Humor: dark and powerful

Here’s an opinion.

Humor is a dark thing. A dark, powerful thing.

There are two basic ways to deal with the horror and the wonder that is reality: laughter and tears. Every day hundreds die, lacking something as basic as clean water. Every day a million lawns are watered while human beings die of thirst. You can react to that with anger, indifference, or deep concern — but despite what you do or say, what you intend or envision or want, in the end you must deal with the fact of the world being a shitty place: and this means laughing or weeping. Or then possibly some kind of a walking denial coma.

Humor is not some idle pursuit, some incidental luxury, some adolescent lark. Humor keeps people sane. Humor keeps people going, because there are cold places where weeping will not keep you warm.

Imagine the worst job you can. Which do you think lasts longer, deals with the job better: she who laughs, or she who weeps? She who refuses to let the job be bigger than her, or she who curls into a fetal shape, hides, and sobs in despair? Which will stay sane enough, whole enough, to keep walking, and walk out of that place?

I hope you agree on the horns of this forced dilemma that it is the first one, she who tells horrible, evil jokes; she who cuts the horror in half with each word, and subtly throws it down from its throne, that will survive much better.

Imagine an oppressive tyranny. How do people deal with living in such a state? They strive for better; they dream of better; but how do they deal with the horror of the world? In the Soviet Union decades ago, and no doubt in North Korea today, they laugh. They tell pitch-black jokes of gulags, secret police and death sentences, of murderers and beatings and senseless injustice. That gnarly fire within keeps them sane, because dreams take time to come true.

I do realize this is all rather pompous, but I seriously think humor, laughter and mockery are vital for the sanity of individuals and the societies they make. I would not trust anyone who hasn’t a sense of humor; and though I can respect humorless people, I can’t ever love them.

The important thing here is that humor is a powerful tool: a way of dealing with things you cannot change. (Or that you haven’t changed yet.)

Here’s one more thing I believe: If you can’t joke about something, you will be slightly insane about it. Insane in a very bad way.

If you can’t joke about Hitler, he will remain this spectral ogre, this inhuman monster. What’s the result? People think he was inhuman, and hence won’t recognize the same very human stupidities in others. He stays a Very Serious Subject — and as a result, he retains a mystique that our latter-day idiots find very fascinating. Throw a pie in Adolf’s face; he’s reality, and we must deal with him.

If you can’t joke about rape, rape remains an unspeakable, unthinkable thing. It remains a mystery, a Difficult Subject. This is wrong — rape is a terrible crime, and we only hurt ourselves by also making it into a Difficult Subject. Unless we can cut it down to size, it will have too much power over us all. Why bother with breaking the silence, if only a hushed whisper is allowed? Even speaking, we would regard it with too much silence and fear, and not with enough disgust and outspoken action.

Will such casual joking then insult those that have first-hand experience of such evils? Will it trigger their anxieties, or normalize the evil? I think it shouldn’t; but people are difficult and occasionally cruel and I am dumb. I think the best jokes of hypocritically idiotic bureaucracy came from its victims in the Soviet Union; the best jokes of any evil come from those who have lived with it. Those who have no personal knowledge of it… I think it will be better for them, too, to not be so damned serious and careful, or else they’ll end up leaving the victims alone out of sheer courtesy, and subtracting from the horror of the thing by treating mentions of it as just as bad. The world needs to be grasped, touched: some parts of it with your fists and a raised knee, but the world needs to be grasped tightly, because elsewise it will turn in your hand and grasp and cut you.

Everyone should do the same: laugh at anything that is sacred, feared or inviolate. Laugh at what hurts you. Laugh at what troubles you. Laugh at what you love. Laugh at everything you see. Laugh at the fucking idiots who’d take this all as an excuse to be insensitive and hurtful. Laugh at yourself for getting so caught up by a few extruded scribbles on your computer screen. Laugh at me, being so damned pseudo-philosophical about a trifling thing. Don’t take things so seriously; don’t tolerate unlaughability. Let go! We human beings have a very bad habit of setting people and concepts up on pedestals. As a result they become tyrants over us: evils too evil to be spoken of, goods too good to be criticized. Don’t take that.

