes like lions and the generals surveying their troops from convertibles held scepters gaudy with gems. More women passed in veils, the Daughters of Job, and, then, there was another band, clad in scarlet tunics, a float with teenage girls lolling on the back of a house-sized sphinx, then, another lodge and another, all clad in their glittering and exotic finery.

These were lodges from little places south of Chicago, decrepit river towns, half-abandoned cities lost in the vast heartland: Cairo, Decatur, Hannibal, Burlington, and Moline, St. Louis and Memphis, Evansville, Joliet, Peoria, and Springfield. The lodge members marched under their banners and seemed to be sober, serious men, all a little past their prime (even then, the fraternal orders were anachronisms and dying-out), many of them wearing glasses and with bald heads but still large, muscular, powerfully built, just a little past the prime of their lives, many of them grinning with teeth white in the sun and a glint in their spectacles, proud in their multitude, community leaders and gentlemen despite their outlandish raiment. This convention had not been convened for tomfoolery, but to consider the serious issues of the day; the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. I thought of the Mississippi River and saw the marchers in that light, a great, muddy, and brown torrent moving inexorably along Michigan Avenue between sidewalks crowded with annoyed-looking people, black and white alike, wondering next when they could cross the street, groups of people assembled not to watch the parade but standing aloof at intersections waiting for the traffic cops to whistle the pedestrians across.



In The Sons of the Desert, a couple dozen lodge brothers are gathered in a speakeasy. These are not sober, serious men earnestly deliberating on issues of historical significance. Rather, the lodge brothers are hilariously drunk, disorderly, their fezzes set askew on their heads, most of them young men, for the film, after all, is set in the present of 1933 when fraternal organizations were in their glory days. The tavern is filled with festive, if bedraggled streamers, and there are floozies and sinister-looking, scowling flunkies of Italian ethnicity hustling drinks to the tables where the drunken conventioneers loll and sprawl. Charley Chase, wearing pince nez glasses and looking something like a demonic FDR, orchestrates pranks. He throws a wallet stuffed with greenbacks on the floor and, when a lodge brother stoops to pick it up, invariably first eyeing the object with sly and scarcely disguised cupidity, Chase swats the man on the buttocks with a thick wooden paddle. When the paddle slams into the man’s trousers, a puff of dust decorates the air. The wallet as bait and the paddle as punishment define the film’s morality: transgression is almost instantly, and savagely, punished. Of course, Laurel and Hardy are so dense and ill observant that each of them get paddled lunging for the wallet. After the blow, the startled lodge brother puts up his dukes to fight but is met with a convivial shake of the hand instead and must, then, identify the lodge from which he hails.

After receiving their paddlings, the boys sit down with the prankster. (First, he anoints Ollie’s eye with water from a squirt-gun embedded in his bottonier.) Bottles of champagne are ordered and the prankster calls for a phone so that he can call his long-lost sister in Los Angeles – he pronounces the name of the city without Ollie’s affectations. A phone is brought to the table and Charley Chase’s character places the call. Of course, he is calling Mr. Hardy, although neither he nor Ollie know this. Mrs. Hardy answers the phone. Ollie is invited to talk to her. He is shocked at the sound of her voice and hurriedly hangs up. On the other end of the line, Mrs. Hardy remarks to Mrs. Laurel that "I could have sworn that the man on the other end of the line sounded just like Ollie."

In the speakeasy, a slender, rat-faced little singer strums a ukulele and croons: "Honolulu baby, where’d you get those eyes / And that dark complexion that I idolize." A group of plump-thighed girls in skimpy bikini tops and grass skirts perform a hulu dance, wiggling their hips. This is a pre-Code movie and the girls breasts are almost bare, covered with a kind of raffia rope twisted and entwined around their mid-sections. The girls shuffle around, scarcely competent as dancers, and there is an aerial shot of them, kicking and swiveling, bargain basement chorines in a bargain basement version of Busby Berkeley musical number. (Later, Stan will reprise this musical number on the doorstep of their duplex, swaying like a hula dancer while Ollie strums a ukulele.)

A distinguished lodge member enters the speakeasy with his wife who is wearing an elegant, low cut evening gown. Somehow the woman gets paddled. She yelps and her husband punches the prankster holding the paddle and with this contretemps, an assault on an intruding woman, the scene ends.



Laurel and Hardy are married in a few of their comedies. This sentence is ambiguous. Of course, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are wedded to one another – indeed, it might be argued that their relationship, comprised of mutual petulance, bickering, and occasional bursts of violence, is one of the most penetrating studies of a married couple ever attempted on film. In many episodes, the boys share a single bed, indeed, one that is conspicuously slender. Ollie ostentatiously explains things to Stan and bullies him; Stan is prone to fits of weeping, incomprehensible feats of prestidigitation, and, often, rebels against his partner’s demands. In some disturbing sense, they are more than friends but don’t seem to like one another too much. Their relationship, like some marriages, is a predicament – "this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into," Ollie is wont to say.

So, I should clarify: in some of their comedies, the boys are married and the women appear on-screen as foils and antagonists to the men. In these cases, Stan and Ollie live next to one another. In The Sons of the Desert, the two families share a duplex with identical side-by-side doors. The households are imagined to be fungible – some of the gags involve Stan and Ollie confusing the doors to their respective dwellings: thinking it to be his home, Stan tries to unlock Ollie’s door and vice-versa. (Ollie is dexter – his door is to the right; not surprisingly, the uncanny Laurel is sinister –the door to his abode is to the left.) Within the identical dwellings are two closely similar women – they could be sisters. Both are bleached blonde imitations of Jean Harlow – they have identical hairstyles and bee-sting lips. The women are termagants who rule their husbands with an iron-fist. When we first see Ollie’s wife, she is burnishing silverware at a card table in the living room. This task gives her occasion to lecture her husband by poking him in the sternum and belly with a sharp-looking knife. Stan’s wife is a kind of Diana, a blonde goddess of the hunt. She totes around a big shotgun, slung with easy grace between her arms. (Where she hunts in suburban LA is unclear?) In one scene, she returns from the chase wearing a low-slung fedora and remarks that she didn’t have much luck – nonetheless, she carries four ducks shot from the skies and ready to be plucked for the pot.

