issue 34 > nonfiction > slavitt
Dolce Far Nienteby David Slavitt
from Walloomsac: a Roman Fleuve (Anaphora Literary Press)
Dolce is sweet or, metaphorically, good. So the phrase means Good for Nothing in whatever language it is. Italian, I guess. No? You refuse to be fooled. You know perfectly well or can find out quickly enough from Google that it signifies sweet idleness, but what’s the advantage of that, other than its correctness? “I guess” was an untruth. I know perfectly well that it’s Italian but I put in those two words to engender a bit of doubt. What is delightful about language is its wiggle room. Think of my translation then as an exploration of a tiny chink I have discovered and through which I am inviting you into an alternate universe to explore. Or dimension. There are thirteen. I believe that but I don’t believe it, as with so much in life. Credo quia absurdum! is a quip of Tertullian’s, and while you may know the phrase there are many fewer (or fewer many) who can claim to be on a first-name basis with Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, that old Carthaginian cut-up. He was onto something, though. If a thing is self evident, then there’s not much standing in the way of our believing it. You’ll never get to heaven with that kind of caution—or even believe in heaven, for that matter.
Quintus was a Montanist, which has nothing to do with mountaineering. The church rejected Montanism and called it a heresy, so he would have done better to keep quiet. It had nothing to do with Yves Montand either, and I’m all but certain of that. But silence is often preferable to speech; relying on it one can get away with a whole hell of a lot. Think of all those monks who maintain silence for months or even years. Nobody knows what they are thinking, right. They could be Montanists, or Gnostics, or any of those heterodox types. But they do not give themselves away, as most of us do most of the time. Wisdom is all very well, but discretion is simpler and just as effective. Maintain a solemn countenance and keep your mouth shut. Your associates may find you spooky but they will respect you and even fear you.
The other option is to spout nonsense as copiously as you can. Here and there you can inject small but absurd truths to which few will object because they never know whether you’re kidding and will give you the benefit of the doubt. Doubt is nothing like belief, may be its opposite in fact, but they both get you to the same place. DeFuniak Springs, or Shawinigan Falls. They sound ridiculous but for that reason they have stayed in my head for years. They may be perfectly pleasant places in which to live, work, play, and retire. When I was a kid, it was Shawinigan Falls. Now it’s Shawinigan Cataracts and they have a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Cataractes, actually, so as not to annoy the Francophones. (Allo. Allo. Ne quittez pas!) Ideally, every player should have cataracts, which would make their games more interesting to watch. (Against the Perkins School for the Blind, maybe.)
And DeFuniak Springs. It’s just a lovely name. Frederick R. De Funiak was a president of the Pensacola and Atlantic railroad, and one of his workers thought it would be a good idea to name the lake and then the town after him. It was a joke name, after all, but the man who wore it was unlikely to object. The men building the line—in that unbearable heat and humidity and with those swarms of mosquitoes the size of sparrows--hated the place and took great satisfaction in inflicting such a name on such a place. The enthusiasts of the Chautauqua movement picked it out as a winter headquarters and they, or their successors, omitted the space after the particule but the kept the F in the majuscule--which only made the name sillier. That is so nonsensical that you would bet on it, if you could find some sport willing to take odds against the existence of such a city. Jean-Paul Sartre? Or Belmondo. Or Marat? (Or Jones, for that matter.) They’re all dead now, though, and believe in néant.
Is that absurdum enough for you to give credence to it. Or conversely, is it too absurd for you to doubt. And Far Niente. Let us imagine that it is an eclectic restaurant in Toronto’s energetic Financial District. Let us further assert that it’s a bit pricey, charging $22.00 for a cob salad, and seven dollars more if you want chicken in it. (To be fair, we’re talking here about Canadian dollars, the looneys and twoneys that nonetheless add up.)Let us go there, you and me, into a beauteous evening, calm and free. Don’t say anything!Keep a solemn countenance. People will fear you, respect you, and perhaps one day, come to love you. You betcha. And the one of the Jean-Pauls may appear to pick up your check.
The Chautauqua movement is interesting primarily because it has three u’s in it. It is also a curious phenomenon in American (pardon the expression) culture. Education. Self-improvement. Who could be against those? First of all the movement was for Sunday School teachers, but they raised their sights and imagined themselves providing the equivalent of a college education to the poor who couldn’t afford those pricey tuitions. (In 1898, a year at Harvard cost $150.00, and, no, I haven’t misplaced the decimal point.) So what we’re really looking at here is uplift. Ambition (which is almost always overweening). Perfectionism. Or to get down to the nitty and gritty, these protestant do-gooders were hoping to curb the appetite of their flocks for drinking, gambling, dancing, whoring, and theater-going (honest!) and get them to stay home and read books, although presumably not collections of plays.
It is easy to make fun of this. But it’s our country right or wrong. And as Quentin Compson says, I think in The Sound and the Fury, “I don’t hate the South. I don’t. I don’t hate it. Really, really, I don’t.” [Repeat ad lib until the words have lost all meaning.]It’s hard to disown, is what he’s saying. But did he try, really, really hard?L'urlo e il furore would be the Italian version, of the novel, of course, but also of the opera, which is pleasing to imagine, with a mad scene right at the start as goofy Benjy describes a golf game. Or does the worst ringside analysis in the history of sportscasting: “One would hit and then the other one would hit.” Or is all this wrong? Or is it Absalom, Absalom in which Quentin comes back from Harvard to do his aria. Don’t worry about it; try not to think of it. Then try not to think of Belgium. All those rashis in ashrams in India have with greatest difficulty trained themselves not to think of Belgium for days at a time. It is a spiritual exercise and one can make steady progress to that tranquility to which we all aspire.
