LENNY BRUCE, R.I.P.
From `National Review' September 6, 1966
Haven't stopped thinking about Lenny Bruce since he died. We thought of him
especially the other day when we happened to come across a book about
Dostoevsky. "Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin," we read, apropos of the
novel called The Idiot, "a noble man whose behavior at first is only strange
and unconventional, later shows a deterioration of mind.
In his weakened, susceptible condition, he degenerates until he is unable
to cope with life, decisions, hatred, worldliness. Able to see human foibles
without malice, to reverence the human condition without judgement, to love
without the thought of attainment, he is a Christus figure set in a corrupt
society where the facile, dishonest, worldly and unconscionable prevail in
absolute terms or money and position." Precisely what his admirers - and
they were many, and fervent - saw in Bruce.
His more profound admirers, that is. There were those, no doubt, who took
him at face value and admired him as a mere pornographer. And certainly his
influence tended to corrupt and debase - to pollute the very human qualities
which Bruce so deeply and strongly felt were sacred. Obscenity cannot have
any other effect; and yet it is plain that Lenny, like Whitman and D.H.
Lawrence, was basically moved by a strange but sincere vision of the
sacredness of life, and like them he used obscenity to express it.
He also had, more than most commentators on the contemporary world, the
tragic sense of life, and for many people his relentless honesty about the
world as they see it is the closest thing to heroism they have encountered.
I first saw him on a night club stage in a very bad theater town in the
Middle West. He was talking; not being funny - he was almost never funny,
even when he tried, and he seldom tried - just talking. He was not even
saying outrageous things, as he usually did to give the impression that
he was funny. He was essentially preaching an ad lib sermon for kindness
to children, and he did not really pretend to be doing anything else. It
was a macabre, disturbing, yet very impressive thing to see: not Dostoevsky,
but purest Kafka. His own despair of his own life, of his own future, his
indifference to everything but his plea for more humanity as he saw it, was
so plain. "One morning Gregor Samsa awoke and found himself transformed
into a giant nightclub comedian." The absurd metamorphosis of doomed young
man into cockroach had taken place somewhere, sometime, and before your eyes
this doomed young man was unfolding a slow, powerful, hideous revelation of
agony and madness, was talking compulsively with deadly seriousness about
his wonder and dismay at things in general, on a stage, before a hushed
silence in a room filled with red velvet chairs. Afterward I met him, he
was very bright and eager, pitifully half-educated and unaware, he wrote in
pencil on a small envelope, "Clark Gable found alive in Argentina. Love,
Lenny Bruce." That was the spring of 1962, and he was thirty-six years old.
On August 3 this year, in a bathroom in Hollywood, he took a lot of heroin
and died there, on the floor.