One reason children feel fear when watching Laurel and Hardy comedies is that there is something radically unwholesome suggested by the circumstances that we see – the relationship between husbands and wives turns out to be sado-masochistic and tinted with both incest and adultery. Since the boys are married to one another, the women seem to be interlopers – Ollie seen with his blonde wife about half his size seems shamed, a man caught with another woman not his wife. His true spouse is Stan and so what is he doing with this noisy and intrusive woman. The women look like sisters and Stan and Ollie’s relationship in the context of their marriages is that of mischievous siblings trying to outwit their mothers – but everyone seems to be sharing a common bed. It’s all strange, even a bit uncanny.

There’s another dimension visible in The Sons of the Desert. The women are nemesis figures – they stand for immediate and decisive retribution. The punishment that they inflict is for lying, for dishonesty. But film presents shadows and asks us to take them for real. Film lies and, so, perhaps, we should be punished for participating in the deceit that is that movie.




My father was a preacher’s son from central Nebraska. He attended a Midwestern college and became a systems analyst employed by a large defense contractor. Among the things that my father loved without reservation were Laurel and Hardy pictures and the jazz made in the thirties and forties by Louis Armstrong. (My father once met Armstrong when the musician played a show at a small city on the Platte River in Nebraska – he recalled that Louis Armstrong and his singer, Velma Middleton, were sitting in the locker room of the town’s high school after performing in the gymnasium. My father remembered that they were drinking milk.)

When I was a child, my father worked most of the time. He was a specialist in anti-tank warfare and chemical weapons and there was a Cold War to be fought. On Sunday mornings, however, he slept until about 9:00 am, and, then, lounged around the house watching television in his underwear. My mother went to church and the children accompanied her, but her husband, the pastor’s son, stayed at home so that he could watch one of his favorite television shows. This was Clancy and Company, later called Clancy and Willie, a locally produced TV show for children. The host, Clancy, a big, beefy-looking cop in a crisp blue police uniform, was played by the avuncular John Gallos. His sidekick was Willie Ketchem, a plain-clothes detective who wore a deerstalker hat like Sherlock Holmes and flashy plaid suits. Willie Ketchem was played by Allan Lotsberg, a boyish, scrawny fellow with bemused and craven features a little like Don Knotts. Sometimes, Carmen, the nurse, would appear with Clancy and Willie.

Clancy and Willie told jokes and acted out simple skits but their primary role was to introduce two-reel Laurel and Hardy comedies – at least, this was the case on Sunday mornings. (The show aired at other times, but I didn’t watch it except on Sunday and so I’m not sure as to its format the rest of the week.) Sometimes, a two-reeler featuring Spanky and Our Gang would be inserted between Laurel and Hardy shorts. On other occasions, Clancy and Willie might screen a few segments of interminable and tedious Hopalong Cassidy serials, but the principal content was Laurel and Hardy films made between 1930 and the boys’ retirement in the late forties. The comedies were shown in two-reel format with a commercial break between each reel – longer feature films were arbitrarily hacked into two-reel length and, then, broadcast as self-contained fragments. (This didn’t do much damage to the Laurel and Hardy feature-length movies because they were conceived as narratives spliced together, more or less, from two-reel episodes.) It was in this format that I first saw The Sons of the Desert and other Laurel and Hardy films. Clancy and Company and its successor Clancy and Willie was broadcast between about 1963 and 1977. I think it aired for ninety minutes between 9:30 am and 11:00. Since I had to go to church with my mother, I recall that we would see the first fifteen minutes of the show and, then, its last twenty minutes after coming home from church. In my imagination, Laurel and Hardy films are always fragmentary – we always left for Church during one of those bleak, eerie two-reelers and, then, came home an hour later to see the end of another old movie completely different in some ways, but in other respects the same. There are a limited number of Laurel and Hardy pictures and, although it was not optimum to see them as bits and pieces, in the end, I am confident that I watched, although out of order, everything that the boys released in the sound era.

In Church, there is a lectionary: someone reads a fragment of a Gospel, a few paragraphs from an Epistle, and an Old Testament story or psalm. If you attend church with any frequency, you begin to develop from those short readings a concept of the Bible, although one that is Cubist, shattered into prismatic fragments of text. Similarly, on Clancy and Company, Laurel and Hardy comprised a kind of pictorial scripture, hacked into lectionary fragments and screened, more or less, at random. As with the Bible, the worshiper had to infer the whole from bits and pieces. Thus, I imagine Laurel and Hardy’s work as discontinuous, a series of shadowy black and white images that never exactly amounted to a coherent narrative – there were grim Depression-era vistas of a city under construction that always seemed partially flooded, grey puddles of indeterminate depth – if you stepped into one you might vanish entirely, swallowed by the murky water lurking next to half-finished sidewalks with the skeletons of partially finished suburban houses scattered in the distance. Several of Laurel and Hardy’s feature-length pictures were parodies of other film genres – there were dusty vistas of sage and badlands in Way out West and nightmare scenes of flare-lit trench warfare in other pictures. Through these desolate landscapes, Laurel and Hardy wandered like wraiths, threadbare, often starving, and, of course, the victim of the malice of every object that they encountered.

In the seventies, John Gallos must have discovered that the demographic for his Sunday morning show was not small children but adults like my father. Somewhat apologetically, he discarded his Clancy the Cop outfit and appeared in a business suit as a curator of the Laurel and Hardy comedies. If I recall correctly, he, even, adopted a certain scholarly attitude to the old films. I don’t recall what happened to Willie Ketchem and the comely Carmen the nurse.




Laurel and Hardy comedies have an astonishing tactile quality. You don’t so much watch or see them as experience the sensations inflicted on the characters. In The Sons of the Desert, Oliver Hardy feigns a "nervous breakdown", a condition unknown today but endemic when I was growing up in the sixties. (If you were too naughty, your mother might have a "nervous breakdown" and be sent away to an asylum, leaving the mischievous child to the not-so-tender mercies of the father.) Ollie moans melodramatically and sits in a chair with his feet in a big zinc tub full of hot water. He is pretending illness to avoid going with his wife "to the mountains" and so that he can sneak away to Chicago on the pretext of traveling to Honolulu for his health. Ollie’s wife fills the tub with fresh boiling water; passive-aggressively, she has made the water scalding. Ollie yelps like a burnt puppy when his feet are immersed in the steamy water. Of course, the great tub of scalding water is an attractive nuisance, a mishap waiting to happen. And, before the scene concludes, Ollie will have fallen buttocks-first into the boiling water, thus scalding his genitals and perineum. Stan Laurel will end up wallowing in the water face-first. The pain is real and its victims scream with real agony as opposed to the feigned discomfort in Ollie’s earlier moans. For the viewer, the hot water is tangibly present – it is clearly scalding and, of course, we know that Stan and Ollie will end up immersed in the stuff. The tactile reality of the scene makes us wince.

