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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Casanova: philosopher, gambler, lover, priest

Frances Wilson reviews Casanova: Philosopher, Gambler, Lover, Priest by Ian Kelly

What is Casanova's biographer to do? The retired libertine did the job so well himself in his Histoire de ma vie that no one could possibly improve on his story, just as no one setting out to describe his extraordinarily restless life could have read, travelled or written more than Casanova, or thought more about the business of living than he did, or lived as bravely or as excessively.

Casanova preferred his women to smell of cheese

The Histoire, which Casanova wrote at the end of his days when he was working as a librarian at Dux Castle in Bohemia, details with such wit, candour and style his peripatetic years as a priest, con-man, cabbalist, violinist, soldier, alchemist, prisoner, fugitive, gambler, intellectual, writer and lover, while inadvertently giving such a vivid picture of mid-18th-century Europe, that not only is there little for anyone to add but due to its sheer bulk - over 3,800 pages, making up 12 volumes - the beleaguered biographer must rather choose what to take away in order to make his own version a reasonable length.

Casanova has baffled and thwarted many of those writers who, while trying to describe and evaluate his experiences, have succeeded only in repeating in edited form the events as he tells them, but in Ian Kelly he has at last found his Boswell. Himself an actor, Kelly is immediately alert to the theatricality of his subject.

Born the illegitimate son of a Venetian actress in a city where it was mandatory to be masked from October to Ash Wednesday, Casanova lived a life shaped by the slipperiness of the masquerade and the playfulness of the theatre. It is as a player of parts on the great European stage that he describes himself in his Histoire.

Accordingly, Kelly shapes his biography around not chapters but dramatic acts and scenes, with refreshing intermezzi where he pauses to discourse, in true Enlightenment fashion, not only on Casanova's involvement in the Cabbala, the 'fusion of Gnosticism, Egyptian mathematics, neo-Platonism, Judaic mysticism and personal revelation' by which he was so mysteriously intrigued; but also on his means of travel (important in terms of sex-on-the-road), his love of food (equal and analogous to his love of women), and his attitude to women (most appreciated when they smelt of cheese).

To focus on the women. Between the age of 16, when he lost his virginity, and his late forties, when he lost his potency, Casanova slept with around 130 of them, which works out at an average of four a year. This may or may not seem a great deal for a man who never married or stayed in one place for too long, but Kelly argues that Casanova deserves his place in history not because of the quantity of bodies he enjoyed but because of the guilt-free quality of the enjoyment as he describes it in his memoirs. The Histoire 'posited firmly, for the first time in the Western canon, the idea that an understanding of sex - with all its irrationality and destructive potential - is key to an understanding of the self'.

Behind the masks, Casanova's 'self' emerges as a complex affair. His first sexual encounter was with a pair of sisters whom he enjoyed simultaneously; much later he would enjoy his own daughter in the same bed as her mother. While he was uncharacteristically cagey about his genuine homosexual encounters, he was particularly drawn to women who dressed as men - at one point embarking on a dizzying affair with a girl disguised as a castrato disguised as a girl.

The manner of Casanova's affairs suggest that he was busy avoiding pain as much as pursuing pleasure; he behaved, as Wordsworth would say, 'more like a man /Flying from something that he dreads, than one Who sought the thing he loved'. He would become emotionally attached and then sharply detach himself: his need to leave was as strong as his need to love. What is striking is how repetitive his affairs were, as though he were performing the same scene again and again. At one point, years after a liaison with a nun he calls by the pseudonym MM, he meets another nun and he calls her MM too.

An unexpected pleasure is the book's focus on food. Casanova loved eating; 'sex is like eating and eating is like sex', he wrote, and Kelly speculates that he may be the originator of the reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac. He was born into the 'last great age of Venetian cooking', he liked his macaroni sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and during his final years, while he mouldered away in Dux Castle, 'A day did not go by', a friend observed, 'that he did not have a quarrel, over his coffee, over his milk, his plate of macaroni on which he insisted…'

Kelly's narrative loses its momentum only once, in his disappointingly flat account of Casanova's spectacular escape over the leads of the Doge's palace, where he was imprisoned for 'a question of religion'. But because this particular scene was Casanova's party piece - even his enemies admitted that he told the story brilliantly - and the crowning achievement of his life, perhaps it is best that the biographer does not steal the show.

Ian Kelly has taken on a tremendous challenge and produced a great blast of a book, packed with energy and information, marinated in sympathy and understanding, and rippling with enthusiasm right down to the final footnote.

George Carlin's Last Interview

By Jay Dixit
Ten days ago, on Friday, June 13th, 2008, I had the extraordinary privilege of talking to George Carlin. As far as I know it was the last in-depth interview he gave before he passed away yesterday at age 71. Originally it was slated to run as a 350-word Q&A on the back page of Psychology Today. But I was so excited to talk to him—and he was so generous with his time—that I just kept on going. By the end I had over 14,000 words.

On stage, George Carlin came across as a grouch, often vulgar and sometimes misanthropic. But with me he was patient and warm, happy to talk through the minutiae of his creative process and eager to share stories about his childhood, his evolution as a comic, and his influence. What struck me most was the joy in his voice as he talked about the wonderful feeling he got in his gut while writing. I was also moved by the gratitude he expressed for his mother, who he said “saved” him and his brother—leaving her bullying, alcoholic husband when George was just two months old, getting a job during the worst years of the Depression, and raising two boys on her own.

He spoke about the pride he took in his work. As a ninth-grade dropout, he said, it was gratifying to see his words quoted in textbooks, classrooms, and courtrooms. And he was proud to have inspired other comedy greats, who routinely called him to say, "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be doing this." As he looked back on his astonishingly prolific 50-year career—which includes 130 Tonight Show appearances, 23 albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, and one Supreme Court case—the interview became a sort of retrospective of his life.

Finally, after two hours, he gently mentioned that his arm was getting tired from holding the phone. “I really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into all these questions. Really, it’s the most complete interview I’ve ever done,” he said. “Is it tomorrow yet? I think it is.”

“It feels like it is,” I said, struggling to keep up with his wit.

“All this is for a quote unquote back page?” he said.

“This is for the back page, but, I don’t know, I just love you and your work so much!” I gushed. “I just had so much I wanted to ask.”

At the time, I was embarrassed by what I’d said. But when I heard the sad news this morning, my feelings changed instantly. I’m honored that I got to speak to him, and I’m grateful that I got to tell him how much I admired him before he died.

It would be impossible to overstate George Carlin’s contribution to standup comedy. Along with Richard Pryor and a few others, he essentially created the genre as we know it today. But he was more than just a comedy pioneer. He was a freethinker who never backed down, and he truly changed the course of American culture. He will be missed. —Jay Dixit
The Interview

What follows are edited highlights. They represent a little over half of the interview.

How do you think about comedy and self-expression? Expressing what’s within vs. looking at the outside world and making observations?

Self-expression is a hallmark of an artist, of art, to get something off one’s chest, to sing one’s song. So that element is present in all art. And comedy, although it is not one of the fine arts—it’s a vulgar art, it’s one of the people’s arts, it’s the spoken word, the writing that goes into it is an art form—it’s certainly artistry. So self-expression is the key to even standing up and saying, "Hey, listen to me." Self-expression can be based on looking at the world and making observations about it or not. Comedy can also be based on describing one’s inner self—doing anecdotes, talking about your own fears. Woody Allen taps into a lot of self-analysis in his comedy. But I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I think self-expression is present at all times, and whether or not you’re talking about the outside world or your responses to it depends on the moment and the subject.

Do you go around observing and trying to collect funny things? Or do you just live your life and then say how you feel about what you happen to have seen?

I’m 71, and I’ve been doing this for a little over 50 years, doing it at a fairly visible level for 40. By this time it’s all second nature. It’s all a machine that works a certain way: the observations, the immediate evaluation of the observation, and then the mental filing of it, or writing it down on a piece of paper. I’ve often described the way a 20-year-old versus, say, a 60- or a 70-year-old, the way it works. A 20-year-old has a limited amount of data they’ve experienced, either seeing or listening to the world. At 70 it’s a much richer storage area, the matrix inside is more textured, and has more contours to it. So, observations made by a 20-year-old are compared against a data set that is incomplete. Observations made by a 60-year-old are compared against a much richer data set. And the observations have more resonance, they’re richer.

So if I write something down, some observation—I see something on television that reminds me of something I wanted to say already—the first time I write it, the first time I hear it, it makes an impression. The first time I write it down, it makes a second impression, a deeper path. Every time I look at that piece of paper, until I file it in my file, each time, the path gets a little richer and deeper so that these things are all in there.

Now at this age, I have a network of knowledge and data and observations and feelings and values and evaluations I have in me that do things automatically. And then when I sit down to consciously write, that's when I bring the craftsmanship. That's when I pull everything together and say, how I can best express that? And then as you write, you find more, 'cause the mind is looking for further connections. And these things just flow into your head and you write them. And the writing is the really wonderful part. A lot of this is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered and that's our job is to just notice them and bring them to life.

Do you think that the richness you described comes from just being able to access more experiences, having information on file? Or is it judgment?

Well, that's true, too. The machine that does all this learns what it is you want—it learns what it is that serves your purpose and it begins to tailor the synthesis. It synthesizes these observations and these comparisons. Comedy’s all about comparisons and contrasts and congruities and incongruities and heightenings and understatement and exaggeration. The mind has all of that stuff built in, and it learns which ones pay off the best for you. It's probably related to the pleasure center. You get so much pleasure finding good observations and finding which things are the richest things you can say, that probably the brain remembers how that happened and learns to provide the best stuff. Maybe you have a little silent editor in there.

