Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Praise of Humourlessness

During the Christmas break, I visited the National Museum in Kildare Street, with Michelle. It was her first time there, but certainly not mine.

Going to that museum always feels me with a strange and potent mixture of memories and emotions; from my first school trips there (for some reason, the antiquity of the exhibitions frightened me), to later childhood visits with my family, to the many times I wandered around it on my own, in my lonely and directionless twenties. So it's not only the history of my country, but my own personal history that I encounter when I go there.

Going to the National Museum sobers me. Of course, museums are a reminder of our own mortality-- a fact that it seems impossible we should ever lose sight of, but that we somehow do. Looking at the flotsam and jetsam from lives lived so many centuries ago, we gain a sharper sense of how infinitesimal one lifespan really is, against the vast backdrops of time.

But it's not just this thought that sobers me when I look around the National Museum-- when I look into the old-fashioned glass cases with their spear-heads, golden brooches, sword handles, chalices, and all their other witnesses to far-off times. Somehow, the very atmosphere of the museum sobers me.

Part of it is the silence, the echoes, the hushed tones, the scholarly information panels, the whole sense of stillness and of time suspended. (Thankfully, this is a museum that hasn't yet been "jazzed up" with glowing touchscreens and gigantic pull quotes.)

But it's more than just that, too. There's a strange seriousness about all the exhibits. I'm guessing they joked and pranked in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age and the Golden Age of Irish Christianity, but the things that remain-- the cauldrons, the combs, the decorated crosses-- are all heavy with purpose, whether that purpose is practical or spiritual.

And this feels very right.

Whenever I take a step back and take a good steady look at the human condition, I don't feel much inclined to joke. This isn't because I find it too depressing. It's because I find it too dignified, too august, too supercharged with significance.

I can't look at the stars on a clear night, or watch a documentary about the marvels of human gestation, or flick through the pages of an encyclopedia, without feeling that facetiousness and flippancy are a kind of sin against the wonder of the world.

Who would crack a childish joke when looking at the Aurora Borealis, or the sun rising over Stonehenge, or the nave of some great cathedral, or when turning the pages of a photograph album belonging to a deceased grandparent? We feel it would be a kind of behavioural solecism; it would be a sign of shallowness.

But all of our lives are like the sun rising over Stonehenge. Every moment of existence, when you really think about it, is as awe-inspiring as any visit to Chartres cathedral or any glimpse of a rare bird in the wilderness.

It's not that I think, when this mood comes upon me, that joking and clowning is out-and-out wrong. It seems, rather, disrespectful when it becomes habitual and excessive.

In this mood, I feel that joking and humour should be an exception-- a holiday-- rather than the background atmosphere of our existence. And when we do turn to humour, it should be humour that has some serious or sublime element to it-- The Importance of Being Earnest rather than Monty Python or the Marx Brothers or Mad magazine. (Admittedly this point is open to argument. You might see sublimity in Monty Python or the Marx Brothers; I see nothing but puerility and silliness.)

Perhaps it may be objected that this attitude is a killjoy attitude. This accusation I utterly reject. Is anybody more solemn and serious than a man who is thoroughly enjoying himself? I don't mean somebody who is dancing the conga at an office party or riding a rollecoaster. Who is at their happiest at uproarious moments like that? No, I mean a passionate fisher who is casting his line, or a politics junkie who is watching general election coverage on TV, or a little girl making tea for her dolls. Intense joy-- even intense enjoyment-- is always utterly straight-faced.

It is often remarked that Christ is never portrayed as joking or laughing in the Gospels, though some have detected irony and playful humour in some of his words. I don't regret this, though I would not presume to draw any moral from it. It might also be noted that the Catechism of the Catholic Church classes "immoderate laughter" as a venial sin (paragraph 1856).

It isn't just excessive joking and buffoonery that I hold to be a sort of blasphemy against the marvel of life. It's the whole throwaway, rather contemptuous attitude that is to be seen in many aspects of modern society-- for instance, in contemporary "art". How can we stand in an art gallery and stare at a heap of broken glass on a plinth without feeling that centuries of human endeavour have been insulted-- not to mention the effort and money that went into building, lighting and cleaning the exhibition space that the travesty squanders? How can we put up with punk rock, reality TV, fashion shows and Facebook games when we remember what a privilege it is to be alive, to be human?

