Friday, November 18, 2016

Make 'em laugh

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote his essay "Epic and Novel" in 1941. It was not a good time to be in Russia, and certainly not in Moscow. The poet Osip Mandelstam had been exiled by Stalin eight years before, and was now three years dead. Hitler was invading. In his lifetime, Bakhtin had already been exiled by the secret police and sent to Kazakhstan; he lost his leg due to disease in 1938. Those were darker times than anything we have known.

One can ask why on earth Bakhtin was writing expansive literary criticism on Rabelais, Dostoevsky, and the history and theory of the novel in the middle of all of this. I don't pretend to know the answer. I don't claim that it was a good idea. I do think that Bakhtin arrived at insights that sustained him and still explain why you might want novels or comedies—or even just scholarship on novels and comedies—in times like his.

In Bakhtin's theory of the novel, the novel is composed of many voices—"polyphonic" is the word that he uses. It descends from satire; mockery is in its DNA. Because there are multiple voices and points of view in any novel, it cannot take any single voice too seriously. Novels question themselves, and hence they train us how to question others. Not taking things too seriously—indeed, laughing at them—is essential to being able to keep our grip on reality. It allows us to puncture through the distortions that pride, fear, and power create:
Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically. 
A man like Stalin hated being laughed at. (That's why Mandelstam was exiled.) Laughter destabilizes power. That's why it's so important to maintain one's ability to laugh, and also the courage to mock the powerful. In an open and free society, mockery may irk the powerful, but they don't strike it down. Diseased societies let the powerful strike down those who mock them. Dum rideo, reor.

It's my thought, not Bakhtin's, but it has always seemed to me that jokes depend on something being out of place. That is how the absurdist humor of Monty Python works, Groucho Marx's puns, Shakespeare's scenes where the clown has all the wisdom. The dumbest and the smartest jokes alike involve some kind of displacement. Someone has the wrong social response to something (overreaction or underreaction or simply breaches of etiquette). The world is normal except for the change of one bizarre premise. An implausible situation yields a kernel of truth. An impression is dead-on, except it's not actually the person being imitated, which makes it all the more funny. The pun uses the right word in the wrong way.

If you are laughing at something, it usually means that you have expectations about the way the world should be. On its own, it's insufficient to indicate that part of you is in touch with the way the world actually is; but it's probably necessary. Laughing at others, and being willing to laugh at or with others, is a sign that those expectations are also independent to some extent. There's a reason why laughter is connected with irreverence. Reverence (at least in Kant) is a special kind of heavily internalized, and morally righteous, fear. (The English word comes from Latin vereri, meaning "to fear.) Irreverence, and irreverent laughter, demolish fear and piety, like Bakhtin says. They are not always right, but they are useful tools at the right time—tools that must always be kept on hand even if used judiciously. Used at the right time, laughter opposes fear and—again, as Bakhtin notes—is a prerequisite to fearlessness.

In free societies, we laugh and laugh early. We laugh even when it may not be right, and have arguments about whether it is right, simply because it's important to exercise the ability. We laugh at each other, and there is no one who cannot be laughed at. People who are willing to laugh at themselves are willing to contemplate truths that other people may see in them, to which they are ordinarily blind. Laughing at yourself is a kind of humility, and the more accurate the criticism, the more humbling the experience.

Conversely, the inability to laugh at yourself shows an unwillingness to reflect on who you are, and a pride that has begun to lose touch with reality. Even in private life, getting angry at those who make fun of you, or trying to punish them, betrays a desire to control what others perceive to be reality. It shows that you do not trust in others' capacity to reject the mockery as false or undeserved. There are some social environments, like elementary school, where this may be true; but precious few in adult life. More often, the inability to laugh at yourself or be laughed at manifests some kind of insecurity. It touches a nerve because it touches reality.

Not all laughter is good. Sometimes, it's misdirected; sometimes it's hurtful; sometimes it's downright destructive. But even these distinctions require and nourish an independent ethical judgment that is distinctive of individual freedom. If we are making jokes and laughing at others', it means that we are contributing to that general liberty of mind and public discourse. If we are not making jokes, or if we are afraid to laugh, it means something has gone terribly wrong.

There are many reasons to laugh. Laugh at things, situations, and people. Laugh at those who deserve it and laugh often. Bakhtin would point out that the laughter in the history of the novel is one reason why it has a special and close relationship to reality; read novels, and especially funny ones. If time and circumstances allow, perhaps even read humanist scholarship on literature. But laugh first. 

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