Seriousness

31 January 2010

So I’m still thinking about Dave Hickey’s response to the question, “Do you think humor’s a very important element of art?”:

DH: It would be if anybody could take a joke! Alec Waugh proposes “seriousness” as a form of infectious stupidity. I agree.

I.
On my new humorlessness, or:
How reading too much Borges doesn’t make you
into Borges, it makes you into Pierre Menard.

Somewhere along the line — I’m no longer sure when or how — I think I came to lose my sense of humor — or rather, my ability to write funny. This is what I used to do, how I used to define myself as a writer (I’m talking like, 13 years old). I wrote jokes, I made people laugh, this gave me a sense of purpose. I felt like I had an audience. I always wrote for someone else. I’ve always defined myself, like Didion or DeLillo, by how I could work through a sentence. And somewhere along the line, I stopped being  funny. Maybe this had to do with me feeling like I was ‘growing up’ — I think there’s probably a linear correlation you could draw between the humor sieving out of my work & me self-defining as an artist with the A capitalized. I don’t know. These days, when I write — let’s say, in a blog comment — I suddenly feel like I’m overdressed, wearing a too-tight rounded collar, earnest & boring, talking somebody’s ear off at a friend of a friends’ cocktail party, sweaty-palmed & too eager to make an impression. Picture those Spanish scholastics assembling elaborate systems of inquiry to determine the composition of the Throne of God or the ranks of the angels. All of the actual professors I know are funnier & more self-effacing than me, so the problem can’t be academic knowledge as such — it’s not as though, properly, you come to read Serious fiction and Borges causes you to Put Away Childish Things.

Probably part of this is that when I write I overdetermine my prose (“…a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish….”) — I’m not good at committing myself to mistakes, or wandering lines of inquiry. I don’t tend to go on & on; I underwrite instead. Most of rewriting for me is prying open my placid sentences & trying to inject some life into them, & most of what I write on my blog is first-draft stuff anyway, & so I sound more serious & self-important than I mean to.

II.
On being funny, or:
How to satirize a world that
bombs the moon for water.

Me aside, though, the rest of this is all tied up with the question of satire in a postmodern world, or the degree of engagement, or the extent to which you allow yourself to be earnest about something. I’m kind of thinking about typing this quotation out from an interview with Rebecca Solnit & taping it above my desk at home:

The challenge is how can you not be the moralizing, grandstanding beast of the baby boomers but not render yourself totally ineffectual and—the word that comes to mind is miniature. How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters? Humor matters here, and self-awareness, and the language of persuasion and inclusion rather than hectoring and sermonizing. You don’t have to be a preacher to talk about what matters, and you don’t have to drop the pleasures of style. If you can be passionate about, say, Russian dictionary entries from the early nineteenth century, can you work your way up to the reconstruction of New Orleans? And can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics?

What bedevils me, I’m tying to say, is the question of how one goes about making this stuff, where stuff is some value of work — fiction, performance, gallery art whatever — that engages with the world in a meaningful way & doesn’t dodge out. To set out to do something like that is maybe the wrong way to go about it (that is, you don’t sit down to write an Important Novel) — but somewhere along the line, maybe while you’re revising, you have to acknowledge a certain amount of ambition or earnestness, and this acknowledgment is inherently ridiculous. It is kind of silly, in either a despairing existential way — all’s dust — or a hardheaded, pragmatic way — how many people read literary fiction? — or in a purely formal way — here you are, sitting in a room & inventing people who talk to each other & worrying about whether they’re speaking correctly, and it all reminds me a little of that Vonnegut line about reviewers expressing rage & loathing for a novel being preposterous, “like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

The worrying thing for me is how to make it, which is sometimes superseded or confused by the usual preoccupation of, say, a literary review, which is usually more along the lines of, how do we judge this? Having critical training is nice, I guess, if you’re going to make something, but it’s not necessarily helpful while you’re working on draft no. 1.

How do you make this stuff? How funny can you be in these Times? — and I think by that I don’t mean, in these Serious, Serious times where we are presented by Serious issues, but rather in a climate where the thing to do is to be distantly ironic about everything —  because who knows what will happen next?

I mean, I did my high school senior thesis on satire, which I think is what started me getting earnest in the first place, because while satire may be funny, it’s funny in an earnest kind of way, it takes itself seriously enough to aim itself like a weapon, and how, for instance, do you satirize a world that bombs the moon for water? (this is scrawled in my notebook).

