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Alfred de Grazia: Ronald's Norm


Merck's fury was wont to convert quickly into irritable, tenacious energy. Within the hour, he no longer felt himself betrayed. He thought of himself rather as a man with two difficult friends, who had somehow to be brought around to a new modus vivendi.

Half of his plan was still intact, so he pursued it. With a twinge of indignation, quickly erased by thankfulness that the wretches had not demanded the manuscript, he straightened out the somewhat creased pages of the missing chapter. (Indeed, later on, he maintained blandly that the whole scene was only a smokescreen laid down by him to send them flying without The Ten Messages.)

Next he bound the whole manuscript in an expensive cover. This he carried to his editor, who escorted both Merck and the book to the Senior Editor, who, with the keen judgment that had won him his estate, conducted all three to the editor of the juvenile division of the firm, who with same alacrity, implying an expense account, took Merck to lunch, the others having excused themselves.

They ate at the Friars, where, despite the candle lit gloom, Merck could distinctly make out the features of the Jogger of the day before in the person of the religiously garbed waiter serving the adjoining table. He was even more astonished to witness a coquettish exchange of smiles between his host and the jogger. "You seem to know him," he was impelled to inquire. "Yes, a promising lad, really a City University student," the editor remarked, munching his celery. "A great runner. Jogs up and down Manhattan every morning. I've had my eye on him for some time."

And the juvenile editor, a short, dark, curly-haired imp, was comforting and gay, and knew what wines to order, so that Merck emerged from the darkness of the Friars into the warm day feeling much better. There were infinite human ties in this bizarre society. There were people in the world who understood his wish to promote his protégé and took pleasure in helping him.

By late afternoon the sauces and alcohol had called up the stomach acids, and some of the bitterness that lingered welled up with the bitterness of his taste. His colleagues, at a meeting of the Personnel Committee, found him unnecessarily insistent upon the raising of standards in the appointment of a Teaching Fellow. He repeated too often that their standards were low, and there was no reason (although his colleagues had offered many) why the University should not obtain the best of the nation's young psychologists. In the end his chauvinism won out; another meeting would be held.

He lectured his students with unusual abruptness and finality. He finished early and the class asked no questions. He became annoyed with them for this indication that they were not thinking critically, and assigned them additional reading so that they might follow his lectures better. Several students vowed to themselves to pose queries hereafter, no matter how disinclined he appeared to receive them.

That evening, alone with his poodle and his largely emptied bathroom cabinet, he decided to telephone the wicked lovers and invite them to dine with him the next day at the Cedar Tavern, whose round tables and friendly atmosphere were critical factors in his choice. Muriel answered for Ron, sounding as if she were talking from a Girl Scouts' Camp, and the dinner was on.

Merck now felt fairly relaxed. Actually, half of Ron, half of Muriel, plus two nicely published books -- that would be a striking assemblage in any salon. He worked well now, loped through a mile of Dewey Decimals, consumed a thick wad of index cards, and dictated a batch of delayed correspondence, peremptory to those who owed a duty, short to those whom he owed, and complimentary to those who had praised him. Yes, he told himself, I am back on the track -- and wondered why such a suitable image should be denounced as a cliché. He wooed his next class, then, by presenting them with a list of questions that might be asked of his lecture, to show them not only how to prepare their answers, but also how vulnerable even he was to appropriately phrased criticism.

He thought, I must not be jealous, or, worse, appear jealous. I am not petty, or old-fashioned, or unappreciative of the needs of others. He was curious, with the abasing scientific spirit that will not let well-enough alone, that holds the psychiatrist to his chair while the patient describes him as a Vicious fox. Merck wanted to know how the new lovers were getting along. It was more Ronald, than Muriel, who intrigued him. He thought it best to feel, or pretend, that Ron had beaten him fair and square in a game of love, and, between gentlemen, there should be no hard feelings. He suppressed utterly the thought that he might be a willing cuckold; this would have pointed directly to an identification of feelings with Ronald that were too intimate to support; one woman, bridging with her body the forbidden intimacies of two men in love.

