Well meant

In large parts of the United States, a man known to be married to an East Asian woman can expect to be asked, “Does it slant?”

That conversational opener is sometimes followed by the explanation, “Hee hee, I’m just messin’ with yuh.” By acknowledging the irony of the question that has just been asked, this shorts the communicative circuit by making an answer impossible. Functionally, hee hee is equivalent to, “I asked a question about the anatomy of a third party, but the only anatomy I’m actually concerned with is yours. My question, ‘Does it slant?’ wasn’t a whimsical Wallace Stevens query about your wife’s yellow vagina but a demand for your pain. If the pain shows in your face, I’ll know that my demand has been acceded to and you have begun to learn my way of asking.

“Speaking of which, my way of asking is the only way.”

Which implies that yes, a conversation built around a question usually takes the form of a duet, but if the question is Does it slant? the melody and the lyric won’t belong to the same music. The melody of Does it slant? is a vocalise sung in the rising tone of a request for communication, but the spoken lyric says Don’t talk back to me. The tone and the content of the slant question — a question asked in the register of a social context but demanding an answer in the register of a solitary one — are cognitively dissonant, and perhaps that is why the Hee hee usually comes out as a phlegmy wheeze.

Because that’s ugly, we would prefer to keep listening just for the tone. After all, too, everything in language until the downbeat on slant taught us that words form a harmony. So if our partner in the duet should now happen to let a beat pass without Hee hee, we’ll gratefully hope that that nothing will now be the rest of the song. Just that, just the wheezy noise not made while the speaker catches his breath, will be all it takes to give a downbeat to the gratitude and cue us to believe He must mean well.

Unfortunately, the gratitude we feel to the tone won’t be comprehensible to the lyric. Speaking into the silence something hopeful like, “No, it doesn’t slant” will only re-cue the wheeze and the coughing bark: “Slant! Har!” But the echoes of that noise are where we’ll discover something that was in the joke’s libretto all along. To the delight of the barking man, the effect of the discovery will be visible on the surface of our thought, in the darkening face. But behind that surface, in the light of the mind, the discovery itself will be this: in the universal irony of language, words can work against themselves to create anti-meanings, and one of those words is the verb mean.

On not getting the joke

Item: as I recall the old article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an autistic student failed a question on an exam because the question was based on a joke. The student reacted by asking a court to require every assignment written for him to be strictly fact-based, with no humor or other figurative use of language allowed.

Item: to date, my only contribution to the letters page of the TLS responded to a review by A. N. Wilson of a book about the controversial British politician Shirley Porter. Porter’s father was the founder of the giant retail chain Tesco, and, as Wilson observed, the “co” stands for Cohen. Having made that observation, Wilson then took it Python (“Wink wink nudge nudge know what I mean know what I mean?”) and generated a sentence which tried so hard to shriek “I hate Jews” and “I hate Israel” in the same breath that it exploded in a spit-spray of ungrammatical incoherence.

I pointed that out to the readers of the TLS. Back from the United Kingdom came a handwritten aerogram accusing me of antisemitism.

Item: an artist who articulates the connection between item 1 and item 2 is Eli Valley, creator of Stuart the Jewish Turtle. It’s true about Stuart, and it’s sad: we don’t very often talk to the people before us. All we hear and all we respond to, most of the time, is the autistic echo inside our own shells.


Item: in his glass box, to himself, Stuart the Jewish Turtle grumbled “Goddamn antisemites!” during the last months of the George W. Bush administration. Items 1 and 2 above are even older. (Reader, when was the last time you received an aerogram?) But now I’m going to be coy and vague about something that appeared on the Net just last night. Its blurred outline looks like this.

The author of a comic strip I’ve enjoyed for its irony announced, in his opening panel, that his strip had lost its syndication. The rest of the strip was ironic about people too unsophisticated to appreciate irony. I appreciated the strip and sent it approvingly along to a graduate student. But then, for the first time ever, I looked at the author’s blog.

The author turns out to be heavily involved in his small town’s politics. One of his blogposts about that reproduces a handwritten note politely asking him to try to keep his emotions under control in meetings, followed by a handwritten reply ordering the writer of the note never to speak to him again. In another blogpost, the author reproaches his fellow citizens for upsetting him so badly that he had a stroke which left him blind in one eye. And a third post, quite a long one, is the author’s agonized analysis of the love and hate he feels for Holden Caulfield.

Oh poor guy.

And I thought I was getting a sophisticated joke.

There’s probably a moral to this story, and it’s probably cautionary. But now I’m not sure I know what it might be.