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The Critic Essay

How dark can humour be?

Laughter — even laughter about morbid things — is part of what makes us human

“Analyzing laughter is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies.”

— B. White

Is there any tragedy, too tragic to joke about? Comedian David Baddiel tells the following Holocaust joke; After the war, a Holocaust survivor dies and goes to Heaven. God asks him to tell a Holocaust joke. The Holocaust survivor does so, and God says it’s not funny. “Well,” the Holocaust survivor says. “I guess you had to be there.” 

For Baddiel it is okay to make jokes about one of the most tragic episodes in human history. Not everyone will agree. The answer to the question, will in large part, depend on what you believe is the point of comedy. Baddiel goes on to highlight that the joke “doesn’t relegate the victims of the Holocaust to nothingness, it actually sympathises with them.” For Baddiel, “the subject matter of any joke is not the thing. The thing is, what is the joke and who are the targets?” But there is no universal agreement as to what the point of comedy. Another comic Doug Stanhope claims, “There is no such thing as laughing at something you shouldn’t,” explaining that “Life is a series of heartache, tragedy and injustice, punctuated by a few cocktails and that one trip to Reno. The more you can laugh at the ugliest parts, the better off you are.”

Philosopher John Morreall distils the somewhat limited philosophical investigation into comedy into three theories: superiority, relief, and incongruity theories. From ancient Greece until the present, most philosophical comments on humour have focused on scornful laughter, that looks down on “others.” Objecting to the malicious quality of laughter, in Philebus, Plato analysed the enjoyment of comedy as a form of scorn. Thomas Hobbes, who in Leviathan describes human beings as naturally individualistic and competitive, believed that humour was a signal of superiority over others. This thinking developed into the superiority theory.

Relief theory claims that laughter acts as a release for the nervous system. It’s traced to Lord Shaftesbury’s 1709 “An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour,” the first publication which used humour in its modern sense of funniness. Shaftsbury believed laughter released animal spirits that had built up pressure inside the nerves. Sigmund Freud updated the theory in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, concluding that laughter gives us pleasure by releasing nervous energy that was summoned to contain or repress different types of psychic activity. This theory has been largely abandoned, despite the fact there is some evidence from physiology of the benefits of laughter in releasing stress.

comedy can show the irrational and contradictory hiding in plain sight in our supposedly rational world

The third theory claims humour is the perception of something incongruous. Cicero asserted that “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing, and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” A modern stand-up will use a set up that creates the expectation, then a punchline that violates that expectation. Philosopher Simon Critchley, in his On Humour, traces the theory back to 1750 and Francis Hutcheson’s Reflections Upon Laughter. The theory was developed by Immanuel Kant, who thought jokes amuse us by evoking, shifting, and dissipating our thoughts. Søren Kierkegaard placed humour at the point of disparity between what’s expected and what’s experienced. There is a violation of our expectations, a contradiction, at the heart of both the tragic and the comic, the difference for him was the comic offers a way out of the contradiction, the tragic does not.

By highlighting incongruity, comedy can show the irrational and contradictory hiding in plain sight in our supposedly rational world. Henri Bergson believed in this corrective capability of humour. For Bergson, in his book Laughter, the common thread uniting various forms of comedy was that we laugh at “something mechanical encrusted on the living”; a person who gives an impression of a thing. Influenced by natural selection, he believed that society needed its members to display “the greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability”. Society needed to guard against “a certain rigidity of body, mind and character.” Those who mechanically follow a predetermined trajectory, failing to adapt to their surroundings, were the source of the humour, as this is what laughter seeks to correct. Mediaeval courts used jesters in a similarly corrective way, to correct the rigid hierarchy of feudal systems and remind sovereigns of their humanity. “Jester’s privilege” was the ability of a jester to mock freely without being punished. In Shakespeare, the fool was a recurring character type. In his King Lear, Goneril describes the fool as “all-licensed” — as Lear allows him to get away with behaviour he would not tolerate in others. 

For Bergson, ultimately, humour’s most important function is to remind us that to be human is to be alive and free. The least free societies are usually those most intolerant of those who questioned the certainty of the prevailing view. Totalitarian societies, from the Nazi to the Islamic State, have not been known for their humour. In such societies it’s often humour that most effectively highlights the absurd seriousness of the power structures. In Afghanistan, the often-humorous landays recited at the secret poetry societies by Afghan women gave them a form of freedom whilst living under the repressive Taliban regime.  