He composed in his mind a letter to Ronald:

You Lovely Fool,

You were Gautama and could have become the

Buddha. You were on the Great Journey. And

Now you sit and lust in Samsara. You are a

dead hero. But never mind. There are others.

Look at me and my day: I am up at six and

hard at work. I will finish your book. I am

suffering. In the end there will be redemption.

You have been tempted by the whore. Let

her cover you with kisses. It matters little.

Look at her smile. She smiled at me also. I

wasn't always the old crotchet I am now.

I wasn't always intolerable. I didn't stink

before. I ate the proper organic diet, etc. etc."

It was time to go meet the others, who, meanwhile, of course, had been figuring a solution to the dubious triangle. Solti's 36 Plots did not help Ron at all, nor had he time to consider them systematically, inasmuch as the past thirty-six hours had been given over largely to amorous adventures. They hadn't come around to fitting Merck into their horizons until they started to hunt for their clothing shortly before the meeting.

"I don't care what he does with the book." decided Ron. "I'll tell him it's his to do with as he pleases. So long as he doesn't use it as a fishing pole to hook me." Muriel approved the decision.

"I don't care what he does with the apartment. I'm happy here," offered Muriel. Ron approved this decision.

"I don't care what Merck decides to do with his sexual life, so long as he sublimates it around us." And both approved this decision.

Muriel revealed herself to be anxious -- surprisingly so -- at one moment fomenting demands and advocating exclusions, at the next moment mourning for Merck. As she drew on a pair of black sheer panty hose, she sniffed and dropped a tear or two: "I feel so sorry for Merck; he is so scrawny, so alone, so brave."

Ron contemplated her soberly (this was the third time this day that she had pulled up the same stockings), and declared that they must make their premises clear, as well as their harsh conditions, and that Merck was their favorite friend and a great guy. "He must not be top dog, that's all," as Ron summarized their position.

But when it occurred that they come together, they all fell into saying nice things about each other, like politicians at a banquet. Merck commandeered their conditions straightaway, jesting that he hoped Ron would let him keep the manuscript until there was a change in the climate of opinion. (How now could Ron insist that the harmless teddy bear be destroyed when it might hibernate peacefully?) "Besides, Ron, you have been talking of disassociating yourself from Disassociation Associates on grounds of incompatibility of principles -- which is all very well -- but if you were to do so might you not want some proof of your literary abilities in applying for work thereafter?"

And as to Muriel's possessions, they were perfectly secure, and he wondered -- "I'm only wondering, mind you" -- whether when he bought the old house, as it had appeared for some time that he would, whether he might not offer them an apartment -- "At any rate, it's a thought." But, Merck went on, "I want to make it clear -- this is to be no ménage à trois . . . We are all good friends and good friends must not fight amongst themselves." And so on.

The dinner was becoming a love-feast, an all-around success, particularly for Merck, who, for the first time in his life, was being accepted solely on grounds of familial love. Still, the affectional distance traversed, so great was it, might have excited suspicion, and even a dangerous reaction, were it not for the intrusion of a common disturbing element that lent them the warmth of conspiratorial exchanges of pained glances, this being none other than David McAllister, Editor of Fuck Magazine.

He is on his way out when he spots Ronald. He is in fine fettle, not at all put out by his cool reception, for he has the aplomb of a Frenchman observed pissing against a wall. This ruddy, mustachioed bantam has a rubber-band body and eternally flailing limbs that are equally useful for conversational emphasis and resisting arrest. Three policemen are usually employed to arrest him, and his legal defense generally is that he was simply protesting, not resisting, and had witnesses to testify to his gesticulations.

"Ronald, my lad, how are you?" he begins. "Got enough four-letter words in your novel yet? Do you know the eternal novel? -- of course not," and he sits himself down, poking his head quickly and aggressively at Merck and Muriel to acknowledge their presence. "It's the Satyricon -- 2,000 years of Petronius Arbiter's obscenities, and Fellini makes a movie of it, people use its language, think in its terms."

