Propriety and Humour

The morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium - Oscar Wilde
I read a well-written review of a new book on Wodehouse's letters.

The writer had covered his controversial broadcasts on German Radio and how what he did was typical of his way of dealing with world - by refusing to grow-up.

But even that, at some level, seemed to rescue him and deliver him into a 'he was above all this' type of goodness. While that is a useful and necessary reaction to the accusations, on absolute terms, I thought the restoration was still on the terms of those who made the accusations.


It is surprising how much a humourist is pilloried for insensitivity when that indeed IS his trade. Looking at the world at an angle and flatly refusing to engage with reality in its own terms is what enables him to cause the 'benign violations' in the first place.

Pray, in what world/times would humour be permissible? When are we ever without violence,cruelty and suffering? It is the earmarking of subjects and times as inappropriate which I find insensitive. Insensitive to the fact that what they think is permissible humour is also cruel - but it doesn't strike them to be so.

Next only to them, are those who ascribe a social function to humour (eg. gradually lowers the limit the of acceptability, ingenious method of loosening the grip of convention, punctures self-importance etc.). Nothing wrong as such, except that, having said that they promptly forget that this is just an analysis of an existing phenomenon - humour - and not a justification for its existence. Most such analysis invariably end with palpably smug satisfaction of rescuing humour by ascribing some social utility to it.

There is little difference between such people and those who insist on humour with a message. The former may consider themselves aesthetically refined and hate didacticism in humour, that the latter group relishes. But the difference is only by a question of degree.

They appreciate humour for 'biting sarcasm' or they atleast want to be able to say the clichéd 'a much needed relief in the dark times'. All within their current framework! They find it unfathomable that someone they like could possibly not share their social concerns.

Now, am I unruffled because my appreciation has little do with my social concerns or because I share his (alleged) apathy about the larger questions of life.

Hmm..Let me believe it is the former.

Comments

  1. A writer who doesn't display any social concern is bound to be called a parasite, including, but not limited to, by those who don't read/understand his writings. A writer is expected to be an activist...

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  2. I consciously avoided generalizing to all writers so as to not bite off more than I can chew. Humourists were my 'low hanging fruit', in terms of, ease of exposing the absurdity of such expectations.

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  3. And I've should have said humourist, which is what I meant. :-)

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  4. Thanks for sharing the link to a review of PG Wodehouse's letters. Believe it or not, I have yet to read a single work of his (somehow missed the Wodehouse (band)wagon, growing up), but quite enjoyed the review (as anyone who's a sucker for writer-to-writer vitriol/fanmail would). My favorite takeaway from the review:

    Whether these letters, and the story they tell, will make you sad, or whether they will make you cheer, perhaps depends in the long run less on what you think of [the writer] than on what you believe about the disparities between [his] perceptions and something called “reality”.

    Now, to your point about a humourist being "pilloried [by the public] for insensitivity," do you think it could be that the said public may (more often than not) misconstrue the employment of irony -- a humorist's stock of trade -- as "insensitivity"?

    Also, I was a bit unclear on what you mean in the penultimate para. "Now, am I unruffled because"... Unruffled by what? Or do you mean "ruffled", as in "bothered" by these two disparate schools of humor appreciators that you've described here? Pliss to explain.

    P.S: BTW, I was watching (the first half of) Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal yesterday (yes, for the first time, and no, wonders never cease!) and voila, you change your DP to Janakaraj today! Janakaraj vibes are surely in the air. :)

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  5. "It is the earmarking of subjects and times as inappropriate which I find insensitive" - I totally agree with this. I am yet to get why certain subjects are ok, but others are not. All humor arises from making fun of someone or something, and being told "don't be insensitive" for certain kinds of jokes, baffles me.

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  6. //do you think it could be that the said public may (more often than not) misconstrue the employment of irony -- a humorist's stock of trade -- as "insensitivity"?//

    No. That again is a bit of a 'rescue' argument. I am being more confrontation. Suppose he indeed was a monster, would that make him less funny?

    Why expect sharing of social concerns/decency in the first place, when funniness comes precisely from not approaching the world 'normally'.

    //Unruffled by what?//
    Unruffled by accusations of apathy. I admit it did not come across clearly.

    //All humor arises from making fun of someone or something, and being told "don't be insensitive" for certain kinds of jokes, baffles me. //
    One Short story plug

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  7. I have always believed that a joke, by definition, is *on* someone or something. If an attempt at humour fails to offend someone or something then it should be deemed, in a sense, a failure.

    Also, the redeeming social value of good humour has to be itself. We will leave the messaging part to the Thrukkurals on the MTC buses.

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  8. Thanks for the clarification.

    "Unruffled by accusations of apathy" -- spoken like a true art(ist)-lover, eh? :) Sure you don't want to change your post title to "Frankly, My Dear, I Don't Give a Damn"?

    But seriously, I'm no fan either of Society's selfish propensity to piggyback on the unsuspecting artist/humorist in a zombie-like bid to ameliorate its own woes, even as the latter f(l)ails, fabulously, to make sense of his. Agree with Balakumar too that the redeeming "social value" in humor is (or has to be) itself.

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