Laughter is subversive. That’s why I want to get over the morbid, to move beyond the tragic, and to argue that comedy is what we need in addressing His Anus, the asshole who now occupies the White House. We have to learn to laugh at him. I understand that the tragic sensibility is the costume of the serious academic or intellectual, and I want to wear it—woe is fucking me–but I’ll be goddamned if that hairshirt fits. I just can’t bear it.
Herewith, then, a primer on comedy. Not to worry, this is self-help in the most literal sense–I write to instruct and improve myself. If you feel better having read what follows, and please remember that I don’t yet know what follows, good for you. Maybe good for me, too. I’m making this shit up as I go along.
Alexander Herzen, the crazy Russian sort-of anarchist once said: “Only equals may laugh.” He meant at, and with, each other. We all laugh at our bosses and our superiors, the ones who can give the orders, but only behind their backs. We all know what would happen if we laughed in their faces: “Do you think this is funny?” Then we’d get fired, demoted, reprimanded, or court-martialed, depending on our station.
Herzen knew that laughter is the solvent of social hierarchies, and that silence, civility, reverence, and lofty purposes sustain them.
Another crazy Russian, Mikhail Bakhtin (a.k.a. V.N. Volshinov), a 20th-century linguist without limits, wrote a whole history of this corrosive laughter by way of his book on Rabelais, the 16th-century author of Gargantua and Pantegruel, a novel that makes “South Park” seem Victorian. It contains these liturgically inspired lines, which I memorized when I was in junior high school:
“Squirt hard, fart hard, turd in us:/Thy bung has flung its dung on us.”
Bakhtin is honored among serious academics and intellectuals for his treatment of the carnival, the strenuous but still occasional holidays of late medieval Europe, as compensation and reversion—as ratification of existing social hierarchies: today we party, tomorrow we go back to bowing and scraping because that’s real life. Same old servant of power shit, right? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Serious intellectuals want to know that the carnival is a sham—they need to know that they must lose, because if they won, they couldn’t have been serious to begin with.
I keep reading Bakhtin precisely because I’m not a serious intellectual: fuck that tragic sense of life, I want to win this thing, I want to take power away from the dickheads and the rednecks and the CEOS—I mean, let’s kick their asses. Also, I admit, because Bakhtin was writing utopian literary history under the most suffocating intellectual conditions, in the USSR of the mid-20th century. He couldn’t be any more serious than I am. Here’s a sample from Rabelais and His World (1965, trans. 1968):
“This [the city, the marketplace, where a social consciousness of historical time flourishes because one experiences other bodies of different ages, races, social classes] is why festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.
“Medieval laughter, when it triumphed over the fear inspired by the mystery of the world and by power, boldly unveiled the truth about both. It resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy. This laughing truth, expressed in curses and abusive words, degraded power.”
In these terms, comedy is not merely more fun than tragedy, it’s more useful if you want to speak truth to power—if you want to get political in the here and now rather than wait on a better world to come. Berthold Brecht, a deadly serious playwright, explained that proposition as a kind of paradox when contemplating the ridiculous spectacle of Adolf Hitler:
“The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter. . . . If the ruling classes permit a small crook to become a great crook, he is not entitled to a privileged position in our view of history. That is, the fact that he becomes a great crook and that what he does has great consequences does not add to his stature. One may say that tragedy deals with the sufferings of mankind in a less serious way than comedy.”
Hello? How’s that? Kenneth Burke, the American literary critic, translator, historian, and bon vivant, a man who wrote about comedy and tragedy at the same moment, in the 1930s—and in exactly the same way as Brecht—explained the matter as a forensic problem. Tragedy, he wrote in 1937, “deals in crime,’ so it proliferates at moments of sharp and deeply felt change: “any incipient trend will first be felt as crime by reason of its conflict with established values.”
Burke argued that comedy transcended tragedy because it, too, “warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity.” Comedy depicts people as mistaken, not vicious. “When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.” Comedy “requires the maximum of forensic complexity,” and so it refuses the deus ex machina that often regulates tragedy. “Comedy deals with man in society,” as Burke put it, “tragedy with the cosmic man.”
The originary gangster movies of the early 1930s, and their gradual displacement (in time, in space, in words) by westerns in the grand cinematic style pioneered by John Ford, demonstrate Burke’s point. John Wayne/Ringo in “Stagecoach (1939) is no less beyond the law than James Cagney/Tommy in “Public Enemy” (1932). Both of these self-made men are behind their bureaucratic, white-collar, rule-bound times, as any unruly individual will be under the regime of corporate capitalism. But “Stagecoach” is a comedy, and “Public Enemy” is, like “Scarface” (1931) and “Little Caesar” (1930), a tragedy.
So Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke were making quite similar arguments at the same time, during the greatest crisis of western civilization since the 17th century—not just a Great Depression, not merely the triumph of fascism, but also a European civil war that turned the entire continent into a charnel house, from Spain to Siberia. Yes, they said, this is serious business, but enough already with the tragic sensibility that protects us from the storm by assuming that it must end badly for us leftists. They were exhorting their comrades, telling them to liberate themselves.
I think that’s why Bakhtin lets the social force of laughter disappear into the interiority of each individual just two pages after explaining its public effects (as above): “Laughter is essentially not an external but an interior form of truth. . . . Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power.”
I know that’s why G. W. F. Hegel was a stand-up comedian. Seriously. Bear with me as I explain—just a few more paragraphs!
Hegel invented the category of the “unhappy consciousness” in trying to explain the passage beyond the integrated character of the ancient citizen, who was somehow at home in his world. Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity served as both metaphors and historical instances of this passage—the secular chapters in the same story were Skepticism and Stoicism. What they all shared, according to Hegel, was an inability, or rather an unwillingness, to read or inscribe their truths in the world as it actually existed. They shared a tragic sensibility.
Release or abstention from the corruptions of this world was, then, the path to salvation or enlightenment, because the world had become the impediment to—never the condition of—truth as such. So the unhappy consciousness typically produced a “beautiful soul,” the man who would be in but not of this world, the man who couldn’t recognize his own implication in its corruptions. He’s the man who wouldn’t know a comic spectacle even if he were a cast member, and Hegel put it pretty much this way in 1807.
Now comedy, defined either as the happy stupidity of humor—can you believe this shit?—or more broadly, as the narrative form that refuses to let things end at the stage of tragedy, is the place where we decide to get ugly and acknowledge that no one is exempt from the corruptions of this world: no more beautiful souls, comedians say, whether they’re writing plays and novels, or doing stand-up, or making fun of FOX News.
You can’t abstain from sin, evil, or power, they insist, so you might as well know that there’s no sanctuary. Comedians always have to produce ironic detachment from shitty circumstances because they begin there, in the world, in the same place the audience comes from.
Of course Hegel knew that a strictly tragic sense of life could issue from the disturbing idea that “the world is ruled by the Devil,” as Martin Luther, his chosen antecedent, explained the situation. After all, once you acknowledge the universal reification and corruption of your time, intellectual resignation from it, and thus practical acquiescence to it, become perfectly rational: skepticism, stoicism, even cynicism and nihilism, then become the obvious retort to what we call faith, hope, or optimism. In this sense, the “beautiful soul” isn’t a merely romantic conceit—every generation or so, it becomes a left-wing political imperative. Ask Chris Hedges.
But Hegel, like Bakhtin, Brecht, and Burke, knew that comedy contains tragedy, and by doing so it gives us good reasons to have faith in each other and hope for our futures. As Hayden White puts it in Metahistory: “Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.”
Hegel himself was more circumspect in The Phenomenology, and, I would suggest, more devious. The “unhappy consciousness”—skepticism, stoicism, early Christianity, etc.—was the form of self-certainty that could appear, in history and in philosophy, when the slave understood that the master was a dimension of his own personality rather than an external figure with absolute power over him, and, accordingly, when the master understood that he had already bought the slave’s knowledge of the world.
At that historical and philosophical moment, however, each was able to realize only an “inner freedom,” an empty subjectivity that lacked material validation: “Self-consciousness which reaches its fulfillment in the figure of unhappy consciousness is only the torment of the spirit struggling to rise again to an objective state but failing to reach it.” Or again: “It lives in dread of staining the radiance of its inner being by action and existence.”
But comedy as a narrative form works exactly this way, by taking the outward oppositions of tragedy—over here the hero (good), over there the villain (bad), these shall meet ere long and die appropriate deaths, probably at each other’s hands—and making them inward, by making them discordant dimensions of every character in sight. That’s what Bakhtin was getting at when he said that laughter is an “interior form of truth.”
Where once we witnessed master and slave, we now experience and recognize ourselves. No more beautiful souls, because no one can rise above or stand apart from the administered inferno that is “the modern time.” Everyone is always already beyond good and evil, because everyone, having been created equal, just is good and evil.
