Appropriate or wholly inappropriate

 

It’s easy most of the time to not make any sense. It seems to me that the default position that most readers and auditors have is that the person generating utterances is making a kind of sense, and let them go at that. Most movies don’t make a whole lot of sense, whether they are popularly considered as nonsense (how did Quincy Adams Wagstaff earn his degree, anyway?) or otherwise (how did the Joker get all of those explosives into that hospital?) A failure to, even once, make any sense at all does not disqualify citizens of this great country from serving as a Secretary of Education, or as President. Human beings, to their occasional great imperilment, are willing to be charitable readers of what other people are saying (“take him seriously not literally” being a dumb and harmful instance of this charity; “who cares, he’s the Joker and it’s a movie” being the other type of instance). My favorite poet, John Ashbery, rarely makes any “prose sense” at all(“Sure, a bitter pill/multiple corn dogs, and I ask you”), but he sounds excellent; this is true too of the sentence “I don’t wanna hear you lie tonight/now that I’ve become who I really are”.

None of those people — Ariana Grande, the Joker, Betsy DeVos — is trying real hard to make any sense; they are up to something else. People who make sense do things like write encyclopedias. And thanks to the democratic adventure of wikipedia, these two domains occasionally collide and we get gems like today’s sentence, which is from the Wikipedia page describing the 1984 album “Weird” Al Yankovic In 3-D:

“This album marked a musical departure from Yankovic’s self-titled debut, in that the arrangements of the parodies were now closer to the originals and the accordion was no longer used in every song, now only being featured where deemed appropriate or wholly inappropriate for comedic effect.”

weird_al_yankovic_-_in_3-d

The felicities of this sentence are, I think, readily apparent. It has a baroque paratactic structure, with a long explanatory dependent clause (“in that…”) that contains its own long explanatory dependent clause (“now only being…”). It has the false paradox right off the bat, which claims that a musical departure was enacted by virtue of hewing closer to the original musical arrangements (and as much as I love “Another One Rides the Bus,” this was a decision that paid tremendous dividends). And then: the ending. I am obsessed with the logic — with the sensible entailments — that arise from the claim that there must be three exhaustive types of songs in the world: songs where the accordion is appropriate; songs where the accordion is wholly inappropriate, and thus a successful comedic effect; and, magnificently, songs where the accordion is inappropriate, yet not so inappropriate that the song would be made funny by having some accordion in it.

It turns out, reading a bit further in the Wikipedia article about “Weird” Al Yankovic In 3-D, that the worldview from which this position arises belongs to…”Weird” Al himself, who substantially said that quote on the Ask Al section of his website. (Depressed and discouraged for much of the middle of last November, I spent a very large quantity of time listening to “Weird” Al songs [particularly “Frank’s 2000′ TV”], reading about him on Wikipedia, and trying to improve my score on the “Can you name the “Weird” Al songs (studio tracks)?” sporcle. I can’t say I’d specifically recommend this course to anyone, but, I am still here, so.) One change is that the Wikipedia editor buffs up the adjective in front of “effect” — Al says “comic,” but the introduction says “comedic.” This is good, because the “ee” noise makes “comedic” a funnier word than “comic”. But this digression about effects cannot stop us in our quest to grapple with the tripartite division of songs, and that third category, of songs where an accordion might make the song funny, but not funny enough. Was the accordion merely uncomedically inappropriate as an addition to “Stop Dragging My Car Around?” I think it’s funny; who knows.

jeopardy_game_board
This image combines the idea of categories and “Weird” Al, via In 3-D‘s “I Lost on Jeopardy”, which does not feature an accordion

Categorization is allied to the compulsion to make sense. If you could put everything into a category correctly, everything would make sense. This is the aspiration of Kantians, and of the lunatic Platonist fringe (if you would like to hear my full thoughts about the lunatic Platonist fringe, ask me sometime about the “is a hot dog a sandwich” debate). Borges had a grand old time with the categories of the “Chinese encyclopedia” which supposedly divided animals into the categories of: those that belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that are trained; suckling pigs; mermaids or sirens; fabulous ones; stray dogs; those that are included in this classification; those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; et cetera; those that have just broken the flower vase; those that, at a distance, resemble flies. Foucault praised the list (which is really such a lovely list) for “breaking up all ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things”. He’s right: that’s what “innumerable ones” and “those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush” do, right next to each other, as categories of the animals.

So: does “songs that are inappropriate for the accordion, but not inappropriate enough for comedic effect” break up the planes with which we tame the wild profusion of existing things? I don’t quite think so. If anything, the existence of a logically entailed category that doesn’t itself make sense seems to me to be reassuring. There’s an aura around Borges’s categories of the mathematical sublime: so many of them! It is vertiginous to contemplate. There’s a comforting lack of vertigo in the contemplation of a song that is wrong for the accordion but dryly so. It comes at the end of that long goofy sentence; and in a formal, pleasing way, is required for at least the semblance of sense.

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