Release Party: Slapstick Modernism

solomonWe live in an age when Iggy Pop adorns groovy travel bags and makes the scene at Cannes to support a Jim Jarmusch documentary about his iconic band the Stooges. Punk conquered the world long ago, thankfully, and if it failed to transform that world quite as much as one might like, well, we nonetheless bask in its joyous noise, its liberating attitudes, its boldly spoken dislike of our so-called betters and the world those %(&*#@@! chose to create.

William Solomon sees Iggy as part of a noble line that began long ago in the slapstick of another age. His new book Slapstick Modernism: Chaplin to Kerouac to Iggy Pop explores how it all happened.

Slapstick comedy landed like a pie in the face of twentieth-century culture. Pratfalls and nyuk-nyuks percolated alongside literary modernism throughout the 1920s and 1930s before slapstick found explosive expression in postwar literature, experimental film, and popular music.

Solomon charts the origins and evolution of slapstick modernism, that potent merging of artistic experimentation with the socially disruptive lunacy made by the likes of Charlie Chaplin. Romping through texts, films, and theory, Solomon embarks on a harum-scarum intellectual odyssey from high modernism to the late modernism of the Beats and Burroughs before a head-on crash into the raw power of punk rock. Throughout, he shows the links between the experimental writers and silent screen performers of the early century, and explores the potent cultural undertaking that drew inspiration from anarchical comedy after World War Two. For example:

…Depression-era reports of the death of comically affective zaniness turned out to be premature given what happened in the United States and elsewhere in the world in the 1950s and ’60s. A final return to Lester Bangs on the Stooges helps underscore the socially beneficial promise of such appeals to slapstick lunacy. For Bangs, the group’s music functioned as a dialectical remedy for contemporary ills, or at least was intended to serve as a homeopathic treatment for the “sickness in our new, amorphous institutions”.

Admittedly, aspects of the band’s music exhibit “a crazed quaking uncertainty, an errant foolishness that effectively mirrors the absurdity and desperation of the times,” but it nevertheless carries “a strong element of cure, a post-derangement sanity.” The Stooges return to the exhausted masses their exploited energies, in effect recharging them: “Power doesn’t go to the people, it comes from them, and when the people have gotten this passive, nothing short of electroshock and personal exorcism will jolt them and rock them into some kind of healthy interaction”. The Stooges work deftly within the “seemingly circumscribed confines of this fuzz-feedback territory” to reenergize their audience. The “‘mindless’ rhythmic pulsation repeating itself to infinity” that they produce is a key element of “one of the most powerful esthetic experiences of our time”. Putting on stage “the secret core of sickness” we all share, the band poses a threat, albeit one that “is cathartic.”

The final goal is freedom: “the end is liberation”. For Bangs, then, the group’s raucous music had a restorative thrust, was designed to function as a remedy for modern maladies. On the basis of their curative aspirations, the Stooges’ “super-modern” intervention merits high praise, though “you better never call it art or you may wind up with a deluxe pie in the face”.