Monday, June 17, 2013

A Comic Sense of Life

"There is a god, and his name is Aristophanes." -- Heinrich Heine

Comedy and tragedy are battling in my brain, and after several rounds of rope-a-dope (a phrase that always flashes an image of an aging hippie in purple-tinted glasses sucking on a burning rope), comedy is throwing the slow-motion knockout blow. For the past few years I've tried to toil in the tragic, writing psychoanalytically-inflected, pseudo-autobiographical fictions that, however funny they might be, tend to resolve into allegorical Freudo-Lacanian cartoons or tragical-weepsicle fictional confessions. (I want to take this opportunity to patent the Weepsicle, a popsicle made from frozen tears cried while reading popular 'agony memoirs' of childhood trauma. It's salty and delicious. Maybe I can get James Frey to do an endorsement.) The brick wall I have repeatedly slammed into, like a crash test dummy trapped in a film loop, is the unavoidable fact that my sensibility is decidedly untragic. Tragedy, for me, may be the biggest lie. My own pretentious weltanschauung is a lighter, less Teutonic 'worldview.' And that skewed worldview is a comic sense of life. This is born of a deep appreciation of the meaninglessness, absurdity, and absolute contingency of existence, as well as an abiding knowledge of the horrors of history, all of which issues in a determination not to surrender my humanity to human inhumanity, not to perversely deify the horror and luxuriate in a tragic pose, a ludicrous affectation of affliction. The point, the challenge, is to meet even the worst of life with life, with derisive defiance, satirical laughter and (that most grotesquely devalued word) love.

A joke was told in the Warsaw Ghetto: An SS officer comes to a Jewish man's door and announces, "I will permit you to live if you can answer this question: which of my eyes is made of glass?"
The man looks carefully into the Nazi's face and then replies, "The right one."
"Correct," says the German, surprised, "How did you know?"
Without hesitation, the man answers, "Your glass eye looks more human."

To meet life with life, this is the comic sense of life, the energetic, vital flipside of tragedy's co-dependent marriage to despair. Comedy is not a giddy flight from the fatal facts, not a denial of life's tragedies. It is a response to life on the side of life. Tragedy--like its tragically successful vulgarization, religion--is a response to life on the side of death. Drawing its power from that ultimate pit, from our boundless narcissistic fascination with our finitude, tragedy may seem an insuperable opponent, a horizon of human thought. But comedy is the more powerful force. Comedy can dissolve tragic pretensions in a fit of fou rire. (Tragic attacks on comedy, on the other hand, tend to be priggish, prudish, puritanical, and, well, rather comic.) Even Hamlet, that archetypal tragic hero of the tragically pretentious everywhere, is an incomparable anti-tragical comedian. We might point to the brilliant, bawdy wordplays by which he comically tears at the fabric of tragedy's web, tries to free himself from the tired plot that has entrapped him, but the case is best made in the play's final scene. Even at his moment of greatest extremity, as he dies before the throne he should have sat upon, he cannot resist an ironic deflationary jab at Horatio's eagerness to play the tragic role, to die alongside him as "more an antique Roman than a Dane." "Absent thee from felicity awhile," Hamlet tells him, and that "felicity," signifying death, should be spoken in a tone very close to sarcasm.

"Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that 'a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes.' " -- Matthew Bevis, Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (a fine and funny little book just published by Oxford; I assume the sequel will be written by Matthew Butthead)

A comic sense of life struggles to remain equally aware of the scandal of nothingness and the wonder of being. It's a weird fusion of Beckett and Updike, Nag and Nell in their garbage cans and Rabbit with his riches. Comedy's answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is to juggle the words until they reply, "Nothing is the why of something." Schopenhauer, that German Romantic stand-up act, may have been essentially correct, but his concept of omnipresent Will (a deity-like transcendence sneaking in through the back door of that great philosopher's atheism) should perhaps be replaced by a Matrix-like "desert of the real." Take the red pill and realize with Melville that there may be nothing behind these pasteboard masks. And realize further that the horror of this nothingness is the motivation for all that we create and perceive. On a certain, perhaps unthinkable level, horror vacui is what we are. Sartre was probably more correct than he knew when he wrote that "[n]othingness lies coiled in the heart of being--like a worm." Something exists not instead of, but because of, nothing. Nothing is the ironically spongy comic bedrock of everything we know, the Why of Being.

Comedy plays Eros to tragedy's Thanatos, and I am convinced that I have spent time enough in the dominion of death. It's time to Orpheus myself upward into a life of writing on the side of life, where laughter shatters the dingy real like a kabbalistic vessel burst by light, and even the most violent setback can be dismissed as "merely a flesh wound." Comedy is profoundly subversive and ridiculously anti-defeatist. Comedy, as Philip Roth knows, is the art of life doing what life does best: going on and on and on and, ludicrously, terribly, absurdly, on... and always beating the alternative.

Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: Meh, it beats the alternative.

Comedy is Northrop Frye's 'mythos of spring,' which goes to show how little Northrop knew. Let these ideas stand for solstice and summer, the season of sex comedy, as Shakespeare and Woody Allen know. (Or as a woman I knew once rhymed it, "Hey, hey, the first of May; / outdoor fucking starts today!") It is when our minds are trapped in winter, though, and the tips of our feelings touch degree zero, and everything seems a flattened snowy field, that we most require the very serious amusements of comedy's muse.

"...But the cruiser had driven off, leaving Sabbath ankle-deep in the pudding of the springtime mud, blindly engulfed by the alien, inland woods, by the rainmaking trees and the rainwashed boulders--and with no one to kill him except himself.

And he couldn't do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."
                                           -- Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater

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