You talked about how comedy's all about incongruities, contrasts, exaggeration. Do you think about those techniques or those principles of humor consciously?

It happens automatically. Sometimes there’s a conscious heightening, you'll recognize you've just chosen an image to make a point. Then your mind will just suddenly throw something at you that's stronger—a heightening, to raise the stakes, a stronger word, a more visceral image, something that lights up the imagination, much better than the original thought. So you’re aware that you’re heightening and exaggerating further but you don't use the word exaggeration or anything like that. All that stuff is just happening. And sometimes, afterward, I’ll look at something and say, “If I were giving a comedy lecture, that would be a good example.” I often think in those terms.

Do you think there are any downsides to having gotten to the point where you are, where all of this is happening automatically? Or are there some advantages a 20-year-old would have?

Well, I would imagine there are some that I can’t put my finger on because I don't remember what it was like. I was a different man. I don't know—the advantage that a 20 year old would have would be more longevity to look forward to.

You talked about how wonderful it is, this feeling of writing. So what is your process like?

I take a lot of single-page notes, little memo pad notes. I make a lot of notes on those things. For when I'm not near a little memo pad, I have a digital recorder. Most of the note-taking happens while I’m watching television.

Because the world is undifferentiated on the television set. You may be watching the news channel, but it’s going to cover the breadth of American life and the human experience. It's gonna go from suicide bombings to frivolous consumer goods. It's a broad window on the world, and a lot of things are already established in my mind as things I say, things that I'm interested in, things that are fodder for my machine. And when I see something that relates to one of them, I know it instantly and if it's a further exaggeration and a further addition, or an exception—if it plays into furthering my purpose, I jot it down.

When I harvest the pieces of paper and I go through them and sort them, the one lucky thing I got in my genetic package was a great methodical left brain. I have a very orderly mind that wants to classify and index things and label them and store them according to that. I had a boss in radio when I was 18 years old, and my boss told me to write down every idea I get even if I can't use it at the time, and then file it away and have a system for filing it away—because a good idea is of no use to you unless you can find it. And that stuck with me.

And what's your filing system?

There’s a large segment of it devoted to language, which is a love of mine. And a rich area for my work talking about how we talk. One of the files is called “The Way We Talk.” And it's about certain voguish words that come into style and remain there. But then there are subfiles. Everything has subfiles. There's one that says "Crime." There's "Crime" and there's "Law," there’s "Sex" and there’s "Race." And there’s "Humans"—that’s obviously a big folder with a lot of smaller folders in it, it’s about the human race and the human species and experiences and observations I have about that, or data that I've found about it. You know, 6 million people stepped on land mines this year. Those things interest me.

And there's "America," and America is a major category, of course. It breaks down into the culture, and the culture breaks down into further things. It’s like nested boxes, like the Russian dolls—it's just folders within folders within folders. But I know how to navigate it very well, and I’m a Macintosh a guy and so Spotlight helps me a lot. I just get on Spotlight and say, let's see, if I say "asshole” and “minister," I then can find what I want find.

What's the process of going from something that's true about the world—observing it—to actually making people laugh?

I begin with the knowledge that my audience knows me thoroughly. I know the things they will trust coming from me, and I know they'll allow me to do exposition that’s necessary to set the stage for the piece of material. The funny—that’s part of the genetic package. The genetic marker for language came through my family. My grandfather, whom I didn’t know, was a New York City policeman. I did not know him. During his adult life, he wrote out Shakespeare’s tragedies longhand just for the joy it gave him. And he asked questions about language at his dinner table, my mother told me. My mother had a great love of language, and a great gift for language. The Irish have a genetic tradition, it seems, an affinity for language and expression. And so I got that. The Irish say: "You don’t lick it off the rocks, kid." It comes in the blood. So, I have that and I don’t have to do anything about it.

As Noel Coward said, “All I ever had was a talent to amuse.” I have a talent to amuse and I have a way of finding the joke, a way of expressing things through exaggeration, interesting images, whatever goes in, whatever the parts are that go into making these things work.

I try to come in through the side door. One of the voguish terms, which is so repellant to me, “thinking outside the box.” To settle for that kind of language is embarrassing. But that's a very useful picture. I try to come in through the side door, the side window, to come in from a direction they’re not expecting, to see something in a different way. That's the job that I give myself. So, how can I talk about something eminently familiar to them, on my terms, in a new way, that engages their imagination?

The jokes come. You don’t look for them. It’s all automatic, and, I think, genetic. My father was an after dinner speaker, was a great raconteur. He was an ad salesman for space in newspapers during the 1930s, when that was the primary medium of advertising, and my mother was in advertising her whole life. They both were very funny, and they both were very gifted verbally. So, those things come to you automatically. It's like being a child prodigy with the violin or the piano. It's not something you try for or you have to do too much about except work at it. And that's what I try to do.

How is it that you find things that are unexpected?

I don’t know. But I want to add an element I overlooked. Psychology. We're talking about a magazine called Psychology Today.

As a child, my father was gone. I had no grandparents; they were all dead. Had no real cousins to play with, and I didn’t give a shit, frankly. I experienced my life in a very happy way, but, what I want to say to you is, I was alone as a child. My father was dead. My mother left him when I was 2 months old and he died when I was 8 years old. He drank too much and he was a bully and she had the courage to take two boys, one of them two months old and one of them 5 years old and to leave him in 1937 and get back into the business world and get a job and raise us through the end of the Depression and through the Second World War. She did a great job, but she was at work until 7 or 7:30 at night many nights.

So I spent a lot of time on my own. In the house or out around the neighborhood or sneaking in the subway, going down to 42nd street, traveling around Manhattan Island, learning it as a youngster. And I experienced that—because psychologists ask you not if something's good or bad, but how do you experience it—I experienced that as freedom, independence, autonomy. And I was brought up on that feeling. That’s what made me, I think, able to quit school, and go out and try to start my life and career early, because I had that strength.

And my mother had that strength. I witnessed it. I mean, what she did was she took us away from him and saved us. So, those qualities of being alone like that fostered in me a need for adult approval and attention. Now they say that it's kind of a common cliché that comedians just want attention. But it's an element that's very important. The job is called "look at me." That's the name of this job. “Look at me. Ain't I smart? Ain't I cute? Ain't I clever?"

I needed to be—not the center of attention—but I needed to be able to attract attention when I wanted it, through my stunts and my fooling around physically with faces or postures or voices I would do. Then it became funny the things I would say, and I became more of a wit than simply a mimic and a clown. And so, those things were all important in this. The fact that I didn’t finish school left me with a lifelong need to prove that I’m smart, prove it to myself, maybe to the world. “Ain't I smart, ain't I cute, ain't I clever.” “Listen to me, listen to what I got to say.” So, those things are important elements in the drive behind all of this.

You made an analogy to playing the violin. I wanted to ask you about mastery. You’ve been doing this for, as you said, over 50 years, and it seems like you've only gotten better with time. So I'm wondering what you think has enabled you to do that. Is it like playing the violin? Is it just practice? Is it getting good feedback? Is it—you know, what is it that allows you to hone your craft?

The feedback that I’ve gotten has been through the success of the career. That’s a reinforcing factor. I say: Oh, that works, oh that’s what I do, I see. I think with anything you do over a long period of time, you should be getting better at it. I'm talking about craft, art, or drive that comes from inside.

What is your philosophy about physical performance? You walk around a lot, you make a lot of gestures.

It’s just second nature, you don’t think about it at all. And I don’t pace as much on stage as I used to, maybe it’s my age, I don’t know. I don't feel limited physically, in that respect, but it's just something I’ve grown into.

Were you always making people laugh, sort of automatically, just because of your personality?

Yeah. As I was describing, this is a job for a showoff. In those 8 years of grammar school that I had—the 9th year was kind of a it was a Irish catholic Christian brothers, and it was a much more brutal setting than these lovely nuns we had. So I think of those 8 years as my education. I got the work very easily, I didn’t have any trouble grasping the work, and so I had time to clown, time to signal to my buddy, make a face, make a fart under the arm, I was a bit of a class clown, I was a neighborhood cut-up.

I eventually started doing routines when I was about 14, 15 16. I would do routines on the street corner for my buddies on the stoop. My mother wanted me to finish high school, go to college, be an advertising man, be a businessman like the men at her office whom she admired. But she couldn’t stop this other machine that was revving up.

I had an 8th grade graduation from the grammar school—it was the only graduation I ever had. And in 9th grade, while I was at that school, I had a Brother, one of the brothers who taught, his name was Brother Conrad. My mother had said to me, now George, I didn't get you a graduation present, and this was June 1951, this was now the fall of 1951, when I'm in first year of high school. She said, “I didn't get you a graduation present, so you be thinking about what you might want.”

Brother Conrad was telling the class one day that because he had a clergyman's discount rate, he could get cameras for people. Then he mentioned tape recorders and man, the bell went off in my head! Tape recorders at that time were virtually unknown to the average person. They may have heard about them here or there. They were not consumer items.

She bought me a tape recorder, a Webcor. And that became a tool for me to put some of these verbal impulses to work. I began to produce little radio shows on it at home by using the phonograph. Playing a record on the phonograph, like playing the Dragnet theme. Dun da dun dun. Dun da dun dun duuun.

