Rent on the Battlefield
April 30, 2012 § 3 Comments
Although I tried last week to describe how a sense of humor is essential for approaching matters of grave importance, I don’t want to imply it is our only tool for dealing with them. In my experience—or maybe just when wielded by me—humor is an imprecise instrument, great for honing in on an area of importance but rarely of much use for fine discernment or description. For instance, I’m currently working on a semi-satirical erotic thriller and have been letting my sense of humor guide me towards my theme, trusting that the funniest parts will be the ones that best explore the reality of coming of age sexual anxieties. But while my quest for nervous laughs has brought me to scenes about the fragility and volatility of our physical bodies and the dangers of intimacy, it hasn’t given me anything to say about them. Once I’ve found the important subjects, it is something else that guides my writing: sometimes it is what I think is logical, but more often it comes from the felt experiences of my own life and the mechanisms of plot.
Serious logic alone just doesn’t seem like any surer guide than humor; while it feels more precise on the small scale, its details exaggerate its exactness. Without a big, fuzzy sense of the whole, it is possible for this exactitude to lead us down narrowing tunnels further and further from the truth. From the inside, every well-reasoned argument is truthful—but there is probably another sober argument that proves the exact opposite just as indisputably. This is nowhere more evident than when two pundits face-off on TV, both deadly certain about their thin strand of argument; they can fight over the reasoning of each others proofs, but it is always a larger, unspoken given that really divides them, so what is the point of taking it so seriously?
While there are many wonderful examples of humor skewering the supposed strength of seriousness, I don’t think anyone has done it better or more systematically than the Marx brothers. Take for example Duck Soup, where the comedy explores the grave spread of fascism in the 20’s and 30’s, an era of even viler (ands more self-serious) punditry; the Marx brothers, too, ask what is the point of all this seriousness? When Groucho, as the dictator of Freedonia, is asked by his enemy for peace, he replies, “It’s too late: I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield,” and we laugh at the familiar way that political arguments detach from reality to perpetuate themselves. But further, many cultural studiers (such as Jorn K. Bramann in this article) have pointed out, the Marx brothers’ fracturing puns are the narrative equivalent of cubist painting, their dismantled logic making even the simplest communication impossible.
Many see this as an ultimately nihilistic world-view, where even the simple foundations of causality are said to be nothing–but I don’t agree. Their films aren’t a description of reality or a philosophical tract, but an exploration, and by destroying logic in favor of puns, they show how unlivable and pointless an existence governed by humor alone would be. I’d be just as frightened to live in Freedonia as Glen Beck’s America.
Neither humor nor seriousness is enough alone: creation easily contains both and more. To even begin to understand and appreciate life, we must never let the battle between them end.