... I must needs point out an important fact. Just as our fair land of dollars and no sense was not always blest with prohibition, even so language was not always blest with "opposites." Quite the contrary. A certain very wise man has pointed out (in connection with the meaning of dreams) that what "weak" means and what "strong" means were once upon a time meant by one word. To understand this, it is quite unnecessary for us to try to imagine ourselves bloodthirsty savages of the forest primeval, or even to become psychoanalysts. All we have to do is to observe closely something which is flourishing under our very noses, today--the art of burlesk.
For in burlesk, we meet with an echo of the original phenomenon: "opposites" occur together. For that reason, burlesk enables us to (so to speak) know around a thing, character, or situation. To put it a little differently: if the art of common-or-garden painting were like the art of burlesk, we should be able to see--impossibly enough--all the way around a solid tree, instead of merely seeing a little more than half of the tree (thanks to binocular parallax or whatever it is) and imagining the rest. This impossible knowing around, or nonimagining, quality, constitutes the essence of burlesk and differentiates it from certain better-understood arts.
With the idea of making my point perfectly clear, I shall try to describe something which impressed me, at the time, as one of the most extraordinary experiences which I had ever had; something which happened, a few years ago, on the stage of that most extraordinary temple of burlesk, the National Winter Garden--then, as now, located at the comer of East Houston Street and Second Avenue, New York City--which institution I regard as superior to any other burlesk stronghold which I have yet inhabited, not excluding the Howard Atheneum, in Boston.
The protagonist of the occasion was a famous burlesk star named Jack Shargel (since retired; at that date, as I believe, one of two very great actors in America, number two being Charlie Chaplin) and the experience was this: a beauteous lady (weighing several hundred pounds) hands the super-Semitic, black-derbied, misfit-clothed, keen-eyed but ever-imposed-on individual called Jack Shargel a red rose--Shargel receives her gift with a gesture worthy of any prince; cautiously escorts the flower to his far from negligible nose; rapturously, deliriously even, inhales its deep, luxurious, seductive, haunting fragrance; then (with a delicacy which Chaplin might envy) tosses the red rose exquisitely, lightly, from him. The flower flutteringly describes a parabola--weightlessly floats downward--and just as it touches the stage there is a terrific, soul-shaking, earthquake-like crash: as if all the glass and masonry on earth, all the most brittle and most ponderous things of this world, were broken to smithereens.
Nothing in "the arts," indeed, not even Paul Cezanne's greatest painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire, has moved me more, or has proved to be a more completely inextinguishable source of "aesthetic emotion," than this knowing around the Shargel rose; this releasing of all the un-roselike and non-flowerish elements which--where "rose" and "flower" are ordinarily concerned --secretly or unconsciously modify and enhance those rose--and flower--qualities to which (in terms of consciousness only) they are "opposed."
But hark--I can hear my readers exclaiming: "the idea of becoming pompous and highbrow on such a topic--when everybody is wise to the fact that burlesque shows are distinctly inartistic and frankly lowbrow affairs!"
One moment: there are "burlesque shows" and this is thanks to the supporters of the National Winter Garden, Burlesk. But, granted that--on the surface--no two things could possibly seem more incompatible than burlesk (the original undiluted article) and "Art," this is important only as proving how little "cultured" people observe for themselves and how consistently they are duped by preconceived notions. Should my readers take the trouble to examine, not conventional or academic "art," but "modern" (also called "primitive") art--art of today, art which is alive--they will discover that, in ridiculing the aesthetic significance of burlesk with a k, they are talking through their hats. For example: that favourite war cry of modern literature, le mot juste, is pre-eminently the war cry of burlesk, where we find in abundance such perfectly unambiguous statements as: "I'll hit yer so hard yer shirt'll roll up yer back like a windowshade!" Again, what is frequently referred to as "abstract," "non-representative," cubistic," and even "futuristic," painting is fundamentally similar to such a use of the American language as this (whereby a wronged husband describes what he did to his wife's seducer --an artist, by the way--whom he found "standing on the brinkus of the Mrs. Sloppy river"): "so I pulled out my pickaxe and I cut his ear from throat to throat." Moreover, those of my readers who are already acquainted with the "neurotic" or "ultramodernistic" music of Arnold Schonberg will need no introduction to the agonizing tonality of those "sets" and "drops" among which the hero-villains of the burlesk stage shimmy, glide, strut and tumble.