Then I would fade the phonograph down and I would come in and I would do my make-believe announcer. I did newscasts, I did sports. A lot of the things that I ventured into professionally in my first stage of comedy I was doing on that tape recorder. I recorded a whole half hour of story—it was like a vignette, like a series of vignettes, a drama, about my neighborhood. And guess what: I made fun of authority figures.

So my mother—in spite what she wanted me to do for her, to be a great reflection on her, go to college and be a businessman—she knew this was something I needed. And she got that for me, and it helped accelerate the beginnings of my putting this dream together that I had. I was 14 when I got that tape recorder. They were the size of a Buick. They were not little handy things. And she was smart enough to get me one. That's an important part of my development.

Can you remember the first joke you ever told?

No. But I do remember the first time I ever made my mother laugh. And unfortunately, it’s lost on me what it was I said. But I noticed the moment, I knew something had happened, this was when I was very young. My mother laughed fairly frequently. But I knew the difference between her social laugh and her really spontaneous laugh when she was caught off guard—which is the key to laugher, being off guard. And I said something to her, and I saw that in her and it registered with me. And it made the point. I wouldn’t have remembered it as well as I do if it hadn’t meant a lot to me. It was a kind of a little mark along the way, a little badge of honor. It meant I had said something witty. I didn’t clown, I wasn’t making a face or standing in a funny angle. I had said something witty. I had probably turned some situation around, exaggerated one element, and made a joke.

I want to talk about the transformation that you did in the 60s when you went from what you once termed the “middle-American comic” to this different persona—it was much more subversive. How did that happen and why did that happen?

I was always swimming against the tide. I was always out of step. Not only did I quit school, but I got kicked out of three schools along the way. I eventually got asked to leave the air force a year early—it wasn’t dishonorable, but it was a general discharge, which is a step down—because I did not shape up, I didn’t like authority, I had three court-martials. I was kicked off the alter boys, I was kicked off the choirboys, I was kicked out of the boy scouts, I was kicked out of summer camp. I never fit and I didn’t like conforming. And sometimes it just broke through the membrane, and I was out.

By the end of the 60s, all of my friends, the musician friends of mine, had gone through a transition in their dress, and especially in their music, and what I noticed was that all of these great artists—Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Joan Baez—all of these people were using their art to express themselves politically and socially. And I was not. I was still doing people-pleasing.

I was 30, and I resonated much more truly with the 20-year-olds. I was more in line with them than I was with these people I was entertaining in nightclubs. I began to notice that. I began to be affected by it, and along the way, the judicious use of some mescaline and some LSD managed to accelerate the process. It gave me more of an insight into how false the world was I was settling for, and to see that there was something much richer and better and more authentic. And those changes happened, they just—they happened naturally and organically. It took about 2 years for the total changeover to occur.

My beard got a little longer, the hair got a little longer, the clothing changed, and then I suddenly found myself being as—the best combination of both, this person I really was who was kind of out of step, antiauthoritarian, who also had these skills and talents that he was honing to express himself. And so I started expressing those feelings.

In what way did the mescaline and LSD give you the insight and the confidence to make this transformation? What role did the drugs play?

Well, It was just passive, I don’t know. See, I had always been a marijuana smoker, a pretty heavy user of marijuana, all these years I’m talking about when I was in this other world of mainstream television, nightclubs. So marijuana is a hallucinogen and it is also a value-changing drug, as are acid and mescaline. They are hallucinogens and they are value-changing drugs. They alter, assist in shifting one’s perspective on the world which usually is informed by your values. And so I had already, my body, my mind, and myself—I already had a kind of a thick layer of this out-of-stepness.

And so I was already across that street. And I just hadn’t, you know, bought a house on that side yet. So, the LSD was a much stronger experience, and the mescaline, and I don’t know what they did or how they did it, I just know that going through that gave me the confidence in these changes I was feeling, in this direction, this metamorphosis, I was in the middle of. I gained confidence in it and I took strength from it, feeling that I was right that I was really on the right path, that I was being true to myself. And that was what counted to me, to be true to myself—my mother had always said that. To thine—Shakespeare—“To thine own self be true.” She loved quoting the classics, and she quoted Emerson or Shakespeare or whoever it was she thought was appropriate for her lesson. And to thine own self be true. And I just—I just had to be who I felt like I was, not who I had led them to believe I was.

So after that transformation, to what extent is the persona that you have on stage—to what extent is it your real personality? I know you’re making jokes and some of that involves exaggeration, but do you feel that you’re acting angrier, more bitter, more caustic on stage? Or are you just being yourself as accurately as possible?

I’ve addressed this before when the question is asked more bluntly: Are you an angry man? What are you angry about; what are you so angry about? I don’t live an angry life, not an angry person. I rarely lose my temper, can’t remember the last time, never had a physical fight in my life, don’t carry grudges, don’t carry resentment either. Very very lucky in those respects. But I feel a very strong alienation and dissatisfaction from my groups.

Abraham Maslow said the fully realized man does not identify with the local group. When I saw that, it rang another bell. I thought: bingo! I do not identify with the local group, I do not feel a part of it. I really have never felt like a participant, I’ve always felt like an observer. Always. I only identified this in retrospect, way after the fact, that I have been on the outside, and I don’t like being on the inside. I don’t like being in their world. I’ve never felt comfortable there; I don’t belong to that. So, when he says the “local group,” I take that as meaning a lot of things: the local social clubs or fraternal orders, or lodges or associations or clubs of any kind, things where you sacrifice your individual identity for the sake of a group, for the sake of the group mind. I’ve always felt different and outside. Now, I also extended that, once again in retrospect, as I examined my feelings.

I don’t really identify with America, I don’t really feel like an American or part of the American experience, and I don’t really feel like a member of the human race, to tell you the truth. I know I am, but I really don’t. All the definitions are there, but I don’t really feel a part of it. I think I have found a detached point of view, an ideal emotional detachment from the American experience and culture and the human experience and culture and human choices.

But even if I am a cynic, they say if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist—that’s what’s underneath. That’s the little flicker of flame, has a little life in it, the idealist: I would love to be able to entertain that side of me, but it doesn’t work like that. I don’t see what’s in it yet, I mean I just like it out here.

I’m not an angry person, just very disappointed and contemptuous of my fellow humans’ choices—and on stage those feelings sometimes are exaggerated for a theatric stage—you’re on a stage you have an audience of 2500 or 3000 people: you need to project the feelings, the emotions it’s heightened, and people mistake it for a personal anger but it’s more dissatisfaction, disappointment and contempt for these things we’ve settled for.

So it sounds like it is your true personality, but it’s heightened for the stage.

It is my true personality, but it’s not an angry personality. Anger is a handy term and boy words are tricky, as we know. What one man perceives as anger, another person—in my case the deliverer of material—is, “Don’t you see it, don’t you see how badly you’re doing?” It’s like shaking a child—which you’re not supposed to do.

So let me latch onto that feeling. You’re grabbing somebody and you’re saying, “Don’t you see it?” But if you really don’t care about America, then why are you doing it? Why are you on stage? Is it just because you want to express yourself? Do you hope you can influence people in some way?

You’ve hit on the contradiction, and it’s one I don’t understand the resolution to, if there is one. Sometimes people say, do I try to make audiences think? I say: No no no, because that really would be the kiss of death. But what I want them to know is that I’m thinking. It’s part of that showoff and dropout syndrome. I think I need to show them that I have brought myself to a cleverer, smarter spot than they have. In doing so, “Can’t you see this? can’t you see?” And a lot of them do. I get amazing things said to me. And they’re frequent enough that I know these things are multiplied by those who have never encountered you. One person who says, “You really changed my outlook on things or the way I view X Y or Z,” for everyone who says that to you, there are a thousand, ten thousand who’ll never get to tell you that. There are people who take something away form what I do, and I know that and it pleases me and I am proud of that. And it means the student is a bit of a teacher.

But yeah, of course I care. Of course I care. My daughter has pinned me on that. She says of course you care, can’t you hear it? And I say yeah yeah yeah, but they gotta prove it to me first. Show me you care people and then I’ll let some of it out; right now I just want to scold you a little bit.

So how would you say that you feel towards people? You say on the one hand you are sort of contemptuous but on the other hand you want their approval in some way? Is that not a contradiction?

Yeah, it sounds like it has the makings of a contradiction; I guess by definition it does. I am contemptuous of the mass. That’s the thing I need to explain. One on one with people, I have great capacity and great compassion. I don’t like standing around 20 minutes talking to somebody, but when I see individuals, I see their individual beauty. I’m aware of the potential—and I don’t mean this happened every time I meet someone—but when I see people, I sort of see the potential for the whole species. When you look in their eyes, you can see a hologram of the human species and you kind of know what we could have been. It’s the group behavior that I’m talking about on stage.

Let’s switch gears a little bit and let me ask you about religion. I mean you were talking about it decades ago. Now, atheism and religion bashing have gone mainstream: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. You were way ahead of the curve. What’s it like hearing them saying many of the things you said in the 1970s?

I’ve read some of the books you’ve mentioned and some of the reasons of existence and God and what a bad name religion has given God. I just kind of do this, I just keep moving along. I don’t really judge it… I reserve my evaluations and judgments for the parts that I do, the lines I add. I don’t think about myself in the larger world very much.

Richard Dawkins did use an excerpt of mine for a chapter heading. I noticed that. It’s nice. Not to overdo this thing, but when you’re a dropout and the culture accepts you and begins to quote and they teach some of your stuff in communications class and communications law and I hear this all the time and professors ask to use things in their textbooks, this is kind of my honorary baccalaureate. When these things happen I think good, well, there’s a little thumb on my chest, feather in my cap. I notice those things, and I feel good about what I’ve chosen and how I do it. As Lily Tomlin once said, and I am going to get this wrong so it’s a paraphrase, she said to be considered a success in a mediocre culture doesn’t say a lot for you.

