Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Concerning Didion's sense of humor

Dear Son,

Reading Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem leaves me with the impression that she was one of those skinny, sickly girls who's always complaining about problems and never giving any solutions -- someone more commonly referred to as a whiner.  I've met several of them in my life and they all make me want to leave the second I meet them, because if you don't; if you find yourself giving in for even a second to your pity and trying to console them and (what's worse) trying to be a friend, you find yourself consoling them all the time instead of enjoying your life.

I've seen several friends go down this path; and whatever they got out of it, whether they felt like some kind of a poor man's knight in shining armor or any other semblance of a hero, they never really ended up with a damsel who was worth it.  It's the weakling's way, picking someone to rescue who's habitually and purposely in need of it.  You save them for a second and the next they're crying about something else and talking about their meds; and we have to remember that any woman you really want to rescue, especially if both of you are single and in any way interested in romance, is the one who's normally healthy and cheerful and full of sexual vitality.  It sounds horrible to say, but aside from those of us who are pastors and psychiatrists, what is the point of rescuing someone who can never be rescued; whose monster that has to be slain is some part of herself?

This may not actually be the case with Joan, as innumerable writers have often been mistaken for their writings.  The fact that many readers expect me to be serious and eventually discover that I'm silly is the most obvious case I can think of; and writers, with the exception of a few lucky individuals like Winston Churchill and Christopher Hitchens, are very rarely as impressive or interesting or eloquent as their creations.  Even Jesus said that a prophet is not accepted in his own town, probably because people had a difficult time separating the message from the man they once saw in a diaper.  In the case of George Orwell, described by even his brother-in-law as a skeleton at the feast who would mope around awkwardly at parties and hide in a corner in silence, we found one of the most enjoyable and sensitive political thinkers of the 20th century, and certainly one of the century's best critical essayists.

Joan may very well fit into the category of Orwells and Egerers; but if we've misjudged her, it can only be because she over-represented a monochromatic portion of herself.  Throughout Slouching we find a frail woman unusually uncomfortable with change; crying after talking to her family on the phone; reaching in the darkness for meaning and being jealous of the wack-jobs who "find" it; self-described as un-threatening in appearance but partially treacherous (she admits almost immediately in the preface that the job of a journalist is selling people out); trying to be a journalist in some essays while denying her credibility in others; always tracking down an exciting moment, but incapable of enjoying the excitement until it's all gone and she's left missing the memory*.  Especially concerning the last portion, so much of her is relatable; and if she's sickly, she only bears the sickness of the average modern female "educated" almost-hipster: cynical, weary, Godless, easy, disappointed, and perhaps what's worst, ambitious without having a sense of purpose.  Her humor even has a sadness in it; a sharp kind of irony that doesn't even really try to make you laugh with a punchline, but draws a picture of someone so out of touch with themselves or reality, that Didion never feels the need to comment on them.  Her actual commentary is most often serious and miserable.  Her anecdotes, when left to themselves, are frequently hilarious**.

And this is one of the things that I appreciate about her most.  For the thing we know as a sense of humor is almost always an appreciation of something absurd; as if there was a way we knew something was supposed to ideally go, and then somebody made it go horribly wrong***.  All of our humor seems to be not only a surprise, but a kind of a contrast between the things that are sensible and the things that are stupid, between things that are beautiful and things that are ugly; between moral and immoral, customary and foreign, and possible and impossible; between standing up straight and falling on your ass.  Thus the best of our humorists are social critics; and nearly all of our humor, even the birthday cards with monkeys on them, relate in some way to our indignity.  A chimpanzee, almost bearing the image of God, is a natural clown (like men used to think of the handicapped); and the original butt of our jokes was the fool, spoken about in even the unfunny Proverbs as too lazy to bring his food to his mouth, and too wasted to understand that the world wasn't actually spinning.  Didion, trusting in the intelligence of the reader, recognized good comedy and gave us her diamonds in the rough.  Life, in the rawest form, was the punchline.