"You're all hypocrites," and with a sweep of his arm he gathers in Muriel, Merck, and the whole Tavern crowd, "not willing to admit that if your universal is true, you should be reading Fuck Magazine every month . . . All these hypocrites" (this time both arms flailing and his head thrust back to take in anyone floating above), Pseudo-sophisticates, and the writers, especially the biographers, and the queen liars of all, the autobiographers -- swearing in their forewards that they'll tell all, can you name me one of them -- Benvenuto Cellini, yes, Ben Franklin, John Stuart Mill, Andre Gide, Sigmund Freud -- you name him -- whoever told of their masturbatory experiences -- and you know how important that is to a kid -- what do I mean 'kid' -- a lot of old men are confirmed jerk-offs. Don't say it's not important, not interesting. Remember Fellini's Amarcord -- there's true hero of realism -- how the boys jacked off in the old car -- and their fantasies as they did it? Well, of course, Henry Miller, too, another hero."

Muriel is enchanted, On the advice of May Gomshough, she had been employing an expensive vibrator before she brought in Ronald. She used it on the sly and that was why it had not appeared in Merck's inventory of her intimate belongings. But here is Merck calling up every disdainful wrinkle and speaking in the most Olympian tone that he can command. "Your fatal error consists in confusing physiological schedules with great literature. Can you imagine how small would be the audience for a running tabulation of every minute of a person's life? Speaking as a psychologist, I may say that it would give us some useful data. But what would it tell us as literature?.. Nothing."

"Nothing!" shrieks McAllister, who has known all the while that Merck will be the one to zero in on him. "You, a psychologist, of all people! Downgrading sex. Defending the mystique of papal infallibility. I don't know you, but man, you must have a problem"

Murial foolishly giggles at this, thereby storing up grapes of wrath.

Ronald speaks up stoutly, however. "David, I have no intention of writing pornography, even if I were to pick up my book again. There is -- was -- love in it -- in fact it revolved around love, but it was love . . . love . . . in context. The full spectrum of desire and behavior."

Merck is so grateful. And Ron has picked up that fine phrase, "in context," and "Spectrum" and "behavior." Merck has created a scientific man out of common clay.

David looks at Ronald incredulously, then suspiciously. "Look," he says flatly, "I don't mean to get personal, and I won't. But there's more sex than sense buzzing around this table right now. There's sex in every church spire, sex in every jack-boot, pistola, and cream puff. I know you well enough, Ron, to bet that there's as pretty a mother-and-son, daddy-is-dead situation in it as you might ever find -- the old eternal Oedipus complex."

Ron blushes and stammers -- oh for words to plug the gusher!

He resolves the complex. He leaves home, "Merck puts in, realizing that he is abusing the term 'resolves' and disguising the word 'home'. It is Ronald's turn to be grateful; they are as close as ever.

"I'm not surprised. Novelists have the right to evade the truth by whatever means they command."

"If you don't mind my asking, "Merck insinuates, "What is the circulation of your universal magazine?"

"I don't mind, although I should," retorts David, amiably. "It is between 600 and 4,000, depending upon how thorough the police are in their illegal and unconstitutional confiscations. And, to give you more ammunition, the Reader's Digest sells 30,000,000 copies and nobody in his right mind publishes a new magazine without two million dollars in cash and credits behind him. Now what?"

"It seems to me, with all due allowances, that a magazine claiming such intrinsic, eternal appeal should find more than a few thousand purchasers."

"Why? . . because I'm the only honest porno mag. And, as if you didn't already know, the sneaky porno rags -- the beautiful quasi-pornos, the masqueraders -- do sell in the millions. But let me ask you this, you being a liberal and scientific gentleman: would you mind going out with me on the streets right now and asking for Fuck Magazine at four different newsstands?"

"I wouldn't do so because I don't care to read it."

At this, they all laugh, including finally Merck.

"I can see you now, stooped over, your head hunched between your shoulders, glancing uneasily from left and right, waiting until all the other customers have gone, then whispering or maybe trying out a low, natural tone, 'Ahem, do you by any chance have a copy of . . . ah . . . er, . . . Fug Magazine, you know the one with the bad name . . . ?"