You were central in the Supreme Court case in which justices affirmed the government's right to regulate your “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” act on the public airwaves. How do you think about the role of vulgarity in your humor?

I used to point out that when I was a little boy in the 40s, I was told to look up to and admire solders and sailors, policemen, firemen, and athletes, were objects of childhood hero worship. We all know how they talk. So apparently these words do not corrupt morally. This was the thing I couldn’t put together.

I use the words because I’m from that ethos. I’m from the street in New York, hung around in a tough neighborhood. It was common to curse, you make your point. It’s a very effective language. I try not to overdo it. It’s never to shock. I know where it fits, it’s never to shock. There’s no shock value left in words. Humor is base on surprise, and surprise is a milder way of saying shock. It’s surprise that makes the joke.

What’s the funniest bit you’ve ever heard?

Sometimes jokes have a wonderful logic to them. I’ll give you one that, even to people that don’t mind mild cursing, bothers some people—especially women. Short joke. The wonderful thing about it is the logic of the joke, the ingenuity.

Father and son, little son are out on the back porch, passing the day, father says to son, “Do you have perhaps any questions for me about sex?” And he says, “Well, yeah Dad, what is that hairy area on Mommy?” And the father says, “Well, that’s her vulva.” And the boy says, “Well then what’s a cunt?” And the father says, “That’s rest of Mommy.”

And that joke strikes a nerve, hits a chord—men who’ve been divorced more than twice really like that. It makes beautiful use of that man’s thought. To arrive at that distinction—to take it from the real to the figurative. From cunt as a sexual part to cunt as a term of derision for women, just as men are called assholes by certain women—and they deserve it. It’s funny how we use words. The fact that a mean woman is called a cunt and a mean man is called a prick. I have a long thing I’d like to write someday about language and the way we address each other.

How has your comedy changed over the years?

You know for a guy who didn’t do homework, the thing that’s happened is this: that 6th grade showoff that kid who had to sing a song at meetings, who won the medal at camp for being funniest guy at amateur night 5 years in a row. He didn’t do his homework then. I didn’t do book reports, but now what’s happened is that showoff has a partner who does his homework and the left/right brain are allied, united, now in a way they weren’t. I’m using my organizational ability, and my writing ability which is careful process, informed by art, but still a craft of putting things together, I’ve somehow become more integrated. I do my homework now but I stand up and show off. So I got both, I got the best of both sixth grade worlds.

You asked me to remind you to tell me about Arthur Koestler.

That was another impact. I was doing nightclub comedy down in the Village. I was down there in ’63, ’64, and my friend told me about Arthur Koestler’s book about the act of creation and it had a section on humor.

He was talking about the creative process. There was an illustration on the panel that showed a triptych. On the left panel, there were these names of artistic pursuits. There were poets, painter, composer. And one of them was jester. I was only interested in the jester. What he said about each of these, he said these individuals on the left hand side can transcend the panels of the triptych by creative growth.

The jester makes jokes, he’s funny, he makes fun, he ridicules. But if his ridicules are based on sound ideas and thinking, then he can proceed to the second panel, which is the thinker—he called it the philosopher. The jester becomes the philosopher, and if he does these things with dazzling language that we marvel at, then he becomes a poet too. Then the jester can be a thinking jester who thinks poetically.

I didn’t see that and say, “That’s what I am going to do,” but I guess it made an impression on me. I was never afraid to grow and change. I never was afraid of reversing my field on people, and I just think I’ve become a touch of each of those second and third descriptions and I definitely have a gift for language that is rhythmic and attractive to the ear, and I have interesting imagery which I guess is a poetic touch. And I like the fact that most of my things are based on solid ideas, things I’ve thought about in a new way for me, things for which I have said “Well, what about this? Suppose you look at it this way? How about that?” And then you heighten and exaggerate that, because comedy’s all about heightening and exaggerating. And anyways I guess I was impressed that there was another thing from my early life that probably at least influenced me to some level.

It sounds like you think of yourself much more as a writer than a performer—is that true? How do you think about performing?

It’s my primary delivery system. I used to, in my early years, when I would do an interview I was always proud to tell the writer that I wrote my own material, if they asked me or even if they didn’t. I wanted to be distinguished from the ones who didn’t do that, and I was proud of it, so I would say I am a comedian who writes his own material. And then at some point, I discovered what I really had become was a writer who performs his own material.

This was a really important distinction for me to notice—it happened way after the fact. I’m a writer. I think of myself as a writer. First of all, I’m an entertainer; I’m in the vulgar arts. I travel around talking and saying things and entertaining, but it’s in service of my art and it’s informed by that. So I get to write for two destinations. The writing is what gives me the joy, especially editing myself for the page, and getting something ready to show to the editors, and then to have a first draft and get it back and work to fix it, I love reworking, I love editing, love love love revision, revision, revision, revision.

And computers changed my life, the fact that you can move text as easily as you can move text, and say, “Wait a minute, these two things belong together, these two things go together, page 2 and page 5: similar ideas, put ’em together!” But the person who is most a part of me is the performer, is the standup, the guy who says, “Hey look at me, listen to this!” I do that because that’s what I do, I love doing it.

And I love the feeling I get in my gut when I’m watching on the computer screen that is close to being realized the way I would like it to be. the feeling I get in my gut is “Wait’ll they hear this, wait’ll I tell them this, I can’t wait to tell them!” It’s like the guy on the end of the bench: “Put me in coach, put me in!” They call to me, I can tell which ones are pregnant, which ones need to be moved up to a higher level of readiness, and it’s because I can’t wait to say them, I can’t wait to share them with people.

You know, you get 2500 people, acting as a single organism: the audience is a single organism and it’s you and it. And to have that feeling of mastery up there—it’s an assertion of power: here I am, I have the microphone, you came here for this express purpose. You’re sitting not in tables at nightclubs with waiters and glasses, you’re seated all facing forward in order to enjoy this and here I am, and wait till you hear this! There’s nothing like it in my experience that I could aspire to. It has as much a payoff as writing, which has a big payoff.

So, sitting in front of a computer, “Wait till they hear this, this is great material.” What’s the difference between that and actually standing on stage hearing the audience roaring with laughter?

The difference is, at the computer you can stop, think back, think forward, look around, turn the page as it were, you can see the whole world all at once. On stage you’re only in a single moment ever—your mind can hear what you just said. This is a funny thing that happens for me: when I’m up there doing something I’ve memorized perfectly, and it has pauses in it—and of course the laughs are all the pauses. As you’re going along, you’re thinking of what you’re saying, you want to give it the proper vocal values, so you are kind of thinking about it, not reaching for the words, but kind of thinking about them. You’re also aware of the echo of what you just said, and whether it worked or not, and what that might mean. It’s all part of the trigonometry, I guess. And then there is the faint anticipation of what comes next.

It’s like the feeling of conducting an orchestra. It’s like conducting an orchestra, this group of people who already like you, predisposed to appreciate you, at your service, at you’re command, and you’re just waving the baton and bringing them in, leading them forward and it’s just a nice kind of feeling.

Let me ask you about your influence—how do you feel that you have influenced other comedians?

I hear that from some of them, who say, “I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for you.” I talked to a very prominent name in comedy today who wanted to pay me some kind compliments about the recent HBO show, he hasn’t been able to catch up with me, I won’t mention him, but everybody would know his name. He said also in passing, “You know, I wouldn’t be doing this without you.” There have been people, who, I don’t know, because I came along at a certain time. Richard Pryor and I went through our changes at the same time, he became prominent at the same time. I had this kind of reemergence. I’m sure Richard Pryor would hear those things. I’m sure Woody Allen hears those things. I don’t take them as singular to me. But I know they’re true when I’m told, I realized I could be myself, could talk about this and that and not be afraid; I’m sure all artists hear similar things, especially ones who have lasted a while.

[Note: Jerry Seinfeld has since identified himself as the prominent comedian who spoke to George Carlin just before I did. "I called him to compliment him on his most recent special on HBO," writes Seinfeld in a New York Times op-ed. "Seventy years old and he cranks out another hour of great new stuff. He was in a hotel room in Las Vegas getting ready for his show. He was a monster." —JD]

Do you mentor other comedians?

No. I’m not collegial, I don’t hang out. I’m soloist, I like my solitude, I don’t really hang around with comedians—this person I talked to today, I now have his phone number. I have maybe five phone numbers. I’m not in show business because I don’t have to go to the meetings, I’m just not a part of it, I don’t belong to it. When you “belong” to something. You want to think about that word, “belong.” People should think about that: it means they own you. If you belong to something it owns you, and I just don’t care for that. I like spinning out here like one of those subatomic particles that they can’t quite pin down.

Has your sense of humor helped you in other areas of your life, besides your career as a professional comedian? Meeting people? Making friends? Dealing with loss?

I don’t know about any of those aspects. But I know that the art of not taking things seriously often bleeds over into the self, to not take yourself too seriously. You can tell from my answers that I take what I do very seriously, and I think about it. But I don’t really take myself that seriously.

I know that I’ve accomplished a good deal. I was just nominated for this year’s Mark Twain prize at the Kennedy Center, so these things over the years mean, "Yeah, good job, George.” I don’t take myself very seriously, though, at least I don’t think so. I try to see the reality and not get carried away with the emotion. What’s the reality? What's going on here? What’s the ground floor? What’s the reality? Let’s look at the situation: "So he’s dead, she’s hurt, and you don’t feel good." OK, so let’s figure this out.

