Laughing in the Dark

Are we the only self-hating species? The only species that commits suicide? Are we the only species that laughs? Have you noticed how little humour there is in mass extinction and environmental destruction? That this secular end of days is the source of hardly any comedy?

It’s unseemly — profane even — to laugh out loud about the anthropocene. Unless it’s that grim, knowing, gritted-teeth kind of laughter in which we marvel at being part of a civilisation more concerned with counting calories than carbon. (If only we could harness vanity in the service of ecological repair); in which we mutter, “well, you gotta laugh because what else can you do?” or “if I didn’t laugh, I’d be weeping”.

Yes, there’s a lot of Weeping in the Dark, but not much laughing. Which is also surprising, because we often laugh at tragedy. Think war (Black Adder Goes Forth, Waugh’s Scoop); racism and red-neckerism (All in the Family); religion, which is a tragedy only to some of us (The Life of Brian, Religulous, the Bible); humanity (where to start? Perhaps Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, or the Bible, again.)

If Henri Bergson is right and laughter doesn’t exist outside the pale of what is strictly human; and if, as he says, its natural environment is society, then shouldn’t this be a time of rolling in the aisles clutching our stomachs in uncontrollable mirth? Because what could be more human than this human-all-too-human epoch?

            If we really want to be un-civilised, as the Dark Mountain people advise, we are going to have to laugh. At all of it. Laughing and joke-making are indispensable to any un-civilising project. Laughter is subversive and cocks a snook at all that risible seriousness. If we can’t laugh at this, then what have we done but add another sacred cow to the herd? Placed another gaudy plastic idol carefully on the mantel? Take gods, for instance. (I wish someone would take them all.) We’re not supposed to laugh at the gods, to mock them and say rude things about them, to take their names in vain or make jokes at their expense. Despite being omnipotent, they’re apparently very sensitive to common ridicule — and in that, they’re a lot like us. (And we, of course, are a lot like them.) But we should mock them, and so we do. I’m sure they’d mock us if they knew how to laugh. The only thing the Christian god seems to find funny is the sight of the wicked on their way to eternal damnation — a real thigh slapper, apparently: “The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming.” (Psalms, 37:12-13) That’s some serious schadenfreude, right there. Still, if it’s good enough for a god to find our imminent destruction laughable, why shouldn’t we? (And just what is that Laughing Buddha laughing about anyway?)

We need to be belittled by laughter. We need to be made fun of. We need to step back and look at ourselves sitting in our patches of preserved nature — the ones we’ve fenced off as reminders — wallowing in self-pity, guilt, fear, hopelessness, arrogance, and to let out a whoop. A giant cackle. We need to watch ourselves taking our mournful photographs, writing our tragic poems, lamenting that our child might never see a moose (because there are too many children like our child) and bust a gut at the ridiculousness of it all. We owe it to everything we are destroying, including ourselves, to make a mockery of the egotism that led us here. We need to prick our own balloon, not keep blowing into it.

It isn’t about coming up with gags, though gags are good (A quagga, a passenger pigeon and a Tasmanian tiger walked into a bar…). It’s about adopting a deflated and deflating attitude. Consider the polypropylene front lawn designed to resemble living grass, on which lies a squashed Coke can. Only one of these things is considered litter. Is that a tragedy or a comedy? If you are primed to see the ridiculous in much of what we call civilisation, it will soon look pretty funny. As it should. I had a neighbour who laid concrete where grass had once been. He painted it green and “mowed” it. I laughed at him to myself as I walked around on my lovely soft lawn made of well-bred, well-cultivated, well-watered, well-fertilised, well-trimmed grass that felt like a carpet under my feet. And I saw him laughing at me. Lawn humour is everywhere in this tragedy, if only you look at things a certain way.

The pratfall approach might also be instructive in this situation. Doesn’t this whole “shit in your own nest until it’s uninhabitable” shtick resemble a big steaming pratfall? It’s certainly humiliating enough. (You did what to the planet?) “Doubtless a fall is always a fall,” Bergson wrote of the pratfall. “But it is one thing to tumble into a well because you were looking anywhere but in front of you, it is quite another thing to fall into it because you were intent upon a star.” Doesn’t that star-gazer sound a lot like us? And aren’t we falling into a deep dark well? (Abyss might be a better word.) Even funnier, though, is that what we’re intent upon gazing at isn’t a star at all, but our own glistering navels.

If we can’t Laugh in the Dark, doesn’t it mean we haven’t managed to tear our eyes away from ourselves? That we’re still intent upon our belly buttons as we spin downwards? At some point, won’t we realise we’re just not that interesting?

There are lots of theories about humour. Bergson had one. As did Aristotle, Plato, Freud. Even Kant, infamous in 18th century Königsberg for his bawdy jokes. More recently, there’s that slew of 21st century professionals who call themselves philosophers. The paper version of the Collier Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy (mine is a 1972 reprint) tries to pick apart what’s funny, and organise the parts into theories. Of which there are three: the Superiority Theory, the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. (Are you laughing yet?) Only a philosopher could make the study of funniness so grindingly grim, or, as E.B. White put it: “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it”. Reading the accounts of The Three Theories of Humour, I more-than-half wondered if this deadly-dull analysis wasn’t deliberate deadpanning; if the philosophers weren’t providing us with self-referential examples of what the Encyclopedia describes as “anything masquerading as something it’s not” or “nonsense”. “It has also been suggested,” the Encyclopedia says, “that humor derives from ambivalent feelings, in which attraction and repulsion are both present.” Check, check and check.

