Absurdism, Books

The Laughing Philosophers

I have been reading a book, just published, by Slavoj Zizek consisting entirely of jokes culled from his cultural theory texts, called Zizek’s Jokes*. Here is an example:

Jeremy Bentham deployed the unique notion of ‘self-icon’ that is the notion that a thing is its own best sign, as in the Lewis Carroll joke about Englishmen using ever larger maps until they finally settled on using England itself as its own map.

I don’t advise him to change his career to stand-up comedian, just yet. The book is a compilation of about a hundred jokes illustrating concepts such as the logic of the Hegelian triad and the Lacanian real. Wittgenstein once said that “a serious and interesting philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes” (On Certainty), and Zizek’s publishers quote it, but this compilation fails to amount to a work of philosophy (interesting or otherwise).

If humour is light-hearted, isn’t philosophy existentially dark? Comedy is anarchic and carefree, whereas philosophy is reasonable, serious and precise. Philosophy is rarely funny, in what way can comedy be said to be philosophical? According to the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, the division of comedy and seriousness is a false division. He has argued that the great existential themes have been unveiled and illuminated in the European novel and that the European novel was born laughing. The great early novels all tackled philosophical questions and were comedies: in that sense Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding, Swift, Voltaire and Sterne are the laughing philosophers. Novels that are absurd and obscene, ridiculous, pointless and preposterous they examine what it means to be human. Rather than Zizek’s, I suggest that the better candidates for Wittgenstein’s philosophical book of jokes are:

• Rabelais’ Gargantua 1535 and Pantegruel 1532,
• Cervantes’ Don Quixote 1605-1615,
• Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a foundling 1749,
• Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels 1726 (amended 1735),
• Voltaire’s Candide 1759,
• Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 1759-1767.

As God gradually retired from ordering the universe, the European novel opened up the world of ambiguity and uncertainty. Two novels first published in 1759, one in Paris and the other in York, can stand to illustrate the point. In Voltaire’s Candide a philosopher called Dr Pangloss contends that divine Providence orders nature and reconciles it with moral evil; there is a logical reason for everything, even evil (if it is for a greater good). Pangloss is a Leibnizian optimist who believes that all is best in the best of all possible worlds, a theory he parrots in the face of the outrageous and unpredictable sequence of events that rapidly and heartlessly overwhelm him and others. All the characters in Candide are subject to just about every possible vicissitude in life in absurdly improbable successions. Pangloss, for example, is made to be subject to these chaotic atrocities: impoverishment, the loss of an eye and ear whilst receiving medical treatment, storm, shipwreck, earthquake, being hanged, dissected followed by sewing up and then enslavement as a Turkish galley worker. The vicissitudes Pangloss suffers are such that his insistence at the end of the novel that he is still of the unshakable belief that all is best in the best of all possible worlds is laughable. The world is revealed as heartless and unjust based on contingency and chance and wholly inexplicable by logic and reason. Pangloss remains imprisoned within his own risible metaphysical system trying in vain to cram the muddle of life into his neat abstract Leibnizian thesis. Candide, the hero, rejects Pangloss’ theory by Chapter 19, we do much earlier. The comic world is a world with its causal chains broken. (The most common type of joke works in this way by thwarting our expectations. It plays with the disjunction between the way things are and how they are represented in the joke: we expect one thing and another is said.)

Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is also a novel that examines, in a very different way, causation. In this digressive and elliptical narrative nothing is allowed to happen, each action is stopped in its tracks for yet another by-way to be explored or fact to be recorded or further anecdote to be started. In Tristram Shandy the pleasure lies in the interruption of the action, the chain of events is incoherent in its chaos and madness. The novel makes a virtue out of digression and nothing is allowed to be chronological as the narrative is broken from first to last. A preposterously exuberant comedy of nonsensical pointlessness that starts on page one with the hero’s conception in a bedroom in Shandy Hall in Yorkshire but who then disappears for about a hundred pages and is not born until Volume Three. We hear little of his Life and nothing of his Opinions at all; this protagonist is virtually absent from his own text. Causes and effects are disproportionate and arbitrary in that the most insignificant events cause monstrous results. Tristram’s whole life is made miserable by a slip of the tongue in naming him, Trim’s brother sells some sausages in Lisbon and is consequently made subject to fourteen years of the Inquisition, Tristram is nearly castrated whilst urinating out of a window that suddenly falls shut. Neither logic, nor reason nor divine Providence has a hand in explaining this world.

