I’ve just returned from the annual HACK (Humorists, Authors, Columnists, and Kibbitzers) conference. This year it returned to the campus of my alma mater, The Biloxi School of Bartending ("Chug, Chug, Chug, you fighting Jello Shots! Go Biloxi!").
I was not scheduled to give a presentation this year. I looked forward to spending the conference poolside, or in the mixology sciences lab, or napping in my room. Unfortunately, inclemency closed the pool, a chemical spill closed the lab (nobody would elaborate) and my room in Jagermeister Hall was adjacent to heavy renovations in progress and was, thus, unavailable to me 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.
I had no alternative but to attend conference sessions. Reluctantly, I perused the conference program booklet, a task I heretofore undertook only to confirm that my name had not been misspelled. Bereft of my scholarly contribution, the program presented little enticement. “Parsing Post-Patriarchal Puns: A Panel Discussion,” caught my eye, until I saw who was moderating. My nemesis, that pandering peacock, that, that . . . but I digress.
I ran my finger down the program pages looking for something to take my mind off that pompous popinjay who couldn’t tell a “Yo Momma” joke if my mater was in the front row.
“Humor in Parlous Times: Lessons from Leo Strauss,” presented by Aloisius Hortense, Ph.D., Professor of Commedia Erudita, The Biloxi School of Bartending. Dr. Hortense had been my adviser during my graduate studies. We had not stayed in touch. I thought it would be nice to get reacquainted after his talk. I found the room, Modelo D, in the sub-subbasement of the InBev Convention Center. I took a seat at the rear of the room, four rows back. I was the first to arrive.
At 11 a.m. sharp, Dr. Hortense strode to the podium. The crowd had swelled to three. None of us sat together. Dr. Hortense swept the room with piercing brown eyes beneath the untrimmed hedges of his eyebrows.
I am a note taker. I take notes when a waitress takes my lunch order—you never know when you might need to revisit the matter. So, I kept busy as Dr. Hortense made his points.
To begin, he quoted from Leo Strauss’s essay Persecution and the Art of Writing: “Persecution, then, gives rise to a peculiar technique of writing, and therewith to a peculiar type of literature, in which the truth of all crucial things is presented exclusively between the lines.”
Today, according to Dr. Hortense, the license to speak truthfully, even in jest, has been revoked. The only avenue for social critique then, is to write in a manner whereby ambiguity and misdirection places the obligation on the censor to ascertain what has been said between the lines. The literal, however, will not be tolerated, or ignored. You could have heard my pen drop.
There was only one question from the audience: “Where is the knock-knock joke workshop?”
Dr. Hortense closed his notebook with a snap and exited through a side door.