‘So far as a thing is universal it is serious,’ GK Chesterton wrote in 1915. ‘And so far as a thing is universal it is full of comic things.’
There’s nothing fundamentally comic in anything, of course – just as there’s nothing in anything that is fundamentally sad, or embarrassing, or ironic, or irritating, or delightful. These qualities are the products of the (fizzing, fulminating) reactions that occur when the universe comes into contact with our humanity.
These are reactions that give off a sort of light, composed of a spectrum – or maybe it would be better to say that they make a noise, a chord composed of many notes. This is one way of thinking of the writer’s voice, that hard-to-get-a-hold-on expressive force that, as Philip Roth wrote, ‘begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head’.
Problems happen – something important is lost – when a writer tries to mute a note in the chord. The voice is not so much weakened as stripped of its essential character; it is put at risk of failing the Turing Test that a reader unconsciously runs whenever they flip open a book: ‘Hmm, the words all seem to be in the right order, the sentences all follow on – but was this really written by a human?’
Whatever humanity is, I think humour is at the heart of it. By ‘humour’ I don’t mean a knack for gags and one-liners, and I don’t mean the sort of ghastly levity that gets a phrase lumbered with ‘joc.’ in dictionaries. I mean, at bottom, the ability to laugh, and mean it.
One of my favourite responses to the question ‘what makes us human?’ was formulated by the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. ‘Man, they say, is a reasoning animal,’ he wrote. ‘And yet what differentiates us from other animals is perhaps feeling rather than reason. I have seen a cat reason more often than laugh or weep. Perhaps it laughs or weeps within itself – but then perhaps within itself a crab solves equations of the second degree.’
Writing without humour is like boxing with one hand tied behind your back. It’s a compromise that can be fatal for a writer’s work.
Many, of course, have done perfectly well in spite of being dubbed ‘humourless’ (as Andre Malraux was by Edmund Wilson, as James Buchan was by Martin Amis, as Theodore Dreiser was by everybody – there’s a moment in one of Woody Allen’s private-eye spoofs where the hero sedates a guard-dog by feeding it ‘hamburger with a novel by Dreiser ground up in it’).
For me, though, a work that lacks humour also lacks a great deal more: a sense of broad-mindedness, of perspective, of self-awareness. It doesn’t mean that the writer doesn’t have these things – only that they’ve chosen to conceal them from the reader. Why would they do that?
In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby tries to explain exactly why, as a boy, he developed such a deeply passionate devotion to football. ‘I don’t think I was very happy,’ he recalls, ‘and the problem with being a thirteen-year-old depressive is that when the rest of life is so uproarious, which it invariably is, there is no suitable context for the gloom. How can you express misery when people keep making you snigger all the time?’
I don’t think this problem is exclusive to thirteen-year-olds. We all sometimes feel, I think, that if we’re being made to laugh we’re being cheated out of our hard-earned woe (at the state of society, at a bereavement, at whatever). So, as writers, do we insist on our unhappiness being ring-fenced (writing a book gives us the oh-so-tempting opportunity to do so), or do we frankly address the realities of what being human means, sniggering and all? (An interesting comparison could be made here between two recent novels about – among other things – grief, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing and Carys Bray’s A Song For Issy Bradley.)
It seems that, for some writers, laughter has a cheapening, trivialising quality. At which point we should return to Chesterton, who expended more thought and ink on this topic than perhaps anyone else.
‘Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else,’ he wrote in All Things Considered. ‘The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression.’
The deployment of humour in writing is often discussed in terms of its effects – the way in which it provides dramatic contrast, for instance, or by satirising helps to cut a monstrous idea down to size – and of course it can do these things. But to discuss it in these terms is, I think, to miss the point. Humour isn’t like a new character or plot device you introduce to a story; humour is already there, was there when you started, a fundamental component of the human voice, immanent as the fat in milk.
The writer as encountered on the page, of course, can quite legitimately be a very different creature to the same writer as encountered in the flesh. Ink has considerable transformative power; we can – in my view, should – make free use of it. But the same voice, the same human voice, should come through.
Because writing – especially fiction writing – is performative, because the fiction writer is a character actor, the temptation is always there to strike a pose and hold it; to look searchingly into the eyes of Yorick’s skull and stroke one’s false beard, resolutely po-faced, determinedly solemn, monolithically serious – and inhumanly one-dimensional.
Much better to stare into the void and wink, as Robert Frost does in his short poem ‘Desert Places’. It’s superficially a deeply mournful piece: a lonely man considers the falling snow, an empty meadow, and the vast, desolate vacancies of outer space. But he concludes: ‘They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars – on stars where no human race is.’ That terrible rhyme, ‘spaces’ with ‘race is’, recalls Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ and is Frost’s half-smiling aside to the reader, a nudge in the ribs. It says: sure, I’m having some pretty heavy thoughts here – but look, I’m still me.
There are some writers, I think, who seek to freeze out the human note, who insist on maintaining the deadpan, because it conflicts with a rather Romantic notion of how a writer ought to be. Reverence – for landscape, for love, for beauty – is their keynote (not for nothing did the critic TE Hulme call Romanticism ‘spilt religion’); the exclusivity of heightened sensibility – revelation, if you like – comes before common humanity.
Which is a shame, because all writing – if it’s any good – confers exclusivity on its author. Good writing is always unique; accommodating a degree of sniggering can only make it more so. But that’s a very democratic sort of exclusivity, the kind that anyone can achieve.
There’s a dialogue in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name Of The Rose that sets out, eloquently and at length, the case for humour, and the case against. The plot of the novel revolves around a ‘lost’ book by Aristotle – on comedy.
The monstrous priest Jorge has made it his life’s work to conceal the book.
‘Before [Aristotle],’ he laments, ‘we used to look to heaven, deigning only a frowning glance at the mire of matter; now we look at the earth, and we believe in the heavens because of earthly testimony.
‘[Laughter is] an instrument against the seriousness of the spiritual shepherds who must lead them to eternal life and rescue them from the seductions of belly, pudenda, food, their sordid desires. You are worse than the Devil,’ Jorge tells his nemesis, William of Baskerville. ‘You are a clown.’
‘Comedy does not tell of famous and powerful men, but of base and ridiculous creatures, though not wicked,’ Baskerville replies. ‘It achieves the effect of the ridiculous by showing the defects and vices of ordinary men.’
We are all ordinary people. As such, humour – whatever form it takes – is as essential to us as the water in our bodies and the blood in our veins. The stories that we have to tell about ourselves and our world can’t be told honestly if that one note in the human chord goes unplayed.