Lenny Bruce

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Nat Hentoff

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

Before the Kuhs [the reference is to prosecuting attorney Richard Kuh] of his country wore him down, Lenny had become a prodigiously skillful juggler of images, fantasies, flashbacks, jump cuts—all fused into a constantly surprising stripping of personal and social history to the antic bones of the American way of life. Many American ways of life. By then, the mores of show business interested him much less than the opaque barriers behind which all manner of unmeltable ethnics and unbridgeable classes girded themselves for daily survival by making self-deception the only true national faith….

Although everything he said inevitably, inextricably, related to his own pilgrim's progress into the quicksand, the man was protean. In his crackling kaleidoscopic way, Lenny was this age's stand-up equivalent of [Honore] Balzac and [Charles] Dickens. The novel may no longer have been bringing the news of how "the others" live, but Lenny was.

What exactly was he? Not an intellectual; certainly not an ideologue. Yes, he was a performer, but in a quite new dimension. "I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce."

He was also not a writer. Just as writing down the notes of a [John] Coltrane solo takes all the overwhelming life out of it, so written transcripts of Bruce at his improvisatory work are as bleakly misleading as imitations of him….

The only way to connect with the meaning of Lenny—at home or in "teaching" him to students—is through the few Lenny Bruce films and the growing number of newly discovered "live" recordings by him. Especially those albums which caught Lenny before his New York conviction started him on the slide to levels of despair that not even he could transmute into transiently liberating humor….

So far, the best available ways of getting a sense of his life and work are Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall … and Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater…. Though both are essential to the Bruce canon, the second, a San Francisco performance, is Lenny close to the highest stage of his development, beyond the need to depend on "bits" as security nets while he stretched his capacity for free association. He was getting to that high-risk point in the evening at Carnegie Hall; but by the end of the year, in San Francisco, he had the confidence to, as he put it, "just get out and wail … I just want to cook and free-form it all the way."

A number of the same themes are plumbed in both sets—his busts and court cases; homosexuals and straights; Las Vegas as a diorama of indigenous sexual rituals in the museum-without-walls of American natural history. But at the Curran Theater especially, Lenny was as I remember him night after night in the early 1960's at the Village Vanguard in New York. Lenny on a high wire, without a net, exhilarated at how he keeps surprising himself, drawing swift, intricate designs out of the air of his imagination, acutely open to all the simultaneous stimuli around and inside him.

At the Curran, as at the Vanguard, there are occasional stumbles, but he quickly regains his footing, and goes on wailing until the wire is somehow gone, too, and it's Lenny in space, a [Marc] Chagall spirit, borne on words and images….

Nat Hentoff, "Lenny: Redeeming the Memory of a Heretic," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1972, p. 17.

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