S. J. Perelman and the House of Horrors
By Timothy Holton
(Council on Foreign Relations)

A Life
By Dorothy Hermann

The History of the FAI
By Juan Gomez Casas
Translated by Abe Bluestein
(Black Rose)

By the Variety Club
(Seattle, Washington)


Many years ago, Paul Goodman wrote an article summing up the philosophical style of several widely read American journals. I remember with particular pleasure his succinct comment about Time: "And Time magazine," he wrote, "is a pain in the ass." What more need be said?

About the editorial page of the New York Times, Goodman remarked on that even-handed vacuousness which he called the style of "on-the-one-hand-this and on-the-other-hand-that." He neglected to point out that this style is also the insignia of academic writing in the discipline called political science. The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union is a classic example. It is rich in formulations such as "the outcome is not preordained, but the complexity of the choices is..." or "we cannot say for certain, and one has to doubt if the Politburo itself knows what it will do." Professor Holton carefully describes several possible courses for the Soviet Union: revolutionary change, radical reform, moderate reform, stasis, or a return to Stalinism. Then he goes out on a limb to venture that one or another of these outcomes is likely to eventuate, although of course other possibilities cannot be excluded.

The writing of political scientists does, however, provide one guide to the future: it indicates where the English language is going. The social science establishment (including academics, social workers, bureaucrats, and journalists) introduced the transformation of nouns into verbs, as in the new verb "to impact." Professor Holton brings us one such new verb, "to marketize," and another which appears to come from an adjective, "to congrue." On the one hand, this new verb may come from "congruent;" or on the other hand, it may come from "gruesome," but we cannot say for certain.

My view is that tinkering with the English language should be regulated every bit as strictly as trade in controlled substances. The Language Police should have been tipped off about Professor Holton, and they should have kicked down the door to his study and confiscated both "marketize" and "congrue," not to mention the professor's word processor. The ACLU may stamp its feet and threaten to hold its breath, but in my book civil liberties do not include the right to Word Abuse.

I don't mean to suggest that only God can make up a verb. In my system, licenses to tinker with the English language would be extended to seasoned professionals who had demonstrated that they could be trusted --- for example, the late S. J. Perelman. Perelman once described the soup that began a particularly ghastly meal as an eerie gumbo. Now there was a writer who could be trusted to make a verb.

One wonders what processes of mind gave Perelman his uncanny ear for the language. Unfortunately, S. J. Perelman: A Life is no help in this regard. Instead, it is a rather depressing and relentlessly serious psychobiography, heavy with footnotes in the academic vein.1 After the one-hundredth footnote,2 one begins to wonder whether the footnotes might take on a life of their own, and begin to argue with the text, as in the classic piece by Stephen Leacock.3

Ms. Hermann's account is enlivened only once by a hint of how Perelman's mind worked: Sid possessed a great mimetic talent so that when he began to write, he could create not only a first-person narrative from afemale viewpoint, but evoke the inner voices of dogs, cats, even vegetables in the refrigerator. Once, he did an entire piece from a coconut's point of view.

Speaking of vegetables in the refrigerator, not to mention coconuts, we also have Anarchist Organization: the History of the FAI. Your reviewer dabbled with Anarcho-Syndicalism in his youth, but has latterly shifted his political tendance to Alcoholo-Mongolism. Still, reading Gomez Casas was an exercise in nostalgia for me.

The FAI was the Anarchist political organization, and the CNT was the Anarchist trade-union confederation in pre-Civil War Spain. Inasmuch as Anarchists do not believe in the existence of politics (in the usual sense) or trade-union activity, the two organizations suffered certain existential difficulties. Nonetheless, such is the Spanish temperament that the Anarchists were the most influential force among the Spanish working class before and at the start of the war.

When los cuatro generales attacked the leftist Republican government in 1936, the Anarchists defended it (although somewhat reluctantly, inasmuch as Anarchists do not believe in Republican governments) and also brought off a semi-revolution, organizing agricultural and industrial production in large parts of Andalucia and Cataluņa along Anarcho-Syndicalist lines of worker self-management.

Naturally, this was anathema to Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, and Communists --- in other words, the Republican government --- and they terminated the experiment within the year, in a sort of civil war within the Civil War. Whether the experiment might have succeeded for a longer time is a question that which has tantalized us vegetables in the refrigerator ever since. Maybe it couldn't have worked out in the real world, but Anarchists don't entirely believe in the real world, which is why the Anarchists also had the best songs.

Alas, the songs, and this book, are almost all that remains of Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalism. Someone once wrote that the trouble with Socialism is that you have to attend too many meetings. That is not quite correct, but it goes double in spades for Anarcho-Syndicalism, which is why, I think, the experiment will not be tried again.

If endless political meetings are not to your taste, I suggest a visit to the Halloween Haunted House in Seattle, Washington's Pioneer Square. It has a fleshy reality that is more nerve-wracking than holograms or electronic ghosts, based on a crew of young people who obviously enjoy scaring the wits out of their visitors.

In one dimly lit gallery, a hand came out of a black garbage bag and grabbed my leg. I grabbed back, but my daughter Joanna hurried me on, lest we be subjected to legal action for Monster Abuse.

Next, the pitch darkness gave way to disorienting strobe lights and a young man who threatened us with an ax as he howled like a banshee. Then he vanished altogether.

I thought this might be a good time to sit down and think things out, but Joanna's steely grip on my hand pulled me along into the next gallery. There, as I nursed my dislocated wrist, a young woman chopped a human arm in half with an ax, depositing the forearm in front of us, and cheerfully asked, "Would you like a hand?" Joanna and I pushed on through the gloom, found a staircase, and got the hell out.

--- Jon Gallant

    1For example, George S. Kaufman to S. J. Perelman, December 9, 1940, unpublished memo. (Chapter Eight, note 52.)
    2S. J. Perelman, Certificate of Death 156-79-116726, October 17, 1979; City of New York, Bureau of Vital Records, Department Of Health. (Chapter Twenty-One, note 13.)
    3No, you dope --- it was Will Cuppy.

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