Dearest Rachel –
There really is something to be said for T.S. Eliot’s theory of ‘the death of the author.’ The idea of it is that a work of art can and should be enjoyed without having to consider its creator’s biography or influences. It’s something of a take on the old saw that you should never meet your heroes, as they will disappoint you. Heck, even T.S. Eliot himself isn’t the most upstanding historical figure, given that he was more than a touch racist, even for his day (although perhaps not quite so much as, say, H.P. Lovecraft, just to give another example).
Of course, most art historians – including your dad – tended to set this line of thought aside. While there are artists and writers whose work seems to transcend their own lives and the time that they lived in, this is generally the exception rather than the rule. Most forms of art goes through periods in which certain styles prevail; only those on the very cutting edge of a new style might be considered to be beyond influence of the surrounding zeitgeist. And even then, their work eventually still belongs to the time and circumstances in which they lived and created their work. I’ve heard it argued that Mozart might well have been a punk rocker had he lived in the latter part of the 20th century, for instance, and that Monet would not have originated the impressionist school had he known a decent optometrist.
The problem is that, when you know something about the artist themselves, it colors the work that they have done. I’ve mentioned to you several times before about Robin Williams, but there are several other comedians whose work, while groundbreaking and undeniably funny, are poisoned by the fact that their own lives were decidedly less so.
I’ll set aside the likes of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, as their struggles with addiction and so forth were well documented even during their lifetimes. Indeed, Pryor would make jokes about his battles, particularly one accident in which he very nearly burned to death attempting to freebase cocaine. So, his very flaws contributed to his material, rather than detracting from it.
Not so with the likes of several others I tended to favor. I’ll mention Bill Cosby first, as he not only was a phenomenon in his day, he attempted to bridge the gap between races at a time when that would’ve been considered groundbreaking, both in the ’60s with ‘I Spy,’ and in the ’80s with his eponymous show (I’m not sure about any ‘groundbreaking’ nature of his ’70s-era cartoon show, but I might as well bring it up, just so it’s clear I’m not neglecting it). His popularity was such that he would occasionally pontificate about certain moral choices people ought to take – in particular, decrying the growing sense of victimhood embraced by ‘his’ people. What he had to say seemed (at least from this white man’s perspective) to have merit, and be worth listening to.
At which point, it all came crashing down. It wasn’t so much a case of ‘not finishing well,’ to borrow a phrase from Pastor Scott and his final life goal – although there were incidents that were recent enough to permit prosecution even this late in his life – as a pattern of bad behavior that had somehow been hidden for literal decades. Suddenly, his jokes about being an overprotective dad, and knowing ‘what those boys had in mind,’ didn’t seem quite so funny. And of course, any moral authority anyone thought he had at one point was utterly destroyed, regardless of how sensible it might’ve been. The source no longer had credibility, and therefore the message had to be dismissed as well, which was unfortunate and uncalled for.
But going a little further back, I also enjoyed the philosophical stylings of one Alan Stewart Königsberg, better known to the world as Woody Allen. I discovered his earlier films while in college (long after he’d gotten rather more introspective and neurotic), and quite enjoyed them for the mix of slapstick and intellectual comedy they contained. His deep and abiding faith in Freudian psychology – wherein literally everything in life was based in sex and the sexual urge – should have been a red flag, but I somehow doubt that anyone was expecting what happened in his life a few years later on between himself and several of his stepdaughters, one of whom I believe he is still romantically attached to this day. It casts a pall upon his entire body of work, which is unfortunate, and some of it was genuinely funny (if a little sophomoric in the early days; but hey, I was a sophomore when I discovered him, so that’s rather appropriate).
But the best we could do was to ignore his biography – especially since these scandals hadn’t actually happened at the time the film I’m about to discuss was produced – and enjoy one of the earliest ‘gag dubs’ I’m aware of in cinematic history. I’m talking, of course, about ‘What’s Up Tiger Lily?’ and how we used to enjoy that film together.
I’m not even going to try to summarize the plot; heaven knows, even Allen was asked to do so in a cut scene midway through the film, and refused to. What I am going to mention is a scene that explains the title of my letter. You’ll recall that the film was a parody of spy movies, which were popular at the time, and at one point, one of the female leads went undercover – quite literally – to seduce one of the main villains of the film. Having accomplished her mission, said villain rises from the bed, as she moves her feet and legs away from where they have been resting by his head, and he complements her with a particularly ridiculous line in a film chock-full of ridiculous lines: “I want to thank you… for cleaning my sinuses.”
This, out of many lines in the film, was incorporated into our collection of in-jokes between ourselves. The odd part was, I assumed that the line was based on the fact that her feet were somehow pungent enough to clear out his nasal passages, and that’s where the joke lay. However, it turned out that, for you, this was a real thing that really worked. I don’t claim to know how, but you seemed to be able to appreciate it most Saturday mornings, regardless of whether you were dealing with any congestion or not.
I know this is a roundabout way to get to the main point of my letter, but I have to admit, I could stand for some of that treatment myself right about now. This head cold really could use a little something, and if it involves a little something extra like that, I wouldn’t say no. I miss those days… and I miss you. Not just for something like this, but it’s just one more reminder, after all.
Anyway, I’ll write you a little later on. Until then, honey, keep an eye out for me.