Tuesday, December 29, 2009

take notes folks - canada - becoming comfortable with absurdity

CBC News - Canada - Becoming comfortable with absurdity

Time magazine called these first 10 years of the 21st century "the decade from hell." While over at the New York Times, columnist Frank Rich labelled it the "bamboozled" decade.

The Queen, sporting a lovely turquoise dress and a crown of silver hair, was more muted. These are "difficult times," she told us.

Perhaps, with our sturdier banking system and Northern sang-froid, we Canadians are bearing up better. Though as the new, people-oriented CBC News reminds us, we are hurtin' too.

As for the rest of the planet, it was left to one caller to an American public radio program to remind the gloomy audience that more people were lifted out of poverty in the developing world in this past decade than ever before.

Still, who can deny a certain unsettling melancholia as we press ahead into this uncertain century?

The Queen, thank goodness, spared us the therapeutic language as she urged that people not be deterred from working toward "a better future."

Sometimes, it's comforting to hear a dose of old-fashioned homily.

And yet we laugh

I was mulling all these cascading thoughts while waiting for a friend at a downtown espresso and beer bar. In the end, she did not show up. She was stuck in an editing suite.

No mind, I told her when she called, ordering my second beer. I was enjoying myself listening to the laughter rippling out from the adjacent tables.

It was delightful to watch. All around me, people were laughing and telling stories with an easy conviviality. Climate change hadn't yet iced their veins.

I wondered what could possibly be that funny. So I leaned in with my good ear.

The answer was almost everything: the foibles of their friends, their bosses, their families, their partners.

I detected no bitterness, no anger, no post-millennial angst.

These were among the millions of holiday conversations, improvised and performed by ordinary people every day across this country.

The human landscape

Change the menu from espresso to Tim's and the mirth remains, in the grounds of their brew and the character of the storytellers.

I know there are other kinds of stories being told these days, more unfortunate ones. Stories about people who never return from car trips and foreign wars, or who never recover from illness.

But that's not what I was hearing. The stories that were buzzing in the bar were merry, though also serious and full of detail, the kind of jovial, personal journalism that ordinary people tell.

What interested me most, I realized, weren't the narratives per se. It was the stance of the tellers.

It seemed like these stories were being told from a high perch, as if to say that we humans are a bit like gods, grand surveyors of all that we take in.

And that landscape is hilarious.

The gods' view

In fact, this contemporary scene reminded me of the perspective on human life by the ancient Greek gods, according to an essay I just read by the Irish writer and musician Julian Gough.

We all know that the Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies. Unfortunately, many more tragedies survive.

It is Gough's contention that "the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken and die). But comedy was the gods' view, from on high."

"Horny Greek gods watched us for their entertainment," he writes.

"And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies."

Why so grim?

It is Gough's view that modern writers ought to get back to the serious business of making us laugh.

It is a view with which the storytellers at the neighbouring tables at the espresso bar might agree.

Now, Gough's piece is tendentious, certainly, and scholars can quarrel with his main argument. (For starters, tragedy is not just human, but can be also a cosmic, God-given condition.)

Gough is also miffed that today's literary novel is so darn grim, so relentlessly depressing, that only dispiriting works can earn prestigious prizes.

"Why so sad, people?" he quotes the British novelist Zadie Smith as asking.

Dangerous satire

Gough believes the tragic and the mournful are "now a habit," so engrained in our culture to have become the unexamined default position.

Now, Gough knows that comedy and satire can be savage, as in the novels and pamphlets of the Irish writer Jonathan Swift in the 1700s. Rabelais was jailed for his wild comedies, and Voltaire for his satires (but not his early tragedies).

Who knows, we are led to believe, if Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses had been a more serious novel, and not wickedly satiric, perhaps he would have won more prizes and been ignored by the militants who don't read him anyway.

For Gough, it doesn't matter that a British novelist did write about Greek gods cavorting in contemporary London: God's Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips.

He simply doesn't think comic writers can win the Mann Booker Prize because humour, for all our love for it, is not culturally prestigious.

Enjoy the outrageous

Gough is clearly someone who prefers The Simpsons to Henry James. And who is to disagree?

Is there a more devilish comic character today than the brilliant Stewie, the baby with a British accent in the cartoon series, Family Guy? He's hyper-intelligent, snobbish and effete, a spiteful man-child in suburban America.

He's a little Greek god, rampaging in diapers, on your TV screen.

But comedies can also be potent stuff when they combine realism with absurdity.

I recently watched the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a retelling of the Job story in 1960s Jewish suburbia, and found myself both laughing and sucking in my breath in alarm. The portraits were funny, touching and mutedly savage.

Oh, no, they can't do that, I'd say to myself while watching some of the darker (and hilarious) antics on screen.

But, oh yes, they can. That's what comedy does: it makes the outrageous evident.

The good people in the nearby tables in the bar I visited were not being that outrageous when they related their holiday stories.

But they seemed very comfortable with absurdity. In fact, they had domesticated it.

In a sense, they were carrying on the great life-giving tradition of comedy as they regaled each other with their tales.

Happy New Year to all who tell funny stories at the beginning of this century's new decade. Lord knows, we need these tales.

sounds good to me!

a storytelling i go... to see the original post, click on the below link

CBC News - Canada - Becoming comfortable with absurdity

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