Cats, Mice, Dogs and the Quest for Joy

Heigh-ho, gang. Over here at Diary of A Wimpy Catholic, it’s been a melancholic week — less a case of “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” than “Why doth Thou not just forsake me and beget it over with, already?” If you relate well enough to my writing to have become a regular reader, you must know the drill firsthand, bless your heart.

Around midweek, I began searching for a cheap, wholesome, non-addictive cure for the blues. My first stop was Slate. This online magazine, brainchild of Michael Kinsley and former property of Microsoft, is usually good for a pick-me-up. Running articles with titles like “What It’s Like to Film Polar Bears in the Arctic When You’re Five Months Pregnant,” the editors seem to assume I can relate to yuppies with adventurous streaks who ooze joie de vivre like a calzone oozes grease. I can’t; in fact, I think people like that should be blindfolded and put to work clearing minefields in Central Africa. (They’ll be allowed to write about it winsomely later on, if they’ve hands left.) Still, I do feel flattered by the editors’ assumption. I’d hate to be told, “No, this is too frivolous for you. For people in your tax bracket, we’ve got stories about heart disease and obesity, with all the big words spelled out phonetically.”

Anyway, it was looking for a minute like good old Slate had come through again. Yesterday, David Haglund posted a video comprising every single Itchy and Scratchy short. With The Simpsons in its 23rd or 24th season, the material takes up just over 48 minutes. Eager to be lulled by irony and allusion and blood, I tuned right in.

What a bitter cup that turned out to be. Seeing a cartoon mouse kill a cartoon cat is a lot less visually interesting than I remembered. Basic anatomy limits the number of potential outcomes: Scratchy’s eyes get knocked out; his flesh gets eaten away, exposing his bones; he gets flayed, Marsyas-style; he gets blown or chopped into pieces. Yes, the writers do their best to deliver these thrills in combination, but after about 16 minutes, I realized I’d seen it all.

As the Protestants say in their Bibles, the thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. The Simpsons’ writers must have been reading King James, or else they wouldn’t have brought in Poochie for that one episode. For anyone fed up with the cyclical nature of his own existence, that lesson is bound to feel like one hard kick in the clanging cymbals.

Worse, I realized I’d misunderstood the relationship between Itchy and Scratchy. I’d always figured it was one of mutual antagonism — the opening sequence, where they’re hitting each other with bats and mallets, tends to support this reading. Though this is true in some episodes, in others, Scratchy serves as nothing less than Itchy’s sacrificial lamb. He comes to grief not because he’s slower on the draw, but because he’s too trusting, or even too generous. In “Cat Splat Fever,” Itchy catches Scratch’s eye by crying, “Goodbye, cruel world,” and jumping into a well. Desperate to save the mouse, Scratchy jumps in after him, only to find Itchy lying in wait on a ledge halfway down, armed with a shotgun.

It must have been about five minutes into the crying jag when I remembered my mother’s constant complaint about my beloved Three Stooges: “Their relationship is tragic and dysfunctional. They ought to be in therapy.” She must have been about 40 — exactly the age I am now. Maybe, past a certain age, life tenderizes people to the point where dark or transgressive humor becomes a hit or miss affair. Just as my mother wanted to refer Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, Curly-Joe and Emil to some object-relations guy on Central Park West, I felt like seizing Scratchy by the scruff of his neck — as his own mother must surely have done — and staging an intervention.

“Choose your friends wisely,” I’d tell the cat, shaking him to drive home the point. “Some people are simply not to be trusted. No matter how much they may seem to need you, THEY WILL DO YOU OVER THE MINUTE THEY GET WHAT THEY WANT! GIVE TOO MUCH OF YOURSELF AND YOU WILL GET RODE HARD AND PUT AWAY DIRTY! ARE YOU TAKING THIS IN, YOU TENDERHEARTED MORON, YOU STUPID SAP? DO YOU WANT TO BE A VICTIM FOREVER?”

Realizing I was shouting this aloud — and not at Scratchy, who was nowhere in sight — I decided I’d better find my magic pill elsewhere.

I had some luck re-reading the stories of Saki. “Saki” was the pen name of Englishman Hector Hugh Munro, an arch-conservative journalist who managed to get himself killed on the Western Front in 1916, at the age of 44. Before that, he made himself master of the short short story. A typical Saki offering runs fewer than 1,800 words, and ends with a 90-degree, O. Henry-style twist. Many of his stories, particularly “Sredni Vashtar,” are dark and transgressive enough to make Itchy and Scratchy look like the Smurfs in comparison. But since his characters are all insouciant sprigs of nobility — he could have titled every story “The Continuing Adventures of Jack and Gwendolen” — he normally gives me the same vicarious social boost as Slate.

In “Cousin Teresa,” a 40-year-old ne’er-do-well of a playwright named Lucas Harrowcluff comes up with something he considers “immense.” It’s not a plot, or a character, or even a musical number; instead, it’s a single couplet:

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar,
Fido, Jock and the big borzoi.

