(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2017)
There is nothing intrinsically funny about a fat man and a thin door, but put the two together, and bang, you have comedy; not so amusing of course if you happen to be the corpulent individual struggling through the narrow gap.
Comedy charts the border of good taste, at times encountering sharp ravines of cruelty; following also, less perceptible, subterranean streams of conformity. Its exercise is essential to the interrogation of power but can, conversely, serve to normalise repugnant behaviour, or speech. Nevertheless, taboos – the scorched desert no one should cross – still operate, as Kevin Myers discovered.
It seems a fair generalisation to make of Irish people that a sense of humour is prized above other virtues. This is tied closely to appreciation of ‘craic’, a word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which only migrated into writing in the early 1970s.
It may have an onomatopoeic quality – the drum “clack” that sparks a session perhaps – and is distinct from ‘banter’ in British usage, which is limited to conversational witticisms. Our craic runs deeper and can be situational, often associated with drunken antics, and their blurry recall. The word ‘wisecrack’ seems to have a distinct origin, and dates back to the 1920s.
When the rural-urban divide was more pronounced the word tended only to be used outside Dublin – where the Old English “yee” prevailed rather than the more confusing, conventional “you” in the second person plural (the less said about the debasements of ‘Dublinese’ “yis” or “yous” the better). But through increasing national harmonisation (or homogenisation), that mixture of conviviality and comedy – that is the craic – has become an emulsifying agent in our imagined community.
Crack warms friendships with laughter, makes bearable a dreary job with complex jokes poking fun at authority, fuelling the week (and the weak) with amusing tales distilled from weekend capers, and expectations of further doses. It is fitting that it should only be a recent addition to the written corpus, for it has an essential presence in the moment. Even phone-checking ceases when it is in full, raucous, flow.
As in any primarily oral culture, you just have to have be there. As with the setting of riddles or verbal charms, participation, and appreciation, defy textual learning; demanding instead a keen apprenticeship: mostly spent sitting around a table in roguish company, rain beating against the window, staying up far later than you should.
A nascent waft of this wanton playfulness is, nonetheless, evident in the ribald wit of some of our greatest writers. The earliest Irish saga-poets pepper their tales with humour, mostly derived from sexual antics and gluttonous excess, alongside moments of intense weirdness.
Centuries later writing in another tongue, Jonathan Swift seemed infected with the country disease, and Hiberno-English sprang into life as a literature-of-the-absurd, with power and privilege subjected to unflinching satire. Swift’s Modest Proposal to cannibalise babies for the delectation of landlords, thereby solving the demographic crisis, was so close to the bone as to jar.
The community of Irish letters has bred a disproportionate number of jokers, prominently Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, whose bon mots we inherit. Passing through customs we declare nothing but our genius; before a maritime plunge point to “the snot-green scrotum-tightening sea”; at sunrise, observe how the “sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”; or simply, look back with pride on the great cultural awakening: the “Celtic toilet”.
Used wisely and humanely literary humour is a vital antidote to the posturing of the privileged, and in a country where so much of life is spent indoors, it is not surprising that it should be used to pass the time. But the invention of humour is generally reactive, and at its best amplifies the serious business of creation.
The jocose textual madness of Ulysses should not obscure its profound political import. Joyce’s greatest character, the cosmopolitan Leopold Bloom exposes the hypocritical nationalism of the Citizen, and sees clearly that he is one of a people “that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.” Anti-Semitism, then, as now, is no laughing matter.
Earlier in Dubliners Joyce exposes us to a memorable depictions of craic, though he does not seem to have been familiar with the word (this does not stop the Joyce Tower promising “music and general craic” for Bloomsday, 2017), and there is a bitter twist. In ‘Counterparts’ Farrington is lauded in the pub after work for a witty retort to his hectoring superior’s question: “Do you take me for an utter fool”. His response “I don’t think, sir, that that’s a fair question to ask me”, has them all in stitches. But he ends the day realising the joke will cost him his job, which shines an unforgiving light on his other failings.
Returning home: “He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, and he had not even got drunk.” In the end his son is the scapegoat: Farrington severely beats him with a stick for failing to keep the fire alight.
Almost uniquely among Irish writers, W.B. Yeats left little evidence of the comedic, after his willing anointment as national poet during the Irish Literary Revival (the so-called Irish Twilight, or “Toilet”), and parallel promotion of the occult. Only rarely does the mask slip from the stern visage to reveal a curling lip. In ‘The Tower’, surveying the landscape around his home Thoor Ballylee in east Galway Yeats recalls an old story about a Mrs French whose serving-man, could divine:
That most respected lady’s every wish,
Ran and with the garden shears
Clipped an insolent farmer’s ears
And brought them in a little covered dish.
