Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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August 10, 2009
What's so funny about Wille, Macht und Übermenschen?

Simon Critchley has a newly republished essay about humor.

His funniest line in it, TiR thinks, is this one:
[O]ne must obviously acknowledge the extraordinary difficulty of writing anything interesting, let alone funny, about comedy.

The essay appears in one of these new Radical Thinkers volumes. The title is (no joke): "Comedy and Finitude: Displacing the Tragic-Heroic Paradigm in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis." The book was published originally in 1999.

Perhaps the most important historical development between then and now, for purposes of appreciation of Critchley's essay, is the invention of YouTube (b. 2005). Its invention enables today's reader to use it to look up examples of what Critchley tells us he finds funny. This includes comedy by Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper, Tony Hancock and the National Theatre of Brent.

Along the way, Critchley throws in his second funniest knee-slapper (though he notes the line to be Hegel's), about man as an "amphibious" creature. The essay also includes the inevitable product placement coincidential reference to another work that just happens to be for sale in the new series of Radical Thinkers philosophical crack rocks volumes.

He sets up an opposition between two types of humor. One type, for which Critchley is not so hot, "is a manic laughter: solitary, hysterical, verging on sobbing. This is the ego bloated and triumphant in empty solitude." TiR won't name names, but is on record from last summer suggesting that it finds the master of this type of humor to be, in his own way, pretty funny.

Then there is humor type # 2, "which is more sardonic and which arises out of a palpable sense of inability, inauthenticity, impotence and impossibility." It "introduces some humility into the subject. . . . a radical abasement of the subject that requires a new form of acknowledgment, but whose effect is not depressive, but liberating, elevating" and even a "site of resistance," critique and the "solidaristic."

So the reader is told:
[T]o live between two deaths is not to live tragically, but is perhaps the life of comedy, where finitude is not something to be affirmed by the tragic hero, but comically acknowledged.

[The preceding sentence reminds TiR of the funniest proto-joke it found when it braved the entirety of an old collection of Yeats plays, this past spring:
[Y]ou stand there, so to speak, between two washings; for you were doubtless washed when you were born, and, it may be, shall be washed again after you are dead.

from "The Player Queen" (1922) (full text herein)

cf.: "Astride of a grave and a difficult birth."]

Ultimately, however, we think that Critchley, amidst a few digressions, really means to pose the following mysterious but burning question:

                                    Who is funnier, Zarathustra or Harpo Marx?

(We would like to read him also to offer an intermediate choice: Johannes Climacus.)