Readings — From the April 2015 issue

The Joke

Last month, the PEN America Center announced its intention to honor Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based satirical weekly, with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala to be held in New York City on May 5. In recent days, six members of the organization—Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—have withdrawn from the gala in protest over what they see as a misguided decision. These writers, along with more than two dozen others, put their names to a letter released this afternoon in which they ask to be disassociated from the award. By honoring Charlie Hebdo, the letter states, “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” Justin E. H. Smith addressed the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the response of the Anglo-American left, in “The Joke,” an essay published in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine.


By Justin E. H. Smith, from “The Fundamentals of Gelastics,” a work in progress. Smith’s latest book, Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference (Princeton), will be published in June.

In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks I stalked Paris as if lost, dazed and despondent not only at the senselessness and irreversibility of murder but also at the great gap that had appeared between me and so many people I consider friends and equals: educated, cultivated, sensitive people, defenders of the oppressed and marginalized. Righteous folk.

I heard from them countless variations on the banality that “violence is always wrong.” How did I know that this judgment, though perfectly true in itself, was only a banality, the expression of a sentiment that had little to do with pacifism? By the clockwork predictability of the “but” that always followed.

But what?

But racist cartoons, in the preferred formulation of much of today’s online left, are “not okay.” But offending other people’s faith is “not okay.” The judgment came from my academic peers in the established Western left and my students in the up-and-coming Western left, as well as from the archconservative Catholic League, the Putin regime, and the Putinite puppet regime of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. Five cartoonists had just been killed by a death squad, and many on the left and the right seemed uncertain about which party had committed the greater offense.

Some, it’s true, gave a halfhearted defense of free speech: “We defend their right to express themselves, but we do not defend the offensive content.” Many explained their lack of solidarity with the cartoonists as a matter of personal taste. They had no problem with offensive humor in general, but personally, they explained, Charlie Hebdo’s “just not my cup of tea.” In context it was perfectly clear that this judgment of taste, this polite refusal of tea, was also a moral distancing, a political washing of hands.

It is exceedingly difficult these days to call attention to the dull-minded policing by academics and online activists without being ridiculed in return as a frightened, ignorant old man who bemoans “political correctness.” We do not wish to be assimilated to those old duffers who wear Hawaiian shirts and do not understand why we can no longer call a dame a dame, and so we avoid worrying in public about the phenomenon. We stop ourselves even when we find that our peers have begun half-rationalizing the assassination of cartoonists on the basis of a glancing judgment that their drawings were racist, a judgment that rests only on the overt content of the images, generally without any translation of the French captions, without any consideration of context or pragmatics, and without any concern for the relationship of any individual cartoon to its creator’s body of work. In this age of visual illiteracy, of perfect tone-deafness to satire, the murders get cast as a blow not against freedom of expression, against subtlety, nuance, and laughter, but against racism. So, the thinking goes, adieu.

Already on the eve of January 7 my peers were transforming before my eyes into grotesque descendants of Jean-Paul Sartre, who maintained his support of Stalinism despite a knowledge of its worst atrocities, and of the craven Western Stalinists who defended the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Hungary, in 1956. How could they not see what was at stake? I became convinced that the root of the moral and political failure I was witnessing lay in the false presumption that humor is but one of the minor protectorates of freedom, when in fact humor is freedom itself, or at least freedom’s highest expression.

We are perhaps more familiar with a similar claim made about art. The key insight of German Romantic idealism, as expressed in the work of Friedrich Schiller, had been that artistic creation offers the only escape from the deterministic order of nature. In On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), Schiller calls beauty our “second creator,” since it is the aesthetic disposition that saves us from “the one-sided compulsion of nature in feeling” and provides “the highest of all gifts, the gift of humanity” — namely, freedom. Here Schiller is developing an insight of Immanuel Kant, who likewise sought, in the Critique of Judgment (1790), to investigate the means by which artistic creation allowed human beings, inserted into a world ruled by blind necessity, to enjoy their share of freedom.

Kant discusses high art and all its cousins. He is notoriously dismissive of music and of the creative work that yields what we call “craft.” He also considers the humble joke, and takes it to have at least some family resemblance to art. For Kant, humor, like music, belongs to the “pleasant” as opposed to the “fine” arts: that is, to the domain of experience that involves sensation alone. In music, there is a play of aesthetic ideas, in which a hearer moves “from the sensation of the body to the objects of affections, and then back again, but with redoubled force, to the body.” In humor, the play of ideas causes us to be thrust forcefully back into our bodies — think, for example, of the belly laugh — after a brief moment of headiness. It is this experience that Kant has in mind when he describes the experience of hearing a joke as “the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”

Does Kant provide an example of what he has in mind? He does, unfortunately. “An Indian,” he begins,

at the table of an Englishman in Surat, seeing a bottle of ale being opened and all the foamy beer spill out, displayed his great amazement with many exclamations. In reply to the Englishman’s question, “What is so amazing here?” the Indian answered, “I’m not amazed that it’s coming out, but by how you got it all in.”

If there is something funny here, if there is a sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing, it is likely the fact that one of the most sophisticated theories of humor in history would be supported by such an exceptionally weak joke.

It is revealing that Kant sets his joke in Surat, and that the butt of it is not just any local yokel but a colonized subject. This is a crucial moment in the history of humor, and Kant is hardly going out of his way to give it an exalted place in his system. Rather than elevating the joke to the level of the fine arts, which would make it an expression of the free play of the imagination and thus an expression of freedom itself, Kant portrays humor as principally a function of the body, while at the same time seizing an opportunity to reinforce the ideology of European superiority.

