Monday, November 16, 2015

A Thinking Man’s Comedy

Not Tragedy

“I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel — a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept.”
—Horace Walpole
“Letter to Sir Horace Mann”; December 31, 1769

Jewish Unity; October 29, 2015 
Image Credit & Source: Yaakov Kirschen;

That the Jewish People like to laugh and tell jokes, even in the midst of serious situations, is well documented. Equally telling is that Judaism, the religion of the Jews, is optimistic; one can argue that its very survival implies that it must be, that the history of Jews is one of overcoming persecution and evil intentions. Nowhere is this best exemplified than in the grim yet optimistic humour found in dark times, such as in this popular example:
Rabbi Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you're reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?”
“On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more: that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know—it makes me feel a whole lot better!”
It’s funny for the very reasons it ought to be: it is an absurd statement to match an absurd situation. Abnormal situations call for abnormal responses. Or, as Mel Brooks says: “Humor is just another defense against the universe. Look at Jewish history: Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable.” Small wonder, then, that humour is found in the darkest corners of our collective history.

In Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, recounts his experiences during the Second World War, during which he was a prisoner at four concentration camps, including at Auschwitz. In this short paragraph, Frankl describes what takes place shortly after arriving, shortly after he was stripped of all his possessions, including his clothing:
Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! (15)
Thank G-d for small mercies; that instead of gas, water came out of the shower heads. That nervous energy, a result of expectations of death, led to “a grim sense humour.”

It sounds counter-intuitive, perhaps sacrilegious, but many in similar situations have responded accordingly. This is not suggesting the serious situations are amusing or funny—they are not— but rather the opposite. Laughing or self-deprecating humour, notably during serious situations can make it more bearable; suffering can never have a higher or noble purpose. Humour or comedy can take the edge off things, can blunt the seriousness of the situation. It is similar to the reason some people whistle a tune in dark and dangerous places.

Even in situations deemed less serious or dangerous, comedy has had a long history and purpose, such as in the everyday realities of hardships, of deprivation and of sickness. That is, eking out a living and surviving with some kind of dignity. Not surprisingly, Jews and comedy have had a long relationship. Does this suggest, in accordance to Walpole’s dictum, that Jews prefer thinking to feeling? I am not sure, but laughing is preferable to crying. And the tears of laughter and the howls of delights might reveal more about our human condition than the serious and somber tragedies of previous ages. Or, perhaps, of any age, including ours.

Yet, the Jewish People persevere, keeping at what is important, focusing on doing the good deeds that our religious books tell us are important and essential to making the world a better place. This includes not ignoring the bad and the evil, but not giving these a prominent place in our lives. Comedy and humour is a part of an effective strategy in lessening the power of immorality, against the actions that diminish humanity. (This might explain why Jews gravitate more to comedy than to tragedy.)

More to the point, serious comedy is all about taking the everyday realities and goings-on of life and making a story out of them; it is easier to draw people in with laughter than with tears. This is what serious masters like Anton Chekhov and Neil Simon did with their works. Or Charlie Chaplin did with his works; and more, recently, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld with theirs. While tragedy looks at the foibles of the high-born, comedy looks at the actions of the rest of us. This is one reason that comedy speaks to us more than tragedy; the persons on stage or on film represent us, and in doing so tell us about ourselves.

Such is the argument of Terry Teachout, an author, in an article (“Why Comedy is Truer To Life Than Tragedy;”April 30, 2012) published in The Wall Street Journal.
Of all the great tragedies, Shakespeare's "King Lear" seems to me to be the very greatest. I went to a very fine production of "Lear" the other day, and was impressed all over again ]by the play's incomparable richness and beauty. Yet all things being equal, I'd almost always choose to see a comedy like "Twelfth Night" or "Much Ado About Nothing" instead. It's not that I don't love “Lear.” I do, passionately. But as I grow older, I grow more firmly convinced that comedy is truer to life than tragedy, not just onstage but in all the narrative art forms.
This isn’t to say that the tragic vision of life is false. I’ve sat through more than enough funerals to have figured that out. “Shaksbeer is passimist because is de life passimist also!” So said Hyman Kaplan, the first-generation immigrant whose struggles with the English language were wittily portrayed by Leo Rosten in “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.” But I’ve spent enough time chuckling at the unintended absurdities of those very same funerals to know that in most human lives, absurdity and sorrow are woven together too tightly to be teased apart—and it is comedy, not tragedy, that illustrates that fact most fully. Life is too complex to be painted solely in shades of black. Even Shakespeare made room in "Lear" for the Fool, who makes us all laugh by saying out loud what poor old King Lear fears in his heart of hearts—that he, too, has been a fool, and will shortly pay the ultimate price for his foolishness.
Now, this is an opinion; and as opinions go it has some merit. I have seen productions of King Lear, Macbeth (showing aspects of existential nihilism) and so on, and although they have left an impression on me, notably if the acting was first-rate, these works, although revealing, cast a dark shadow on humanity. The idea entertained is that life is often without meaning, or that the high born are fools and full of hubris. In many ways, this is not comforting and continued exposure to tragedy can be self-defeating and lead to a loss of individual meaning; does exposing this person and his “fall from grace” to mockery or ridicule evoke catharsis, the feelings of pity and fear?

But a good modern comedy, well, this is another matter: we see ourselves in the play, and often identify with its themes, and with what the actors are struggling. It is more than “a little laughter is good for the soul,” it is that comedy not only (might) reveal more than tragedy, but that it can also make you part of a large group: it in inclusive. French philosopher Henri Bergson notes in Laughter (1900) that comedy is a group affair, replete with social meaning and camaraderie. People that can laugh at themselves tend to be both humane and honest.

Can you really trust someone who can’t laugh?

For more, see Henri Bergson’s three essays in [Laughter]