The boiling water in this early scene is reprised as cold rain water near the end of the film. Laurel and Hardy have been hiding in the attic of their house. When they are heard in that place, they clamber out a hatch onto the roof of the duplex. A violent storm is underway and, of course, they are drenched by the cold downpour. We feel the big drops of rain, flinch at their impact, and can sense the dismal midnight cold. A long drainpipe extends from the roof down to barrel collecting rainwater. The moment that we see the barrel, brimming over with cold water, we know that both Stan and Ollie will end up half-drowned in that barrel. In this case, it is Ollie who again falls, buttocks first, into the barrel and is caught there, displacing icy water that spills over the sides of the barrel and cascades onto the ground. As if in recompense for having his testicles boiled thirty minutes earlier, he is now bathed in the cold water spilling from the rain barrel.

One scene of this kind has a primal force for me. Having returned from Honolulu, Stan and Ollie are at home when their distraught wives return from the steamboat offices. They clamber up into the attic of the house, a dark space above the ceilings of both dwellings. It seems cold and a little scary in the attic and the boys have to stay there until morning. Oliver finds an old box-spring and mattress. He rigs up some chains dangling from hooks in overhead joists. The box-spring and mattress are suspended from the chains and makes a swinging bed. Ollie finds pillows and blankets. "We’ll be as comfortable as two peas in a pod," Ollie assures Stan. Outside, it has begun to rain and, in my imagination, I can hear the cold downpour beating on the roof shingles, the storm exhaling its icy breath through cracks in the walls, the rumble of thunder outside and the flash of lightning dimly descried from within the attaic. When I watch this scene, now in my sixties, I recall vividly how I felt when I first saw these images a half century ago: children like to hide under their covers, particularly when the air is cold, and I had the sense of a protected warm place, dry and comfortable in an icy, wet world. The boys are enclosed by the attic and snuggled together in their hanging bower. It feels like darkness warmed by your own breath, dense sticky air so that it is wonderfully refreshing to so pull apart the covers and suck in the chilly, fresh air from outside. Perhaps, some recollection of the womb motivates these thoughts and memories. Nothing, I thought, was more wonderful than the inside of an Eskimo’s igloo, the half-translucent ice walls, the rounded uterine interior, the thick animal-fur blankets everywhere heaped up to keep the family cozy in their icy refuge. "As comfortable as two peas in a pod," is a phrase that has haunted me for most of my life. When I hear those words in The Sons of the Desert, I am forced into close proximity with my most childish thoughts – snuggling together with others in an igloo on a "three-dog night."

Of course, the malice of objects defeats all comfort. The hooks holding the swinging bed detach and the box-spring and mattress and Stan and Ollie both are violently hurled to the floor of the attic that is the ceiling of the duplex below. Below, the women have spent a sleepless night. Ollie’s wife concludes that her husband has drowned: "Somehow," she says, "I think they are hovering above us." Of course, this is literally true – they are hovering above in the flimsy bed hanging from the roof. When the bed crashes down, the women are terrified. Stan’s wife gets her shot gun and cautiously ascends toward the attic from whence the sound has come. Driven from the attic, Stan and Ollie find themselves in the driving rain, teetering on the wet shingles of the house.



Honesty is the best policy. Long before you read your Kant, someone has said this to you and, if you were a small child, or any kind of child at all, you believed those words as spoken and set about to practice them, and, perhaps, even if the principle was never exactly articulated to you, nonetheless, you sensed something within your soul that despises a lie, something that instinctively clings to the truth even though the truth may be inconvenient. Later, when you read Kant, and learn that it can be rigorously proven that the strictest honesty is absolutely essential and that to lie, even on a trivial matter, is to make lying into a corrosive universal rule, this proposition (that honesty is the best policy) will come to you as no surprise. It is something that you learned very long ago, a lesson that comes from a time, perhaps, before you could speak, maybe, even before you could understand words as spoken to you. Honesty is the best policy and it is a thing good in itself and, also, a thing that is good by its consequences – telling the truth will be rewarded, just as deceit must be inevitably punished.

These things all children believe even those the most addicted to lying. Laurel and Hardy lie to their wives in The Sons of the Desert. But lies are always discovered and punished. From his forbidden convention in Chicago, Oliver Hardy ends up talking to his wife by telephone, something not possible if he were in Honolulu. Then, the boys join a parade in which most of the men marching are like mummers, hiding their faces under parasols. But Stan and Ollie mug for the camera and the footage of them makes its way into a newsreel and the newsreel happens to be shown in a theater and, in that theater, the boys’ wives are watching and, therefore, have indisputable evidence that their husband’s lied to them. If your cover story is that you are coming home on a steamer from Honolulu, the steamer will founder in a typhoon and expose your lie. If you conceal yourself in the attic above your wives, the very structure of in which you dwell will betray you. Sliding down a wet drainpipe, Ollie gets trapped in a barrel of water just at the moment that the scowling local cop is patrolling the neighborhood. Lies are inevitably discovered. No one can conceal the truth. The truth is like the banana peel on the sidewalk – it will inevitably trip you up.

At the climax of The Sons of the Desert, Stan and Ollie are interrogated by their wives. Ollie spins an elaborate lie involving swimming across the ocean and hitchhiking on passing vessels to reach Los Angeles. He has coerced Stan into supporting his lie by blackmail: if you don’t also lie, Ollie says, I will tell your wife that I have seen you taking a puff from a cigarette. Apparently, Stan’s wife has strictly forbidden her husband to smoke.

Stan is too honest or too cowardly to persist in deceit. Sobbing hysterically, he confesses the whole thing. His wife, shouldering her shot gun, drags him off. Stan cowers and cries like a child. Ollie’s wife goes in the kitchen and begins to systematically heap up all of the crockery in the house so that it can broken over her husband’s skull. She begins to hurl plates and cups at Ollie and he starts to scream. Cut to Stan Laurel’s dwelling: Stan is wearing a velvet smoking jacket and reclining like a pasha on a heap of pillows. Honesty, it seems, is the best policy. His wife leans forward to light his cigarette. Then, we see Oliver Hardy sitting atop a huge pile of shards of broken glass and pottery. He has a black eye and is covering his head with a pot. A few last cups and plates shatter on the pot with which he protects his head. There is silence. Wincing, he gingerly removes the pot-helmet from his skull. Then, something that looks like big soup tureen comes hurtling down on his head and smashes into a thousand pieces. And, so, the film ends.

