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Camp  
 
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Humor

Camp then is funny, but it is not only amusing. It frequently has a serious point behind its surface of frivolity. Indeed, one of the powerful aspects of camp humor is the uncertainty of whether one should laugh at it--is it really funny?

Susan Sontag says that camp can be defined at least in part as "failed seriousness." But if camp fails as seriousness, it often fails at humor as well, or it is a humor that has a dark side. The great objects of campiness--grand opera, narrative ballets, films noirs--are often tales of murder, madness, and social mayhem. Only a camp sensibility could find in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the psychological horror story of an insane former child actress tormenting her crippled sister, an endless supply of humor and amusement.

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Emphasis has been given to camp in theater, film, and television because camp is essentially theatrical. But camp can be found in most forms of art and in poetry and fiction, as well as in drama.

The Camp Novel

In Frivolity Unbounded (1990), Robert F. Kiernan identifies what he calls the camp novel; its masters are Thomas Love Peacock, Max Beerbohm, Ronald Firbank, E. F. Benson, P. G. Wodehouse, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. The action of the camp novel is fantastically unreal, the tone is light, and the novels tend to be filled with dialogue that is both witty and absurd.

In Firbank's novel The Flower Beneath the Foot (1924), the King and Queen of Pisuerga wish their son to marry a princess of another kingdom although he is in love with Mademoiselle de Nazianzi. At one point, the Queen remarks to Prince Yousef:

"How spent you look, my boy . . . . Those eyes . . . "
His weariness grimaced.
"They've been rubbing in Elsie!" he said.
"Who?"
"'Vaseline' and 'Nanny-goat'!"
"Well?"
"Nothing will shake me."
"What are your objections?"
"She's so extraordinarily uninteresting!"
"Oh, Yousef!" his mother faltered: "do you wish to break my heart?"
"We had always thought you too lacking in initiative," King William said (tucking a few long hairs back into his nose), "to marry against our wishes."
"They say she walks too wonderfully," the Queen courageously pursued.
"What? Well?"
"Yes."
"And can handle a horse as few others can!"

This conversation between parents and their child about a prospective wife is commonplace enough in literature and life, but Firbank makes it into an utterly bizarre and humorous discussion, at once too passionate and too matter-of-fact.

Kiernan's examples are all British and with one exception all male. But the camp novel has had several women practitioners as well, including Jane Bowles, Muriel Spark, and Blanche Boyd. Today, the form is carried on most notably by James McCourt in America and Patrick Gale in England.

Camp in Poetry

Camp has become an important part of modern poetry as well. Karl Keller identified what he considered "camp" elements in Walt Whitman's poems, but only in poems in the second half of the twentieth century does camp have an unmistakable presence.

W. H. Auden, for example, hits that note in "In Praise of Limestone," when he discusses the kinds of friends who go "to the bad."

[T]o become a pimp
Or deal in fake jewellery or ruin a fine tenor voice
For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all
But the best and worst of us . . .

Auden's list of common excesses is incongruous, stylized, and very funny.

James Merrill in "The Book of Ephraim," part of his long poem The Changing Light at Sandover is often campy, and Ephraim's gossipy, witty, homosexual voice is one of the delights of the poem.

Auden and Merrill represent the High Camp side of modern poetry, but Low Camp also has its adherents. In his celebration of roaches ("they are among the brightest / and most attractive of small creatures"), or of a Giant Pacific Octopus, or in his retellings of old Hollywood movies, Edward Field uses camp as one of his distinguishing features, and it gives his voice a range and subtlety that seems almost impossible given the plainness of his subjects and the unpretentiousness of his manner.

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