First, you don’t think of Belgium and then, with your breath carefully controlled, you manage to extinguish all thoughts of any of the Benelux countries. And then, and then. The entire continent of Europe disappears into the primordial fog from which it arose--without the music of Richard Strauss, I am afraid. With our luck it will turn out to have been something dopey from somebody like Emil Waldteufel or John Phillip Souza. Or both, alternating so that first one would play and then the other would play, the first few bars of each piece serving to rid the ear of the horrific dying quivers of the one that went before. An earworm, that would be, which is a calque for Ohrwurm, and we have an epidemic infestation of them. (Here is the one advantage that the tone-deaf have over the rest of us.)
An elitist, you say. A snob. Let me put it this way. When the Boston PBS stations is having its fundraisers and wants to attract the largest audiences with their most popular and appealing programs, what do they put on. Reruns of Laurence Welk and that woman with the bubble machine (Alice Lon, actually, “the champagne lady,” whom, if memory serves, Welk fired for showing too much leg). Nobody ever lost money by underestimating the advice of P. T. Barnum. A snob would have the right to sneer, which he would almost certainly exercise. But he might be redeemed, at least in part, by the pangs of pity in his heart for the sordidness of the demonstration. Who can bear to think of the Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, Ohio, in which Welk is, of course, one of the honorees?
Henry "Will" Wilczynski,
"Whoopee John" Wilfahrt,
Bernie Wyte Witkowski
Sylvester “Shep” Wolan
Chester “Chet” Zablocki
What is even more bothersome, as "Whoopee John" Wilfahrt is eager to point out, is Welk’s lapse from authenticity to a kind of slickness of which no one else on the list could approve. They were or are grown men and understand about money and the necessity of making a living. They know about responsibility—one must look after the whole band after all and think of what is best for all of them together. But a “champagne lady”. Whoopee John shakes his had and says, “Jesus Fucking Christ, you think we had champagne ladies back in the Bohemian forests. I was a kid of ten when my mother bought me my first accordion for a buck and a half. I practiced in the grain bin until the noises I was making began to sound a little like music. But what I was getting out of that squeeze box in the grain bin was a lot less annoying than what Welk produced for most of his life. He gave the rest of us a bad name.”
In fairy tales, the woods are dark, dangerous, frightening places, but in their depths, there are these pleasant peasants, squeezing out their cheerful polkas as if the beasts, the robbers, the witches, and the ogres were not hovering all around them. We can easily enough translate those cute fairytale figures into the politics (read, bloodthirsty madness) of Eastern Europe. But with an almost heroic denial, they belted out their cheerful tunes as if the world were a wedding. (Extra credit if you recognize that last phrase as an echo of the title of a Delmore Schwartz book of short stories.) Small wonder that these Polka Hall-of-Famers don’t feel comfortable about Welk’s having joined them. His music doesn’t have that authenticity which could be described as a thin-ice sparkle of gaiety over a deep lake of death and danger.
Am I right. Whoopee John doesn’t answer but only nods vaguely, either in agreement or perhaps because he is sleepy and maybe a little drunk. They brought their accordions, concertinas, bandoneons, and organetti with them when they came to America from Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonia, Albania, Moldavia, Freedonia, Sardinia, Sicilia and all those picturesque, grim places. Streets paved with gold were not what they were looking for. Streets that were not, from time to time, buried in mud or set ablaze would be quite satisfactory. They had few illusions and knew they would be pouring molten steel, mining for coal, paving roads, or at best herding cows somewhere out in the empty countryside around Shawinigan Falls, because they understood that life is hard wherever you are. Schnapps and music offer at least some temporary relief.
Whoopee John raises his head and then his eyebrows. He looks to be asking a question. What could he want to know. I think he thinks I ought to have offered him a beer by now. (He is my character and he can only think what I think he thinks.)
“Sure,” he says, but what he means is that it’s about time.
I ask the tavern-keeper for a Bohemia Obscura, which is a fine dark beer brewed in Mexico, originally by Bohemian immigrants. National Bohemian is better known and is an okay lager but it’s unremarkable, a product now of the Pabst Company in Los Angeles rather than the original Natty Boh guys in Baltimore. It doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor so it is best served icy-cold to wash down mouthfuls of crab. (The National Brewing Company are the guys who invented the six-pack, which could just as easily been four or eight, but isn’t because they set the standard back in the forties. Four would have been for panty-waists and eight would have been for pigs, who, if they were devout, could by two of the six-packs.)
I am certain that Whoopee Joe doesn’t know any of this and doesn’t much care. Beer is for drinking; talking about it is ridiculous. He picks up his schooner and takes a sip. (He is also uninterested in the oddment that an Australian schooner is smaller than a pint while, in Canada, it is larger. In Britain, meanwhile, a schooner is a large sherry glass, because sherry was delivered from Jerez in schooners. A smaller sherry glass is a clipper.)Old Joe has a beer-foam mustache but he doesn’t bother to wipe it away. A friend can give you a swallow of beer from his glass while you are up there performing, but he is not going to wipe away the foam on your upper lip, and you can’t take one hand off the accordion to do that yourself. So you leave it there and even get used to it there. It becomes a sign that you are not some goddamn amateur. Or a sell-out like Lawrence Welk. (My stupid spellcheck keeps correcting his name to whelk, to which I have no strong objection. A whelk is a kind of sea-snail, actually and, if you put its shell to your ear you can hear, albeit very faintly, “A one an’ a two!” But only beneath a full moon and between the breaking of the waves on the beach that generally drown out its ridiculous and barely audible call.)