Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

When it comes to humour, we live in funny times

Every writer with a new book to peddle knows the drill: put together 10 to 15 minutes of what will work best as spoken-word material in preparation for the readings one will be expected to give while out on the publicity circuit. What works most effectively live, I've found, is plenty of dialogue combined with a few choice passages illustrating one's hopefully unique way with the shaping and saying of the English language. Conversely, what rarely works in front of an audience is irony. Better your chances of charming a skeptical crowd of would-be book buyers with potentially alienating scenes of sex and violence and the repeated use of profane language than to ask one's listeners to understand that the narrative voice to which they're listening is not to be taken at all times 100-per-cent literally. And double the prospective trouble if your narrator is even slightly less than wholly reliable.

What most of the recent to-censor or not-to-censor brouhaha surrounding Mark Knopfler's song Money for Nothing fails to uncover is that humour and its prized offspring, irony, are literature's primary instruments of genuine exploration. Blunt literalness is fine for schoolchildren, who need to be clearly instructed that race and sexual orientation aren't how we should identify individuals, but the twin scalpel blades of humour and irony are needed to dissect, for instance, the more adult concern of why this is unfortunately so often not the case.

Eudora Welty's powerful short story, Where is the Voice Coming From?, is a fictional account of the assassination of the African-American civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The story is narrated by the white assassin who is illiterate, staggeringly ignorant and, naturally, prone to use the "N-word." To the literal-minded reader, it's a repugnant, 3,000-word free-associative monologue of hate; to the reader tuned in to the unreliable narrator's contradictions (and, in essence, unconscious confessions), it expertly illuminates the socio-economic roots of racism to which everyone is capable of succumbing (in this case, a narrator who feels paranoiacally threatened by a perceived loss in social status and the shift in power between the white and black races, underscored by the burgeoning civil-rights movement). "Art is news that stays news," Ezra Pound contended. Factual reports of what happened or why they should or should not have happened - no matter how well intended - are tomorrow's blue-bin recyclables.

Story continues below advertisement

Of course, to register the emotional truth of a deluded, unreliable narrator such as Welty's, or even the deceptively gentle humour of a pioneering ironist like Mark Twain (another Mark whose critics have wanted his work banned) means that the reader must do more than simply listen to what is literally said. For the poet and critic Al Alvarez, to truly appreciate - and therefore understand - a work of literature is "not about [gleaning]information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures." It's "about listening to a voice … unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way." It's about "hearing the tones and overtones and changes of pitch, as absorbed and alert as if [the reader]and the writer were in conversation together." If this doesn't sound like the level of listening-cum-reading that goes on at the average book club, you're right. So much the worse for the average book club.

"The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter," Mark Twain wrote. One of the things that this weapon - and its chief ally, irony - are especially good for is providing us with perspective, never a particular strength of homo sapiens, especially if one has been drinking a lot of coffee and it's four o'clock in the morning. A pleasing consequence of the humility gained from humour or irony's broad perspective is a tendency to undercut fundamentalism of all kinds: religious, political, moral. "I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humour," Amos Oz observed in his aptly titled How to Cure a Fanatic. "[N]r have I ever seen a person with a sense of humour become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humour." And this is because, Oz continues, "Humour contains the ability to laugh at ourselves. Humour is relativism, humour is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humour is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side of life that is always a bit funny."

Milan Kundera claimed that he could always tell if a person was an undercover member of the Czech Communist Party by whether they had a good sense of humour. I tend to use the same litmus test when determining whether someone I meet might become a friend. Or whether a book or a song or a poem or a film that comes my way is worth my paying attention.

Contributing reviewer Ray Robertson's most recent novel is David. A collection of essays, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, will be published in the fall.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.