Why I laughed while being harried by an Internet-calibre critic.
While being harried by an Internet harpy recently, I either coincidentally or supernaturally stumbled upon some verse composed by Linda Lightfoot(1). Her work greatly amused me given my circumstances, upon which her little poems shed a light that confirmed my innate sense of superiority. For instance, in her poem about witches she says:
Three women that I know of
Proclaim themselves as witches,
One's a Harley biker chick
And two are just plain bitches."
I like the way she closes the poem, although I doubt both of her statements are true :
I feel bad for witches,
Not ridicule or hate.
They're following this lifestyle
Cuz they cannot get a date.
In 'The Truth About Me', I was pleased to hear Lightfoot state:
I don't like okra,
I don't like fleas,
I don't like people
Who don't like me.
I know what she means. I might like someone who writes a poem about her bathroom experience, but the liking certainly ends when she starts castigating me for writing "lengthy" and "tedious" ruminations about my metaphysical experiences in my garret.
Lightfoot's poems enlightened me on certain existential points I felt sure many of us have in common. Therefore it occurred to me that her medicine might be needed by other afflicted souls, especially by those who are besieged with lousy E-mail jokes forwarded by friends to their entire mailing list because friends do not have much to say for themselves nowadays, having been rendered nearly imbecilic by the trash littering the Information Highway.
Why not, I thought, take revenge on this foul and foolish forwarding system? Why not forward some of Lightfoot's poems to all the boxes of the habitual mail forwarders? People might take notice of her irreverent, politically incorrect wares, and suddenly experience the lightness of her being and the wit of her witchery, and start dancing fancy and footloose again.
Irreverent jokes can serve the cause of freedom a cause too many people talk about today but never serve. Dictatorships require blind obedience. Jokes are rebellious. Some jokes constitute high treason. Hitler set up joke courts to punish people for naming their dogs and horses "Adolph". Perhaps it is high time to start laughing at the fascists who rule our world today. Most people do not even know who the fascists are, or that we live in a fascist state, now that Hitler's propaganda methods are nearly perfected. Maybe Lightfoot could point them out to us and poke some fun at their totalitarian methods. In that case, we will be better prepared to place a foot up their colossal ass.
But that might be asking too much of our poet. Still, in those sordid details of personal life that are minor but still plague us to death, she might bring some comic relief to millions if only we can get her pumping out the funny stuff everyday.
Of course, there would be some powerful critics blocking Linda's path to success. That brings to mind the tremendously successful newspaper poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox; her sentiments and moral platitudes provided inspiration to millions of housewives, many of them sentenced to lives of drudgery under the kings of the respective castles. Ella enraged the high-brow male critics with her feminine sentimentality; but her unpardonable sin was becoming extremely successful where success in business was a man's job. Ah, how professional critics tend to sneer at success when they have failed at everything except at raising dead poets and at putting living ones down for succeeding; to make matters worse, bad critics are bores with no sense of humor at all! As for feminine sentimentality, the male critics in those days and for decades thereafter were closeted queens dying to come out: witness how they denied Edna St. Vincent Millay the First Prize, with all her sentiment, because they said only a man could have written such a fine poem. Imbeciles!
However, Ella and Edna were no jokesters, which brings us back to Linda Lightfoot. Although Linda might acquire a vast audience, might not her humor do more harm than good? Jokes in the broad sense, not only those narratives with a humorous climax, are put-downs, are they not? No matter how subtle, they are really malicious, are they not? As for jokes in the narrower sense, they make more obvious the intent of all jokers: a joke must have a punch-line. That is, we are engaged in boxing here, the delivery of punches, knock-outs, and so forth, a vulgar, bruising, scarring process that might result in premature dementia or even death. Or worse, someone might pull a blade and go for the jugular.
Note well here that in primitive times, hand to hand combat was unnecessary: satire was a magic curse that, when performed rightly, could kill a man at a distance. Invective poems were ritual curses originally meant to have a disastrous effect on inimical forces.
Punch line indeed! What a big thing that has become in all walks of life today, whether tragic or comic. One of the critical magpies raised by a psittaceous flock was recently following me around asking, "Where is the punch line? Where is the punch line? Where is the punch line?" One of my stories did have a punch line because the protagonist delivered it at the end. Hence the magpie harped, "I don't get the punch line. I don't get the punch line. I don't get the punch line."
I usually don't get the punch line either, especially those low blows that wind up dirty jokes and racists jokes. I like funny sexual allusions and puns but I am simply not trained to jump through filthy hoops or leap to hateful conclusions. Besides, I think life, including its written form, should be a never-ending conversation that always leaves a life raft or a log for someone to climb upon and continue on down the stream. So my conclusions, if there are any, may seem forced ones, painfully made just prior to the expiration of my articles. In most cases, my writing tends to go on and on, as the magpies on shore keep carping "Keep it short. Keep it short. Keep it short."
