Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it. During the Civil War people complained about Lincoln's funny stories. Perhaps he sensed that strict seriousness was far more dangerous than any joke. But critics said that he was frivolous and his own Secretary of War referred to him as an ape.
Among the debunkers and spoofers who formed the tastes and minds of my generation H. L. Mencken was the most prominent. My high school friends, readers of the American Mercury, were up on the Scopes trial as Mencken reported it. Mencken was very hard on William Jennings Bryan and the Bible Belt and Boobus Americanus. Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, represented science, modernity, and progress. To Darrow and Mencken, Bryan the Special Creationist was a doomed Farm Belt absurdity. In the language of evolutionary theory Bryan was a dead branch of the life-tree. His Free Silver monetary standard was a joke. So was his old-style congressional oratory. So were the huge Nebraska farm dinners he devoured. His meals, Mencken said, were the death of him. His views on Special Creation were subjected to extreme ridicule at the trial, and Bryan went the way of the pterodactyl - the clumsy version of an idea which later succeeded - the gliding reptiles becoming warm-blooded birds that flew and sang.
I filled up a scribbler with quotes from Mencken and later added notes from spoofers or self-spoofers like W. C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Huey Long, and Senator Dirksen. There was even a page on Machiavelli's sense of humor. But I'm not about to involve you in my speculations on wit and self-irony in democratic societies. Not to worry. I'm glad my old scribbler has disappeared. I have no wish to see it again. It surfaces briefly as a sort of extended footnote.
I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text. And I see that I am now using a long footnote to open a serious subject-shifting in a quick move to Paris, to a penthouse in the Hotel Crillon. Early June. Breakfast time. The host is my good friend Professor Ravelstein, Abe Ravelstein. My wife and I, also staying at the Crillon, have a room below, on the sixth floor. She is still asleep. The entire floor below ours (this is not absolutely relevant but somehow I can't avoid mentioning it) is occupied just now by Michael Jackson and his entourage. He performs nightly in some vast Parisian auditorium. Very soon his French fans will arrive and a crowd of faces will be turned upward, shouting in unison, Miekell Jack-sown. A police barrier holds the fans back. Inside, from the sixth floor, when you look down the marble stairwell you see Michael's bodyguards. One of them is doing the crossword puzzle in the Paris Herald.
"Terrific, isn't it, having this pop circus?" said Ravelstein. The Professor was very happy this morning. He had leaned on the management to put him into this coveted suite. To be in Paris - at the Crillon. To be here for once with plenty of money. No more of the funky rooms at the Dragon Volant, or whatever they called it, on the rue du Dragon; or in the Hotel de l'Académie on the rue des Saints Pères facing the medical college. Hotels don't come any grander or more luxurious than the Crillon, where the top American brass had been quartered during the peace negotiations after the First World War.
"Great, isn't it?" said Ravelstein, with one of his rapid gestures.
I confirmed that it was. We had the center of Paris right below us - the place de la Concorde with the obelisk, the Orangerie, the Chambre des Députés, the Seine with its pompous bridges, palaces, gardens. Of course these were great things to see, but they were greater today for being shown from the penthouse by Ravelstein, who only last year had been a hundred thousand dollars in debt. Maybe more. He used to joke with me about his "sinking fund."
Reprinted from Ravelstein by Saul Bellow by permission of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright 2000, Saul Bellow. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission
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