Kant argues that even well-intentioned lies are forbidden. He writes that it is impermissible to lie even if the untruth is told to protect an innocent person concealed in your house from the tyrant’s henchmen come to seize that man or woman for torture and execution. Anyone who saw The Sons of the Desert, as I did, perhaps a dozen times between the ages of eight and 15, will know that Kant was right and that there is no place in the world for a lie. Honesty is always the best policy.




In the comedies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the world is an obstacle course. Mute and inert objects are invested with a savage malignity. The very sidewalks and soil of the earth are mined with muddy pits into which a pedestrian can slip and fall and be lost forever. Every hand tool is an instrument of torture. A stack of pottery is an arsenal. Buckets of hot water, hooks, drainpipes, ladders, stairs, even the thresholds of doors are instruments that can suddenly betray their users.

My father was raised to believe a man should be handy around the house. He owned tools but couldn’t use them and they were always lost when needed. When he tried to drive a nail, he hammered his fingers to pulp. Performing home improvements, he always measured once and, then, cut twice or three times and had to discard as truncated perfectly good pieces of lumber. He owned a soldering iron with which to burn his finger-tips. He used spirit-levels to hang pictures, but this task was torture to him – the pictures always hung askew. He could change a tire but only barely. I have learned from my father – I don’t own a hammer or soldering iron and I have not changed a tire for many years and would never attempt to do this now. I once watched my father try to split fire-wood. He didn’t know to cut on the diagonal, using the axe to knock out wedges of wood by striking with alternately angled blows. When he hit the firewood with his axe, it simply stuck in the block and, then, when he lifted his axe the whole piece of wood rose with it, up above his head where the log threatened to come loose and drop down to smash his skull. Laurel and Hardy’s incompetence in the world of physical objects resonates with me. It’s an incompetence that I learned from my father and that, I suppose, he learned from his father, the bookish Lutheran preacher in Nebraska.

The cold war ended and the Berlin Wall fell. Fear that thousands of Soviet tanks would rumble through the Fulda gap subsided. Big anti-tank missiles and heat-seeking guided armaments were no longer needed – and, indeed, would not have helped us much against El Qaida or Osama Bin Laden. My father had achieved some success in his work and had made presentations at the Hague on Cold War defense, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, his talents and knowledge were useless. In short order, he lost his job and had to apply for unemployment compensation. He didn’t long survive his obsolescence and died when he was 58. The end of the Cold War was like one of those puddles lurking innocently beside a curb in a two-reel comedy – you step off the sidewalk into that puddle and it turns out be a watery abyss that swallows you whole.

On some level, my father, who was fat, identified with Oliver Hardy. He often remarked on Hardy’s preternatural gracefulness when dancing – Ollie does a delicate soft-shoe routine in Way Out West to the tune of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." As a son, I identified with the craven Stan Laurel always cringing before Ollie’s rages. Like most fathers, my dad was something of a bully. When I think of The Sons of the Desert, the movie shifts shape to become about my family, my childhood, and my father. On Sunday mornings, before watching Clancy and Company, my father played his old Louis Armstrong records. I suppose he was thinking about his childhood in the barren hills of central Nebraska. His favorite recording was Louis Armstrong’s concert in May 1947 at the Town Hall in New York City. Jack Teagarden is featured on "St. James Infirmary" and there are versions of "Ain’t Misbehavin’" and "Back ‘o Town Blues" on that album.

After he was dead, my father came back only one time to my mother. She said that he seemed to be young and was laughing.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Gene Wilder and Martin Luther







Martin Luther nailed a document comprised of 95 theological proposition on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Most likely, the 95 theses were posted on October 31, 1517. By this act, Luther triggered a series of events that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. War between Protestant and Roman Catholic factions of the Church convulsed Europe. The most destructive of the so-called Wars of Religion was the Thirty Years War waged between 1618 to 1648.

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was a German writer during the latter half of the 17th century. In one of his short novels chronicling the Thirty Years War, Grimmelshausen invented a character that he called "Mother Courage" – his book Die Erzbetruegerin und Landstoertzerin Courashe, its Baroque title somtimes translated as "Runagate Courage" or "Courage, the Vindictive Tramp," was published in 1669. The book concerns a woman who profits from the war by selling food and liquor, pimping, and prostituting herself and her children to the troops engaged in the conflict. In the end, there are consequences to her way of life: one by one, her children are killed by the marauding soldiers.

Bertolt Brecht adapted the book into a play that he called "Mother Courage and her Children." Brecht was a German communist and the play was initially produced in East Berlin. In 1963, however, the play was mounted on Broadway by Jerome Kern where it was perfomed 53 times and widely acclaimed. Ann Bancroft appeared in the show as the title character. A young actor named Gene Wilder was also featured in the show – I don’t know whether he played the part of Swiss Cheese or Eilif, both of whom are Mother Courage’s sons. There is a black-and-white photograph from the show, probably taken as a lobby card. The picture shows Ann Bancroft gesturing from the back of her canteen wagon. Gene Wilder, who looks the disheveled part of a Shakespearean fool, is peeping out from underneath the heavy wagon.

Gene Wilder was trained at Lee Strasberg’s "Actor’s Studio." He was a very handsome young man with brilliantly blue eyes and a mischievous appearance. Ann Bancroft’s boyfriend was a comedy writer named Mel Brooks. Through Ms. Bancroft, Gene Wilder met Brooks and, ultimately, they collaborated on the film Young Frankenstein. Wilder made three films with Brooks that established him as a leading comic screen actor during the decade of the seventies.

Gene Wilder died at 83 on August 29, 2016. He had been suffering from complications of Alzheimer’s disease for about three years. Reportedly, Wilder died while holding hands with his wife and listening to his favorite song, "Somewhere over the Rainbow."



In 2005, Terry Gross interviewed Wilder. Wilder had just published a memoir called Kiss Me Like A Stranger, My Search for Art and Love. Gross’ show, Fresh Air, rebroadcast the interview on August 30 on the occasion of the movie star’s death. I heard the complete show while driving to St. Paul to argue a motion at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Wilder seemed highly intelligent and many aspects of the interview were remarkable. He presented himself somewhat like a sort of Holy Fool, a character from a novel by Dostoevsky, but did this without unnecessary solemnity or pretense. Most of the facts related in this essay come from things that Wilder said in his interview with Ms. Gross.