But go ahead; keep the punch lines, for jokes do need them. I spoke of them to illustrate the apparent tendency of humor in general to elevate oneself at the expense of others, which is something many humorists would ardently deny while making jests about those asserting it. Take Thomas Hobbes for instance, the philosopher famous for saying life is a war of all against all. He rendered his well-reasoned conclusion on the true nature of humor, as follows:
"All passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminence in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others or with (ourselves) 'formerly'. Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter, and is caused by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves."
Before we laugh at Hobbes, we should study his works and admit to the fact of his wisdom regarding many things although not all. Another philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, disagreed with Hobbes' opinion on our instant subject, and gave his introduction to Hobbes' theory thus: "Mr. Hobbes. who very much owes his character of a philosopher to his assuming positive solemn airs, which he uses most when he is going to assert some palpable absurdity, or some ill-natured nonsense, assures us that [Hobbes' theory here stated]..."
Hutcheson went on to say that Hobbes and the modern philosophers of selfishness were ill-natured and plainly wrong. He refutes Hobbes, citing parody and burlesque as ways of making fun of things we really hold dear. For example, we can love Shakespeare, make fun of his style, and then go back to taking him seriously. In my opinion, Hutcheson's behavior does more to affirm Hobbes' theory than to disprove it, and Hobbes' theory still stands as the main one today among about seven-hundred and twenty- three other theories. This is my estimate, which allows for inflation since 1923, when Professor J.Y.T. Grieg counted eighty-eight different theories. The great Sigmund Freud, for example, said there were two types of wit: one, tendency-wit directed at objects; two, harmless wit without an object. He provided no example of the latter.
By the way, Plato abjured laughing, saying it was confusing and that it weakens the mind and the character. Welcome to the Republic.
Maybe I am getting too serious here, raising dead philosophers (they are not really dead, but I will not go into that here). Since humor tends to make broad generalizations in order to transcend the dirty details, it would appear that philosophy is akin to comedy. I do take it seriously myself, but wiser men than me have said philosophy is a big joke on us all, much nonsense made from common sense.
Excuse me; I hear my own magpies crying for a conclusion, so I'd better get to one pretty soon.
Linda Lightfoot made me laugh at my harpies and magpies, therefore in my own selfish interest I'm going to side with her and with wit in general. She certainly does not need my permission to poke fun at people, and even at me and my friends, some of whom are witches and bitches, providing she keeps it anonymous.
I believe laughter is a way of feeling good about oneself, of being pleased with getting what one wants. Babies when afraid smile and gurgle when their mothers appear. Infants smile when they win and so do adults. Humor is a way of winning without having to fight: it is often better to laugh than to fight.
I believe racial jokes are deplorable but, as hostility reduced to play, they are much better than pogroms. A symbolic triumph is superior to a concentration camp.
I believe laughing at others is not necessarily an expression of hatred but may be used to cement the fellowship of insiders while outsiders are actually liked.
I believe good humor can heal both physical and mental illnesses by liberating the afflicted persons from their identification with their ailments. And it allows us to function in critical situations such as surgery, emergencies, wars, and so on.
I believe we should keep in mind that our "innocent" jokes can be cruel, and that our claim to innocence is simply a denial that we are, to a certain extent, brutes.
I believe humor is a powerful weapon in our arsenal against brainwashing, political correctness, the shackles of logic, moral prudery and tyranny, and rigid thinking in general: where thought seeks to kill, laughter brings life.
I believe we should laugh for freedom, and not to merely put someone down just because she or he stands out from the crowd. But we should always laugh at dictators who would steal our freedom.
I believe we should laugh for the hell of it. That might seem absurd, but life itself can be absurd and futile, calling for some gallows humor. Sometimes it seems to me that anyone in their right mind would commit suicide, so long as we stick around for this madness, we might as well get a kick out of it.
I believe we should laugh because we are superior and damn proud of it. We should gladly put the worst aspects of ourselves down, and do our best to include ourselves in our jokes. For example, since I have been making fun of birds lately, I must, in one of my rare attempts to be a gentleman, confess that I was born in the Year of the Rooster: fortunately, we Roosters have very few weaknesses; we prefer to back down at the last minute rather than physically hurt someone; but be careful, we are notorious for our satires, and we hate to apologize 'tho we wish we could.
I do realize there are seriously inclined people who do not need laughter and gaiety to draw a high opinion of themselves. They have no urge to humiliate anyone except themselves, or so they think. May God bless them, but the Devil will probably take them before She does, because their saintly seriousness makes their life a huge joke on them. They are like those witches of Linda's:
They talk about their altars
And spells and incantations
And casting nasty curses
On future generations.
Yes indeed, I am going to send out some of Lightfoot's light-hearted poems to the E-mail carrier pigeons and see what happens. I just hope she does not get caught with her foot in her mouth.
(1) The verse quoted above appeared at the now defunct Themestream.com website. Copyrighted (c) 2000 Linda Lightfoot. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from its author.