Friday, August 28, 2009

meteors, part III -- robert benchley, my ten years in a quandary and how they grew

my apologies for the abrupt silence in this blog of mine. it appears my brain decided to take a vacation and thus, i have trouble typing things that i want other people to read. but tonight i read a very funny little diversion, and i wanted to share it with you all. it's a piece called "isn't it remarkable" from a collection of very short shorts (i imagine they were newspaper columns) written by robert benchley. benchley is best known for his membership at the algonquin round table alongside dorothy parker, alexander woolcott, harpo marx, and charles mcarthur, to name just a few. there is plenty to know about benchley, as comic writer and actor, but like i said, i'm not typing just now, so i can only advise you to find out more about him.

Isn't It Remarkable?

On a recent page of colored reproductions of tomb paintings and assorted excavations from holes in ancient Egypt there appears a picture of a goose with the following rather condescending caption:

Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose from Pharaoh Akhenaten's Palace, Drawn 3300 Years Ago

What I want to know is-- why the "remarkable?" Why is it any more remarkable that someone drew a goose accurately 3300 years ago than that someone should do it today? Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose so that it looked like a goose?

As a matter of fact, the goose in this particular picture looks more like a goose than that of many a modern master. Just what do we think we are, in this age of bad drawing, to call an Egyptian painting "remarkably accurate and artistic" I don't know, but we have got to get over this feeling that anything that was done correctly in 1000 B.C. was a phenomenon. I say that we have to got to get over it, but I don't know how.

People managed to drag along in ancient Egypt, from all that we can gather. They may not have known about chocolate malted milk, and opera hats, but, what with one thing and another, they got by. And, presumably, every once in a while somebody felt like drawing a goose. And why not? Is there something exclusively twentieth century about the art of goose-drawing?

We are constantly being surprised that people did things well before we were born. We are constantly remarking on the fact that things are done well by people other than ourselves. "The Japanese are a remarkable little people," we say, as if we were doing them a favor. "He is an Arab, but you ought to hear him play the zither." Why "but"?

Another thing, possibly not exactly in this connection, but in line with our amazement at obvious things. People are always saying: "My grandfather is eighty-two and interested in everything. Reads the paper every day and follows everything."

Why shouldn't he be interested in everything at eighty-two? Why shouldn't he be especially interested in everything at eighty-two? What is there so remarkable about his reading the paper every day and being conversant on all topics? If he isn't interested in everything at eighty-two when is he going to be? (I seem to be asking an awful lot of questions. Don't bother answering them, please.)

It is probably this naive surprise at things that keeps us going. If we took for granted that the ancient Egyptians could draw a goose accurately, or that Eskimos could sing bass, or that Grandpa should be interested in everything at eighty-two, there wouldn't be anything for us to hang our own superiority on.

And if we couldn't find something to hang our own superiority on we should be sunk. We should be just like the ancient Egyptians, or the Eskimos, or Grandpa.


  1. did this man write Jaws?

  2. I left the above comment...for some reason it said I was a guest...when I'm signed in. That is all. :)

  3. Thanks for this Maureen. I love the Algonquins, as I like to call them. I wish I could have seen some of the revues they all put on together. How fabulous would that be??

  4. thanks for the clarification martyn. :) peter benchley, who wrote jaws, is the grandson of robert benchley. :)

  5. Mo! So nice to see your lovely smiling face (and Hexter, of course) again! I've missed you, my dear. It's been a long year and a half, but (touch wood) things are finally settling down. I'll be in touch soon!

  6. oh natalia! thanks for swinging by my blog and saying hello. yes, it's been a long strange journey. i'm still not at the end of the road, but yes, please, when you get a chance say hello. :) mo/xo