January 15, 2007 - January 8, 2007
Friday, February 17, 2006
THE LIGHTHOUSE ON THE BEACH
. Sometimes the news is just too full of
obvious absurdity to dignify it with comment. How is it possible to
highlight the lunkheaded narcissism of a David Gregory more starkly
than he does himself every time he opens his baboon mouth? How is it
possible to further underscore the screamingly self-evident hypocrisy
of mainstream media that are too "sensitive" to print mildly satirical
cartoons about Muhammed but too committed to the public's "right to
quasi-pornographic photos from the years-old Abu Ghraib scandal? Even
repeating the facts for the purpose of laughing is a tautology. The
people whose job it is to collect and report the facts about today are
insane. How can we escape their manufactured loony bin of jackass
headlines and feckless talking heads?
The only recourse on such occasions is to look beyond the headlines for
a topic of interest or intrigue, a doorway into more fertile realms. It
so happens that if you ask, the universe will provide. Today, it turns
out, is the birth date of the man credited with writing the mysterious
Australian national anthem/drinking song/mystical hymn Waltzing Matilda
, whose baffling
lyrics are, once decoded, a paean to the universal desire to escape the
insanity of those who insist their will upon you.
of the song's composition
reads like a series of haphazard
circumstances that somehow combined to produce a permanent cultural
On this day in 1864 A. B. ("Banjo")
Paterson, the Australian bush poet who wrote "Waltzing Matilda," was
born in New South Wales.... While on a visit with his fiance to
Dagworth Station (large ranches, originally run by the government on
convict labor) in Queensland, Paterson
was taken with a nameless tune that he heard his hostess play on the
piano from memory. Having decided to set words to it, Paterson
immediately found his raw material in his host's guided tour of the
Station, which included a description of those events surrounding the
eight-day Shearers' Strike several months earlier. The "swagman [a
drifter or itinerant sheep-shearer, carrying his swag or blanket-roll]
camped by a billabong [waterhole]" was Samuel "Frenchy" Hoffmeister. He
was a militant member of the Shearers' Union, thought to have been the
one responsible for burning down the Dagworth woolshed, killing 140
sheep. He was not relaxing "under the shade of a coolibah [eucalyptus]
tree" but hiding out. If "he sang as he watched and waited 'til his
billy [tin can of water] boiled," it would have been very softly. When
the swagman "stowed that jumbuck [sheep] in his tucker [food] bag" he
was adding the fuel of poaching to the fire of political and class war.
When "up rode the squatter [wealthy landowner], mounted on his
thoroughbred," backed by "the troopers, one, two, three," it was a
contest no swagman -- least of all a militant unionist-arsonist-poacher
-- could win. When he suicidally "leapt into the billabong," crying
"You'll never catch me alive," it was the leap of a cornered, outback,
underclass, convict-bred martyr, to the cry of 'up yours, mate.'
Thus, it all begins with a remembered tune played by ear and overheard
by a writer of lyrics. According to legend the original tune was a
Scottish air called Thou Bonnie Wood
, which you can listen to here
in midi format. You'll note right away that it doesn't sound very much
like the world famous melody of Waltzing
(there's a fuller version, plus lyrics, of Thou Bonnie Wood here
advised, though, that the midi file at this site plays automatically),
but that's part of the wonder of the process. In fact, an additional
, is credited with revising Paterson's original into the
song's current form in 1906. Reading the history, it's as if the song
itself is somehow determined to be and so guides its own seemingly
random journey of creation to achieve its full incarnation.
Which brings us to the puzzle of the key phrase, the title. What
Matilda"? Here's your answer:
Frenchy" Hoffmeister, the historical
swagman... was from German stock, as was the expression "waltzing
Matilda." Auf der walz means to 'go on the tramp' or hit the road, used
in Germany to describe traveling workers or soldiers on the march; a
Matilda came to mean those women who followed the soldiers, to 'keep
them warm.' Eventually the soldier's greatcoat or blanket was a
Matilda. Thus Paterson's swagman-hero was not only without justice, or
food, or a way out, but a woman's warmth.
The Swagman with his Matilda
So, what appears to be a highly parochial Australian folk song is
revealed as a blending of Scottish, German, and English cultural
artifacts that began by accident and subsequently wandered its way into
worldwide consciousness. It has escaped its original historical
context, and it has even escaped Australia. The sound file accessed by
button above is the opening title of the Hollywood movie On the Beach
, which was set in
Australia but peopled by characters from around the globe. The song was
used to dramatize their plight as the last survivors of nuclear war,
awaiting the inevitable death by radiation that would eventually
descend from the sky. For them there could be no escape, no more
waltzing away from insanity. And while Waltzing Matilda
extraordinary property of being effective as a military march, a joyous
bar singalong, and as an endearing folk tune, in this movie the
emotional climax is provided by a choral rendition that approximates a
funeral lamentation. Wherever it goes, Waltzing Matilda
seems to carry all
shades of life within it.
The pilgrimage of this special piece of music is likely to continue on
and on, but we'll close today with a nod to the most powerful current
interpretation, Tom Wait's Tom
. This sound file
is only a sample, but you can buy the album here
and if you do, I think you'll find that just like the original, it has
a way of growing stronger and more deeply moving on each hearing.
When the news gets to be like it has been in recent days, here's your
way out. Turn off the TV, log off the Internet, and turn up the volume
on Tom Traubert's Blues
You'll eventually come waltzing though the worst of the madness,
chastened and stirred, but still very much alive.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
A SCOOP FROM THE XOFF
In Honor of Valentine's Day:
The Carschach Test
Inkblot #1: Is this the one that turns you on?