I like to say two things in life that mean the most: genetics and luck. When you look at it realistically, genetics is luck too. Because you could have been born in some really terrible situation and never had a chance to realize yourself or see who you were. And so the luck of genetics and then after that, circumstances, those are the two guiding things. Knowing what to do about it, taking advantage of it, that’s fine, that's good, good for you. But still, those two elements mean everything.

My arm is getting tired here. The crook of my arm.

I guess I'm pretty much done. We've been talking for a long time and I really appreciate your taking all this time. Was there a good question you thought people should ask that never got asked?

No, because you covered some of the ones, as they came along. As I looked at the list yesterday, I thought the list gave me an opportunity for several places where I want, need to be heard—such as the anger thing, development, and the changes I went through in the late 60s. They were all in there so I feel good.

So the last question is: What are you working on now?

I have a piece of material that I’m doing on stage these days. I'm in Las Vegas now. I do weekends here, I do four nights on weekends as part of my year of touring. I go mostly to concert halls and theaters, around 80 or 90 of 'em a year. But I come down here around three or four. So I’m down here. This piece of material called, “There’s Too Much Fucking Music,” which is my way of looking at… how much music there is, I guess. It’s just my way of looking at the world and saying something that people don’t notice and figuring out a new way. And it’s filled with exaggeration and stuff. I'm doing that on stage a little bit. I’m not giving myself any pressure.

The lady in my life Sally Wade and I are waiting for our house to be finished remodeling. We’re in temporary quarters. It's kind of onerous. We’re lucky we found a place right down the street but the price we pay for being right down the street is that it’s not really suitable in terms of space and structure for our needs. So we’re really in combat duty. It’s been a tough time. Not so tough you can’t work it out, you know, but just enough so it’s broken some of my work habits. And I’m enjoying my break from them and I know where I have to go on the next book, I have a book that I'm going to start organizing the files, reorganizing, renaming, reclassifying, putting things together, taking things apart. And there’ll be another HBO show as these pieces on stage begin to take form.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

7 Famous Executioners

Public executions used to be a form of entertainment and executioners were like rock stars. A good executioner was one that had flair but could kill a victim quickly. This is a look at 7 executioners that became famous for their abilities to dispatch their victims.
7 ) Souflikar

During the Ottoman Empire the job of Bostanci was a prestigious one. The title translates to “Gardener”, and he was one… but he was also expected to prune the Emperor’s court through strangulation. They added another twist to it: the condemned raced the executioner through the gardens to the execution spot. If he managed to beat him, his sentence was reduced to banishment. If he lost, he was strangled on the spot and his body thrown in the river. None were as fast as Mahomet IV’s head executioner, Souflikar, as over the course of 5 years he strangled at least 5,000 people - a rate of almost 3 people a day.
6 ) Richard Brandon

The English were always very picky about who could become an executioner. It had to be someone from a family of executioners that knew how to kill someone quickly but also knew how to vamp for the crowd. Brandon was one of the most famous Common Hangmen of London and became the yardstick against which other English executioners (even Albert Pierrepoint) were measured. He was extremely proud of his ability to sever a head with a single blow, something that was very popular with the crowds - and appreciated by people getting executed - since it generally took a few chops for the average executioner to get through. He refined this skill after years of practice on cats and dogs. He is best known for executing King Charles I, but did so under heavy disguise out of fear of retaliation.
5 ) William Marwood

While Brandon was popular for his skill, Marwood became popular for developing a process that instantly killed his victims. He started out as cobbler but got a job as executioner after showing that a person died instantly if his “long drop” method was used. Before Marwood, people getting hanged would slowly strangle to death and the executioner would have to use his own weight to seal the deal. Marwood added a snapping motion that would instantly break the neck. It wasn’t perfect though, the first few executions often ended with decaptiation.
4 ) Fernando Alvarez de Toledo

The “Iron Duke of Alva” was the chief executioner for King Philip of Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Stories about his approach would send towns into a panic - and rightfully so: he once executed 8,000 people in a single session at Antwerp. He boasted that he had managed to hang 18,000 Dutchmen in the Netherlands. These stories and his brutal methods - he would brand his victim’s tongue until it couldn’t be taken back into the mouth and would then burn them at the stake - only helped spread rumors that Spaniards were savage radicals.
3 ) Giovanni Battiste Bugatti

“Mastro Titta”, a corruption of “Master of Justice”, is considered a national hero in Italy for performing 516 public executions for the Papal States. While other executioners on this list would show off for the crowds, Bugatti considered it to be a side job. Well known for his brutality - using hammers to crush heads and then quartering the bodies - he approached each execution in a casual and religious manner: he would go to confession and take communion before each victim, offered them a pinch of snuff, and then ended their lives. His blood stained cloak can still be seen in Rome’s Criminology Museum.
2 ) Charles Henri-Sanson

Unlike Bugatti, Henri-Sanson enjoyed working up a crowd before performing executions. He attracted record numbers and was one of the most efficient public executioners in Paris. He once executed 300 people during 3 days of the Reign of Terror and was asked to slow down because residents of a nearby street were complaining that the stench of blood would drive house prices down. He was so skilled that he could guillotine 12 people under 13 minutes. He famously made Marie Antoinette one of those people in front of 200,000 cheering fans.
1 ) Grover Cleveland

The only American president to serve two nonconsecutive terms also carried out two executions while sheriff in Buffalo, New York. He hanged a man that stabbed his own mother and a few months later hanged a murderer. During the 1884 elections his rivals called him “Buffalo’s Hangman” and tried to use the executions against him. Neither the allegations that he had a child out of wedlock, nor the nickname hurt his candidacy. In fact, some historians believe that personally executing criminals made him appear tough on crime.

A few of our favorite George Carlin facts:

The Great Escape

Carlin’s first big adventure occurred when he was a mere two months old. His mother had had enough of her alcoholic, abusive husband and fled the family apartment via the fire escape with infant George in her arms and his five-year-old brother close behind. Since his mother had to work to support the family, George spent much of his childhood home alone. He listened to radio programs and invented his own characters and stories in his imagination.
He was a 9th grade dropout

George dropped out of school in ninth grade and eventually joined the Air Force in 1954. He was court martialed three times, including one charge of falling asleep on guard duty. He was discharged in 1957, 11 months before his tour was officially up.
Lenny Bruce changed his career

While working as a disc jockey after leaving the Air Force, Carlin met and teamed up with Jack Burns, a Texas newscaster who had an interest in comedy. The duo performed stand-up as Carlin and Burns and had a fairly successful run, including several appearances on The Tonight Show. The duo split up in 1962 when George attended a Lenny Bruce performance and decided that he, too, wanted to veer away from traditional suit-and-tie joke-and-punchline comedy and pursue a more countercultural path. (Jack Burns would later replace Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show as Deputy Warren Ferguson.)
He was the first host of SNL

Carlin was the host of the first episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live back in 1975. His albums were million-sellers and Grammy winners during that era and his live performances were always sold out. Yet he seemingly “disappeared” in 1976, at the height of his fame. It wasn’t revealed until many years later that Carlin had suffered a heart attack (his first of three). In addition to his drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease was hereditary in his family. His father, he revealed in an interview, had died at age 57 due to heart trouble. As George succinctly put it, “His first symptom was a trip to St. Raymond’s Cemetery.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Today would have been the 96th birthday of cryptologist, mathematician and father of almost everything digital Alan Turing. That he was persecuted for his homosexuality to the point of suicide is a crime and a tragedy.

Remember today the man who, more than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, is the reason you are now sitting at a computer, reading this very sentence.

23 June, 1912 - 7 June, 1954
Alan Mathison Turing was born on 23 June 1912, the second and last child (after his brother John) of Julius Mathison and Ethel Sara Turing. The unusual name of Turing placed him in a distinctive family tree of English gentry, far from rich but determinedly upper-middle-class in the peculiar sense of the English class system. His father Julius had entered the Indian Civil Service, serving in the Madras Presidency, and had there met and married Ethel Sara Stoney. She was the daughter of the chief engineer of the Madras railways, who came from an Anglo-Irish family of somewhat similar social status. Although conceived in British India, most likely in the town of Chatrapur, Alan Turing was born in a nursing home in Paddington, London.
Alan Turing's father
In four inadequate words Alan Turing appears now as the founder of computer science, the originator of the dominant technology of the late twentieth century, but these words were not spoken in his own lifetime, and he may yet be seen in a different light in the future. They are also words very remote from the circumstances of his birth and infancy.

The name of Turing was best known for the work of Julius' brother H. D. Turing on fly fishing, and had no connection with the scientific or academic worlds. The name of Stoney however was notable for a remote relative, the Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911), today best known for his identification of the natural units of physical quantities. Possibly the engineering base of his mother's family, with its respect for applied science, had some influence, but if so it was subordinated to the demands of class, church and Empire. Certainly the elder brother John F. Turing, who became a London solicitor, showed no sign of it. Alan Turing's story was not one of family or tradition but of an isolated and autonomous mind.

Alan Turing shared with his brother a childhood rigidly determined by the demands of class and the exile in India of his parents. Until his father's retirement from India in 1926, Alan Turing and his elder brother John were fostered in various English homes where nothing encouraged expression, originality, or discovery. Science for him was an extra-curricular passion, first shown in primitive chemistry experiments. But he was given, and read, later commenting on its seminal influence, a popular book called Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know.

