Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Comedy of Powerlessness: The One Modern Joke

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Comedy of Powerlessness: The One Modern Joke

Article excerpt

TWO HAGGARD, EMACIATED, LICE-RIDDEN men are shackled hands and feet to a wall in a dungeon. Some distance above them there is a small window with iron bars. One man turns to the other and says, "Okay, now, listen -- here's my plan." Appearing some years ago in The New Yorker, this cartoon has remained a source of great amusement to me. It captures so well the human predicament--our fundamental sense of helplessness and powerlessness--at the same time it gives the release or transcendence of laughter. Comedy is the way out of the prison. Is this not what Nietzsche implies when he rather sardonically remarks: "The most acutely suffering animal on earth invented laughter"? I agree with the notion of comedy Conrad Hyers develops in his book Zen and the Comic Spirit. Comedy must be radically iconoclastic, "for before true liberation can occur, all idols must be overturned, or stood upside down. Anything, however holy, is potentially an idol; therefore anything is a legitimate object of laughter" (103). Only a religion that has the courage to laugh, one that is powered by serious comedy and iconoclasm, offers a path to transcendence. While this may be easy to say, it is certainly not easy to come by, especially in a culture which still privileges tragedy as the supreme mode of acquiring self-knowledge and nobility. Moreover, this is a serious view of comedy that is greatly needed in an age of competing fundamentalisms. This serious comedy has an awareness of what Aldous Huxley speaks of as the "Whole Truth" (Scott, 77-118). Reflecting on a scene in the Odyssey, Huxley comments that tragedy speaks of Death and Tears, but the Whole Truth consists of Death, Supper, Tears, and Sleep. It is with this Whole Truth that serious comedy is concerned.

In an interview, the American novelist Stanley Elkin declares: "It seems to me that there is only one modern joke: the joke of powerlessness" (LeClair and McCaffery, 115). As we appear to be living in the twilight of the modern age, this comment is quite provocative. Is this joke more true of the modern age than of others? If so, why? After all, are we not all beneficiaries of the Promethean scientific and technological achievements of the last three or four hundred years? Are we not all Fausts, guarding our autonomy and making our pacts with whatever powers that be? How can we have come to know so much and to have created so much power and yet come to feel so powerless? And is that really a joke? The continued popularity of the comic figure of the "Little Man," from Robert Benchley to Woody Allen, attests to the validity of the condition Elkin's comment points up. Perhaps the modern experience of powerlessness is more pathetic, even tragic, than a source of comedy? Perhaps it all depends upon who is telling the joke and how well the joke is told, which is to say it has to do with art, with making, with playing, which is never unreal or nonserious or trivial, but defines our being in the world. For Oscar Wilde, art is "the only serious thing in the world." And George Bernard Shaw confesses, also echoing Wilde, "the real joke is that I am in earnest."

In a review of a book by Shalom Aleichem, Saul Bellow observes: "powerlessness appears to force people to have recourse to words." This is what Elkin means by his assertion--the weak or powerless have the weapon of words, spoken often under their breath, but spoken nevertheless in such a way as to confront overwhelming forces and achieve a kind of victory. This is a comedy in the tradition of Job, who, daring cosmic iconoclasm, refusing pat and pious answers, demands of God an answer to the question of gratuitous suffering. In his poverty, weakness, and solitude, all Job has left is words and the courage to put the universe on trial. This is a kind of "heroic powerlessness" that is celebrated in a number of novels published since the Second World War. So, having been bitten by the bug of metaphysics and believing what one of my professors said that no theology or philosophy is worth its salt if it does not confront the problem of evil, I am interested in the big questions and in the way serious comedy deals with them. …

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