Why do we laugh?
Or do we?
Upon writing these words, my brain – such as it is – thought, “James Thurber must have said that.”
I searched and searched through aging yellowed books with broken spines no longer held together with glueless tape that crumbled in my hands. I searched the Internet to see whether Thurber had said that.
Took me the better part of an hour. By which time I could no longer see the humor in it.
It reminded me of the time I thought I had committed plagiarism.
I had just been hired as an editor at a daily newspaper. As far too many editors do, I abused the privilege to become a columnist.
Well, the publisher came by one day and said we needed a column – exactly one column – for an advertising insert.
So I wrote a column about fishing.
We had a long lead time on the ad insert – a couple of weeks to paste up the pathetic copy in between the ads.
The only thing I remember about that column was that I claimed to have caught a jug-eared punt – a fictitious fish whose name I invented.
A day or two before the ad insert ran, I was reading an old Thurber book at home, and I saw that he had written pretty much the same column I did – 60 years ago.
Thank God for rubber sheets.
I thought I would be fired.
But I didn’t do it! I thought. I didn’t know!
Thurber, by the way, never mentioned the jug-eared punt. He just wrote a column about fishing, which was similar, in many ways, to my column about fishing.
Well, how many fishing stories are there?
About two, I think. Out of 900,000,000.
But as a newly hired newspaper editor – and columnist – I was sure the Forces of Evil (the publisher) would track me down and can my sorry butt for ripping off a 60-year-old column from a dead guy.
I sweated through that week. Day after day as I showed up at work at 6 a.m. (afternoon papers still existed then) I felt the axe descending upon my neck.
Should I confess? I thought.
Should I go to the publisher and tell him all?
But what was there to tell him?
This was decades before the scandals involving plagiarism and wholesale lies by reporters and columnists for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and so on.
I was a young editor then. I still had a conscience.
I thought I was guilty. Of something.
Of thinking, and writing, the same thing another guy had thought 60 years ago. And of putting it in an ad insert.
They never caught me. I got away with it. With … well, think about it.
The reason I bring this up is because it reminds me of Theodor Mommsen’s “History of Rome” – the story of the ruin of the Roman Republic.
It seems to me that the U.S. Senate today is plagiarizing from the Roman Senate during the collapse of the republic – its incompetence, corruption, venality and cowardice.
Maybe our Senate doesn’t know it, though I suspect they do.
Why do we laugh?