Alan Turing with his mother His boyhood scientific interests were a trial to his mother whose perpetual terror was that he would not be acceptable to the English Public School. At twelve he expressed his conscious fascination with using 'the thing that is commonest in nature and with the least waste of energy,' presentiment of a life seeking freshly minted answers to fundamental questions. Despite this, he was successfully entered for Sherborne School. The headmaster soon reported: "If he is to be solely a Scientific Specialist, he is wasting his time at a Public School." The assessment of his establishment was almost correct.
Turing's private notes on the theory of relativity showed a degree-level appreciation, yet he was almost prevented from taking the School Certificate lest he shame the school with failure. But it appears that the stimulus for effective communication and competition came only from contact with another very able youth, a year ahead of him at Sherborne, to whom Alan Turing found himself powerfully attracted in 1928. He, Christopher Morcom, gave Turing a vital period of intellectual companionship — which ended with Morcom's sudden death in February 1930.
Turing's conviction that he must now do what Morcom could not, apparently sustained him through a long crisis. For three years at least, as we know from his letters to Morcom's mother, his thoughts turned to the question of how the human mind, and Christopher's mind in particular, was embodied in matter; and whether accordingly it could be released from matter by death.

This question led him deeper into the area of twentieth century physics, first helped by A. S. Eddington's book The Nature of the Physical World, wondering whether quantum-mechanical theory affected the traditional problem of mind and matter.

Alan Turing, 1931

As an undergraduate at King's College, Cambridge from 1931, he entered a world more encouraging to free-ranging thought. His 1932 reading of the then new work of von Neumann on the logical foundations of quantum mechanics, helped the transition from emotional to rigorous intellectual enquiry. At the same time, this was when his homosexuality became a definitive part of his identity. The special ambience of King's College gave him a first real home. His association with the so-called anti-War movement of 1933 did not develop into Marxism, nor into the pacifism of his friend and occasional lover James Atkins, then a fellow undergraduate mathematician, later musician. He was closer in thought to the liberal-left economists J. M. Keynes and A. C. Pigou. His relaxations were found not in the literary circles generally associated with the King's College homosexual milieu, but in rowing, running, and later in sailing a small boat.

Turing's progress seemed assured, A distinguished degree in 1934 followed by a Fellowship of King's College in 1935 and a Smith's Prize in 1936 for work on probability theory, and he might then have seemed on course for a successful career as a mildly eccentric King's don engaged in pure mathematics. His uniqueness of mind, however, drove him in a direction none could have foreseen.
By 1933 Turing had already introduced himself to Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica and so to the then arcane area of mathematical logic. Bertrand Russell had thought of logic as a solid foundation for mathematical truth, but many questions had since been raised about how truth could be captured by any formalism. In particular, in 1931 Gödel had shattered Russell's picture by showing the incompleteness of mathematics: the existence of true statements about numbers which could not be proved by the formal application of set rules of deduction. In 1935, Turing learnt from the lecture course of the Cambridge topologist M. H. A. Newman that a further question, posed by Hilbert, still lay open. It was the question of Decidability, the Entscheidungsproblem. Could there exist, at least in principle, a definite method or process by which it could be decided whether any given mathematical assertion was provable?
Alan Turing in 1934
To answer such a question needed a definition of 'method' which would be not only precise but compelling. This is what Turing supplied. He analysed what could be achieved by a person performing a methodical process, and seizing on the idea of something done 'mechanically', expressed the analysis in terms of a theoretical machine able to perform certain precisely defined elementary operations on symbols on paper tape. He presented convincing arguments that the scope of such a machine was sufficient to encompass everything that would count as a 'definite method.' Daringly he included an argument based on the transitions between 'states of mind' of a human being performing a mental process.
This triple correspondence between logical instructions, the action of the mind, and a machine which could in principle be embodied in a practical physical form, was Turing's definitive contribution. Having made this novel definition of what should count as a 'definite method' — in modern language, an algorithm — it was not too hard to answer Hilbert's question in the negative: no such decision procedure exists.

In April 1936 he showed his result to Newman; but at the same moment the parallel conclusion of the American logician Alonzo Church became known, and Turing was robbed of the full reward for his originality. His paper, On Computable Numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem, had to refer to Church's work, and was delayed until August 1936. However it was seen at the time that Turing's approach was original and different; Church relied upon an assumption internal to mathematics, rather than appealing to operations that could actually be done by real things or people in the physical world. Subsequently, the concept of the Turing machine has become the foundation of the modern theory of computation and computability.

Turing worked in isolation from the powerful school of logical theory centred on Church at Princeton University, and his work emerged as that of a complete outsider. One can only speculate, but it looks as if Turing found in the concept of the Turing machine something that would satisfy the fascination with the problem of Mind that Christopher Morcom had sparked; his total originality lay in seeing the relevance of mathematical logic to a problem originally seen as one of physics. In this paper, as in so many aspects of his life, Turing made a bridge between the logical and the physical worlds, thought and action, which crossed conventional boundaries.

His work introduced a concept of immense practical significance: the idea of the Universal Turing Machine. The concept of 'the Turing machine' is like that of 'the formula' or 'the equation'; there is an infinity of possible Turing machines, each corresponding to a different 'definite method' or algorithm. But imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. Then the work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing machine, namely the Universal Turing machine. A Universal Turing machine can be made do what any other particular Turing machine would do, by supplying it with the standard form describing that Turing machine. One machine, for all possible tasks.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting and obeying the program as what the computer itself does. Thus, the Universal Turing Machine embodies the essential principle of the computer: a single machine which can be turned to any well-defined task by being supplied with the appropriate program.

Additionally, the abstract Universal Turing Machine naturally exploits what was later seen as the 'stored program' concept essential to the modern computer: it embodies the crucial twentieth-century insight that symbols representing instructions are no different in kind from symbols representing numbers. But computers, in this modern sense, did not exist in 1936. Turing created these concepts out of his mathematical imagination. Only nine years later would electronic technology be tried and tested sufficiently to make it practical to transfer the logic of his ideas into actual engineering. In the meanwhile the idea lived only in his mind.

In common with other outstanding young scientists, Turing spent two years at Princeton University enrolled as a graduate student. He arrived in September 1936. On Computable Numbers... was published at the very end of 1936 and attracted some attention; by the time he left, the idea had come to the attention of the leading Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann. But Turing certainly did not shoot to fame. He worked on on algebra and number theory; on showing that his definition of computability coincided with that of Church; and on an extension of his ideas (Ordinal Logics) which provided a Ph.D. thesis.

The work on 'ordinal logics', probably his most difficult and deepest mathematical work, was an attempt to bring some kind of order to the realm of the uncomputable. This also was connected to the question of the nature of mind, as Turing's interpretation of his ideas suggested that human 'intuition' could correspond to uncomputable steps in an argument. But Turing never pursued this line of development after 1938. Instead, he was increasingly preoccupied with more immediate problems which demanded logical skills.

True to the concreteness of the Turing machine, he also spent time at Princeton making a cipher machine based on using electromagnetic relays to multiply binary numbers. Even then he saw a link from 'useless' logic to practical computation. Although not one of the political intellectuals of the 1930s, Turing followed current events and was influenced in studying ciphers by the prospect of war with Germany.
In 1938 Turing was offered a temporary post at Princeton by von Neumann but instead returned to Cambridge. He had no University lectureship; in the year 1938-9 he lived on his King's College fellowship, as logician and number theorist. Unusually for a mathematician, he joined in Wittgenstein's classes on the philosophy of mathematics; unusually again, he engineered gear-wheel parts for a special machine to calculate the Riemann Zeta-function.

The Enigma cipher machine Publicly, he sponsored the entry into Britain of a young German Jewish refugee. Secretly, he worked part-time for the British cryptanalytic department, the so-called Government Code and Cypher School. His appointment marked the first scientific input into a hitherto arts-based department. That revolution was caused by the failure of pre-scientific methods to penetrate the mechanical Enigma cipher used by Germany. No significant progress was made, however, until the gift of vital ideas and information in July 1939 from Poland, where mathematicians had been employed on the problem much earlier.
Upon British declaration of war on 3 September, Turing took up full-time work at the wartime cryptanalytic headquarters, Bletchley Park. The Polish work was limited as it depended upon the very particular way the Germans had been using the Enigma. One of their ideas was embodied in a machine called a Bomba. The way forward lay in Turing's generalisation of the Polish Bombe into a far more powerful device, capable of breaking any Enigma message where a small portion of plaintext could be guessed correctly. Another Cambridge mathematican, W. G. Welchman, made an important contribution, but the critical factor was Turing's brilliant mechanisation of subtle logical deductions.

From late 1940 onwards, the Turing-Welchman Bombe made reading of Luftwaffe signals routine. In contrast, the more complex Enigma methods used in German Naval communications were generally regarded as unbreakable. Happy to work alone on a problem that defeated others, Turing cracked the system at the end of 1939, but it required the capture of further material by the Navy, and the development of sophisticated statistical processes, before regular decryption could begin in mid-1941. Turing's section 'Hut 8', which deciphered Naval and in particular U-boat messages, then became a key unit at Bletchley Park. By the end of 1941, as the United States entered the war, the battle of the Atlantic was moving towards Allied advantage. On 1 February 1942, the Atlantic U-boat Enigma machine was given an extra complication and this advantage was suddenly wiped out: nothing could be decoded and catastrophe loomed.

