on jokes

When I was in my twenties, I often found myself in the midst of a joketelling orgy – that is, I found myself among joke tellers. I’d tell some jokes myself, but I did not have the rhythm of the great joke teller. I was equipped with one advantage, however: I was a great laugher. I could laugh until, literally, I ran out of breath. Not only that, but I laughed not only at the punch line – for the punch line, for the great joke teller, is only the final touch on the whole artistic edifice, the last gargoyle, so to speak, on the cathedral of shit – but I would laugh even more at the absurdities that the joke piled up, especially if it was an obscene joke.
Obscenity requires a concatenation of circumstances that remove us more and more from social reality, and each step is funnier. In a sense, I was a strange audience for a joker, who is used to the laugh coming last. But the talented joker would realize that this was a set with a heavy infusion of improv and would get into using the rhythm my laughter threatened to interrupt.
I was also among a literary set, and some of them – notably my friend Stefan – were very aware of the joke as an artform. Stefan was a very good joke teller, but he was not a great joke teller because he was too aware of the art. Sometimes, though, when he just let his natural flow take him there, he was a great one. Joke telling, back then, had a setting: it was in a bar, or a coffee shop. It was close to a college or university. At least, for the joketellers I knew. And this closeness made jokes something like an anti-classroom. In a classroom, you read, or you talked about texts - and were talked to about texts, and were generally educated in the complexities of reflection, the necessity of critique, and the never-ending task of imagining the good life arising out of the crimes of history. The joke climbed joyously back into the crimes of history and wallowed. In the great jokes – which were almost always dirty, misogynist, homophobic, racist, etc. – liberal society, indeed any social ideal, was turned upside down, its pockets were picked, and its underwear observed – and its underwear was always dirty.
I’ve been freelance now for almost twenty years, and I never find myself in joke telling orgies anymore. Is it that the age for them – my twenties and thirties – has passed? Or is the joke itself falling prey to its internet counterparts – the tweet, the Instagram caricature, etc.?
There’s an essay by Andrei Sinyavsky, the Soviet dissident, entitled The Joke in the Joke. It is a very good essay, one of the best on jokes. Written in the early eighties, it is also rather sexist. Conservatives often complain that the use of sexism and racism as interpretive categories distorts the past. This isn’t true - they help one see more of the past. Benjamin’s dictum that every monument of civilization is also a monument of barbarism finds its practical application here.
The core of the essay – which contains some silly and some truly disgusting jokes, and ends with a misogynistic rape joke – is that jokes are philologically important, and are the popular art form, just as folktales were in the past.
“In a closed society of the Soviet type, where the parameters of self-interested and complete existence are marked by all sorts of prohibitions (especially verbal ones), the joke is the only emotional outlet. More than that, it has actually developed into a model for living and serves the function of macrocosm inside the microcosm. As such, it becomes a kind of monad of the world order. The joke is in the air, but not in the form of dust. Like a spore, which contains everything that the soul needs in embryonic form, it is capable of reproducing the organism whole at the first opportune moment. Hence its readiness to provide universal formulas, explicating the epoch, history or the nation.”
Much emphasis is put, here, on the closed society of the Soviet type. But as all wee peas in the cogs of American capitalism can testify, the prohibitions here are cruelly marked out in dollars and sense, in time devoured, in exhaustions never to be redeemed; in cross-purposes between races, classes, and “discourses” that seem to have become zones of lies entirely. Here, the joke’s redemptive purpose, its “monad-hood”, seems lost to the onrush of ever more comic catastrophes. Of that which take your breath away, you physically cannot speak. And as I am removed, now, from the culture of oral jokes, I can’t really testify as to its health. But thrust into the pseudo-society of social networks, I can testify that everything begins to look, in a ghastly but undeniable way, like a joke. So much so that it has become a joke that one can’t joke, that irony needs an emoticon to explain itself.
There’s another wonderful bit in the Sinyavsky essay that is worth digging out. Here it is:
“If it weren’t for one more characteristic feature of the joke, perhaps the most important one, we could end our story here. I am referring to the joke’s philosophical relation to the world, to things, to the old and the new, when the new is a variation on the old but is nevertheless a new variant. We can imagine the joke in the form of an endless chain which connects just about all possible human situations. It can be likened to Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements, which has empty spaces for new valences as if for new jokes. The heading for this chart consisting of humorous parables would read something like “Human Existence” or “Human Reality”.
We laugh, so we don't cry. And then we discover that we laugh cause we can't cry. And then we cry with laughter.