They all laugh again.

Now McAllister's big moment has arrived. Stridently he declaims, "That is the way you and all the other free-born full-blooded Americans must ask for what is yours by right!" Taking it for granted that Merck has been both crushed and rehabilitated, he proceeds authoritatively and with a conspiratorial air. "Here is the situation, and here is my next step." He reaches into a pocket of the Mao jacket that loosely drapes his skeletal figure and pulls out a folded sheet of paper -- in fact two sheets. He seizes the one and, waving it dramatically, orates:

"This is what the American Heritage Dictionary does to destroy one of the basic liberties of the country -- the right to find the meaning of a common word in the dictionary. This is a dictionary that sells millions of copies. Look up the word 'fuck' and what do you find? . . Nothing . . . You find 'fuchsia' followed by 'fiddle'. Look up the word 'shit' and what do you find?. . Nothing again: 'Shist' (variant of 'schist') is followed by 'shiva', the god of reproduction and destruction. Isn't that something? The god of reproduction -- all good, clean god-like reproduction. And 'piss' -- what you do repeatedly if you're healthy -- is not a word, mind you, not even a word." His shriek rose almost to a high-pitched whistle. "On one side of this glaring gap is 'pismire', a kind of ant, and on the other side is 'pistachio'. Americans are not even allowed to fart. They can be 'farsighted' and move 'farther' when they do so, but must do so without mentioning what comes out between.

"Now who are all these pissing, farting, shitting, fucking bastards -- ah, but this word we find, and even the slang meaning, 'a nasty person' that we seek -- who are determining the language of we the people? There are some thirty of these conspirators listed. Their promoters call themselves -- or allow themselves to be referred to -- in these terms:

'The idea for a truly American dictionary (Hah!) was conceived by the staff of American Heritage out of their deep sense of responsibility as custodians of the American tradition in language as well as history.'"

He gargled with a giggle and sneer.

Even Merck is offended by this: "Who ever appointed them to be custodians? What cheek! I quite agree with you -- the American language is of the people, by the people, and for the people."

"Hey, that's great!" says Ronald.

"Wait!" says David. "That's not the end . . . Here's what I intend to do." He unfolds the other sheet of paper. "I'm going to sue them . . . I called up Ed de Grazia -- you know he's the lawyer that handled the Grove Press problems -- and he said 'Maybe you have something . . . Spell it out and let me see it.' And I'm seeing him tomorrow. Now here it is:

Application for a writ of injunction versus Dell

Publishers, American Heritage Magazine, the

named editors of the so-titled American Heritage

Dictionary, and other persons unknown referred

to as the 'dedicated staff'. . . in that the above-

named persons have willfully conspired to suppress,

and have by their efforts, in fact suppressed, and

continue to suppress, the freedom of the plaintiffs

and all other Americans to use certainly long

established, legitimate, and commonly employed

words of the English language, to wit, and not

exclusively: 'fuck', 'piss', 'shit', and 'fart', and

have indirectly acted as accomplices to persons

seeking to suppress by court action the self-same

freedom by acting as so-called expert witnesses for

the prosecution in court . . . "

"What do you mean by that?" asks Ron.

"I mean that they allowed that dictionary to be used in court to prove that my magazine was obscene . . . But let me finish . . .

. . all of which actions are violations of the First Amendment

to the Constitution of the United States guaranteeing freedom

of speech and press, and furthermore violate the common law

and constitutional right to freedom from harassment, the right

to hold office in the government, the rights provided for

freedom of broadcasting under the statutes governing the

Federal Communications Commission, and the statutes termed,

and designed to produce, 'Truth in Advertising'

"Of course, I'm no lawyer, but I thought I might try these out . . . Now I go on:

..that said above - named persons be enjoined against

distributing and selling the American Heritage Dictionary,

unless it bears the revised title, Expurgated American

Heritage Dictionary, and that any new printing or edition

of said work contain such words, correctly defined, in their

proper alphabetical order, and that, if upon further complaint,

it may be shown that the plaintiffs had suffered damages

from the admission of such material in court proceedings in

which the plaintiffs were prosecuted, that the above-named

persons be charged with all costs of the injured parties in

seeking a retrial of such cases."

