We have, it seems, fallen into the ticklish grip of a cultural and existential order that has become virtually impossible to buck—humor.
This is especially the case in literature. Rare is the work that gets published or attains any prominence if it lacks humor. A review that appeared a while ago in The New York Times, panning a book by David Shields, was clearly symptomatic. The reviewer unfavorably compared Shields’ work to the books of two other artists Shields happened to recommend. “Mr. Shields’s book differs from those works in innumerable ways,” the reviewer wrote. “For one thing, the aforementioned artists are funny, a quality gone missing in the increasingly earnest Mr. Shields.”
For one thing. Yet the reviewer neglected to list other things. It seemed to be enough of a condemnation of Shields that he ostensibly lacked humor.
Ever less do we even have an alternative to the humorous. And should one happen along, chances are it will be assiduously strip-searched for the odd concealed streak of humor. Should no suck streak be found, the work’s very humorlessness will be read as a kind of humor, as in the case of W.G. Sebald. Although his prose fictions amount to elaborate lamentations, dirges, obituaries, he is highly esteemed in literary circles that otherwise are very much a part of today’s humor orthodoxy. They refuse to take his seriousness seriously, assuming that interred in his funereal prose is perhaps a stealthy sort of gallows humor. In any case, after his untimely death in a car crash, a revisionist movement promptly gathered to claim him more overtly as indeed a sly sort of humorist. And when his works yielded only the most niggardly evidence in support of this claim — not much more, really, than the unexplained motif of a Nabokov-like, shorts-wearing butterfly chaser appearing and vanishing on the edges of the narratives — the comical revisionists turned their attention to how Sebald had been in person, as remembered by his students and interviewers.
And those who gave up on trying to co-opt Sebald unearthed another rather weird German-language writer to put in his place, Robert Walser, whose unnaturally upbeat fictions and chronicles are in their own way also uncanny but written with a distinctly Chaplinesque sensibility. And I am sure other digging and drilling into the cultural past has and will continue to take place in search of works whose humor may have been overlooked or underestimated when seriousness prevailed in literature but perhaps can now be made to ascend the podium. Perhaps enough such tomes will be excavated that our cultural past will begin to look much like the present. We will be deceived into believing that things were never different, that humor has always reigned, that it is its inspirations that have always moved the finest minds, that in other times, too, literary acclaim was most assured to the equivalents of, say, such classics of our time as Infinite Jest, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Everything Is Illuminated, White Teeth, The Corrections.
Even Milan Kundera may not have been able to imagine a collective unbearable lightness of being on such a scale. Kundera associated laughter with forgetting and, amid all the laughter that has been going on now for at least two decades, it is indeed easy to forget that the jester was not always king, that he was once even rated no higher than the sideshow freak. (Consider that, at the start of his inexplicably long career in comedy, Jay Leno was an opening act for strippers.) Practically a guarantee that novels and poems would be dismissed as hopelessly minor or even frivolous was the presence in them of humor as the dominant note. Even on the cusp of the trend that marked the beginning of this cultural order — the stand-up comedy boom in the ’80s’ — a movie appeared, called Punchline, that portrayed joke-writing and the comedy club circuit as a decidedly unfunny scramble for scraps at the bottom of the show business barrel. Martin Scorcese’s King of Comedy, with Robert De Niro improbably cast as the titular aristocrat of laughs, took its own mean view of the talk-show business.
The comedian, the humorist, the wiseacre was just about no one’s idea of a hero, and it seemed unlikely that he would ever be. On the contrary, De Niro played him as a psychotic and generally repulsive anti-hero, a Dostoyevskian underground mouse-man. And, in real life, people were dismissive of the funny guy even as they were entertained by him. Being labeled funny verged on the insulting, a fact which Joe Pesci’s sinister character toys with in the you think I’m funny? scene from Goodfellas.