That we are alive and free is the revelation that unites the group of philosophers together known as Existentialists. An inspiration was Kierkegaard’s claim that man is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and “authentically”. The Absurdist movement, an extension of Existentialism, has given us Absurdist Fiction which uses the blend of tragedy and comedy possibly more successfully than any other genre. It’s arguably not until Absurdist fiction came along that tragicomedies (a phrase first coined by the Roman Plautus) were seen by critics as serious works that could examine the human condition.

The Greeks had tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays. Tragedy was the most important and profound, dealing with the big questions, the relationships between men and gods, and what it meant to be human. Many focussed on the Trojan War and its aftermath. They were about combat veterans, performed by veterans and watched by an audience that were either veterans or had been indirectly impacted by war. Critchley suggests a definition of tragedy as “a grief-stricken rage that flows from war”. Yet, some of the most memorable moments I experienced as a soldier in warzones were funny. Humour helped us cope with stressful situations. It allowed us not to feel scared, helpless, or isolated — all things that war zones make you feel. Playing jokes on each other provided temporary relief from the pressures of operations. It broke the tension and sometimes the monotony. We would laugh, not because it could change our predicament or bring anyone back, but because it could change how we felt about our situation. Laughing didn’t mean we didn’t care; it just helped us cope, and its communality brought us together.

The first comedies were shallower, satirical productions, mocking those in power. One of the oldest existing comedies is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy about a fictional sex strike staged by the women of Greece which forces the men to reconcile their differences and bring an end to a bitter war. It was first staged in 411 BCE after Athens had lost thousands of men in the disastrous Sicilian Expedition and was at serious risk of losing the Peloponnesian War which it had been fighting against Sparta for 20 years. Lysistrata is full of bawdy humour and obscene language. Within a series of promises made by the women of Greece is the line, “I will not adopt the lioness on a cheese grater position.” Academics have puzzled over the meaning of the position described in that line as early as 200 years after the play was written. This may be the greatest joke that Aristophanes plays on us.

The Satyr dramas featured choruses of satyrs and, like tragedies, were based on mythology, but their comedy was meant to be light relief, contrasting with the serious tragedies. By the time of Shakespeare, his dramas were categorised as comedy, history, or tragedy. His tragedies are his most profound commentaries on the human condition. The small group of plays falling between tragedy and comedy are often referred to as problem plays. By the Renaissance aesthetic theory dictated that there were just two categories of dramas, tragedy and comedy, “mixed” works were seen as mistakes. In film, out of over ninety Academy Awards for best picture, only seven have gone to comedies. Barbie didn’t stand a chance. 

Responding to post-war disillusionment and the looming shadow of nuclear war, Absurdist fiction was influenced by Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, the existentialist movement that followed them, as well as the Dada and surrealist movements in art. Absurdist fiction finds incongruity, in the gap between man’s search for meaning and the purposelessness of life in an uncaring, pointlessness, universe. The dark humour is derived from the incongruity of the circumstances and the comic horror of being helpless to this situation. The humour is a way out. It is a universal response when we’re in dark circumstances, that can provide not just relief from the suffering but a form of dignity. Key works of absurdist fiction are evidence that you can explore profound and serious experiences of the human condition through comedy.

Samuel Beckett’s Watt was written during the Second World War, in France, during occupation. After his resistance cell was broken up and his closest friend had been killed, Beckett found refuge in the South, working as a labourer in the day and on Watt at night. His character Arsene describes different types of laughter, including the mirthless laugh. This is the laugh that laughs at that which is unhappy. Critchley quotes Arsene in the epigraph for On Humour claiming that this laugh brings “elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation”. Beckett’s characters, though, are aware that their dark humour cannot change their fates, it’s just a way to pass time and provide light relief from the tragedy of our condition. In Waiting for Godot Vladimir concludes: “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.” His laugh is the awareness that being born condemns them to a suffering about which there is “nothing to be done.”

Albert Camus, in his Myth of Sisyphus, echoed Becket: the true absurd hero can find consolation but cannot escape their fate. Camus compares the absurdity of modern man with the Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus defied the gods and put Death in chains so that no human need die. When it was time for Sisyphus to die, he tricked his way out of the underworld. When eventually caught, he was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain, watch it roll back down and push it up again, for all eternity. Camus presents Sisyphus’s pointless toil as a metaphor for modern lives spent working at futile jobs in factories and offices. It’s Sisyphus’ walk back down the mountain that most interests Camus. This is the tragic moment when the hero becomes conscious of his destiny. He doesn’t have hope, but “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” Acknowledging the truth, and directing a bitter laugh towards it, won’t change it but will provide a kind of consolatory victory. When Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realise the absurdity of his situation and to reach contented acceptance with a form of dignity. 

