If you haven’t yet read The Unbitten Elbow by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, please do so here if you’re going to read the following piece. If you have no interest in reading the following piece, I still insist that you refer to the link above and read The Unbitten Elbow.
The Unbitten Elbow is perhaps the third or fourth piece I read by Krzhizhanovsky. His linguistic turns of phrases and philosophical tendencies had already captured me with The Letter Killers Club and his ability to weave stories within stories was enticing enough. But with The Unbitten Elbow came a gust of comedy, of laughter. Most of my friends whom I summarized the tale to reacted to the ending with a look of horror and disconcertment. Only one of my friends mirrored my own delight as she giggled and clapped her hands as I told her of the attack from the rear and the subsequent death from blood loss.
Thus I arrived at the question of whether or not The Unbitten Elbow is in fact comic. The line between comedy and tragedy is dangerously thin—an abyss in itself, reflective of the incoherence which is the root of both tragedy and comedy. Traditionally, the incoherence in a tragedy will often end, for lack of a better word, tragically, while a comedy tends to resolve itself in often what is a literal happy union. One of the benefits of tragedy is the ability to watch someone self-destruct so that you don’t have to. The same may be said of comedy, only this time the self-destruction isn’t in vain. While raging through the crook of your elbow may give off the appearance of self-destruction, whether or not it was in vain and whether or not it’s funny still remain to be seen.
How did it all begin? Our faithful narrator places the responsibility with the Weekly Review. It’s unstated whether or not the Weekly Review should be credited or found at fault; all that is begun with is that “This whole story would have remained hidden under the starched cuff and sleeve of a jacket, if not for the Weekly Review”. Whether or not this story should’ve remained hidden is left for the reader to conclude. A seemingly simple questionnaire by the review yields Form No. 11111, whose respondent had written “opposite ‘Goal in Life’, in clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow’”.
Most people learn early on of the game of trying to bite one’s elbow; it cannot be done, it is an impossibility. If the comic indeed calls attention to the physical in a person as Henri Bergson argues in his essay on laughter, then the notion of setting a physical impossibility as a life goal for oneself is certainly comic. Even the physical movement itself invites laughter—the twisted arm, the striving neck, a toothy mouth grasping at air and never flesh. And that’s just what the reporter finds when he arrives as the residence of No. 11111—man versus elbow across a table, with scratch marks and battle scars to show for the war.
“You seem to be in earnest. That is, I mean to say, there’s no symbolism here, is there?”
“And I suppose romantic irony has nothing to do with it either?”
“Pure anachronism,” the elbow eater muttered, and again pressed his mouth to the scratches and scars.
While there’s no nostalgia towards a time when people fought against their elbows regularly, there may be something to be said about an unending struggle that no longer exists as it once was. Why bother struggling against an impossibility? What can possibly be the benefit of consistent2Urban Dance Squa failure? In order to ensure one’s happiness, one must strive for achievable goals—why try merely for the sake of trying? But there’s laughter in constant striving, towards constant progression. Tragedy occurs when one stops trying (as was the case with Hamlet).
Before the reporter leaves No. 11111, he decides to impart on him a bit of ‘wisdom’;
“Now listen,” he said, “trying to bite your own elbow’s all very well, but you know it can’t be done. No one has ever succeeded; every attempt has ended in a fiasco. Have you ever thought about that, you strange man?”
In reply, two glazed eyes glowering beneath knitted brows and a curt “Lo possible es para los tontos.”
This Spanish quip, and its subsequent translations, sets the story into motion. The Weekly Review uses it as their headline for the item on No. 11111, with the Portuguese translation of “The possible is for fools” whereupon the Monthly Review ran a response explaining that the dictum was in fact a Spanish proverb meaning “The attainable is for fools”.
The Weekly Review followed theirs with “Enough for the wise”, while the Monthly Review appended “And enough for fools”.
What better jest than word play; what a delightful quip to find fault with! And the best part is that they both miss the point of either translation! The man is striving towards neither the possible nor the attainable; that’s where mere contentment and plateau occurs. He aims much higher, to the very top of the mountain as it runs up his side, forever tempting him with its peak.
The elbow was to be gnawed at no matter what, but had the Weekly and Monthly reviews not starting their own biting spar, nothing may have become of the man and his unbitten elbow. And what better start to such a charade than a line that bares the soul of Don Quixote?
But regardless of this unbitten elbow’s origin story, one thing is abundantly clear throughout this story; an unbitten elbow has a great deal of impact. A fashionable philosopher writes a treatise based off of this unbitable elbow. “Men’s clothing stores began selling jackets with detachable elbow patches”. A bill is drafted in order to abolish the metric system “in favor of that ancient, elbow-conscious measure: the cubit”.
Here is the tragic twist of the story;
“Embraced by the masses, elbowism became vulgarized and lost the strict philosophical aspect that Eustace Kint had attempted to give it. Scandal sheets, misinterpreting elbowist teachings, took to promoting it with slogans like ELBOW YOUR WAY TO THE TOP and RELY ON YOUR ELBOWS AND YOUR ELBOWS ALONE”
Despite the fact that No. 11111 had claimed that there was neither symbolism nor romantic irony in his elbowistic struggle, his futile struggle was turned into an idealized philosophy, then corrupted by the very pedestal who raised him up. His life’s existence is taken away from him and commercialized for the purposes of others’ entertainment.
A lottery was begun, promising to reward heavily when the unbitten elbow was finally bitten. “Thousands of people filed past the glass cage in which he labored day and night over his elbow”. One man’s quiet struggle in a small square room had now reached a mass stage, with thousands of ticket-holders depending on him to bite his elbow.
The tragedy in this is how what was one man’s passion, his life’s goal, his life’s work, is torn away from him; his struggle turned into entertainment for others, without any consequence on their end. That’s the benefit of tragedy; you watch someone struggle and self-destruct so that you don’t have to. And while the audience relished his struggle and captivated themselves on representing the unbitable/bitable philosophy (whatever was more fashionable at the time) without giving a moment’s thought to the struggle that allows for such ideas to arise. But the struggle isn’t important to them; why struggle for something unattainable yourself when you can watch someone else try and reap all the reward for it? The tragedy wasn’t the goring of the elbow; the tragic elements of the story are entirely surrounded by the public, stuck in a glass cage of their own.
So what’s so funny here? Where’s the line that makes this oh so tragic tale delightfully hysterical?
How else would you recapture your freedom without one hesitating towards your goal? What better way to end your struggle without turning your back towards it? You attack your struggle from behind, just as No. 11111 does, goring his elbow from the crook inwards. And as you already know, he fails one last time as a result of blood loss, before reaching that ever-enticing “bony junction”. And why is this funny? Because what better way to reclaim your struggle as your own, underline its unbitability, and remove yourself from the public’s meddlesome ways? He breaks convention, he breaks his own muscular rigidity, literally, and he takes the tragedy that the world allowed to befall him and makes it his own.
Why does this matter? Is there a significance in determining whether or not something is tragic or comic? Nothing in the world is neither purely comic nor tragic; even this story is an example of a mix. So why return to two such archaic archetypes? Because it’s easy to say that something is either; but the why is what is most important. And trying to articulate why something is tragic is simple; trying to articulate why something is comic is when we begin to underline something much more complex and interesting. I can’t perfectly articulate why The Unbitten Elbow is comedic, but the fact that it is shouldn’t be taken for granted.