Are tales of Everyman also tales of outlaws and villains? And are tales of the utmost extremes of human nature also tales of us, of ordinary humans? Is it true than in our souls we all conspire and aspire, fit the mold and break the mold? We see ourselves in Superman and Superwoman and in the schlump waiting in line to pay for the groceries. And even in the person slipping the packages under a heavy coat or sticking up the convenience store.
Because we are human, we are aware of a range of experience far beyond the narrow confines of our direct experience. It is not only our imagination and empathy that takes us into to lives outside our own, but also that we share a common struggle to make our lives work and to make the way they work make sense to ourselves.
Goethe’s Faust has often fascinated for this reason. Here is a man far beyond the normal, in fact, a man’s whose lust for everything so exceeds the “normal” that he makes a pact with a devil, a wager, really, that he can never be sated. In the medieval legend he is damned for eternity, but Goethe envisions Faust saved, granted eternal salvation for striving for ever more out of life. Are us ordinary mortals not caught in the same dilemma: What price must we pay to fulfill our dreams, to live a life worth living?
Our poets, our artists reveal the human spirit in all its dimensions, from the most astonishingly beautiful to the most base and profane, to tap into the strangeness of human nature that is common nature to us all. Empirical research can hide behind statistics and abstract concepts, but art must accurately reflect human life or it’s meaningless.
Though innumerable works achieve this connectedness to the human condition, three have particularly affected me: James Joyce’sUlysses, Bob Dylan’s early songs, and Lenny Bruce’s monologues. Joyce’s Ulysses perseveres in our minds, is etched upon generations of readers, not only because it is often tantalizingly incomprehensible, but because it rings true. We have all struggled through tragicomic, agonizing days like those Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus and their fellow Dubliners, just have people have identified for centuries with Homer’s Odysseus epic struggle to get home to wife and hearth. Dylan’s haunted voices speak a language that echoes our shared experience: We are accused of crimes of which we are innocent and feel guilty about crimes of which no one dares accuse us. Lenny Bruce made comedy of his own and society’s human tragedy.
Homer’s Odysseus squares off against gods and monsters, but he’s another poor son of a bitch trying to get home. So, too, are James Joyce’s Ulysses’ stand-ins – Leopold Bloom and his fellow misbegotten Dubliner, Stephen Dedalus, and Molly Bloom, too. Their daylong treks home remind us how often our lives are long day’s journeys across troubled waters to destinations far less certain than the word “home” suggests. We are not tied to the mast of a ship in a tormented sea. No sirens tempt us, nor one-eyed giants imprison us in their caves. More likely: we’re stuck in a sea of cars, late again. We’re searching for misplaced glasses, a lost receipt. Will the toilet in the store be clean? Is that pain cancer?
Entwined in the fabric of our day to day existence, how heroic do we feel? Yet even as Homer’s Odysseus screws up to the point of losing nearly all his ships and crew and drastically prolonging his voyage, he remains a hero. So too do the struggles of ordinary mortals like Bloom remind us that it takes courage to reach for a modicum of dignity in this often indifferent, sometimes hostile and dangerous world. It isn’t always easy to do the right thing, to make the hopeful, caring choice. Weak, egotistical, deluded, misguided, confused, we are nevertheless the protagonists of our life struggles. Isn’t it becausewe are flawed, because we are human, because we may fail, that our struggles matter?
If Joyce exposed the human condition through the life – inner and outer, real and fantasy – of his Dubliners, Lenny Bruce’s performances – called “comedy routines,” though neither routine nor routinely funny – revealed himself and, by extension, the human condition. Addicted to heroin and to fighting a system far stronger than he was, Bruce exposed an intensity of vulnerability and pain – with a maniacal ability to find and communicate the humor in it all – that showed us his tortured inner life in the face of societal injustices. Bloom and Dedalus are misfits while barely knowing it; Bruce was a defiant, unreconstructed misfit.
In an audiotaped performance, Bruce described, with an almost giddy élan, the scene in a San Francisco courtroom:
Bruce stands before the judge. This is his day in court, his chance to explain why there is nothing obscene in using words like “cocksucker” in a performance before a paying audience. But from the moment the trial begins, the judge does not even pretend to be unbiased, is not in any way open to hearing reasoned argument. Immediately the judge begins shouting at Bruce, warning him: “If you are brought in here again for the saying those words, you better bring your toothbrush!”
“Bring my toothbrush?!” Bruce explodes, the absurdity of the real courtroom compared to discourse, to justice, too much for him to grasp, too much to accept.
This was an early encounter. By the time Bruce was filmed in theLenny Bruce Performance Film, the giddiness was gone, Lenny’s life rapidly eddying down the one-way drain of heroin and repeated obscenity arrests. But he was telling the truth.
What made Bruce a pariah was more than a few strings of profanities. He struck at the hypocrisy of the self-righteous moralism in the hands of those who hold power in our culture. Unlike pornography, which hides itself in dark corners, Bruce’s diatribes stared self-righteous contempt straight in the face. But he did more than make fun of prudery and play with dirty words: Bruce unmasked the violent anti-human core of repressive moralism. He laughed at it and so allowed us to laugh too. Not only is the emperor naked, he reminded us, but he’s a nasty old fart with an ugly dick and a lousy disposition.
Bruce and Joyce remind us that we do not live in a vacuum, that our lives are inextricably, inexorably interwoven in the social fabric. In different ways, each conveys how palpably the world around us, with all its pushes and barbs, impinges on our experience, often crushing what is simply human. As we absorb their imperfect reconstructions of our imperfect world, we see, to the degree we allow ourselves to notice, that we too are misfits. We become misfits from the moment we see things as they are, not as they are supposed to be.