Like Dr Pangloss, who self-deceivingly clings to his world view despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Tristram’s father Walter and his uncle Toby are monomaniacs who see and understand the world though mental systems which the text undermines as they doggedly plough on. Sterne shows a half-loving ridicule for this learning run riot. Uncle Toby only understands life through his experiences formed during the siege of the town of Namur; every one of life’s problems is analysed, by him, through the prism of the science of attacking fortified towns. Walter is a crazed system builder for whom nothing is random or accidental and everything is connected significantly to everything else (this theory does not withstand the surrounding narrative of chaotic muddle). He is full of paradoxical notions and bizarre theories about the anatomy of the nose. He has anticipated exactly how Tristram’s development will unfold and charted it all in advance in his ridiculous Tristrapaedia. That text and the novel that contains it are at the opposite ends of the spectrum: one rigidly deterministic and the other a shaggy dog story with a protagonist shaped hole in it.

One of the functions of philosophy is to expose self-delusion. In this sense both philosophy and comedy are places for restless critical intelligence confronting mistaken ideas. Philosophy exposes error though the analytical application of reason. Comedy acts in a more forbearing way: the delusion of Don Quixote tilting at windmills is funny because he misreads how the world really is and his error, and the persistence of his application of it, reveals his humanity. Comedy celebrates the ridiculous and the absurd and revels in the recognition that the human is imperfect. Unlike philosophy, a novel is under no duty to clear up the messiness of life, and on the contrary the comedy of the novel both celebrates contingency whilst lovingly ridiculing the vanity of the human who denies it. The wisdom of the novel is born not of the theoretical spirit but of the spirit of humour.

The spirit of humour is profane. Rabelais’ pioneering carnivalesque comedies Pantegrual and Gargantua are teeming with richness and improvisation and obscenity and profanity, both were placed on the Index of forbidden books, as was Candide. The French philosophe Diderot, after reading Tristram Shandy, proclaimed Sterne the English Rabelais. One joyous paradox here is that Sterne and Swift were clergymen and Rabelais was a Franciscan and later a Benedictine monk (who was forced to flee the religious authorities on publication). One reason for religious hostility to comedy is the novel does not serve ideological certitudes, it contradicts them. Comedy hovers between subservience and sedition. For there to be disrupted expectations, a joke requires a commonly accepted image of the world available to be disrupted. Comedy identifies the shared traditions of the community (the rectitude of religion, law, the nation, politics) and then ridicules obedience to all rectitude. Another point of opposition between comedy and religion is morality. Comedy is a space where the admirable and the absurd coexist. The comic novel is a realm where moral judgement is suspended. Dr Pangloss, Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy are laughed at, but not condemned. The only morality of the novel is that it stands for understanding; it is firmly against the pernicious and extensive human habit of judging others. The comic novel is never moralistic.

Comedy teaches us not to be moralistic but fatalistic. Through comedy we gain an understanding that we are human, all too human. Recognising that human life is flawed and life is contingent, gallows humour finds the strength deep down to laugh with nonchalance in the face of life’s vicissitudes. In this way irony and stoicism are closely related, they are the endurance of suffering. This understanding prepares us to embrace life on its own terrible terms (however incongruous and absurd and heartless) and so turn plight to pleasure. If wisdom is a meditation on this learning, then de La Bruyere was right: “Life is a comedy for those that think, a tragedy for those that feel.” Both philosophy and comedy magnificently charge off on their steeds to examine what it means to be human, except that comedy is mounted on an ass, and wears an upside down barber’s basin on its head.

* Zizek’s jokes, Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?
MIT 2014, edited by Audun Mortensen, with an afterword by Momus.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s