Once when Gene Wilder was in Paris, a French cinema critic asked him about exemplifying "New York Jewish humor." Wilder told the man that he was born in Milwaukee and educated largely in the Midwest. Wilder suggested that the critic address his question to Mel Brooks.



When he was six years old, Gene Wilder’s mother was very sick with rheumatic fever. She survived the illness but her heart was badly damaged. Wilder recalled meeting his mother’s cardiologist. The man was a heavy-set Milwaukee German, oozing sweat from every pore. It was warm and the man took hold of little boy with his wet hands. He said: "You must never upset your mother." Wilder recalled that drops of sweat fell from the fat cardiologist onto his cheek and arm. "If you upset your mother," the doctor said, "she will have a heart attack and die."

As a result of this conversation, Wilder decided that he would try to amuse his mother by being funny. He traced his gift for comedy to his efforts as a child to make his mother laugh.



In the interview with Terry Gross, Wilder said: "I would make my mother laugh so hard that she would pee herself. Then, she would say – ‘That’s enough, Jerry, that’s enough’ and run off to the bathroom."

"Jerry"? Who is "Jerry"?



Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman. His family was Jewish. When Wilder attended Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, one of the places where he was trained as a performer, he changed his name. Gene was a character in a novel by Thomas Wolfe that he admired, Look Homeward Angel. He also admired the author, Thornton Wilder – hence, the name "Gene Wilder." This name-change is not that different from another Jewish Midwestern kid, Robert Zimmerman in Hinckley, changing his name to "Bob Dylan," the last name acquired by way of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

Martin Luther was the son of Hans and Margarethe Luder. Hans Luder began his work-life as a copper miner but acquired wealth and became a leaseholder of a copper-smelting enterprise. (Hans Luder was also on one of four representatives comprising the City Council of the town where he lived.) Luder’s success was despite the unsavory connotations of his name. In German, "Luder" is a vulgar word for a prostitute – a dictionary tells us that the word means "bitch," "slut," "minx" or "hussy." Curiously, the word is cognate with "lure" in English – that is, a woman who is disreputable but alluring to men. Not surprisingly, Martin Luther changed his name away from "Luder."

Some of the polemics that Catholic partisans lodged against Martin Luther were that his mother had been a whore or a bathhouse attendant – these false aspersions may be related to the word "Luder."

In the film that made him famous, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, an ongoing gag is that the film’s hero pronounces his name "Frederick Frahnken-steen." He becomes enraged to the point of hysteria when anyone pronounces his last name as "Frankenstein." One meaning to this joke is that the character wants his name to sound Dutch as opposed to Jewish – that is "Frahnkensteen" versus the more Semitic "Frankenstein." (Or "Wilder" as opposed to Silberman.) We can attribute this joke directly to Wilder. Wilder wrote the script to Young Frankenstein and the first sequence, involving this joke, was something that he read to Mel Brooks several years before there was financing for the movie itself.

It is interesting to note that Hans Luder mined copper. "Silberman" means "silver-man" – possibly a silver miner or a silversmith.


Gene Wilder had piercing blue eyes. When he was young man, he was extraordinarily handsome, almost to the point of being debutante-pretty. With his boyish good looks and curly, tousled hair, Wilder looked a bit like an unruly young faun, a sort of child-satyr. In this regard, one can see that the actor might have been regarded as a variant on Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, both also alumni of Strasberg’s acting school. Wilder’s voice, however, is a little too high-pitched, an instrument that inevitable suggests that it was made somewhere in the upper Midwest. I think most likely that Wilder’s voice, more suited for comedy than serious drama, led him to the types of films in which he excelled. That said, we should observe that Wilder also played an important part in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a role that he undertook during the years that he labored on the script for Young Frankenstein while Mel Brooks’ searched for financing for the picture. (Brooks’ made The Producers in 1968 – because of its subject matter, the movie was not broadly released: rather, it was shown only in specialty art house cinemas as, as a result, lost money. The Producers became a cult film much later. Brooks’ followed The Producers with a comedy called The Twelve Chairs – it also lost money. Not until the release of Blazing Saddles did Brooks’ direct a movie that was a success at the box-office. The enormous success of Blazing Saddles made in 1972 and released two years later made Brooks "bankable" and, therefore, opened the way for funding Young Frankenstein, also premiered in 1974).



Young Frankenstein, needless to say, is a film about paternity. At the climax of the movie, Frederick Frankenstein acknowledges his family’s name and lineage. Discarding what might be called "accidental" elements of the story, the narrative is essentially about becoming a good son – from alienation, Frederick Frankenstein progresses through acceptance to, finally, embracing his family name and the work of his father and father’s father. Myths of creation through exclusively male agency – for instance, the story of Frankenstein’s creature and the birth of Athena from the brow of Apollo – are ways of canceling out the maternal. These stories posit that a man can birth to himself – that he doesn’t require a mother. In some ways, Young Frankenstein represents Wilder’s attempt to free himself from his mother’s malign influence.

Wilder told Terry Gross that he was taken to see the Frankenstein monster films when he was a boy. Since Wilder was born in 1933, he may not have seen the original film version of Frankenstein until later in his life – James Whale’s first version of the story was released in 1931. Most probably, Wilder’s first exposure to Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein films would have been 1939's The Son of Frankenstein – and, in fact, it is this film that Wilder and Brooks channel in their Young Frankenstein. The Son of Frankenstein is an elaborate, expensively mounted, and beautifully shot film – the figure of the mutilated police inspector central to Young Frankenstein appears in this film (played by Lionel Atwell) and the role of Igor (Bela Lugosi) is also prominent. (The last of the Universal Frankenstein films is The Ghost of Frankenstein, released in 1942, and, also, a picture that Wilder likely saw as a boy.) Wilder told Gross that the films horrified and haunted him – he was terrified by them.

Wilder said that he wanted to make a Frankenstein movie that had a conventionally happy ending – that is, he wanted to dramatize the problems of inherited guilt and the dilemma of paternal influence in a way that allowed for everything to end well: this was the project of Young Frankenstein.



Freud wrote: "A man who has been the undisputed darling of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." These words are extracted from a 1917 article published in Imago, "A childhood recollection in Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit."


