Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Having a laugh

When I was a student I remember turning up to seminar wearing a badge saying, "Je suis Marxiste tendance Groucho."
My tutor looked at me and said, "Some Marxists would find that offensive."
I replied, "I can't be doing with anyone without a sense of humour."
He then launched into a mini-lecture on the importance of humour as a method of transcendence in existentialist philosophy. Serious stuff this comedy.

I was reminded of this when I read this piece by the novelist, Jonathan Coe. Though he hangs it on Martin Amis' snooty attack on Jeremy Corbyn, his essay has little to do with the Corbyn leadership. Instead it is a cautionary tale of where humourless politics can take us.
 … 2015 might well go down in history as the year in which humanity lost its sense of humour, and became more stupid as a result. It was the year that began with French humorists being gunned down for drawing cartoons, continued with the bizarre spectacle of distinguished American writers declining to express solidarity with the murdered cartoonists, and encompassed, along the way, the curious case of the Nobel-prizewinning scientist whose ill-advised joke cost him his academic post and his reputation. 
Coe's main observation is that most humour has "some sort of incongruity at ... heart." And that "it is this ability to recognise the juxtaposition of disparate concepts, and to draw meaning from the juxtaposition, that we seem to be losing." In other words political discourse is becoming horribly literal. Take away the ambiguity of humour and you feed a voracious appetite for offence. This isn't to defend someone like Bernard Manning. Humour can be offensive and when it is, it fails to be funny. Manning's humour was cruelty disguised.

No, humour does something else. Sometimes it can be "the only possible response to a situation," however bleak, "the last defence of humanity when it has had everything else stolen from it." At other times it is a marvellous way of engaging the intellect. I used humour throughout my teaching. My theory was: if they laugh, they learn. It is thoughtful and intelligent. But if the heart of humour is finding incongruity funny, it becomes a wonderful political tool for puncturing pomposity and pretence. Here are some favourite examples. Dr Strangelove made us laugh at a nuclear apocalypse. It did so by showing that even the most fool-proof system can still be undone by the limitless foolishness of individual human beings. Chaplin's The Great Dictator is a deliberate parody that transcended propaganda. But for me the most subversive take on power has to be the portrayal of Rufus T Firefly in the film Duck Soup. You see; I am still a Groucho Marxist at heart.

A Manichaean world-view that can admit no ambiguity is one that can be highly destructive, humour based on "laughing at the misfortunes of others" can be a source of persecution, but finding the world funny is different. Laughing at human fallibility and absurdity can be liberating. Black humour can takes us into darkness and barbarity in a way that is impossible to dismiss. It rescues humanity from horror. But most importantly, if, however vehement our opinions and righteous our anger, we can stop and laugh then we are capable of creating a humane politics in a way that the humourless cannot.

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