An awed silence follows David's injunctive pleading. Then, says Merck, "I see what you mean, but I don't think you'll get by with the last part. . Still, I'm no lawyer, either."

"Will you sign the complaint with me? says David.

"What?. . The complaint ?. . Well . . . that I can't say . . . Let's see first what your lawyer friend . . . what's his name? -- advises."

"I'll do it," says Ronald. "So will I," offers Muriel. "After all, what do we have to lose."

"But," adds Ronald, "I can't promise to use the words in my book, were I ever to finish it, which will be never. Maybe if those matters don't come up, I won't need the words."

"Oh, shit, Ronald," mutters Muriel, "You mean that you wouldn't let them come up. Then what would happen to your big deal about things as they really are, have been, and always will be?"

"I've changed, Muriel, remember?"

"Oh yes, of course . . . oh, I'm sorry, love."

Merck has been silent. He is mentally formulating yet another article, this one on "Scatological Terms and the Literary Norms." But now he is gripped by "an idea, which may help, but it may be hard for you to take. Maybe we should surrender to the inevitable . . . Most people, even though they use obscenities, don't want to use them, and don't want others to use them. These are the norms. Call them a standard of decency. I don't mean that they should be a matter of law or even regulated by law. One should be free to employ them or not, to hear and read them or not. The media have to be controlled ultimately, not the message. A loud radio should not be played on the public beach; its loudness is obscene. To me a rock music discoteque is obscene, but so long as I'm not forced to endure one, I feel that it cannot be suppressed. So let everything be; but permit the government to suppress its intrusion upon others to the degree to which the others claim to be pained or injured."

David, who has been shaking his head annoyingly, says, "Shades of John Stuart Mill. You're reinventing the wheel."

"So long as it works, why not?" retorts Merck.

"Some people claim to have agonizing pains from a nude statue a thousand miles away," asserts David, with surprising calm. (You can sense that he is planning a getaway.) Ronald murmurs, "I don't know." Muriel is sucking thoughtfully on her bad tooth.

"Well, whatever . . . " says David, skyrocketing from his chair. "I'm leaving you befuddled folk. I'll be seeing you." He whisks out of the door, a wraith swooped up by the night wind.

'So long,' 'good-bye,' and 'good night,' say the befuddled folk distractedly. There is little thought of returning to their agenda, so they followed him into the street.

"Isn't he something?"

"There's a lot in what he says."

"What shall we all use for obscenities," asked Merck, looking accusingly at Muriel, "when his words are current again? Jiminy cricket? Holy cow!? Aw shoot? When we hobnob nakedly in public, who is to find mystery in sex? How do you get the thrill of discovering another's body."

"There'll be no obscenities or sordid thrills. It will be an open and honest society," declared Ron.

"Maybe . . . but the monsters in us are more numerous than McAllister knows, and crouched far more deeply within us. Like jails and gas chambers, like newspapers with headlines running amok, his particular devils are largely extrusions or representations of the eternal destructive plot for which our souls are programmed."

"You should have told him that."

"I didn't think of it . . . Anyway, he can't listen. He howls to the heavens."

From down the street, a song cut through the heavy spring air, voiced by the clear tenor of David McAllister:

". . . frigging in the rigging,

We're frigging in the rigging,

for there's fuck-all else to do . . . "

It was a song that a British sailor had taught him. The word 'frig', when he searched for it in the dreadnaught Oxford Dictionary of the English Language based on Historical Principles, meant "To move about restlessly, to agitate the body and limbs" and was declared obsolete, giving 1719 as the year of its last usage. David meant to introduce this instance, too, as evidence that dictionaries were engaged in planned obsolescence.

Muriel and Ronald accompanied Merck to his door and from there went on home.

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