This is the problem, because even though Seriousness is probably a form of infectious stupidity, sure, ok (& look at the infectiousness of the Seriousness that’s driven us braying into all sorts of hysterics & barbarities, where not demonstrating the appropriate level of Seriousness disqualifies you from the debate) — but Funny can be an easy way out too.

Now that I think about it, that’s more or less the preoccupation of this essay by Chris Bachelder, which once you get past the table counting the number of exclamation points in Upton Sinclair’s OIL! is actually about the difficulty of satire & the ridiculousness of being earnest & the way you go about trying to negotiate a middle path, the difference being that it’s by someone who kept trying to be a comic writer, whereas I’m rearranging myself from the other end.

I’ll let Bachelder define the crux for me:

I guess one of the things I’m arguing here is that in wanting to engage the world but in reacting against the sincere, naïve, programmatic Novel of Exclamation Points, today’s satirists in fact often end up writing Novels of Wry Gags that are just as superficial, tendentious, and programmatic as a Sinclair novel. We’re no doubt funnier than the muckrakers. We’re more laid-back and resigned to global capitalism. For exclamation points substitute winks. We’re less politically astute and more comically and culturally astute. Despite a 180-degree tonal shift (and with notable exceptions), we really haven’t moved the political novel forward. The beginning of The Jungle is really good (remember? It’s the wedding party—a truly jubilant scene despite the fact (or perhaps because) the participants cannot afford it). The end of The Jungle (the socialist pamphlet part) is almost unreadably bad. It can certainly make you want to flee. But the danger is fleeing from one dead end to another dead end. Doctorow again, speaking of the politically sentimental writers of his childhood: “When it’s all toted up, it may turn out that we’ve written as badly in our time as they did in theirs.”

So. The problem is how to be ambivalent while holding convictions, or how to be earnest without being humorless, or how to be funny without being trite. And I’m writing this, I suppose, out of the feeling that — probably out of a Napoleon complex of short-statured blog readership — I’ve written here in an imperious, over-detached tone at odds with my actual cultural standing, & not done a good job of being inclusive, humorous & self-aware while I grandstand. I don’t think I got around to explaining this, but yes, I know keeping a blog that purports to really like analog things is kind of ridiculous, given, you know, that it’s a blog.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to writing about Basque, which I don’t speak, & local politics, which are hard to understand, & I hope you’re as interested as I am to try to make sense of it all, even though I acknowledge I’m not the best person to be doing the sense-making.

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2 Responses to “Seriousness”

  1. John B. Says:

    There’s probably some significance, out there in the aether, to the fact that I’m replying to this on James Joyce’s birthday. Joyce’s principal (heh–and principle) weapon was not humor so much as comedy–comedy being, as one of my college profs said just about every chance he had to say it, “deadly serious.” Comedy’s big subject is, after all, the life force. Pretty important–more important, by its very nature, than the person writing about it.

    To the extent that I’m in a position to give advice on such things, I’d say that writers should write about their subjects in such a way that it’s clear that the subjects are more important that they (the writers) are. Wit and humor have their place in such writing, but to always and only go for the joke turns out to produce writing that is more about the writer than his subject. The judgment then: “Oh, he’s funny” and not “Oh, I hadn’t thought about things that way before.”

    Irony would not be dead if people still accepted that the preservation and perpetuation of life were not just another Grand Narrative to be suspicious of and instead is and remains both a sacred and a secular Ultimate Concern. (And, just so we understand each other, the above is by no means a tacit endorsement of a (so-called) pro-life perspective.)

    One last thing: Here–“Somewhere along the line — I’m no longer sure when or how — I think I came to lose my sense of humor — or rather, my ability to write funny.”–you’re paraphrasing Hamlet. I assume you know that already; I’m just pointing it out to remind you, just in case you need reminding, that Hamlet is a very funny guy . . . which I often forget, because often, when he’s at his funniest (Act IV), he’s making me think.

  2. Jim Sligh Says:

    “. . . writers should write about their subjects in such a way that it’s clear that the subjects are more important that they (the writers) are.”

    Putting aside a more thought-out response to the rest of your comment for just a second, I think this rule of thumb is a very useful boiling-down of Solnit’s challenge.


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