The funny guy’s humor was generally taken as a sign of his being a lightweight, a frivolous and probably unreliable character. The comedian was rarely seen as a stand-up guy—and when he did prove to be that, in either life or fiction, it came as a surprise, a twist in the tale. Indeed, may stand-up comedy not have been conceived by way of countering this ignoble image or at least of commenting ironically on it? If so, it seems fitting that it should have been through stand-up, with comedians performing as if heroically on their feet, their backs to nothing more than brick walls, that humor should have launched that cultural uprising that would install the comedian as a new sort of folk hero.
As difficult to imagine as it now is, prejudice against funny people existed once upon a time, and the stand-up comedy boom could well be seen as their great emancipation, their civil rights era, one that had been a long, long time a-coming. And something tamped down for so long could only be released with indeed a boom.
And is that not all to the good?
I return to Kundera. His works could have served to warn us away from today’s zany zeitgeist. In them, the lightness, laughter, jokes and forgetting referred to in the titles are ironically turned inside out several times, demonstrating along the way how these ostensibly benign forces can also serve as instruments of quite the opposite: of malignity, oppression, deception, submission, self-betrayal. To be sure, there is much to be said for humor’s contemporary dominance. Veins of humor are being diligently worked that would never otherwise have been discovered. I, for one, continue to marvel at the emergence of still more ways in which I can be tickled by words on a page. Humor is proving to be an artistic mine of unsuspected richness, one that obviously was vastly underexploited before.
On the other hand, humor is being produced in such vast quantities that much of it has to be utter dross: humor with nothing to convey, nothing to subvert, nothing to otherwise accomplish, whatever it happens to make fun of being entirely incidental to its empty desire to bring about ejaculations of laughter, pandering to the considerable component of inanity in our era’s craving for infinite jesting.
And talking of humor about nothing: After the stand-up boom in the Eighties, comedy arrived in the Nineties at another marker — the advent of Seinfeld. So phenomenally admired did this sitcom prove to be as, in effect, to tip us into the world we have been living in since—one that draws comedy from, as it were, a nothingness of being, in which we try to believe that our lives, like the sitcom, can ostensibly be about nothing, or can amount to nothing, so long as we get a few laughs out of it. Laughter, Seinfeld left us to believe, is all we really need.
But we may be placing far too heavy a load on laughter when we lean so much on it. If laughter is a sort of medicine—or even the best medicine, as claimed in the title of those page-bottom fillers in the old Reader’s Digest—then we are quite possibly over-medicating.
Laughter does offer us a persuasive simulation of happiness: while we laugh, we might as well be happy; we can easily believe that all is basically well, or can be set right easily enough. But is it not asking too much of laughter to have it actually stand, as many fairly seem to be doing, in place of happiness—or of purpose, love, or whatever else we may once have used to give our lives meaning and transcendence? I see young couples these days who seem held together more by laughter than by love; they cannot love each other, so they continuously laugh with and at each other, and all the laughter deceives them into feeling they are well-matched despite the glaring lack of passion between them.
We may be asking our lightness of being to bear too much, and the strain shows. I know someone who, the less there is to laugh about in her life, the harder she laughs. A laughter inflation has set in for her. She has come to laugh uproariously at the mere hint of a joke, laughing then as though she might never laugh again, putting everything into it, cooking up a rolling, shaking, gagging, phlegm-loosening, aggressive monster of a laugh that is unfailingly out of proportion to the joke and strangely lacking in contagiousness. She herself seems to derive little in the way of an afterglow from her laughter: her mirth ends abruptly and immediately she is as glum as she was before it.
Too many of us laugh now too easily, too reflexively, in a way that betrays the fact that we resort to laughter far too often, far too compulsively. Our laughter emerges as if had been trained by the canned laughter of old sitcoms, doing little to boost the level of genuine joy in a room, providing at most a little sugar-rush of well-being in the one laughing. On observing us, a cynically astute extraterrestrial might be forgiven for thinking that we are chronically living on the edge of despair, that our laughter is not so much a medicine as a weak, over-the-counter sedative with which we are simply trying to take some of the sting out of a truth — the truth, perhaps, that our all-about-nothing lives are mostly a reason for despond or tears.