Humor is a tyrant-killer. Humor makes the shadows less dark. Humor keeps things in proportion. Do you think Mother Teresa never took a dump? Keep imagining that until it becomes funny. Don’t let anything, good or evil, become a Serious Thing, because seriousness is not healthy.

But — you may protest — but think of the victims! They will be offended! Their suffering will be trivialized!

Oh, bugger the victims, I say, even as I realize that that may be the worst possible formulation of the sentiment I could have chosen. If we don’t speak, will that undo the horrors they have been through? Either their hurt cannot be healed, in which case they need to cackling deal with it; or they can get better, and we should help them up by making their terror lesser. The world is a terrible place, a place of horrors that ever dwarf each other, that loom so that any particular instance is trivial compared to the others; it is better to cackle and look this all in the eye than to keep looking away. You speak of trivializing like it was a bad thing, Mr. Sensitive; I think you are mistaken. All my loves are trivial, yet no less precious; all my fears are trivial, and hence made lesser.

And there are endless victims anyway, because that’s how the world is made. Do you worry about offending a victim? Well, in any audience there are victims for a million things, greater and smaller. Consider their hurts and triggers, too. The world, as I said, is a shitty place: murder, loss, betrayal and failure are never absent. Don’t make funeral jokes; someone may have just died. Don’t make jokes of job loss; that may have happened to someone. Don’t make crime jokes, violence jokes, cheating jokes, embarrassment jokes… don’t make spoon jokes; his sister was killed with one. Remove all that could offend, and the resulting anodyne broth will not make anyone laugh.

Humor is, as I said, by its nature a dark and powerful thing.

It has been said that to be funny, humor needs to kick the powerful. This is not true; but it is true that to be funny, humor needs to kick something. Maybe the kick is feather-light; maybe it hits the teller’s own shin; but if the word “humor” vanished, the replacement we would be using is “outrage”.

Humor is offensive; but without it, life is unbearable.

Is this then all that humor is? A dour tool of keeping yourself and your society sane?

Of course not.

Such important tasks can’t be a drab routine. Do you think you could start every morning with five minutes of laughing at the injustices of the world, and then stop smiling? I snort laughter at the idea. Humor needs to be really funny; it needs to entertain and to seduce. Humor can be a religion, but it can’t ever be solemn.

Humor is not just a tool; it is a way of looking at the world, a way of seeing the world as it is, and saying you will not let that break you; and you don’t need to ever quit it. The world is a senseless place of injustice, pain and misery. There is beauty and love in it, but not enough. Some of those things you can change, and please do; but the great majority are looming colossi of midnight despair that you can’t make a dent on. Don’t let them crush you. Let loose a fell whoop of laughter and fly at them; your fey wildness will make you soar up until you are bigger than they.

You don’t have to be a humorist to live in this world, but it helps.

One Response to “Humor: dark and powerful”

  1. mhilm Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post on and off all day.
    While I agree with the basic premise, I am cautious of actually advocating the idea in daily life. I was with you through Hitler, and then you mentioned rape.
    I cannot imagine a situation where I could be humorous to a woman who’d been raped – unless she herself initiated the humor. Active imagination can tell me too much about how she might be feeling. Hitler is far enough in the past that humor seems safe there.
    And yet, that’s your point, isn’t it? Evil things must be dragged out into plain sight. And humor: mocking, belittling humor takes those powerful images and renders them human again. We can deal with human.
    Laughing is better than crying; despair is what ends hope, not horrors.
    After my father was killed, and the house was filled with kind and solemn people, I was laughing with a friend – and another friend confronted me: “Well, you’re sure happy.” I was angry that he’d broken that emotional release, and yet also impelled to guilt – I was being inappropriate – about my own father’s death. Conventions made me feel I had to be what others expected so I wouldn’t upset them. Grrr.
    When I was in college I had several ‘born again’ friends. For them, I tried, earnestly and honestly to be religious. What began the end of religion for me was realizing that I wasn’t allowed to laugh at god. To paraphrase, ‘any god what can’t stand being laughed at ain’t no god at all’.
    Very intriguing post. I appreciate the ideas being brought to mind. Obviously I haven’t been thinking about them, and I should.

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