Professor Allan Bloom made a similar point in this passage from his polemic The Closing of the American Mind, as quoted in Michael Medved's Hollywood vs. America:

"Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

If you believe in God, surely you believe that His creation-- and the faculties he gave us to enjoy it-- should be taken seriously, even solemnly. But even for those who don't believe in God, surely the thought of all the millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of civilization that it took to get us here must have a similarly sobering effect. Surely it must make us feel that life is an amazingly rare and precious gift, one that leaves little room for being flippant and facetious.

At least, these are the thoughts that come to me when I walk through the National Museum in Kildare Street, or stare into the night sky, or savour the stately cadences of the Douay-Rheims Bible.


  1. Prof. Bloom's book is titled The Closing of the American Mind. It's available for download in text or audiobook formats at

  2. Thanks for that! I will correct accordingly.

    Looking up that paragraph actually has me browsing through the book again!

  3. If you ever write a book, this might be your theme. Wonderful stuff, even though I'm not sure I go along with everything

    So what do you make of the last few sentences of Orthodoxy?

    PS I would say there is something almost sublime in the way Groucho Marx talks himself into declaring war

  4. Thanks for your too-kind words, Mick.

    I don't think I would get a whole book out of these reflections!

    Actually, I have written a few novels and a book of horror short stories, though none were ever published.

    I sometimes have other ideas for books, though I very much doubt I will ever write them. Books I would like to read, really. I would like to read a book-length study of the well-trodden path from radical to conservative, an account of the various writers and intellectuals and others who took it, and how it has changed over time. I also had an idea for a book called The Book of Cranks which would be a history of -isms, basically-- nudism, veganism, neopaganism, young fogey-ism, post-humanism-- but in as sympathetic a tone as possible because I actually like cranks and conspiracy theorists and zealots of various kinds. I think they make the world more interesting. (One problem with the title would be that in America "crank" has a much more pejorative connotation than in Ireland and Britain.)

    I would also like to read a book that examined the religious and political and social beliefs of well-known figures like politicians, writers, directors, scientists and so forth-- because I am always insatiably curious as to what, for instance, Winston Churchill's religious beliefs were.

    The problem with all that is that I don't think I have the dedication for it and I don't understand copyright well enough to know how to draw from other books without plagiarizing.

    Orthodoxy is my favourite book in the world but I've never been sure about the end. In my post, I deliberately didn't make too much of Christ's apparent humourlessness in the Gospels because I think that would be presumptious. I always think it is dangerous to put words into Christ's mouth (even when you are C.S. Lewis writing Aslan) or to say what "Jesus would have done". I have no idea what Jesus would have done-- he seemed to constantly surprise his own disciples.

    I do think there are sublime moments in the Marx Brothers but it's the tone of sustained flippancy I don't like-- everything is for the sake of a gag and there's no more to it. I know lots of people would consider me a philistine for that though.

  5. Oh, I don't know. A book with a chapter on how the decline of humourlessness has played out in and damaged various branches of the arts: literature, film, television, music, painting and sculpture, theatre, and so on? Maybe not.

    Agree with you ultimately about the Marx Brothers. Despite the moments of sublime goofing (another one, I'd still rather watch even an average Laurel and Hardy movie like The Bohemian Girl than Duck Soup. TBG has only a couple of truly hilarious scenes (like the wine bottling) but there is always something deeply endearing - and indeed serious - about the relationship between the two that the goofiness never submerges. And I love the way they transpose it from setting to setting.

  6. I have never seen (except in clips) Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Abbot and Costello or the Three Stooges. I keep meaning to try them.

    Despite my above post, I am not at all anti-comedy or anti-humour. I'm a big fan of the Carry On films, the Office (American version), Flann O'Brien, Fawlty Towers, This is Spinal Tap, Flanders and Swann, lots of others...I guess "humourlessness" was a provocative term to choose. I just think we've got to the stage where you are hardly allowed to be serious of solemn about anything. I've noticed that I prefer to socialize with older people rather than younger people because younger people's conversation so often seems confined to banter and badinage.

    There are some Laurel and Hardy DVDs in the library where I work. I might take one home for the weekend, actually!