[x-posted from the Valve]
While noodling around Wikipedia last night, I discovered that not only did I share my birthday with a visionaries (Nostradamus, Joseph Smith), politicians (Helmut Schmidt, “Dan Quayle’s Brain”), famous singers (Bruce Hornsby, Victoria Williams, Eddie Vedder) and a Corey (Haim)—but that it falls on Festivus. Reading this detailed account of the origin of and rituals associated with a fictional holiday, I learned, to my surprise, that not only is it not a fictional holiday, but that it’s based on a work of high modernism. Can you guess which one from the following description? (Video is also available.)
After learning of the holiday from Jerry and Elaine, Kramer calls George’s father. The elder Costanza explains the holiday’s origin (1:16):
Frank: Kramer, I got your message. I haven’t celebrated Festivus in years! What is your interest?
Kramer: Well, just tell me everything, huh?
Frank: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reach for the last one they had—but so did another man. As I rained blows opon him, I realized there had to be another way!
Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank: It was destroyed. But out of that, a new holiday was born. “A Festivus for the rest of us!"
And its traditions (1:47):
Frank: And at the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and you tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year.
Kramer: Is there a tree?
Frank: No. Instead, there’s a pole. It requires no decoration. I find tinsel distracting.
Later, Frank and Kramer arrive at the coffee shop carrying a pole and a tape recorder. They approach George and Jerry (3:09):
Kramer: Well, Happy Festivus.
George: What is that? Is that the pole?
Frank: George, Festivus is your heritage—it’s part of who you are.
George: (sulking) That’s why I hate it.
Kramer: There’s a big dinner Tuesday night at Frank’s house—everyone’s invited.
Frank: George, you’re forgetting how much Festivus has meant to us all. I brought one of the casette tapes. (Franks pushes play, George as a child celebrating Festivus is heard)
Frank: Read that poem.
George: (complaining) I can’t read it. I need my glasses!
Frank: You don’t need glasses, you’re just weak! You’re weak!
Estelle: Leave him alone!
Frank: Alright, George. It’s time for the feats of strength.
Figured it out? The answer (and overlong-but-still-inadequate discussion of its significance) is below the fold.
Everyone who said Krapp’s Last Tape raise your hand. Figured as much. According to Wikipedia:
[Seinfeld writer Daniel O’Keefe’s] father, Daniel O’Keefe [Sr.], had discovered the Festivus holiday in a book that outlined obscure (mostly European) holidays published in 1966; the book described many of the features later included in the Seinfeld episode. The father was inspired by the Samuel Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape, whose protagonist tapes himself speaking at different times in his life. The original Airing of Grievances was spoken into a tape recorder, and the O’Keefe family retains some of the tapes .... The phrase “a Festivus for the rest of us” also derived from an O’Keefe family event, the death of the elder O’Keefe’s mother. This is not dissimilar from an Irish wake. The holiday made it onto Seinfeld after the writing team was amused by O’Keefe’s retelling.
I’m not sure where the Irish wake factors into it, but I admit to being curious enough to drop a dollar on a used copy of O’Keefe’s The Real Festivus. Something about the holiday seems eminently Beckettian. Born of an act of senseless violence, it demands ritualistic “airing of grievances” followed by “feats of strength.” The tortued randomness of it all, the psychological pain inflicted for its own sake, followed by pointless and exhausting physical exertion, reminds me of the short story “Le Dépeupleur“ ("The Lost Ones"). (Beckett’s own translation is among the shorts collected here.) The story begins:
Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Narrow enough for flight to be in vain. Inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high for the sake of harmony. The light. Its dimness. Its yellowness. Its omnipresence as though every separate square centimetre were agleam of the some twelve million of total surface. Its restlessness at long intervals suddenly stilled like panting at the last. Then all go dead still. It is perhaps the end of their abode. A few seconds and all begins anew. (202)
Next to “Kafkaesque,” is there any more evocative nominal adjective (Literary Division) than “Beckettian”? “The Lost Ones” reads like stage directions, thus demanding the reader visualize it as she would any stage directions. (It was, in fact, adapted and staged in 1974.) Only thing is, as the story continues, the “stage” becomes increasingly difficult to visualize. Complicating the matter even more is the prose, in particular, the familiar slipperiness of Beckett’s pronouns. “Its dimness” obviously refers to “the light,” but what about “its restlessness”? The “total surface” closing the preceding sentence has shifted the antecedent, it seems. The “abode”? That would mean the abode moves until it is “suddenly still like panting at the last.”
Only the “all” in “then all go dead still” refers not to the people but “their abode.” As in, “all the things in and of the abode cease moving.” What things? Beckett hasn’t introduced the things which move in the abode yet. So that “all” hangs, at least for a moment:
A kiss makes an indescribable sound. Those with stomach still to copulate strive in vain. But they will not give in. Floor and wall are of solid rubber or suchlike. Dash against them foot or fist or head and the sound is scarcely heard. Imagine then the silence of the steps. The only sounds worthy of the name result from the manipulation of the ladders or the thud of bodies striking against one another or of one against itself as when in suden fury it beats its breast. The flesh and bone subsists. The ladders. They are the only objects. They are single without exception and vary greatly in size. The shortest measure not less than six metres. Some are fitted with sliding extension. They are propped against the wall without regard to harmony. (203)
So, unlike “the flattened cylinder fifty metres round and sixteen high” in which they’re “manipulated,” the ladders are propped “without regard to harmony.” (Lest I forget again, imagine a flattened cylinder sixteen meters tall for me. C’mon, I dare you.) So we have a harmonious cylinder outfitted with discordant ladders of different sizes and capabilities filled with people vainly striving to copulate in dead silence ... except for the sounds of the ladders, the people climbing them or the vigorous displays of masculinity.
Sounds like an episode of Seinfeld to me. Thematically, of course.
Addendum: I may follow this post with a more searching analysis of “Le Dépeupleur,” as it’s one of my favorite Beckett shorts. (I hesitated calling it a “story” above, but who wants to write “short prose piece” again and again and again?) Here I merely wanted to point to the strange way in which Beckett’s sensibility has crept into mainstream culture.