It must be said that all was not well at the Luder household. Luther recalled that his mother "for the sake of stealing a nut once beat me until the blood flowed." Luther also said: "My father whipped me so hard that I ran away – I hated him until he finally managed to win me back."

Luther’s father, Hans, wanted his son to become a lawyer, someone who might be useful in negotiating and drafting the copper smelter leases on which the family wealth was based. Luther dutifully took the late 15th century equivalent of pre-law courses and, even, began studies at the law school at Stotterheim. But a psychic crisis intervened and the young Luther abandoned his legal curriculum. He gave a drinking party for himself and his friends announcing that he was about to vanish from the world entirely. Then, he joined a closed order of Augustinian monks, intending to spend the rest of his life in pious isolation. Predictably, Luther’s father was enraged.

Someone once remarked about Luther that in his remarkable works and deeds we see the "accidental coincidence of a a private obsession with a public need" – that coincidence inducing the Protestant Reformation. The word "Pope" means "father" or "papa". Luther railed against the authority of the Pope as tyrannical, misguided, and perverse. This does not seem altogether unexpected in light of the great Reformer’s problematic relationship with his own father.



Gene Wilder told Terry Gross that he wanted to be a comedian and, therefore, keep his mother laughing. But this changed when he was 16. At that time, he saw a production of Death of a Salesman. That play affected him so powerfully that he decided that he would become an actor.

William Silberman, Wilder’s father, was a Russian-Jew and first-generation immigrant. He founded a company that manufactured miniature whiskey bottles. We don’t know whether Mr. Silberman wanted his son, Jerry, to become his successor in the business. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, the doomed title-character, has two sons, Biff and Happy. Biff was a promising student but has renounced aspirations to becoming a businessman like his father because "of something that happened in Boston." Happy is an apologist for both of his parents, minimizes their defects, and, ultimately, follows his father into the world of commerce. In the course of the play, ending in Loman’s suicide and funeral, it is revealed that Biff has been repelled from his father by the knowledge that Loman had an affair with his secretary in Boston and, therefore, betrayed his much-beloved mother.

In The Republic, Plato tells us that the efficacy of a powerful image is that it is like the sun – it both illumines things in the world and is the source of those things. A great work of art both shows us what is in the world, but, also, may represent to us a path or a method of affecting those things. It seems Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman had this quality for young Jerry Silberman – it showed him something important about his relationship with his family and his father’s careet and, also, offered to him a way to be free. (The last words in the play are "we’re free...")

After seeing Death of a Salesman, Jerry Silberman went to college at the University of Iowa and, then, worked to become an actor.




On July 2, 1505, young Martin Luder was walking outdoors. A thunderstorm approached and he was caught in the tempest. A bolt of lightning struck the earth close to him. Desperate with fear, Martin Luder made a contract with God – if he were spared death on this occasion, he would become a monk. Crying out to St. Anne, Luder said: "I will become a monk!"

Why did Luther address his supplication to St. Anne? St. Anne, the "forebearer" is the mother of the Virgin Mary, a shadowy figure who does not appear in scripture. (She is featured, however, in the Qu’ran.) According to tradition, St. Anne, whose name is related to the Old Testament, Hannah, was infertile. She prayed for a son, but, instead, gave birth to a girl – immediately, however, she recognized the cosmic significance of her daughter. One can analyze this background and surmise why Luther shouted her name in a moment of unthinking panic – clearly, St. Anne was foremost in his mind, even before Christ Jesus at that instant, because Luther’s response to the lightning bolt was spontaneous and instant. Luther does not invoke the Father or the Son, nor does he invoke the Virgin Mary – rather, his supplication is directed to the mother of the mother.

A prosaic explanation is probably correct – in 1505, St. Anne, or, at least, her relics were much in the news. A German church in a place called Dueren, the name probably means "doors" or "gates", held St. Anne’s relics. The relics, however, had been stolen by a stone-mason, a man named Leonhardt from St. Stephen’s church in Mainz – this theft occurred in 1501. The parish at Mainz petitioned to the Pope for an order restoring to them the stolen relics. But in 1506, after much litigation, the Pope determined that the relics could remain in Dueren. The relics were kept in a church named after St. Martin. However, around the time of the papal decree, the church was renamed after St. Anne.

Martin Luder felt that his oath, even though probably involuntary, created an obligation. It was on this basis that he left law school to enter the closed hermitage of the Augustinian monks.



At the University of Iowa, Jerry Silberman suffered something like a mental break-down. Silberman found that he was unable to cease from praying. He prayed day and night and could not attempt any undertaking without several hours of prayer. This was an odd affliction because neither Jerry, nor his family had been particularly religious.

Gene Wilder told Terry Gross that he prayed to ask forgiveness for having offended people, for having not lived up to their expectations, for having acting against God’s wishes. He remarked that before entering a classroom, he was sometimes paralyzed on the steps to the building for as long as an hour, helplessly praying that he be forgiven his offenses and allowed another opportunity to please God.

The prayer mania lasted throughout the years of Silberman’s college education. Ultimately, Silberman concluded that the force that urged him to pray continuously was not divine but rather demonic. Prayer did not make him holy but merely drove him farther away from God.



In the monastery, Martin Luther suffered a similar affliction. With perfect logic, he concluded that he was unable to please God and that his nature was irretrievably sinful. Although he tormented his flesh with fasting, prayer, and vigils, he was unable to convince himself that there was any virtue in him. The more that he tried to be holy, the more he was convinced of his unworthiness. Each effort that made to prove his sanctity had the opposite effect – his mortifications and prayer made him feel remote from God. In this state of abject misery, Luther later wrote that "(he) lost touch with Christ the Savior and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul."

Luther later distinguished between "servile fear" and "filial fear." Servile fear is the fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber experiences with regard to the torturer. "Filial fear" is the fear that a faithful son experiences, concern that his earthly father, whom he loves, will be disappointed with him. We know that Luther had, in fact, disappointed his father and his breakdown in the Augustinian monastery was probably the result of a sense that what he had done was irreparable, that he could never satisfy his father, or allay his rage. At some level of his emotional consciousness, Luther seems to have conflated his earthly father, who was outraged at what he considered to be his son’s betrayal, with his father in heaven.

