On the Limitless Joys of Awfulness

Sometimes in truckstop diners or restaurants geared toward tourist or transient one sees those games with the wooden board and the pegs. Sometimes the game’s called “baseball”, sometimes it’s called something else. Sometimes it’s called “baseball” but it’s a different game. It consists of a bunch of plastic pegs in a wooden triangle. Waiters and waitresses will frequently learn how to beat the game by jumping the pegs over each other until there’s only one peg left to impress diners. The reason I bring this up is because of the odd nature of the game; the most difficult feat to pull off is the opposite of the second most difficult and far more often accomplished one; in the second most difficult you jump pegs until there is only one peg left on the board. But to truly have mastered the game you must be able to jump pegs until you have eight left on the board and no more possible moves.

And so it is with the mystical glow of the transcendent terrible. It looks like incompetence but cannot be replicated; it confounds; part of the joys in taking it in sit in pointing out exactly what is horrible in it but as the great works seem to grow with us and shift their insights so the genuinely awful works have similar staying power and seems awful for different reasons over time; they replenish their stock and fascination like cockroach populations in wall paneling.

Some of you may be familiar with The Great McGonagall, one of the most frequently nominated candidates for the title of worst poet in the English language. McGonagall and his legend have fascinated me for some time now. His words have a steadfast awfulness I can’t imitate any more convincingly than I could imitate the breathy intimacy of Rainer Marie Rilke. And I have shared more intimate moments, I have derived more pleasure and edification in reading aloud McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster” than Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Though I know that I should feel more partial to the latter, “The Tay Bridge Disaster” somehow finds itself more frequently invited to share time with friends and loved ones. It has charms that, even if they work in reverse, seem incapable of losing their clunky luster despite however many dozens times I’ve read the poem aloud to myself and others.

I come before you not to bury Rilke but to somehow explain my intense fascination with McGonagall.

The first time I took LSD, in between pacing back and forth in my apartment, playing Pet Sounds and mumbling to myself I wrote the following without remembering that I did:

“…but for now you’re here, and here there are two historical incidents that seem a dichotomy from which you can decide how to conduct yourself in this life:

Christ voluntarily sacrifices himself despite the powers he had as the son of god: a lesson in care and humility.

The Great McGonagle refuses to die while playing the lead in a community theater production of MacBeth because his scene partner tried to upstage him.

In your better moments you emulated the latter.”

The surface meaning is obvious. I’d frequently returned to this theme, the theme of resistance in the face of something pointless or absurd in previous writings, as in this piece on my time working as a dishwasher in an old folks home for retired missionary priests:

Father Solomon didn’t have dementia like the other men had dementia. Other men wore it like a stigma, but for Solomon it was the Dean Martin to his Jerry Lewis; his liberation, the little difference that freed him from the cage of logic and led him into that higher realm of comedy that eclipses the one founded in rationality. Who could forget when his nurse walked him to dinner that crisp July evening, Solomon chanting “I’m dead. I’m dead.” in his scratchy deadpan mumble, the same night she said “But sweetheart, dead people can’t talk.” to which he just grunted “I’m different.” and went back to chanting….

When we’d ask him what he wanted to eat or drink, he’d say “Moonshine”. We’d bring him milk and he’d drink it like it was moonshine. He’d forget what he’d asked for between the time we took his order and brought it to his seat, and would ask “What is this?” Once I said “Washers and car parts.”, and he still went at it like it was steak.

I still smile when I remember the time he paced the length of the building, fully clothed, mumbling “Where’s my pants?”

Every five minutes at every meal he’d scream “Cheech!” and Brother Bosco, who sat next to him, would claim it was Hungarian for “Shit on the floor” before complaining that the food was too Jewish, and Father Heyburn got so fed up with Solomon’s screaming he considered getting a gun to shoot him so he’d finally be quiet. Solomon always made a smirk in my direction after screaming, as if it were an inside joke just between the two of us. I relished these moments and somewhere in the back of my mind I wished and still do that when my time came I’d face it like Father Solomon.

I could point to a dozen other examples; my strange admiration for my childhood dog, an angry and neurotic purebred Brittany spaniel, the runt of its litter and compact and brown like wheat bread or sausage, who, on having been fitted with a surgical cone took to walking up and down the stairs hitting the cone against each step. At first we felt bad for her, but after the third lap up and down we realized she was reveling in the powers the cone gave her to spite our staircase. It accomplished nothing. It meant nothing. Still she beat her head against the staircase. We eventually figured out she was enjoying it. She continued in order to spite the stairs. Had the dog been able to write English verse she may have had a style naturally like McGonagall; had she gone to West Point she very well could’ve been president.

Something about a person willing to traffic so readily in the absurd inspires; it suggests at least the continued possibility for the belief in something beyond the sensible. It speaks to the part of us, some of us anyhow, that aspires to greatness in awfulness or perhaps simply appreciates the outsideness of the odd thing. Charismatic madness neutered of the destructive power it can exert outside an asylum of its own narrow obsessive quality or more terrestrial desires. Pure in spite and in delight…shining light through that that cracked, light so bright it might blind us to the rats, broken clocks that insist its their singular time and other cliches circling what cliches circle: things that compel but refuse to lay prostrate before the wiles of words. It cares not and knows not what’s considered good and as such stands with the allure of the outsider; “intentional” kitsch and repackaged camp never works because it lacks this element. It doesn’t stand outside; it winks from the inside and those with sense sniff out the attendant adulterations in the bread.

We take joy in both dance and pratfalls; there is a virtuosity in clumsiness that can be sensed; it desires appreciation and criticism that can meet it with similar clumsiness. It stands alone.

But it has many friends.

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