Oh, we did laugh…

Saul Bellow wrote a book Mr Sammler’s Planet. In it was this thought-provoking passage:

… And this brought to mind Kierkegaard’s comical account of people travelling around the world to see rivers and mountains, new stars, birds of rare plumage, queerly deformed fishes, ridiculous breeds of men – tourists abandoning themselves to the bestial stupour which gapes at existence and thinks it has seen something …’

Shortly after reading this bitter salvo, I wandered nonchalantly along the shores of a lake in Dartmoor, pondering Kierkegaard and the futility of existence. Actually, I didn’t. What I did think was how shallow and deluded most philosophers were. How obsessed with the purity of their vision, in spite of the fact they’d been stumbling around in dark glasses for the last two hundred years.

What modern philosophy lacks more than anything, is a sense of humour. You can’t imagine Nietzsche laughing hysterically at a joke on his iPhone, or chortling at the antics of Laurel and Hardy, lovingly restored on DVD. These people took the world seriously. They saw the black clouds on the horizon, intimations of death, men strapped to tank tracks as the war machine lumbered recklessly on.

The same charge could be levelled at literature. Someone once said that you could open a literary novel at page one and know that by page three hundred there would be no jokes. What is it about the intellectual preoccupation with neurosis? Sure, we can laugh at Woody Allen’s woeful contemplation of mortality, because it taps into a humorous vein. But, try finding some light relief in Sartre …

Ian McEwan, easily Britain’s most celebrated literary novelist (alongside Martin Amis), is not known for his slapstick. And yet, his recent novel Solar had moments of pure comic delight. Surely, this means Mr McEwan must be downgraded immediately, for deliberately blurring the lines and confusing his readers. Yes, we know Howard Jacobson has been doing it for decades, but look how long it’s taken him to be accepted by the establishment!

Come to think of it, Martin Amis does a good turn at humour. Well, okay – jaded cynicism. But then he’s had his fair share of detractors too, carping on about misogyny and racism, when they should have better things to do.

Once again, I’ve wandered. How did this little polemic begin? Ah yes – Kierkegaard. Lakeside walks in Dartmoor with a delightful companion. The lack of humour in academia. I could go on at length, and probably will, when I’ve shut up shop and put away the trusty keypad.

The ability to laugh at oneself. That, we’re told, is the secret to a full and happy life. So, the next time I fall flat on my face in the street, in full view of a gang of malicious teenagers, I’ll remember to get up, dust myself off and join in the derision.

Healthy stuff indeed …

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