The Protestant reformation arose from Luther’s solution to his personal problem: how can I escape the rage of the father? Of course, Luther’s theological solution to his personal dilemma was that grace comes with faith and not through works. No human work, no matter how majestic, can satisfy an eternal and infinite God – rather, God’s grace saves us, lifting from our weak shoulders the hideous burden of the law. Luther evolved from servile fear to filial fear – that is, from a fear that his father would torture him because he was unworthy (or in Freudian terms castrate him) to an understanding that his father was good and merciful and that he should strive to abide by the law to please his father and not from servile fear of paternal retribution.


After college, Jerry Silberman joined the army. He was assigned to serve as an orderly in a military neuro-psychiatric hospital.

Wilder told Terry Gross that he worked with many men who were very sick. The man were afflicted by obsessional thought. Wilder spoke of one man who was afraid to step on any kind of crack. He asked the man: "Why are you afraid of this?" The man said: "I don’t know, but, please...please don’t make me step on a crack."

We all know the childhood rhyme: "Step on a crack / Break you mother’s back."



While working in the locked ward of the psychiatric hospital, Wilder concluded that he was seriously ill. He saw that his neurosis was similar, if less advanced, than those of some of the patients with whom he worked. This observation caused him to consider seeking treatment.

Finally, after ending his military service, Wilder sought help. He went to a therapist named Margie, that is, Margaret, and told her that he wanted to give away all of his money. "How much money do you have?" Margie sensibly asked him. "I owe $300," Wilder said.

Wilder’s treatment with Margie lasted 7 and ½ years.



Martin Luder was named after St. Martin of Tours. This Saint was very popular during the late medieval period.

Martin of Tours was a great soldier. One day while he was riding in the countryside, he came upon a naked man shivering by the side of the road. Martin drew his great broadsword from his sheath. The naked man expected to be killed and so he trembled with fear. But Martin used his sword to hack his resplendent cloak into two parts. He kept one part, conveniently so that a relic-church could be built around that fragment of cloth. The other part, Martin gave to the naked man.

That night, Martin of Tours dreamt. He saw Jesus naked except for the halved garment wrapped around him.

This is an easy, sober, practical parable – St. Martin is not required to give his whole cloak to the naked man only half of it. Jesus doesn’t reproach Martin for thinking of his own well-being in keeping half of the cloak – rather, he says that Martin, who is "merely a catechumen" in the faith, has done the right thing.


When Jerry Silberman, now a well-known actor named Gene Wilder, ceased his therapy, he felt radically free and liberated. During his last session with Margie, Wilder said that she had liberated him. Margie asked what he meant. Wilder said: "I could not enjoy life while my mother was suffering so terribly. I learned this through you and have overcome this feeling."

But no good son should be happy if his mother is suffering. So did Wilder become a healthy man at the cost of being a bad son?



One of the ideas that seems to have controlled Gene Wilder’s life was the notion that he was immediately loveable to those who would matter the most to him. For instance, Wilder told Gross that no sooner had he met Mel Brooks’ than that comedian said that he would make a film with him, a picture based on Wilder’s only partly written Young Frankenstein. (Although it took ten years, Brooks made good on this promise.) Brooks wanted Wilder to play the part of Leo Bloom, the timid accountant, in The Producers. But the famous Zero Mostel had a veto right over any actor that Brooks selected as his co-star. Brooks brought Wilder to meet Mostel. Wilder told Terry Gross that Mostel, who was bigger than life, approached him, locked Wilder in a bear-hug, and kissed him on the lips. It was, apparently, love at first site.

Wilder was cast in a film called Hanky Panky – the other male lead was supposed to be Richard Pryor but he was unavailable. The script was re-written substituting a female part for Pryor’s role. Gilda Radner was cast in that part. In this case, Wilder’s loveableness preceded him. Gilda Radner, who was married, burst into tears in the cab taking her to the audition. She was weeping because she knew her marriage was over and that she had no choice but to fall in love with Gene Wilder. This was her premonition before she met him. Of course, Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner became lovers and were later married.

I suppose that a man whose mother has forgiven him and approved his lust for life will be a conqueror and the charm that so inspired his mother will make him successful in all of his encounters with the world.



At first, Gilda Radner smothered Wilder. She was inseparable from him and he felt that the closeness and intimacy that she required made their relationship impossible. He was afraid to marry her because of her obsessive need to be with him at all times.

A half-year before they were married, Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner went to the airport for a flight to Paris. On the way to the airport, or in its corridors, Radner’s dog ate something that might have been rat-poison. The dog became very ill. Surprisingly, Radner told her boyfriend to fly to Paris anyhow. She said she would take the dog to the veterinarian and, then, follow him to Europe. Wilder was in Paris for several weeks, but Gilda did not come.

Back in New York, Gilda met Wilder at the airport. She said that she had been okay during his absence. This inspired Wilder to marry her.



Shortly after they were married, Gilda Radner became sick with ovarian cancer. The disease went into remission but, then, re-emerged and, ultimately, she died from the illness. Wilder told Terry Gross that in the six months before her death, Gilda Radner took voice lessons. "She had a beautiful voice," Wilder said, "but she wanted to be a singer."

In the last couple weeks of her life, Gilda Radner practiced over and over again the song "When you wish upon a star."



Wilder interpreted Gilda’s efforts to master that song as a kind of prayer, as "magical thinking," a term that he used in his 2005 interview, an exercise based on her hope that singing that tune would make her cancer go away.

I disagree with that interpretation.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said: If the world were to end tomorrow, today I would plant an apple tree.

In other words, the fact that bad things are inevitable doesn’t mean that we should allow them to seize and rule us before their time. This would be an instance of servile fear.



The internet in its wisdom attributes the quote about the apple tree to Martin Luther King. However, someone notes in a comment that Martin Luther King probably didn’t say those words but that they are attributed to the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther.

In fact, the first instance of the apple tree quote is a book written about Luther in 1944 and, so, it is probably a fabrication.

There is a Jewish analog to Luther’s alleged statement: someone asked the Rabbi Yokanan ben Zakkai what he should do if the Messiah were to appear. "If there were a plant in your hand, and they should say: ‘Look, the Messiah is here!’, go and plant your plant and after that go forth to receive him."



Curiously, the last thing that Luther committed to writing was praise of the great Latin poet Virgil. Luther wrote that no one can appreciate Virgil’s Bucolics, verse about sheep herding, unless he has been a shepherd for five years. Similarly, he wrote that no one could properly appreciate Virgil’s Georgics, poems about farming, unless he has farmed for five years. He goes on to make similarly shaped comments about Cicero and church governance – no one can understand Cicero’s letters unless he has busied himself in the most important affairs of the State for twenty years; it would require 100 years for a pastor to master proper church governance even if he were to be counseled by Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist as well as Jesus and the Apostles. But, then, surprisingly Luther reverts to Virgil and, in verse, as well, writing: "Do not assail this divine Aeneid, nay rather prostrate, revere the ground it treads upon."

