My heroes are all curmudgeons: Frank Zappa, Groucho Marx, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Ambrose Bierce, Kurt Vonnegut, H.L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, W.C. Fields, Oscar Levant, Ambrose Bierce, and G.B. Shaw to name a few.
The definition of a curmudgeon vomited forth by Google is “a bad-tempered or surly person” — a biased, limited, myopic and unfair portrayal, obviously produced either by a machine or an imbecile.
A far better definition is one who has a grumpy outlook on life because the loss and joy one experiences and the fragility of it all can only be protected by exhibiting such a bristling demeanor. Add to that genuine self-deprecating sentimentality expressed as humor or pathos and there you have it. Curmudgeons are people who know and feel in their bones that “if you feel no pain, you are not alive”, but they revel in that fact, aware that life is fragile and not to be taken lightly.
Curmudgeon is a word whose origins are uncertain– often linked to an old Scottish word meaning ‘to grumble’ and the French term “coeur mechant” or “wicked (black) heart”. Even these terms imply a malign slant that does not adequately portray the place that curmudgeons hold in our culture as reminders of its bounds, constraints and unavoidable conclusion.
Groucho Marx was no “bad-tempered or surly person” by any stretch of the imagination. He was a clear-eyed individual unaffected by many of the illusions of this life. He had lived a hard and full existence of performance and personal difficulty, loved many times, and had seen so much of it disappear. He outlived the brothers with whom he had built an edifice that eroded and faded with time. He saw the rise and fall of this own life– it’s brief beauty and its inevitable tragedy. He expressed his insights with biting commentary delivered by what appeared to be a harmless fool. Even his rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” is a work of art.
The curmudgeon realizes that all lives are ultimately just lengthy jokes that end with the same punch line every time: “and then (he/she) died.” (Uproarious, uncomfortable laughter ensues). The curmudgeon is uncomfortable in his or her time (as they would be in any time)– misfits who are somewhat outside of the game of life, able to look at it in ways that others find awkward, recognizing it for what it is: a story with a beginning, middle and end.
To be honest, deep down all curmudgeons are flaccid puff-balls of sentimentality. Good luck trying to reach this inner core, though– the more you try , the gruffer the exterior becomes. Oysters, puffer fish and porcupines have nothing on these guys. The curmudgeon is a defensive creature that will acerbically snap and lash out to protect this soft underbelly often maiming the inquisitor at least verbally.
Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain demonstrate this sentimental quality best. Parker devotes much prose to the failure of hope and aspiration at the hands of reality, demonstrating repeatedly the old adage that “god laughs when we make plans”. Twain’s reminiscences of his idyllic childhood upbringing in Missouri are intruded upon by the harsh realities of slavery, alcohol and harsh treatment at the hands and often petty interests of benighted adults and scallywags.
I have many friends who are curmudgeons, to a greater or lesser degree. My friend Leif is a classic curmudgeon– gruff on the outside but still haunted by a hope that everything will turn out right (although he will deny it to his grave). For that, his friends love him– they recognize the inner fragility that manifests itself in the forlorn exterior. We love having him around.
I claim the title, but I can only hope that I am worthy of it. A legacy of curmudgeonly bent is that the struggle with darkness is always there. I am certain that all curmudgeons fight a tooth and nail battle with depression and often existential melancholy. We have often contended with bottle or with other vices, and know Hamlet’s soliloquy by heart. “To be or not to be” is a frequent question often asked because the burden of standing outside the game as an observer begs it.
Standing in such a position has its benefits, though. It certainly makes the good things that come our way stand out. It lets us see things in ways that are different– not always good or bad, just different. Self-delusion is harder to find when we crave it, but is more likely to encompass our failings when we do.
It’s not easy being green, indeed, Kermit.