Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wanted-- Somebody with No Sense of Humour...

In his greatest book, Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton made a declaration that might surprise those who are only familiar with his bon mots and witticisms, perhaps through reading books of quotations, and who may have taken to thinking of him as a kind of Catholic Dorothy Parker:

Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying.

In the J.B. Priestly novel Found, Lost, Found (a novella whose contents I have almost entirely forgotten; unfortunately I don't have Chesterton's amazing powers of retention), a rather poker-faced feminist character, upon being told what she suspects is a joke, announces that she has no sense of humour. The protagonist is delighted by this admission, and complains that, since the Victorian era, everybody has felt obliged to have a sense of humour, even when they don't.

Now, I don't really believe anybody is lacking a sense of humour, but I do think our society is in far greater danger of overdosing on facetiousness than of taking things too seriously. I think it was CS Lewis (in fact, I know it was CS Lewis, but somehow it seems more airy and literary to affect uncertainity when quoting) who wrote that every age is most on guard against the sins to which it is least prone. Sex-mad generations live in horror of "repression". Cruel generations fret they are being "sentimental". In the same way, I think our generation lives in horror of solemnity, of being po-faced and earnest, when we could all do with a massive dollop of Miltonian gravitas.

You can't walk into a bookshop today without being greeted by smirking book titles such as The Tao of Pooh or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I am a big fan of cartoons, and it may seem ridiculous to complain that cartoons are insufficiently solemn, but I really do find that to be the case. Cartoons like The Far Side or Doonesbury can't be bothered with anything as fuddy-duddy as jokes, or satire of everyday foibles-- the humour (often excellent humour) has to be offbeat, quirky, zany. I know because I have gone in search of collections of old-fashioned, straightforward cartoons and I can't find any. I can only find books like The Book of Bunny Suicides (entirely devoted to picturing different ways rabbits could commit suicide). Ever since the time of Monty Python, it seems that even comedy lives in deadly terror of taking itself too seriously.

There is a church (not a Catholic church) in the area where I work which is famous for the quirk slogans it displays on placards to catch the attention of passers-by. One memorable slogan was "CH--CH. What's missing? RU?". Very smart, of course, but surely there are plenty of Biblical quotations that would be more seemly?

Even product names like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, or business names like fcuk (an acronym for French Connection UK, a fashion designer), seem to partake of this surfeit of facetiousness.

Old-fashioned TV quiz-shows like A Question of Sport or Blockbusters or even the more light-hearted Countdown seem to have been entirely replaced by tongue-in-cheek productions like Have I Got News for You or Never Mind the Buzzcocks. American Presidents perform comedy routines. Serious politicians make a fool of themselves on reality TV.

I think this tendency affects advertising, clothes, politics, philosophy, literary criticism (take a bow, Terry Eagleton), religion, daily interaction-- pretty much every field of contemporary life. In an age without convictions, one conviction that seems to survive is the vital importance of not being earnest. And that is something I think GK Chesterton would have deplored.


  1. Much of today's humour can be very cruel, crude and biting. Looking at the older TV comedy classics such as Dad's Army, Only Fools and Horses and even Laurel and Hardy where pathos is the overwhelming sentiment - as well as humour we felt sympathy towards these 'pathetic' characters as they tried, in vain, to do anything right.

    The change seemed to come about in the sixties and seventies starting with the irreverence of Monty Python and the more 'industrial' language of Billy Connolly (both of whom I admit liking at the time).

    Ironically today's crueler personal humour conflicts with another of the traits of the liberal ideology, political correctness, showing once again the confusion of this ideology as it contradicts itself.

  2. There is a lot of confusion in liberalism. As long as you are not making fun of someone's race you can be as cruel as you want, for instance. I don't think racist humour was ever OK but I would rather a little ethnic stereotyping than dismissing someone's entire worth as a person. Shows like Extras or Curb Your Enthusiasm or South Park don't pull any punches at all. Although in this post it was more the flippancy than the cruelty I was objecting to, I do think humour is very cruel these days. Much of it, anyway. Of course there is plenty of sentimental humour still.

  3. "(in fact, I know it was CS Lewis, but somehow it seems more airy and literary to affect uncertainity when quoting)" This is why I love reading your stuff. I laughed out loud when I read that. Not "LOL" -- I actually did -- laugh out loud.

  4. Ha ha! Thanks. It's true, though, isn't it? Byron wrote of people with "just enough of learning to misquote" but really cultured people seem to be distinguished by how often they misquote and misattribute!!

  5. GKC was infamous for misquoting, I think.