Here Kant is following the general line on laughter that philosophers have taken throughout Western history, one shared, notably, by his French predecessor René Descartes. In a supremely French demonstration of national solidarity, the phrase “I think, therefore I am” became, alongside “Je suis Charlie,” one of the central slogans of the mass demonstrations, in Paris and around France, against the murder of the cartoonists. Descartes’s statement, which appears first in his Discourse on Method (1637), meant that thought is an indubitable indicator, indeed the only indubitable indicator, of one’s own existence as a metaphysical subject. If you are able to think about the question of your own existence, no evil genius, however powerful, could possibly convince you that you don’t exist, when in fact you do. Descartes proceeds to give a short list of various forms of thinking (the Latin term is cogitatio): doubting, affirming, willing, denying, and so on. Even if you are doubting your own existence, it follows of necessity that you must exist, since doubting is a form of thinking.

Significantly absent from the list of types of cogitation in the Discourse is laughter. But elsewhere in Descartes’s oeuvre, in his Passions of the Soul (1649), we learn that laughter is a sort of hydraulico-mechanical process, initiated by a rapid flux in air pressure. It is to be investigated by physiology, not psychology, and is proper to the body, not to the mind.

“I think, therefore I am” appeared at the Paris rallies this year because many French marchers supposed that what was at stake in the wake of the attacks was, precisely, thought: that their freedom to think was under attack by the unthinking forces of darkness. They wanted clear and distinct ideas to confront sheer and ignorant brutality, the legacy of the Lumières against the enemies of modernity. But none of this gets things quite right. As far as I can tell, jihadists think, too. They partake of the rational human essence, which involves, among other things, rationally planning elaborate ways of murdering people.

Where they seem somewhat deficient, by contrast, is in the activation of a certain human capacity. Here we need to look to a different vein of French history than the one represented by Cartesian philosophy, in particular to the tradition of satire that extends back to Francois Rabelais in the Renaissance and before him to countless Arabic precursors and medieval fabliaux. These comic tales, which were often told as accompaniments to juggling acts and other antics, are now mostly lost. But their legacy runs through French history in constant parallel with the lofty ambitions of rationalist philosophy, balancing out the self-serious claims of the philosophers by demonstrating just how fundamental laughter is to human existence. Their demonstrations proceed not through arguments but through examples — sexual, scatological, blasphemous examples, otherwise known as jokes.

The joke and the novel are two extreme evolutionary developments of a common ancestor, the tale. Although the novel ascended in respectability over the course of the modern period, even becoming a venue for philosophical ideas and an object for philosophical investigation, the joke remained ghettoized, the supreme expression of low culture, and as such devoid of wisdom. Many early European works of fiction, however, not least Gargantua and Pantagruel, are effectively collections of elaborate jokes. Consider the rube in Boccaccio’s Decameron who is persuaded by a trusted friend to let him service his wife as he, the duped husband, watches in confusion. This tale apparently had its first expression in Arabic, and was recounted in oral form by raconteurs who held their audiences captive with their bawdy imaginations and surprising twists.

It is just such tales that fed the literature that we now see as early signs of the coming of European humanism. And from there, a few centuries later, came the Enlightenment, and Voltaire and Kant, who frequently deployed their wit to denigrate non-Europeans. But if the joke gets taken up in service of the darker side of the Enlightenment, as a reminder that that era’s ideal of equality among men applied only to men presumed in advance to be equal, this should not taint the legacy of the joke.

Jokes are not always deployed in the service of racism and empire, nor do they offer false assurances to the downtrodden. If they are egalitarian, that is because they serve to remind us that we are all suckers, we are all duped, we are all screwed. This is really just another variation on Kant’s idea that jokes give us the experience of a sudden transformation into nothing. There is no greater transformation than death, after all, and jokes, as reminders of our mortality, may be seen as so many little philosophical deaths. And death, in turn, is the greatest joke of all: the final transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. It is, then, precisely by virtue of its anticipation of death that humor offers a unique escape route from the grim deterministic order of the world. When the Stoic philosopher Seneca says, “Do you ask what path leads to liberty? I answer: Any vein in your body,” his exhortation to suicide is both a dark wisecrack and a profound reminder of the inherent relationship between freedom and mortality.

The jihadists who murdered the cartoonists prefer the sort of death that is not tempered by freedom, and they do not get the joke for which their dumb violence is the punch line. Put differently, they do not understand the freedom that governed the lives of the murdered satirists, the freedom by which the satirists both lived and died. Few, in fact, in these literal and self-serious times, were able to understand it. Many insisted that Charlie Hebdo’s satire was a sign that the values of the Enlightenment had outlived their purpose, that those values had been duplicitously distorted to the great disadvantage of the world’s colonized and oppressed. This concern is valid enough, but it was no less valid in the eighteenth century. What this insistence misses is that humor, as a disposition to life, far precedes the Enlightenment, and that Europeans hold no patent on it. It is ancient, and universal, and it is the best thing we’ve got in a world in which we’re all going to die anyhow, a world in which so many malign fools prefer to spoil what little flare of freedom we may enjoy by killing in the name of dogmatic, doubt-fearing, dour, and deathly earnesty. Humor is freedom, and it must be defended — not with guns and bombs, no, but with more, more of the same.

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