Very rarely am I blindsided and tickled pink by a literary passage that packs the unintentionally humorous punch of a Linear Particle Accelerator. Such was the case when this unsuspecting reader was suddenly seized by a powerfully jocular elation; when all he really wanted to do was drift off gently to safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep. Allow me to set the scene. It’s late evening and I’m reading in bed prior to an early morning shift at the local satis factory (yes, we manufacture satis). As my pursuit of Early American history is unquenchable, I’m curled up to an esoteric and anecdotally superb book called Beauties and Celebrities of the Nation which describes the social life of Washington DC during the early Presidential administrations. In this particular chapter, George Washington’s administration (which in 1794 was located in Philadelphia pending the construction of our new Capitol in DC) is being surveyed.
Now this gets a little roundabout, but I commend to you without reservation the foregoing passage as one of life’s delicious moments when sublime surprise intersects with historic absurdity to render yours truly convulsed in a tsunami of sweet, sweet laughter while he lay helplessly in bed unable to recover from its tumultuous grip.
OK? OK. Around this time a certain Monsieur Talleyrand, the nefarious self-serving minister to King Louis XVI, had escaped the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror” with his life, but evidently not with his manners. And when he settled in Philadelphia, he naturally began circulating in the upper echelons of society. Despite his aristocratic training he appears to have been lacking in the etiquette department.
As was the case in the days before Entertainment Tonight or Hollywood Insider, detailed written descriptions of a person’s character, appearance and manners were both common and necessary in order to convey some sense of an individual’s eminence. And this descriptive method was the case with a particular Frenchman whose full name (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord) spells trouble in any language.
To wit (as excerpted from the book Beauties and Celebrities of the Nation): A learned woman in Philadelphia, at whose house Talleyrand dined frequently, wrote in her journal: He would rest his elbows on the table and talk with his mouth full; he would cut the meat on his plate into small pieces; pierce them with his fork till its prongs were full, then thrust them into his mouth, and closing his teeth pull out the fork, leaving its freight in his capacious jaws.
As the cartoonish imagery coalesced in my sleepy mind and began forming billowing thunderclouds of giggles, I continued reading until my eyes pored over the final thunderclap: “leaving its freight in his capacious jaws.” Boom goes the dynamite! At this point a volcanic eruption of laughter involuntarily spewed forth rendering me apoplectic and in a state of hysterical decimation. How devastatingly damning yet understated was her choice phrase. How precisely descriptive of his boorishness she was; and yet she betrays no rancor. Her turn of phrase was precious beyond compare – at least to me. What was this woman witnessing when Talleyrand dined? And how artfully she managed to express it without admitting it as a personal affront.
Suffice to say the aforementioned passage and all of its unaccountably quaint particles were accelerated around my sleepy head and eventually collided in the Frontal Laughter Lobe of my cerebrum. This created a Critical Mass of Humor leading to a sustained Hysterical Reaction that blew me away. Again, to reset the scene. It’s late. I’m falling asleep. I’m surrendering the cares of the day to Mr. Sandman and an unsuspecting thermonuclear phrase detonates in my head. At that point there were 2 of me because I was beside myself with laughter; my rational mind knowing they were only words on a page was overwhelmed by my subconscious that had been waiting to read these lines ever since Mrs. Rittenhouse wrote them 219 years ago. How did this Philadelphia hausfrau ever conceive and write the line “leaving its freight in his capacious jaws?” But what a gift to me! I knew I’d be laughing for a good 5 minutes. And as my eruption subsided, I knew I’d never be the same person again. This singularly gratifying event inspired me to compose my own historically based non sequitur.
Come Mr. Talleyrand. Talleyrand banana. Nighttime come and me wan’ go sleep.