I also wondered which of the three might best apply to Laughing in the Dark. Probably the Relief Theory according to which “the mention of the (conventionally) unmentionable is in itself a sufficient cause of laughter”. The example given by the Encyclopedia is the “sexual impulse”, not ecocide, but still “(conventionally) unmentionable” seems right. And it really is pretty funny that we and our gods are much more interested in who’s acting on their “sexual impulse”, and with whom, than we are in ecocide. Fucking each other is far more important than fucking the planet. Which brings us slap-bang into the Incongruity Theory, where humour “results from bringing together two things normally kept in separate compartments of our mind”. Sex and ecological suicide! A guaranteed side-splitter.

My time skimming through unfunny analyses of what’s funny (do “philosophers” have special senses of humour, like gods do?) suggests women aren’t good at comedy, since they rarely rate a mention. Which is funny, because I’ve always thought women had more reason to crack jokes and laugh than men do. Men, after all, take themselves very seriously (Exhibit A being their serious discussions of “humour”) and they have historically considered women a bit of a joke, albeit not the funny kind of joke. I’ve also suspected women either laugh less or (and the following is the more likely) laugh less around men. Come to think of it, how can we take Bergson seriously about being funny when he asks this (seriously): “Why does one laugh at a negro?” He then tries to answer (seriously): “I rather fancy the correct answer was suggested to me one day in the street by an ordinary cabby, who applied the expression ‘unwashed’ to the negro fare he was driving. Unwashed! Does not this mean that a black face, in our imagination, is one daubed over with ink or soot?”

In the end, these Very Serious, dry, unedifying, uninteresting and sometimes racist and sexist theories are fine as far as they go. Except that they don’t go anywhere, and they’re no use if you’re trying to work out how to Laugh in the Dark. For that, we need something new. An unprecedented humour for unprecedented times.

Let’s begin by taking as given that we are not worth saving. That we should not be saved. And, of course, that we cannot be saved. Let’s wonder where that might lead us in the fields of laughter. And don’t worry that laughing may seem unfair on all the creatures we are taking down with us. In fact, the opposite is true. Laughing in the Dark is about being disrespectful, insulting and flippant about us, not them. They don’t care if we laugh or not, and to imagine they would, to imagine it matters to them, is to — yet again — put ourselves at the centre of it all. (It’s not self-consciousness that we have, it’s selfish-consciousness, which might amount to the same thing, philosophically speaking.) You could say the question of whether we can come up with some rollicking Dark Laughter is a test of whether we are capable of letting go of our self-importance.

Some say art is what sets us apart. Art is what might save us, or at least make our self-destruction comprehensible and tolerable. But art is what convinces us we are something worth revering and saving, over and above the rest of nature. That we should leave eternal time capsules dotted around the Earth containing our best paintings and symphonies and poems (and jokes?), just in case something else comes along some day that might appreciate us. And all without laughing at the irony of capsules celebrating our achievements, one of which turned out not to be survival. Laughing in the Dark is art’s antidote. It bears repeating that the ones who take themselves the most seriously are the ones who can’t laugh, like (some) philosophers, (all) gods, (most of) humanity.

Here I must apologise, however, for demanding Dark Laughter without providing any. It’s just that I’m not a comic. And I haven’t advanced past lawn humour. I was trying to come up with a funny end-of-days story just this week, but lawn humour intervened yet again. I was on my way to the post office, trying to think as I walked, when I noticed a woman out on her lawn plucking out all the plucky little dandelion flowers that had poked their heads above the perfectly mown grass. Their bright yellow bobbing little heads were ruining … something. A bugs-eye-view? I’m not sure why lawn humour seeks me out like this, it just does, and so I started laughing. A few hundred yards farther down the street, there was a young man out in the parking lot behind a local burger joint wearing a backpack spraying unit squirting at the plucky little “weeds” that had forced their way up through the cracks in the concrete. Here, tending to the grass, watering it, fertilising it, posting it with protective “keep off” signs; there, plucking it, spraying it, pulling it out by its roots.

How can we not see the hilarity in this obsession of ours with everything in its place and a place for everything? Even grass. I know, I know, it’s all part of our need to stay in control. It’s not “man’s search for meaning” that’s most meaningful, it’s “man’s search for control”. I suspect we’re all actually a bit sad we’ve been so successful at it, even as we keep working to make it absolute. And isn’t that one of the possibly amusing things about ecocide: its out-of-controlness; our quest for absolute control being at the root of our absolute loss of control? It’s as good a cosmic joke as you’ll find anywhere.

Anyway, I continued on my well-controlled journey (I don’t pretend for a second I’m not part of all this!) and saw weed pluckers and grass trimmers and hedge clippers and lawn sprinklers everywhere. Trees shaped like corkscrews, bushes like beach balls on sticks, lawns like pool tables, flowers and shrubs in military procession, all requiring constant vigilance, attention, a workforce, an industry.  And don’t think this herculean effort isn’t also required of polypropylene lawns. They need to be swept and vacuumed regularly, and — this might surprise you — they are not immune to “weeds”. There’s a “weedy” fake lawn about seven doors down from where I live: the faded flattened poly green dotted with gnarly splotches of straw-coloured grass. Which made me wonder if this might not be an opportunity for some eager entrepreneurial type, of which I’m not. Since we do like making our fake stuff look “natural” and “real” and “life-like”, maybe “artificial weeds” could become a thing. Maybe those were artificial weeds. See how it all gets so philosophical so quickly: what’s real, what’s fake, what’s funny, what’s serious. You gotta laugh, because what else can you do? If you didn’t laugh, you’d be weeping.


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