Besides illustrating the always razor-edge state of the war of wits, this crisis brought about a new ingredient in Alan Turing's experience: electronic technology made its first appearance at Bletchley Park as telephone engineers were pressed into an effort to gain ever higher speeds of mechanical working. As it turned out, however, the electronic engineers found themselves called upon to mechanize the breaking of the 'Fish' material: messages enciphered on the quite different system used for Hitler's strategic communications. Here again Turing's statistical ideas underlay the methods employed, though it was M. H. A. Newman who played the organising role. The conjunction of Turing's thoughts with the practicality of large-scale electronic machinery, arising from this technical U-boat Enigma change, came to have momentous consequences.
By 1942 Alan Turing was the genius loci at Bletchley Park, famous as 'Prof', shabby, nail-bitten, tie-less, sometimes halting in speech and awkward of manner, the source of many hilarious anecdotes about bicycles, gas masks, and the Home Guard; the foe of charlatans and status-seekers, relentless in long shift work with his colleagues, mostly of student age. To one of these, Joan Clarke, he proposed marriage, and was gladly accepted. But then he retracted, telling her of his homosexuality.

Turing crossed the Atlantic in November 1942, for highest-level liaison not only on the desperate U-boat Enigma crisis, but on the electronic encipherment of speech signals between Roosevelt and Churchill. Before his return in March 1943, logical weaknesses in the changed U-boat system had been brilliantly detected, and U-boat Enigma decryption was effectively restored for the rest of the war. With the battle of the Atlantic regained for the Allies, crisis resolved, chess champion C. H. O'D. Alexander, hitherto Turing's deputy, took charge of Hut 8.

Turing became an all-purpose consultant to the by now vast Bletchley Park operation. As such he saw the 'Fish' material cracked by the Colossus machines, brought into operation just before D-Day, demonstrating the feasibility of large-scale digital electronic technology. Turing himself devoted much time to learning electronics: ostensibly for creating his own, elegant speech secrecy system, which he effected with the aid of one assistant, Donald Bayley, at nearby Hanslope Park. But he had another and more ambitious end in view: in the last stage of the war (for his part in which he was awarded an OBE) he planned the embodiment of the Universal Turing Machine in electronic form, or in effect, invented the digital computer.

In 1944, at the invasion of Normandy that Allied control of the Atlantic allowed, Alan Turing was almost uniquely in possession of three key ideas:

* his own 1936 concept of the universal machine
* the potential speed and reliability of electronic technology
* the inefficiency in designing different machines for different logical processes.

Combined, these ideas provided the principle, the practical means, and the motivation for the modern computer, a single machine capable of handling any programmed task. He himself was as eager as anyone in the world to bring them together, and was spurred even more by a fourth idea: that the universal machine should be able to acquire and exhibit the faculties of the human mind. Even in 1944 he spoke to Donald Bayley of 'building a brain'.

Turing was captivated by the potential of the computer he had conceived. Although his 1936 work had shown the absolute limitations of the computable, he had become fascinated by what Turing machines could do, rather than by what they could not. He had long abandoned his youthful expectations of finding free will or free spirits through quantum mechanics. His later thought was strongly determinist and atheistic in character. And by the end of the Second World War he had turned against the tentative idea that there were steps of 'intuition' in human thought corresponding to uncomputable operations. Instead, he held that the computer would offer unlimited scope for practical progress towards embodying intelligence in an artificial form.

For the second time, he experienced being pre-empted by a parallel American publication, in this case the EDVAC plan for an electronic computer, with Von Neumann's name attached. Nonetheless, this publication when it appeared in June 1945 worked in practice to Turing's advantage, American competition stimulating the National Physical Laboratory to plan a rival project, to which he was appointed a Senior Principal Scientific Officer. Turing despised his nominal superior J. Womersley, but at least initially this applied mathematician showed a rapid appreciation of the scope of Turing's ideas, and with a eye for acronyms steered Turing's design towards formal approval in early 1946 as the Automatic Computing Engine, or ACE.
Turing's detailed computer scheme was drawn up in a continuation of wartime spirit: as a plan that could be effected immediately with the memory storage (cumbersome acoustic delay lines, as used in radar) that was to hand. Turing knew that superior technology would soon transform design: his emphasis was on speed in every sense, and in the exploitation of the universal machine concept. This meant, in particular, implementing arithmetical functions by programming rather than by building in electronic components, a concept different from that of the American-derived designs.

The hardware design was short-term; but his prospectus for the use of the machine was visionary. Turing projected a computer able to switch at will from numerical work to algebra, codebreaking, file handling, or chess-playing. Methods for handling subroutines included a suggestion that the machine could expand its own programs from an abbreviated form, ideas well ahead of contemporary American plans. A later talk (February 1947) depicted a national computer centre with remote terminals, and the prospect of the machine taking over more and more of its own programming work. In 1947 his Abbreviated Code Instructions marked the beginning of programming languages. But not a single component of the ACE was assembled, and Turing found himself without any influence in the engineering of the project. The lack of cooperation, very different from the wartime spirit, he found deeply frustrating.

From October 1947, the NPL allowed, or perhaps preferred, that he should spend the academic year at Cambridge. Rather than publish these fundamental principles of computing, he spent his time on new study amidst the post-war renaissance of science, not in mathematics or technology but in neurology and physiology. Out of this came a pioneering paper on what would now be called neural nets, written to amplify his earlier suggestions that a sufficiently complex mechanical system could exhibit learning ability. This was submitted to the NPL as an internal report, and never published in his lifetime. Meanwhile the NPL made no advance with the construction of the ACE, and as Turing's position fell back, other computer projects at Cambridge and Manchester took the lead.

Indeed it was Newman, who had been the first reader of On computable numbers, and in charge of the electronic breaking of the 'Fish' ciphers, who was partly responsible for this. On his 1945 appointment to the chair of pure mathematics at Manchester University, he had negotiated a large Royal Society grant for the construction of a computer. Newman strongly promoted Turing's principle of the stored-program computer, but unlike Turing, intended no personal involvement with engineering. He conveyed the basic principles to the leading radar engineer F. C. Williams, who had been attracted to Manchester, and the latter's brilliant innovation made possible a rapid success: Manchester in June 1948 had the world's first practical demonstration of Turing's computer principle.

Although losing in the race to implement a universal machine, and slow to communicate or compete in the game of scientific priority, Turing ran very competitively in a literal sense. After the war he developed his strength in cross-country running with frequent long-distance training and top-rank competition in amateur athletics. He would amaze his colleagues by running to scientific meetings, beating the travellers by public transport, and only an injury prevented his serious consideration for the British team in the 1948 Olympic Games.

The return to Cambridge helped Alan Turing form an agreeable circle of lasting friendships, particularly with Robin Gandy, who began at this period to develop under Turing's influence and would later inherit his mantle as a mathematical logician. Although never secretive about his sexuality, he now became more deliberately outspoken and exuberant, and all thoughts of comfort or conformity were now left behind. A mathematics student at King's College, Neville Johnson, became a lover.
In May 1948, Newman offered Turing the post as Deputy Director of the computing laboratory at Manchester University. Turing accepted, resigned from the NPL, and moved in October 1948. The meaningless title reflected Turing's uncertain status. He had no control over the project whose fate was in fact determined by its sudden necessity for the British atomic bomb project. F. C. Williams had in any case built his own empire, and Newman's original plans were largely swept aside. But Turing did have a clear role to play: as the organiser of programming for the engineers' electronics.

Turing at Manchester could perhaps have led the world in software development. His partly explored ideas included the use of mathematical logic for program checking, implementing Church's logical calculus on the machine, and other ideas which, combined with his massive knowledge of combinatorial and statistical methods, could have set the agenda in computer science for years ahead. This, however, he failed to do; his work on machine-code programming at Manchester, produced only as a working manual, was limited in scope.

Instead, there followed a confused period, in which Turing hovered between new topics and old. He revisited his 1939 calculation of the Riemann zeta-function with the use of the prototype computer; he pursued the question of computability within the algebra of group theory. Out of this confused era arose, however, the most lucid and far-reaching expression of Turing's philosophy of machine and Mind, the paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence which appeared in the philosophical journal Mind in 1950.

This, besides summarising the view he had developed since 1936, absorbed his first-hand experience and experiment with machinery. The wit and drama of the Turing Test has proved a lasting stimulus to later thinkers, and the paper a classic contribution to the philosophy and practice of Artificial Intelligence research. But this was essentially the end of his investigation, and despite this model of communication, supported by his radio talks, he had apparently no influence on the American foundation of Artificial Intelligence later in the 1950s.

At the same time, in 1950, there emerged a clear direction for new thought. Rather than return to classical mathematics, the novel potential of the computer still held his attention, and he became a pioneer of its personal use. For, as he settled in Manchester, buying his own first house at outlying Wilmslow, he had an entirely fresh field in view. It was what he described as the mathematical theory of morphogenesis: the theory of growth and form in biology.

Outwardly an extraordinary change of direction, for him it was a return to a fundamental problem; even in childhood he had been spotted and sketched 'watching the daisies grow'; from childhood Natural Wonders to D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form to a more recent interest in how brains grow new connections, he had sustained an interest in the biological structures so easily taken for granted, yet so complex and bizarre from the viewpoint of physics. Out of all the phenomena of life he fixed on the way asymmetry can arise out of initially symmetric conditions as first thing requiring explanation, and his answer, given without apparent reference to anyone else's work, was that it could arise from the nonlinearity of the chemical equations of reaction and diffusion. He modelled hypothetical chemical reactions on the circle and the plane, and for the repetitive numerical simulation required to test his ideas, became the first serious user of an electronic computer for mathematical research.

