Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Make 'em laugh . . .

Shifting gears today, from a dark-eyed Southern dame to a sixteenth-century Frenchman who told a lot of dick and fart jokes. If you've never read Rabelais, don't worry, you're not alone. Nobody reads him anymore, although if you're a writer of anything even remotely comic, you should. At the beginning of each section he wrote a few lines of verse addressed to the reader, and I particularly like the lines he wrote to introduce Gargantua. I don't know the source of this particular translation (it's different from my edition, which is only about five years old), but I like it better than any other I've seen because it's less prosaic and seems to speak more to the spirit of what Rabelais was saying:

Not that I sit here glowing with pride
For my book: all you'll find is laughter:
That's all the glory my heart is after,
Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you.
I'd rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.

I couldn't agree more. But don't be fooled: he's being appropriately disingenuous. Like any satirist worth his salt, Rabelais' work is sprinkled with, for lack of a better word, humanity -- some dark, some poignant, some sad. In the heart of every blisteringly funny wit lies the memory of a dead puppy. When his puppy died, I suspect Rabelais looked at his friend and said, "Now I have something to give your dead baby on his first birthday." And they laughed, and then they got shitfaced. I'd give up modern medicine, air travel and internet porn to go back in time and be his roommate for like six months. That'd be a party.

I know what you're thinking right now -- you're thinking, "What's your point, Bear?" Because it's a blog, so I must have a point, right? As a matter of fact, I do. And I am indeed getting to it.

I hold a handful of solid beliefs, some of which are unpopular, some contradictory, some just plain inconceivable to friends and loved ones. I won't lay them all out right here and now, but I'll give you one meaty example. I believe politics is flawed in the same way religion is flawed: they are systems of belief that are based on the assumption that people are fundamentally better than they are. In fact, they depend on that assumption, to the extent that it's really more of an assertion. I think the world is actually at least half-full of dinks (and believe me, I know sometimes I'm one of them). But even the ones who aren't really dinks are, by and large, still lacking in the sort of virtue that ideals like democracy and christianity ultimately require. That's not the problem, though. The problem is that too many people either refuse to acknowledge that reality, or they are incapable of recognizing it.

For a while I thought we lived in a unique time, unique because it appears to be lacking in anything that could be considered an ethos: a collective sense of who we are, what we believe, what we want. I've only been around since the very late sixties, so as I considered this question, I thought maybe this is what we get post-God, post-feminism, post-industrial, post-globalization. Maybe this is what we get from too much television and MacDonalds. Don't get me wrong, I'm not assigning values to any of these things, I was simply brushing my fingertips against touchstones and asking, "Was it this?"

Reading Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, books written almost five-hundred years ago, I find myself pleasantly reminded of the thought that seems too often to be standing at the back of the room, reluctant to raise its hand -- perhaps because it shouldn't have to. That thought is this: nothing's changed. Humankind possessed no more or less sense of its collective self five centuries ago than it does now or has any time since or will any time in the future. We are, by and large, shaved apes who can drive cars and make omelets. We are collectively stupid about so many things, it's amazing we invented the sundial, let alone the smartphone. But here's the thing: we did. Now think of every dumb thing you've ever done with your smartphone. Impressive, right? And if you think about it, you know there had to be some Babylonian dude who looked at the sundial and said to his buddy, "You know what'd be really funny?" We are knuckleheads, boobs, doofuses.

And ultimately, I guess that's why I kinda like us. I'm willing to bet Rabelais felt the same way. And Mark Twain and Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Larry David and Louis C.K. and on and on and on. We are spinning through our lifetimes in a live theatre of the absurd. And thank goodness for it. Anyone who knows me well knows I joke constantly. Sometimes it's hard to tell I'm joking -- I almost never laugh out loud, laugh mostly with my eyes, in fact -- but it's a rare occasion when I'm not cracking wise. Because I have to. Because there's no world I can even imagine that would be bearable without it. The idea of a world that settles its nonsense, gets its head out of its ass and achieves the truly noble objectives of peace and equality and health and prosperity is beyond laudable. But I'm not going to lie to you: I kind of hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime. Because did you ever hear the one about the guy who was perfectly happy? Nah, me either.

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