One of the best novels about the Second World War, a war that killed more than any other in history, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Brian Way discusses the novel’s relationship with the metaphysics of Beckett and Camus. With its mindless repetition of words, Kafkaesque chronology, and circular logic games, it illustrates the absurdity of war, and of life itself. Yossarian, the book’s anti-hero, is compared with Sisyphus. Stationed on a tiny fictional island off the coast of Italy, Yossarian faces a similarly absurd situation. Every time that he gets close to flying the number of missions required to complete his posting, his commanding officer raises the requirement. Yossarian is trapped, forced to fly dangerous bombing missions for eternity, or at least the end of a war. A catch perpetuates this absurd reality. It states, “a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind”. If you ask to be grounded you, by understanding the dangers involved, cannot be insane. Insane soldiers can be grounded: all they have to do is ask. But, the act of asking proves you aren’t crazy. 

Both Sisyphus and Yossarian exist in absurd situations. Sisyphus embraces his condition. Yossarian spends most of the novel looking for a way out of his. Arguably the darkest passages of the book are those that deal with the death of Yossarian’s crew mate, Snowden, who is hit whilst on a bombing raid. His death embodies Yossarian’s desire to evade death; by seeing Snowden’s entrails spilling over the plane, he feels that “Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage.” The exchange with Snowdon sounds like Beckett’s dialogue: “I’m cold, I’m cold”, “There, there”.  In the horror of this scene is Eliot’s “fear in a handful of dust.” This is what war exposes — the precarious preciousness of life — as our fragile bodies are turned to quiet, still matter. 

Yet the character Orr offers a victory over the absurd. Initially, he appears to be one of the most irrational characters. Orr crashes his plane on almost every mission. His fellow pilots think he is either insane or just a bad pilot. However, Orr has a plan. He wasn’t crashing but practicing landing his plane on water. On his nineteenth practice he lands the plane in the sea. He makes sure he is alone in one of the life rafts, and slowly drifts away from the rest of the crew, before the rescue team arrives. It’s not until just before the end of the novel, that we, and Yossarian, find out that Orr has washed ashore in neutral Sweden. Amongst the horror of war that Heller describes, there is a Kierkegaardian way out. For most though this way out isn’t realised. Novelist Howard Jacobson tells us that “Catch-22 bursts upon us with superfluous, almost blasphemous mirth” and by the end the humour is as “black as hell.” Its comedic moments, though, move us from individual tragedies to the comedic horror of the mechanisms of power, demonstrating the irrationality of militarism and blind respect for authority, as more effectively as any other war novel. Its use of humour was integral to its effectiveness. 

Whilst it’s impossible not to note the tragic impact of violence in a book about war, my experience suggested it is also impossible not to notice the humour as well

In Afghanistan, we faced our own Catch-22. We maintained we would hand over to local security forces when the situation improved enough for us to do so. The problem was that the security situation would never improve to that point while we were still there. It would only improve if we left. The conditions that would allow us to leave were us already having left. The dark humour that filled the pages as I started to write a novel about the conflict — Land of the Blind, available for pre-order ahead of its release on April 10 — wasn’t scornful, nor was it a form of relief although much of the humour I witnessed at the time was. It was the humour of incongruity. The incongruence between what we were meant to be achieving and what we were achieving. Often on witnessing that, the only thing we could do was laugh. Despite the appropriateness, even necessity, of using humour to explore the incongruity of the war I was writing about I was still concerned about Jacobson’s blasphemous nature of mirth: over the twenty years of coalition operations over 100,000 civilians and 3,500 coalition troops were killed. Would I be guilty of the offence of speaking sacrilegiously about what has become scared? But, whilst it’s impossible not to note the tragic impact of violence in a book about war, my experience suggested it is also impossible not to notice the humour as well. 

Camus ends Myth of Sisyphus by noting that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I imagine Sisyphus, not necessarily happy, but, like those I served with, laughing regardless. By doing so he takes back some control of his absurd Divinely dictated fate and retains some dignity in doing so. We are invited to laugh with him at the absurdity of our fate the metaphor exposes. When we laugh together, we connect. It’s the same commonality I felt on operations with those whose different backgrounds were quickly bridged by a shared joke about our shared circumstances. For me the best comedy targets, not other groups, whether punching up or down, but makes us laugh at what we all share: not just the temporary circumstances we find ourselves in, but the fragile, irrational, sometimes tragic, but often comedic human condition. No matter how painful or ugly the situation, we should never lose the ability to laugh at ourselves and our circumstances; it’s part of what makes us human.

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