The Sound of Sweet Idiocy

The Sound of Sweet Idiocy November 9, 2011

Kvetched Emily Dickinson:

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Well, duh. Afternoon winter light is supposed to be depressing, reminiscent of death and — so to speak — all that sort of rot. It’s only when the sound of “The Sound of Music” can drive you to the edge of drooling madness that you know you’re in really bad shape.

This morning, after clicking on the link to the online Washington Post that arrives twice daily in my mailbox, I found an article about the Olney Theater’s new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. The director, one Mark Waldrop, wants to tease out the story’s darker side — namely, Maria’s sense of having failed as a nun and Austria’s objective failure to remain a sane and sovereign nation. To serve the former purpose, he includes “Something Good,” written as a duet between Maria and Captain von Trapp.

Having barely any recollection of the movie, I found the song on YouTube and gave a listen. It begins like this:

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

For reasons too boring and silly to command our attention, the lyrics affected me less like nails on a chalkboard than nails driven through the skull by a grumpy tsar. Halfway through the second stanza, I found myself wanting to heave a brick straight through my flatscreen monitor. Then I remembered I didn’t have any bricks. Even if I did have one, I realized, I probably wouldn’t be able to throw it through a monitor. At best, the brick would knock the monitor backwards onto the kitchen island before denting the refrigerator door. As scenes of destruction go, it would be very humdrum and unsatisfying.

In his wrath, Homer tells us, Achilles brought “countless ills” upon the Greeks. In mine, I might bring a trip to Fry’s Electronics upon myself.

But just when I was ready to surrender the whole day to impotent grousing, something happened. Hovering before me in my imagination, I saw Julie Andrews surrounded by the simpering von Trapp kids, holding a kind of civics class.

Liesl: Tell us, Maria, why did these Nazis shoot Chancellor Dollfuss and leave him to drown slowly in his own blood, back when I was 12-going-on-13?

Friederich: And why did they just deliver an ultimatum to Chancellor Schuschnigg, ordering him to appoint Herr Seyss-Inquart head of security?

Louisa: And appoint Dr. Fischböck head of finance?

Marta: Yes, Maria, do tell us! This is our first Anschluss!

Kurt: I think I shall miss Austrian auto-fascism.

Maria: Well, you see, children, these Nazis, they have a lot to compensate for.

(Maria begins to sing)

Land of soap and water,
Hitler’s having a bath.
Churchill peeks through the keyhole,
Having a jolly good laugh


Hitler, has only one big ball;
Goering, has two but very small.
Himmler, has something similar,
But Goebbels has no balls a-tall.

And so on. In case it needs saying, the lyrics aren’t mine. Toby O’Brien wrote them in August of 1939, right before the outbreak of World War II, when he was serving as publicist for the British Council. Or rather, he wrote a version of them, which begat dozens of mutations as it circulated through the encampments of the Empire and Commonwealth forces.

The first stanza is set to the tune of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”; the second (and subsequent) stanzas, to the “Colonel Bogey March,” which people today may remember from Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s the song the captured British soldiers are whistling as they swagger into the Japanese POW camp. The script has them whistling — a pretty unlikely event, when you consider how dehydrated they must have been — because no studio could have suffered them to sing the words. Audiences in 1957 would have remembered them, though, and appreciated the implied joke.

Thinking of Maria and the seven little von Trapps quick-marching through the house, singing about Hitler’s other ball being stuck in Albert Hall snatched me back from the edge of the abyss and into a mindless hilarity that has lasted through this writing. Anything absurd has that effect on me. So do military marches from the United Kingdom, and for that matter, jokes about Nazis, political murder, and balls. This may be true of all men: throw us in close quarters with poetic melancholy, and our first impulse will be to strong-arm our way through it. If our arms lack the strength, we will fall back on the moronic, the heraldic and tribal, and the genital. This is not self-criticism; this is reality.

I can’t say for sure whether God approves, but I suspect He at least understands. My healing vision, as timely as Constantine’s dream of the Cross, feels like a moment of pure grace. Who but the Paraclete could have sensed my despair, forgiven me my terrible taste, and consoled me with reminders of — sorry, Rodgers and Hammerstein — a few of my favorite things?

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