I believe that Didion's sadness was linked with her comedy.  You have to be a sort of idealist in order to be a comedian, and you have to be able to have expectations before you can laugh at the results.  In Didion we found someone who was perpetually disappointed.  Solomon says fools reside in the house of laughter, and he may be partially right, since nobody who's unreligious and aware of his end can be too happy for too long.  But on the other hand, you have to be somewhat capable of wisdom before you can smirk.   Humans are the world's only visionaries (whatever people say about the cackling of hyenas), and so we're the world's only jokesters.  The smarter you are, the sadder you may get**** -- but the more you may possibly laugh.  The autistic were never known for their sense of humor.  Toddlers are funny to us because they are idiots.

The Fall of Man, in fact, whatever the Christians say, may have been the death of mankind, but it was also the beginning of comedy -- something that Christians, with the exception of Chesterton and the bizarro St Francis of Assisi and a few random others, have always been terrible at.  Indignity and sin  after all (otherwise known as mankind's fall from perfection) comprise the Christian's falling from grace, and to any serious Christian mean the very reason why many are damned and Jesus was killed.  But this is almost beside the point if we consider that Christians are not even really the world's biggest bores, even if at present they are the easiest and most obvious target (and I think it's safe to say that mocking Christianity at this point isn't entirely subversive).  The most unfunny people in the world don't belong to any particular religion; but they all belong to a particular conservative mindset, whether or not they are the people we like to think of as American conservatives.  They're usually people on the defense.  They're the people who value rules over reasons, and thereby make even the most reasonable rules ridiculous.

In Jesus' day they were the Pharisees.  Only yesterday they were the religious right.  In our own day, because liberalism is supreme in every institution and handing down its asinine mandates to unintelligent people outdoing one another in conformity, they are the social justice warriors.   Tomorrow they will be whoever takes our comedians most seriously today.  Comedy accidentally champions an ideology, and the ideology eventually kills the comedy.  Old comedians are often said to lose their edge.  Is it any wonder, when youth gives us a fresh perspective on the world, and old age often makes us set in our opinions?  Is it any wonder that the man who throws down an ideology, himself establishes the ideology to be thrown down?

Your father,

*Regarding the commonality of this experience, Samuel Johnson says in Rambler #41: almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well perceived, and is only known to have existed by the effects which it leaves behind.  We oftentimes don't even realize what we've experienced until after we've experienced it; and the sweetest moments of our lives are often taken for granted until long after they're gone and we're discovering them through analysis.  

**As an example of her extremely dry delivery, she describes an awkward conversation between two clueless 17-year-old flower girls, the country girl telling the other that she "knows a thing about dollar bills."  She says, "You get one that says 'IIII' in one corner and 'IIII' in another, you take it down to Dallas, Texas, they'll give you $15 for it." "Who will?" the other girl asks.  "I don't know."

***Anyone who ever watched Disney's Robin Hood with a three-year old will be surprised, perhaps, that the child isn't laughing hysterically at Prince John, the skinny, effeminate, pedantic, vain, and maneless lion king.  A child has to develop a sense of how a lion and a king and a man are supposed to be before realizing that P.J. is a hilarious failure; just like nobody could possibly ever laugh at Shakespeare's John Falstaff before knowing what it means to be an honest and respectable man.  

One might be tempted to consider the laughter of babies as a counterpoint to my theory.  But if we consider (as I seem to remember Chomsky saying a while back) that people have an innate tendency toward the structure of language, and common observation of babies teaches that we have an innate tendency to dancing, we can just as easily say we have an innate tendency to humor.  Nobody at this moment can say exactly what babies are laughing at; although all of us know that newborns are incapable of laughter.  But the inscrutable nature of baby's thoughts aside, isn't it fair to say that babies have thoughts -- and that even according to their instincts and understandings, something can seem... off?  We know that babies respond positively to beautiful faces.  Who's to say they aren't responding to ridiculous expressions?  You once laughed at a balloon hitting the ceiling.  Isn't it possible that you're laughing because everything else is falling away from it?

****Aside from wisdom, I would add that you have to be better at abstract thinking.  Christopher Hitchens once got in a lot of trouble by saying that women made terrible comedians.  It may very well have to do with a man's reliance on the left side of his brain.  An ability to recognize abstract principles more easily is an ability to more easily recognize their breaking.

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