Hegel explained in the Aesthetics that, like History itself, all dramatic action expresses the “one-sided aspect” of each character, actor, people or nation: “And this is so whether as in tragedy, they are opposed to such in hostility, or, as in comedy, they are displayed within these characters themselves, without further mediation, as a condition of resolution” (my italics).
Because the comprehension of the entire situation is unavailable to any character—and this is especially true of the great tragic heroes—passion, error, irony, and conflict are the regulative principles of both dramatic action and History itself. But comedy gets beyond tragedy by treating these as matters of folly, evidence of our common experience, rather than evidence of concerted evil imposed on us from elsewhere by Fate, by the Gods, or by the corporate powers that be.
Toward the end of The Phenomenology, the Bildungsroman of self-consciousness, Hegel got pretty excited about the prospects of his comedic rendition of the human condition, even unto “the modern time,” which he dated from the 18th century. Hereafter, he thought, we didn’t have to be the disport of the Gods, the willing victims of Fate, the mute objects of History made by great men. The “comic spectacle” on offer here was “the return of everything universal into certainty of self,” he announced, “a certainty which, in consequence, is [the] complete loss of fear of everything strange and alien, and [the] complete loss of substantial reality on the part of what is alien and external.”
He concluded: “Such certainty is a state of spiritual good health and of self-abandonment thereto, on the part of consciousness, in a way that, outside this kind of comedy, is not to be found elsewhere.”
I’m with Rabelais, Bakhtin, Brecht, Burke, and Hegel. Fuck tragedy and its non-heroic residue. His Anus doesn’t yet know that he’s the leading man in a comic spectacle. Let’s make sure that he finds out.
3 responses to “Fuck Tragedy, or, Comedians All!”
There’s a British comedian, Al Murray, called the pub landlord. He presents himself as a little Englander who loathes foreigners, especially the French and Germans. One of his catchphrases is “where would we be without a sense of humour – Germany.” He’s now thinking of changing that to America
My nephew Seth Cooper suggested I read your piece – I can’t say I understood half of it, but what I did understand (or thought I understood) I agree heartily with. As I was just saying to Seth, one thing “they” have in common is a complete lack of a sense of humor, or at least of a sense of humor beyond the eighth-grade level. And fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke!
I love this piece. Its crazy that you found such good historical support for that idea. And Chris Hedges – wow that hits the nail on the head for me – even that specific example stuck in my mind from years back for exactly this reason. Even if I agree 100% with the facts he uses, I can’t watch him for 3 minutes without “learning something negative from his example” – the utter humorlessness of it seems as bad as what he’s describing. Its strange, listening to him describe the Iraq war, its actually *more terrible* than I think the war itself actually is, because I don’t think anyone involved in that conflict could survive very long without finding a ray of light or hope or a way to laugh. He creates an atmosphere or pure, air-tight moral indignation which, seems to me, is almost as spirit-killing as trauma or fear themselves, which sometimes abate, and against which there are always comforts. But not to get carried away from the main point with that powerful example..
To me, calling upon what various streams of thinking I’ve imbibed and studied, tragedy has the benefit of a greatly intensified experience. Getting cosmic about it, tragedy is the face of the Creator knowing its own vulnerability. Comedy is the face of the Creator knowing its own power and limitlessness, by comparison with which, many human conventions become absurd. I think some of Nietzsche’s reveries hit upon some related motifs.. “let us be merry tricksters, even in the face of this enormous suffering..” – not a quote but possibly a paraphrase. I think its somewhere in La gaia scienza.
I get the slight sense of prejudice in this piece towards one of these experiences as being more perfect than the other. From my point of view, its more important that they be authentically inhabited, e.g. that they reflect the actual feeling states and desires/perceptions of the people experiencing them. The rivers of deep emotion that open up to a person tragically inclined may perhaps be just as beautiful, in some sense, as the shimmering lights bouncing off the tree-tops of someone enjoying boisterous laughter. I guess its part of the Divine Comedy (get it? thats a reference :D) that we seem to play this role by turns for one another.
I got some good laughs, and some wincing pains, from the podcast you did about Basic Income recently (how I came to know about your work). I winced when you described the labor market as I’ve known it in my generation (I’m 32). I laughed at your total disregard of scholarly philosophical word-porridge when you said… “…….I’m just too old for this!”.
And “…I don’t want to delay gratification anymore!”. Right there with ya on that, in spite of having my prose cap on. Thanks for speaking truth, supporting UBI and writing these cool entries. I will read more of your stuff.