. For generations now, the psychology profession has used
inkblots to tap the subconscious minds of human beings. It only took 50
years or so of data collection and tabulation to discover that whenever
you show someone an inkblot, he always
associates it with sex. To Dr. Gerhard Carschach, this phenomenon
suggested that it's time -- for doctors and patients both -- to stop
pretending that inkblots are houses or insects or cats on the
mantlepiece. This just wastes time and muddies the waters. That's why
he has developed a new set of eight blots that he regards as complete
and sufficient for all psyches.
"Now that we know we're all of us always
looking for sex in abstract images," Dr. Carschach explained in a
recent interview, "we can ask a question much simpler than 'What does
this make you think of?' We can ask, rather, which one of these blots
turns you on the most? Sexually, I mean."
InstaPunk readers can experience the absolute insights of the new
inkblots for themselves. The procedure is simple. Study all the blots
on this page, including the one above, and after careful review and
comparison, select the ONE that seems to you the most sexually
suggestive and appealing. Then click on THAT inkblot for a detailed
analysis of your sexual persona. But please don't be hasty. The results
are correct 99.9 percent of the time, and the psychological damage can
be immense and permanent if you inadvertently become one of the 0.01
percent of those who choose too quickly.
That small warning given, have at it and enjoy your voyage of personal
Monday, February 13, 2006
Cartoon Contest Results
. On Groundhog Day, we started the ball rolling:
(W)e're sponsoring a little contest.
Above you'll find the inoffensive image from the original [Tom Toles]
cartoon stripped of its names, labels, and words. We invite you to fill
them in however you think appropriate. You can copy the image and
Photoshop it yourself, or you can email InstaPunk with the text content
you want.... We will choose a winner sometime next week... After we've
published the worst you can do, we will fail to apologize for any
offense taken by your targets. How's that for a prize?
It's taken us longer than anticipated to collate and consider what
turned out to be a big pile of entries. Our apologies for that, but not
for anything that follows. Yes, we know that some of you were offended
by the mere fact of the contest; for example, here are the thoughts of
I found the WaPo cartoon beyond vile. I
believe your little
contest is no better, although I'm ashamed that it's coming from my
side of the blogosphere.
Several of the contest entrants also identified the original blank
version we created as the only variation from the original they could
stomach submitting. We understand their sensibilities, but there is
value in carrying out a live attempt to turn a sow's ear into a silk
purse. While many of the entries are clever, none succeeds in rising
above the repugnant image to become truly funny. In short, the
collected entries prove that regardless of Toles's attempt to depict
the original as a harmless conceptual construct, his drawing is
truly offensive. His error is very much like that of writers and
filmmakers who insist on using the F-Word in their work to achieve
verisimilitude. The effect of that word in print and on film far
outweighs its effect in casual conversation. Toles conceived an idea
that was abstract in its imagined form, but far too real and resonant
in its emotional impact. His cartoon and all the reworkings of it we
in bad taste.
Focusing on one exceptionally clumsy example reminded us that Toles and
other political cartoonists are especially susceptible to this kind of
misstep. There is a wide gulf between political cartoons and New Yorker
cartoons -- i.e., cartoons that are honestly meant to be funny.
Political cartoons are self-conscious allegories rather than slices of
life, and their images are almost exclusively symbolic. They do not
refer to authentic human experience except by (usually unfortunate)
accident. They are at best witty, and at worst a deadly expose of the
artist's own pretensions. We are forced to the conclusion that
political cartoonists make up the bush league of both the art and humor
Most of our entrants understood this and acknowledged, explicitly or
implicitly, the impossibility of extracting real humor from the Toles
drawing . A few did not. Despite our admonitions, quite a few lefties
offered submissions that retained the identity of the patient as the
U.S. Army or a soldier in that army. A couple of thoughtless righties
did the same. We were surprised by all instances of this.
We are getting to the winners, but just a few more observations first.
We offered entrants the opportunity to submit text rather than
filled-in cartoons, but this resulted in almost nothing usable.
Particularly with regard to lefties, the text versions turned into
sentences and even paragraphs of lecturing rhetoric. These are never
funny, and they are almost always directly counter-productive to their
authors' purpose. You can see many examples of such leaden non-starters
in the Comments section of the Contest
, where it should be obvious that as a group the
lefties have no emotional connection of any kind to the troops they
affect to save through surrender and appeasement. They don't see the
soldier in the bed as anything but a chess piece in their attack on
Bush. Are you listening, Tom Toles and WAPO editors? Of course not.
Now for our (dis)honorees. We selected this one because the submitter
went to the trouble of revising the drawing on his own, and it does
succeed in tapping into a culturally shared image that's less real and
repellent than the original.
Our Third Place winner represents the
best attempt we received tying the Toles controversy to the Muhammed
. Inexcusably -- and therefore
dares to depict Muhammed himself.
Next comes the cartoon that first
occurred to us, and we freely concede we didn't have the nerve to work
it up ourselves. But we do have the gumption to publish it.
The entries as a whole did fall
naturally into a number of categories. The most popular targets were
Democrats and liberal ideology, the mainstream media, Islamists and
their apologists, and predictably, the most deserving target of all.
Here is the best of that last category.
You can also see a larger percentage of the total entries, broken out
by category, on a separate page here
. If you
choose to go there and
look, don't bother telling us how offended you are. You looked.
There. We did what we promised, and also as promised, we have no prizes
to give other than continuing anonymity for our contributors and a
stubborn refusal to apologize for this object lesson. Thanks to all who