The Aeneid is about the founding of Rome, a myth of origins. At the end of his life, Luther returns to the Latin story about how Rome came to be, the blood and violence of its foundation. Perhaps, he is referring to his own role as a new Aeneas founding a new Rome.

But the enigmatic text ends: Wir sein pettler – Hoc est verum.

In German: "We are beggars." And, then, in Latin: "This is true."



Imagine, if you please, all those tiny whiskey bottles, each exquisitely wrought, and waiting to be filled with fluid, uisce beathe in Gaelic – that is, the water of life.

Plato’s Republic ends with a famous story called the myth of Er. Er was a man killed in a battle whose body did not decompose. As the incorruptible corpse was laid on the funeral pyre, Er opened his eyes and explained what he had seen of the afterlife. His story is complex and involves much wandering and many judgments inflicted upon the souls of men. But what concerns me is the transmigration of souls. After enduring punishment or reward, the souls are gathered in a place beside the spindle of necessity. After being placed in ranks, each soul is provided a lottery token. The lottery token establishes the order in which the souls are called to select their next life.

Imagine a great and terrible anti-Semite, a man devoted to religion and the highest of all things, the founder of a new religion and, with it, a new regime of being. The soul of such a man, in accord with his lottery, steps forth and decides that he will be reborn as a Jewish comedian.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

On a Burrito


Every Saturday morning, before attending to my belles lettres, I stop at the Taco John’s six blocks from my house to buy a burrito. I suppose there are better burritos than those made "hot and fresh" at Taco John’s, but not in the town where I live. I purchase the burrito at the drive-through window, carry it to my office, and there enjoy my breakfast while reading the Friday Wall Street Journal’s entertainment section.

The burrito that I order at Taco John’s is a "Scrambler Burrito" made with sausage. (The burrito can also be purchased with bacon substituted for the chorizo sausage.) When I order the burrito, a voice from the intercom in the parking lot says to me: "Welcome to Taco John’s, what can I make fresh and hot for you?"

To which I always reply: "I would like a Scrambler Burrito made with sausage with the hot sauce in it."

Often this causes some kind of confusion. As at all fast food places, the turnover of staff is high. About every six weeks, I meet someone new at the window and we have to re-educate one another as to this transaction.

If I am dealing with a seasoned employee, the voice through the intercom will respond: "Okay, that’s one sausage scrambler burrito with hot sauce."

I am a student of German and have read that language with some degree of fluency for forty years. Yet, I could not construct a proper German sentence to save my soul. One of the problems that I encounter is that I often choose the wrong preposition for the use that I intend. Of course, I know German prepositions and understand their meaning, but there are idiomatic elements that always confound me in the selection of a preposition. The same problem afflicts my Saturday morning attempts to order my breakfast burrito.

This morning, I exchanged words with the Taco John’s intercom as above. After placing my order, the voice asked me: "What was that about the hot sauce?"

I said: "Put the hot sauce in it."

The voice paused and seemed a little uncertain. "What is that?"

"Put the hot sauce in it."

"Okay," the kid said.

I made the turn and drove to the window. An earnest, worried-looking young man came to the window, slid it open, and leaned out to me.

"I just want to make sure: you want me to put the hot sauce on the burrito."

"Inside the burrito," I told him. He looked puzzled. I paid and he retreated into the kitchen.

Half an NPR radio-story later, he returned to the window and handed me a bag pleasantly heavy with my burrito.

I decided to clear up the confusion once and for all.

"What is the default position here? If I just order a Scrambler burrito and don’t specify anything about the sauce, what is the default."

The boy’s brow wrinkled with concern and he frowned at me.

"I just didn’t hear you clearly. Sometimes, it’s not clear on the speaker, you know."

"Okay," I said. "But if I just order a Scrambler burrito what is the default: does the hot sauce go inside the burrito when you make it or does it go into the bag as a side?"

He shook his head again and looked very sad. Then, I understood what was bothering him: this helpful young man heard me saying "fault" (not "default") and he was trying to understand whose "fault" this mix-up might be.

"I’m not saying you’re at fault or anything. I just wanted to know how I should order," I said.

He brightened.

"If you just order a Scrambler burrito, we will put the hot sauce packets in the bag with the burrito," he said. "But you can always order the hot sauce on the burrito."

"On" – there it was, the problem! In Taco John’s parlance, you put hot sauce "on" a burrito. You don’t put hot sauce "in" the burrito. This is a counter-intuitive use of the preposition "on". The reason I have never asked for hot sauce "on" my burrito is for fear that the cook would assemble the scrambled eggs, potato ole’ fragments, onion, and chorizo, wrap the tortilla tightly around those components, and, then, pour hot sauce all over the exterior of the burrito – to me, this is putting hot sauce "on" a burrito, that is, slathering the outside with the red pico sauce. A burrito made in this way would be very messy to eat – it would make a mess in my car or stain my Wall Street Journal. I always ask for the burrito to be made "with sausage with the hot sauce in it."

As heard in the taco place, my words "in it," probably, sound like "init" or "minute". Furthermore, the pronoun "it" has an indefinite antecedent. Perhaps, the cooks hear the "it" as meaning the paper bag in which the burrito is sold to me. And, in any event, the preposition is wrong – if you want a Taco John’s cook to put hot sauce on top of the filling before he or she wraps those ingredients in a tortilla, then, you must ask the worker to "put the hot sauce on the burrito." (This raises a metaphysical question: what is the burrito? Is it the fill alone? In other words, is a burrito a mixture of ingredients that is, then, wrapped in a skin of tortilla? – Is the tortilla considered apart from the burrito fill?)

Prepositions are small words but they can be vastly consequential. In Germany, rivers flow auf or ab – if you pick the wrong preposition, you might find yourself struggling mightily against the current. Apropos prepositions and word order, someone once remarked that in chemistry it makes a tremendous difference if you put hydrochloric acid in water or, vice versa, water in the hydrochloric acid. The difference between the two recipes is a manageable reaction versus an explosion with third-degree acid burns. But I can never remember which result obtains in which case. For this reason, I stay away from mixing water and hydrochloric acid.