He was elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society in July 1951, for the work done fifteen years before, but equal originality was on the way: his first successful work on The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis was submitted as a paper that November. Long overlooked, it was a founding paper of modern non-linear dynamical theory.
Alan Turing was arrested and came to trial on 31 March 1952, after the police learned of his sexual relationship with a young Manchester man. He made no serious denial or defence, instead telling everyone that he saw no wrong with his actions. He was particularly concerned to be open about his sexuality even in the hard and unsympathetic atmosphere of Manchester engineering. Rather than go to prison he accepted, for the period of a year, injections of oestrogen intended to neutralise his libido.
His work on the morphogenetic theory continued. He developed his theory of pattern formation out of instability into the realm of spherical objects, such as the Radiolaria, and also on the cylinder, as a model of plant stems. He set as a particular goal the explanation for the appearance of the Fibonacci numbers in the leaf patterns of plants — most noticeable in the close-packed spirals of sunflower heads and fir cones.
Alan Turing (right) at the
console of the Manchester computer
Besides this he refreshed his youthful interest in quantum physics, studying the problem of wave-function reduction in quantum mechanics, with a hint that he was considering a non-linear mechanism for it. He took a new interest in the representation of elementary particles by spinors, and in relativity theory.

A factor in his life unknown to most around him was that he had also continued to work for GCHQ, the post-war successor to Bletchley Park, on the basis of a personal connection with Alexander, now its director. But since 1948, the conditions of the Cold War, and the alliance with the United States, meant that known homosexuals had become ineligible for security clearance. Turing, now therefore excluded, spoke bitterly of this to his onetime wartime colleague, now MI6 engineer Donald Bayley, but to no other personal friends. State security also seems the likely cause of what he described as another intense crisis in March 1953, involving police searching for a visiting Norwegian who had come to see him. Concern over the foreign contacts of one acquainted with state secrets was understandable, and his holiday in Greece in 1953 could not have been calculated to calm the nerves of security officers.

Although unable to tell his friends about questions of official secrecy, in other ways he actively sought much greater intimacy of expression with them and with a Jungian therapist. Eccentric, solitary, gloomy, vivacious, resigned, angry, eager, dissatisfied — these had always been his ever-varying characteristics, and despite the strength that he showed the world in coping with outrageous fortune, no-one could safely have predicted his future course.

He was found by his cleaner when she came in on 8 June 1954. He had died the day before of cyanide poisoning, a half-eaten apple beside his bed. His mother believed he had accidentally ingested cyanide from his fingers after an amateur chemistry experiment, but it is more credible that he had successfully contrived his death to allow her alone to believe this. The coroner's verdict was suicide.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Germaine de Staël & Benjamin Constant

By Renee Winegarten
(Yale University Press, 343 pages, $35)
Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant, champions of liberty and republican government in Paris during the revolutionary tumult of the late 18th century, are superbly captured in Renee Winegarten's "dual biography." But it is unsettling to revisit their lives, even in Ms. Winegarten's eloquent telling.
[An Affair to Remember]

It is dismaying to think, for instance, that the once celebrated literary works on which their fame rests – epistolary, political, historical, philosophical and novelistic – have long since disappeared from the reading lists of all but scholars. And it is frustrating to discover, upon learning more of their biographical detail, that the pair's long-standing friendship – or love affair, or political partnership, or whatever the alliance was – inspires so little sympathy.

Germaine de Staël, the Paris-born daughter of a Genevan banker (Jacques Necker, who would become Louis XVI's finance minister), was throughout her love life "always throbbing with energy," Ms. Winegarten writes. She was "always active, always demanding in her expectations and her quest for reassurance that she was as loved as she wished to be. This mostly futile quest led to her bizarre strategy of juggling two or more love objects, soul mates or suitors at the same time." Benjamin Constant, also of Swiss parentage, was by contrast "usually cautious, a lifelong gambler who calculated the risk." His strategy of threatening suicide with the aim of seducing women was perfectly artificial.

When Constant and de Staël met in Paris in September 1794, two months after the end of the Reign of Terror, both were in their late 20s and both were married, though he was in the process of getting a divorce and she was already notorious for her romantic adventuring. Still, it took Constant some years before he succeeded in becoming de Staël's lover, and thereafter he did not hesitate to plan a mercenary marriage for himself with another heiress, even in the couple's periods of greatest intimacy. Age did not wither nor custom stale his odious self-absorption.

Yet their affair lasted on and off for nearly 20 years. De Staël had other lovers, too, of course: At 46, she had a child by a man young enough to be her son. I doubt that either she or Constant ever knew what real love could be. What bound them together was a shared passion for the ideals of the French Revolution.

Both of them came from an upper-middle-class Swiss background, but they were essentially French in temperament and inclination. When they met, Constant had not suffered any of the Terror's perils; he had sat out the worst of it in Germany, where his military father had obtained for him a court post with the duke of Brunswick. In that far-right milieu, Constant had secretly felt a brief admiration for Robespierre as the necessary fiend to bring on the needed day of social equality.

De Staël, as the cooperative wife of the Swedish minister to France, survived the havoc of the Terror, from which even diplomats were not always secure. During the hectic period that followed, that of the Directoire, she maintained a popular Parisian salon with Constant as her new ally. Both she and Constant hoped for a brief time that Napoleon, when he seized power in 1799, would become the savior of what was good in the Revolution. It did not turn out that way.

Constant was a good friend of the Abbé Sieyès, the perennial constitution drafter who became second consul in Napoleon's first consulate, and Constant was made a member of a group that advised the government on new legislation. Eventually Napoleon soured on even this limited body, though, resenting the mildest criticism of his total executive power. Constant soon lost his only political post.

But he knew when to keep his mouth shut and did not incur the dictator's wrath – unlike de Staël, who in her salon made witty barbs at the expense of the self-appointed emperor and his family, insults that rapidly found their way to the imperial ear. Her lack of self-restraint resulted in her being exiled, not from France, but from Paris, which was just a bad.

Both of the figures in Ms. Winegarten's narrative are confounding, and both, Ms. Winegarten says, came to feel "mature regrets" late in life. But to me Constant presents the harder puzzle. How do we reconcile the many expressions of his "mad" love for the different women scattered through his amorous life? There is the so-called "testament" to de Staël: "I have been the happiest of men during the four months I have spent with her, and that I consider it the greatest happiness of my life to be able to make her happy while she is young, to grow old gracefully along with her and to arrive at the end of it all with the being who understands me and without whom there would be no interest, no feeling on this earth." And yet only two years later he wrote to an aunt of his desire not to let slip the chance of obtaining an heiress to replace de Staël.

Which was the true Constant, so ironically named? I think both. I can believe almost anything of the man who could view the daily horror of the guillotine from the safety of Brunswick and deem, however briefly, Robespierre as the savior of mankind. Plenty of Germans felt that way about Hitler.

My impression of de Staël is altogether different. It strikes me that, in each of her many love affairs, she was totally, if temporarily, in earnest. And certainly from her precarious position in Paris during the Terror she risked her life to assist the escape of aristocratic friends. If her defiance of Napoleon did little to bring him to his ultimate downfall, it was a pleasant example of human fearlessness. She was faithful, at least, to her ideals.

Mr. Auchincloss is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Headmaster's Dilemma."

George Carlin RIP

SANTA MONICA, California -- George Carlin, the dean of U.S. counterculture comedians whose biting insights on life and language were immortalized in his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" routine, died of heart failure Sunday. He was 71.

Mr. Carlin went into a Santa Monica hospital Sunday afternoon complaining of chest pain and died later that evening, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham.

Mr. Carlin, who had a history of heart trouble, performed as recently as last weekend at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas. It was announced Tuesday that the comedian was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Mr. Carlin constantly pushed the envelope with his jokes, particularly with a routine called "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV." When Mr. Carlin uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested for disturbing the peace. And when they were played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the government's authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," he said earlier this year.

Mr. Carlin produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, and a couple of TV shows. He also appeared in several movies. He hosted the first broadcast of "Saturday Night Live" and noted on his Web site that he was "loaded on cocaine all week long." When asked about the fallout from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show that ended with Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction," Mr. Carlin said, "What are we, surprised?"

"There's an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body," he said. "It's reflected in these prohibitions and these taboos that we have."

Mr. Carlin was born May 12, 1937, and grew up in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, raised by a single mother. After dropping out of high school in the ninth grade, he joined the Air Force in 1954. He received three court-martials and numerous disciplinary punishments, according to his official Web site.

While in the Air Force he started working as an off-base disc jockey at a radio station in Shreveport, Louisiana, and after receiving a general discharge in 1957, took an announcing job at WEZE in Boston.

"Fired after three months for driving mobile news van to New York to buy pot," his Web site says.

From there he went on to a job on the night shift as a deejay at a radio station in Forth Worth, Texas. Mr. Carlin also worked a variety of temporary jobs including as a carnival organist and as a marketing director for a peanut brittle.

In 1960, he left with a Texas radio buddy, Jack Burns, for Hollywood to pursue a nightclub career as comedy team Burns & Carlin. He left with $300, but his first break came just months later when the duo appeared on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar.

Mr. Carlin said he hoped to would emulate his childhood hero, Danny Kaye, the kindly, rubber-faced comedian who ruled over the decade that Mr. Carlin grew up in -- the 1950s -- with a clever but gentle humor reflective of its times.

Only problem was, it didn't work for him.

"I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn't really care: Businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people. And I had been doing that for the better part of 10 years when it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things for the wrong people," Mr. Carlin reflected recently as he prepared for his 14th HBO special, "It's Bad For Ya."