Around that one couplet, an entire musical writes itself, and the musical becomes a hit. The couplet about Cousin Teresa taking out these four dogs soon appears on the lips of every cultured person in England. “Restaurant proprietors,” writes Saki, “were obliged to provide the members of their orchestras with painted wooden dogs on wheels, in order that the much-demanded and always conceded melody should be rendered with the necessary spectacular effects, and the crash of bottles and forks on the tables at the mention of the big borzoi usually drowned the sincerest efforts of drum or cymbals.” To honor his contribution to the culture, the Crown grants Harrowcluff a knighthood.

It should go without saying that this is every writer’s dream, the equivalent of winning the Lottery. Some silly shit that comes to him in the shower (or in Lucas’ case, while dressing) hits just the right note at just the right time. (“Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,” Saki has a “revered lady” say. “That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like ‘Cousin Teresa,’ that has a genuine message for one.”) In the case of “Cousin Teresa,” it actually makes sense — with dogs and a silly-sounding word like “borzoi,” the couplet makes a perfect earworm. What’s not to love?

But then, just as I was picturing some Lillian Gish look-alike strutting across a Belgravia stage, wooden borzoi in tow, something happened. I realized that somewhere up in the stalls, one man, preoccupied by Belgian atrocities in the Congo or Irish Home Rule, would be seething. He’d want to take a hatchet to the borzoi, Fido, Jock, and even Cousin Teresa herself. His scathing review of the musical would show up in some obscure magazine, to be read by absolutely nobody, leaving the embittered author to kill himself slowly with opium and absinthe. This vision brought me right back to square one.

I’m starting to realize that, for melancholic types like me, the search for joy is something ongoing. We have to grab it where we can find it and suck it down quickly like nitrous oxide out of a cartridge. When it wears off, we’re left to wander in search of more. One thing we can never do is stop. We’re like sharks, forever moving and devouring. If that’s not ideal, it beats the alternatives of standing still and starving.

And with that, I think it’s time for me to move on again. Look for me among the South Park clips or the P.G. Wodehouse titles.

  • http://janettekok.blogspot.com/ J Kok

    Hang in there, Max. He hideth thy soul in the cleft of a rock, and covers thee there with his hand.

  • jkm

    Only you could be plunged back into melancholy by the demise of a character who wasn’t even in the story until you invented him, gave him a back story and a tragic descent, and killed him off. You throw yourself down a well, jump into after yourself, and lie in wait for yourself halfway down with a shotgun. And you do it brilliantly. Joy may come to you elusively and briefly, but the joy of reading you is reliable and lasting. Bless you.

  • Nina Evans

    There is a reason Jack Lewis titled his reminiscences of his life, Surprised by Joy. For many of us are so surprised that Joy comes when it does. I have always likened the Angelic Praise on the fields outside of Bethlehem the night Christ was born to a symbol of what Joy is like. While working in the dark at one of the most perilous jobs a civilian could do (I suspect that is why shepherding was regulated to the young and old), Out of This World comes Joy. Is this not what our life is like, if not now, then certainly at first when God’s Words were spoken so plainly even I could understand what He was saying to me. Sometimes we are spoiled by the event and think: this is the place I found it once, I certainly should find it again. Not so much. But rest assured, joy will surprise you once more…if you are where you need to be. Seek and you shall find. However, a bit of warning: Joy is not happiness. Far from it. But that is another essay for you to tackle, Max….

  • Robster

    Max, you need a healthy heapin’ helpin’ of Fibroid Studge for you psychological constipation (Saki, Fibroid Studge, or, The Mouse that Helped).

    [Ew. Gross. Actually, having a melancholy disposition is more like having migraine of the soul.]

  • Rebecca

    Well, shoot. I always hope that a prolonged blog silence means you’re out doing wonderful things that make you happy. Sorry to hear you’ve been down.
    I suggest starting with Joy in the Morning, by Wodehouse.

    God bless you.

  • DWiss

    Motorcycles, Max. I plan to continue saying it until you try it.

  • Robster

    St. Augustine said we are an Easter people. Alas, I am a Dies Irae person. Cf., Emily Dickenson, “I love a look of Agony.” Don’t know why people think I’m morbid!

    [Me, I've got a chronic case of the middle-of-ordinary-time blahs. Just call me the ἀκηδία Kid.]

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I suppose if you watched Road Runner cartoons for 24 hours straight, you’d probably come to the same conclusion. But I remember watching them one at a time on Saturday mornings and loving it. I guess small doses spread out is the trick. You need to forget a little.

    I don’t know why, but it reminds me of religious catalogs. I have a few things around with pictures of Jesus on them, but to go through a religious catalog you’d think there wasn’t a place where someone wasn’t willing to plaster the face of Jesus. It’s too much. I get now where I throw them out. The Russians hermits would have crosses in place of crucifixes. You were suppose to imagine yourself up there. Maybe they just couldn’t stand to stare at the same image all day, even if it is their Savior. Maybe there is something about the desert in that. You can have too many flowers.


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