A few stanzas later Mrs French’s musical appreciation, “gifted with so fine an ear”, is shaped into an artful pun. Yeats is rarely given to such play, preferring devotion to acoustic patterns that make his charm poetry so well adapted for song.
Unfortunately during the early 1930s Yeats’s fidelity to his Art lapsed into reactionary excess that made him briefly a Nazi fellow-traveller; like numerous “pious” Irish Catholics at the time, but for different reasons. A more light-hearted author might have found an accommodation with the Modernist departure from poetic form, which he connected with a barbarous Marxist rejection of beauty. But there is little evidence of his verse being infected by the lazy stereotypes of a right-wing columnist. No anti-Semitism is evident, at worst we find a nod to eugenics in the lines from ‘Under Ben Bulben’: “Base born products of base beds”; he was too fine a poet for cheap jokes.
Theodore Zeldin writes: “since truth cannot be easily swallowed whole or raw, jesters were usually also poets, magicians or singers, able to convey unpalatable insights in an epigram, a witty story or a song.” It is the accommodation of comedy within tragedy that gives Shakespeare’s King Lear such peculiar force, where the character of the Fool masks his wisdom with buffoonery.
The close physiological connection between laughter and tears, generally associated with sorrow, is also instructive. Humour may lead us somewhere profound, but then the laughter ceases. Ecclesiastics 7:3 says: “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.”
Comedy routinely slips into cynicism, as is often evident in formulaic, and vulgar, ‘stand up’ routines. Zeldin further argues that comedy can reinforce conformity “by being its safety valve”. He points out that carnivals, such as the medieval festival of fools: “have throughout history made fun of authority, and turned hierarchy upside down”, but “did so only for a few days.” Similarly, we draw humour from satirical depiction of Donald Trump, but this may normalise his conduct by turning into a humorous spectacle.
Jokes may also be truly sick, as the history of totalitarianism shows. Jonathan Glover writes that “In the death camps the Nazis turned the cold joke into an art form, with increasingly imaginative embellishment on the themes of cruelty and humiliation.” Friedrich Nietzsche gives an insight into how this was possible when claiming that “in laughter all evil is compacted, but pronounced holy and free by its own blissfulness.” The gay release of laughter allows depraved participants to evade consideration of their actions. Thus, humour has an important role in confronting tyranny, but may also reinforce it.
There is an unspoken code for what can be subjected to comedy, which one of Woody Allen’s best characters, the comic writer Lester from Crimes and Misdemeanours articulates: “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Thus, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination a joke would have been entirely inappropriate, but as time passed it became acceptable. Similarly, jokes about Genghis Khan’s brutality are permitted, while the memory of Hitler’s excesses are still raw. Therefore, lazy allusion to Jewish stereotypes for comic effect remain taboo. Lester adds that if it “bends” it’s comedy, but if it “breaks” it’s tragedy.
The breaking point also relates to the power of a targeted group to respond to nasty jokes. Kevin Myers has previously made salacious comments about feminists, vegans, children born outside marriage and Muslims, but last month he chose a class of victims (women of Jewish background working in the British media) with a capacity to fight back. The joke did not bend, and Myers got his P45.
When humour is seen in a less flattering light, our own devotion to craic may be questioned. For decades Irish politicians have been subjected to biting satire, which has not brought much electoral inconvenience. Steeped in craic, we shrug our shoulders and hang the absurdity of lying politicians and inept planning. Idealism is similarly scorned.
The migration of craic into written usage, reflects the carnivalesque atmosphere in Ireland at large. A dreary job, a hopeless search for accommodation gives way to the expectation of the next festival – that New Age festival of fools – or just a weekend on the tear. Farrington’s brutality in Joyce’s epiphanic tale exposes the shadow of the craic.
We may assume the comedic to be creative but it should perhaps be seen as merely inventive. A deeper creativity seems to be marked by an absence of, or at least an advance from, comedy as George Steiner proposes in his Grammars of Creation (2001). An artist believes in the icon that is his work; thus art may remain sacred, even where religious faith has lapsed.
In contrast, according to Steiner: “Invention is often thoroughly humorous. It surprises” Whereas creation “astonishes us, as does thunder or the blaze of the northern lights.” Such moments, when we gaze on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, or listen to a Shelley’s verse, call for reverence, not laughter,
Ireland has endured a traumatic history, a nightmare from which Joyce sought to awake, where humour has played an important role in preserving sanity. At its best in Irish literature, as in Swift, it is profoundly serious, and permits dissent which could not otherwise be expressed. But where a culture becomes obsessed by the need for a funny story – the craic writ large – the comedic may become conformist, and a barbed comment from a position of privilege becomes oppressive.
In general free speech should be protected, but the plight of vulnerable groups in our society requires a balance to be struck. Editors have responsibilities beyond the law. After all, who wants to feel like the fat man struggling through the narrow door?