Just the other day I read that Calvin Trillin had said, “Straying from the truth is one of the ways the humorist makes the reader laugh.” This struck me as a horse’s-mouth confirmation of what I had long suspected: that just about every time I laugh I should assume I have been told a lie. And therein, essentially, lies humor’s most unfortunate shortcoming, especially once it is imposed as a cultural order: its reliance on straying from the truth.
I don’t know that Trillin was actually lamenting his metier’s unfortunate alliance with falsehood, nor whether he is writing in a straighter vein these days. But I do know of other writers who, though they may have owed their initial successes to humor, abruptly shifted well away from it, in essence disowning it. V.S. Naipaul made his name with a great comic novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. There was no denying the genial sense of humor that he mustered for that work; yet there is utterly no trace of it in the productions of his great latter period, beginning with A Bend in the River and reaching its apogee with The Enigma of Arrival. Humor has yielded to an austerely intelligent, bleakly poetical quest for precision and penetration.
A younger writer I keep an eye on, France’s Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is not in Naipaul’s Nobel-winning league, of course, but he, too, started off with works like Television and The Bathroom, in which a natural, smart and often laugh-out-loud wit is evident even in translation. But after three or four novels in a similar vein—works in which, he has said, he was methodically going for a laugh a page — he went utterly straight, eschewing the humorous for the poetic and artful.
In our time it seems a sacrilege that someone should voluntarily give up on humor. Even I am inclined to think that the humorous sensibilities that Naipaul and Toussaint honed for their early works could have been construed as in themselves artistic achievements. But the writers must have been less impressed themselves. In any case, turn away from humor they did, totally and almost with repugnance, as if they had come to recognize it as a grievous distraction from true art, which is concerned with true relations and, ultimately, with truth.
In humor, falsehood is always present (and not just sometimes, as Trillin would have it). Truth is rarely funny, but tell a lie, acknowledge it as indeed a lie, and we are part way to a joke: our listeners will already be smiling, tittering. To be sure, not all lies are jokes, but all jokes contain lies; without the sort of distortion or misrepresentation that amounts to a lie, it is fairly impossible to provoke laughter. And if laughter is connected to forgetting, that is mainly because it is aroused by funny lies. Truth is not easily forgotten, but lies, as the saying has it, are hard to keep straight.
Of course, that humor can be dismissed as a nothing more than an entertaining pack of lies, that what is said as a joke inherently lacks credibility and can be excused, is not entirely a bad thing. It does allow humor to go where truth-telling dare not. Often, because an oppressive regime or a current sensibility rules truth out of bounds, only jokes can smuggle it in.
This usefulness of humor as an insurgent against censorship is no doubt taken by many as proof of humor’s nobility, its entitlement to the cultural prominence it now enjoys. It may even have deceived many into taking humor as nothing less than one of the arts of truth-telling. For, just as effectively as laughter can simulate happiness, a punchline can simulate an unveiled truth, an insight.
But it is not really that; it almost never is that. While humor may indeed be effective at smuggling in truths, it is utterly no good at divining such truths in the first place. Even if only at the last possible moment, humor diverges from the truth. It has to—in order to be humor. A bait-and-switch takes place: instead of the Proustian insight which the conversation, the poem or the passage of prose seemed to offer, we will be left with a joke. And our laughter will be a sure sign that we have been swindled.
Although many champions of humor fancy themselves as enlightened and progressive, I cannot help but suspect that the cultural predominance of humor has joined with the post-modern attitude that all is relative to help to foment a climate of permissiveness when it comes to truth. It is a climate in which scientific findings are glibly denied, empirical knowledge brushed aside, fact-sourced journalism left to fight for its life. Because we are awash in humor, we are all the more awash in lies, half-truths, distortions, irrationality, injustice, shamelessness. We have been laughing our heads off as we are ushered ever deeper into a sort of post-modern dark age.