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Humor, Shelley, and Originality

July 12, 2011

Apparently, Shelley had a great sense of humor. This was a surprise to me thanks to the image Mary helped create after he died. You know: the tragic artist, fey, frail, unearthly, a Christ-like martyr too good for this world. But according to his friend Leigh Hunt he loved practical jokes, and, best of all, shocking people. One day, says Hunt, they were riding in a stagecoach and an old lady got in who Shelley thought was disapproving or critical or something, because he suddenly spouted Shakespeare, from Richard II: “For Heaven’s sake! Let us sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” The poor old lady was “startled into a look of the most ludicrous astonishment” and “looked on the coach-floor, as if expecting to see us take our seats accordingly.” (forgive me if I have already told you this story — I like it a lot)

My grandfather, an artist (a concert violinist), also loved practical jokes. One day he dressed up like a street musician and played on the sidewalk to see if anyone would give him any money. I don’t know if they did, but apparently this was the kind of thing he liked to do. Trick people. Make people laugh. Maybe this kind of humor is connected to creativity. To performance. After all, a great musician, a great poet has to surprise us. If they don’t we get mad and say they are not “original” — although, as I always tell my students once upon a time (in the 17th and early 18th century) being original actually meant being “touched in the head” — ie, mentally ill, or handicapped in some way. The best praise you could earn was to be “like” someone else. And if you were an artist, you bragged about how closely you were copying the masters. You did not try to do something “new” or “different.” Nothing could have been worse because you wanted to fit into tradition, not break with tradition. Of course, (as I also tell my students) these are generalizations, and are therefore, by definition, sloppy. Still, I find it instructive to debunk originality from time to time. It takes the pressure off. So does laughing.

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