The New Sentence (Ron Silliman)
The Big Dialogue of Literature

Comedy and Literature

It is a very peculiar definition of "comedy" in literature that values such comedy for the way in which it manages to restrain itself from actually producing laughter, and that identifies as among the greatest comic writers in modern fiction the likes of J.F. Powers, Henry Green, and V.S. Pritchett. But this is indeed the view of comedy that emerges from James Wood's The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.

I have nothing against the work of Powers, Green, and Pritchett (or, for that matter, many of the other writers Wood discusses in his book), but they are not the writers anyone surveying the landscape of 20th century Western fiction with any real concern for historical development or descriptive accuracy could plausibly select as exemplars of "comic fiction" as it has been practiced over the course of that century. They are instead exemplars only of Wood's particular, and particularly parched and narrow, preference for a kind of fiction "in which a mild tragicomedy arises naturally out of context and situation, novels which are softly witty. . . ." (Note the words "mild" and "softly"; they are the kinds of words Wood resorts to repeatedly--along with "gentle," which must be used a dozen times or more--in his descriptions of the "comic fiction" he most admires.

Again, Wood has every right to prefer this sort of fiction, indeed, to write essays extolling the virtues of those writers who provide it and belittling those who don't, but to elevate this preference to a critical principle of universal salience is something else. Although, one has to simply accept that Wood's critical principle is both incontestable and universally applicable, since Wood doesn't really carry through his notion of "the irresponsible self" and the gentle comedy accompanying it in any kind of sustained argument. Once he has set out his case for what he calls the "comedy of forgiveness" in the Introduction, in many of the ensuing essays he at best merely assumes the reader will remember the previous discussion and apply it for him/herself to the subject at hand. Certainly Wood does not engage in much of the kind of close analysis an argument as sweeping as that which he wants to make about both comedy and modern fiction would require. Frequently there is no further discussion of comedy of any kind in the essays collected in this book, and there are some essays included on writers--Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Joseph Roth--whose work hardly has any relation to comedy--certainly not as "humor"--at all. One essay is not about fiction at all, but is merely a review of V.S. Naipaul's Letters Between a Father and a Son.

Of course, it might be objected that these essays were written for publication separately, in various magazines and book reviews, and expecting them to cohere more systematically when collected in a book would be unfair. But what justification is there for them to be reprinted as a book if no real effort is made to make them readable as a book?

Although Wood ostensibly disparages the category of "religious comedy" (which he associates with satire), his own explanation of the secular "comedy of forgiveness" seems to me essentially religious in its expectations of fiction:

The comedy of what I want to call "irresponsibility" or unreliability is a kind of subset of the comedy of forgiveness; and although it has its roots in Shakespearean comedy (especially soliloquy), it seems to me the wonderful creation of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novel. This comedy, or tragicomedy, of the modern novel replaces the knowable with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability, and this is surely in direct proportion to the growth of characters' fictive inner lives. The novelistic idea that we have bottomless interiors which may only be partially disclosed to us must create a new form of comedy, based on the management of our incomprehension rather than on the victory of our complete knowledge. . . .

This is a notion of "comedy" that ignores what is comedic in comedy in favor of the revelations of character, a spiritual communion with "fictive inner lives." Wood further muddies, rather than clarifies, the conceptual waters by opposing this comedy of forgiveness against the "comedy of correction"--satire--as if all other manifestations of the comic in literature were perforce satirical, only versions of what is to be found in Moliere or Swift. Such a reduction of the possibilities of comedy is not just an oversimplification; it completely ignores a vast body of comic fiction that is neither primarily satirical nor "tragicomic" in the "mild" and "gentle" mode Wood celebrates.

Mikhail Bahktin described this kind of comedy as embodying an attitude of "radical skepticism" that excludes as just another form of "seriousness" both conventional satire, which does indeed, as Wood maintains, seek to eradicate vices and flaws, and the "comedy of forgiveness," which is a thin veneer indeed on a form of fiction that otherwise could not be more "straightforwardly serious" in its intent. (Sentimentally serious might be a better way to describe it.) It is the kind of comedy to be found in Joyce rather than Henry Green, Beckett rather than V.S. Pritchett, Nathanael West rather than J.F. Powers. It is the comedy of Catch-22, of Gravity's Rainbow, of Mulligan Stew, and of the fiction of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and Stanley Elkin. If a book were to be written that was truly about "laughter and the novel"--not about "mild tragicomedy"--these would be the books and the writers that would have to be examined.

The closest Wood comes to assessing this brand of fiction is his back-of-the-hand dismissal of what he calls "hysterical realism." Wood identifies Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Thomas Pynchon as the chief hysterics in question, but one suspects he would accuse many of these other writes I have mentioned of being unduly hysterical as well. He never really defines "hysterical realism" at any great length or with any great analytical precision, but the following passage comes pretty close to capturing the essence of the idea: ". . .there are also 'comic novels,' novels which correspond to the man who comes up to you and says, 'Have you heard the one about. . .?' novels obviously very busy at the business of being comic. Tristram Shandy, for instance, is in multifarious ways a marvelous book, but it is written in a tone of such constant high-pitched zaniness, of such deliberate 'liveliness," that one finds oneself screaming at it to calm down a bit."

There are indeed comic novels that embody the sort of laughter associated with jokes and comic routines. (Catch-22 is one of these, as is Portnoy's Complaint and most of Elkin's novels), and many more that are broadly funny in a fashion James Wood no doubt finds excessively "lively." Frankly, I am surprised to find that Wood admires Cervantes, since Don Quixote is quite a "zany" book (or so it seems to me), as are most of the many novels influenced by Don Quixote throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Furthermore, few of these kinds of comic novels could convincingly be labeled "hysterical realism" because almost none of them are realistic in any credible sense of the term. In fact, comedy is almost by definition not realistic, depending as it does on a deliberate distortion of reality, even to the point of completely reversing its normal assumptions. To the extent works of fiction seek first of all to be "realistic," whatever comedy they might also contain is almost certainly going to be incidental, the sort of "mild" and "gentle" amusement Wood clearly enough enjoys.

(The one writer Wood discusses to whose work the term "hysterical realism" seems appropriate is Tom Wolfe, whose novels Wood accurately judges to be shallow and really not very funny. It is one of the few essays in The Irresponsible Self with which I unreservedly agree--one of the others is the essay entitled "Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling.")

Finally, both "hysterical realism" and the book's occasional analyses of comedy more generally seem really to be devices Wood has adopted in his essays to make a more compelling case for the kind of fiction he manifestly most esteems: loosely, the sort of late 19th/early 20th century fiction that added to the realism that had come to be valued by writers like Flaubert and Tolstoy and George Eliot a further "psychological realism" that located the real truth about human reality in the disclosures of consciousness. Much of this fiction remains vital and important, and many of the strategies developed by writers like James and Woolf and Henry Green continued to be adapted by later writers in different and interesting ways. But the pure form of psychological realism Wood continually returns to--"a state in which the reader may or may not know why a character does something, or may not know how to read a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out he must try to merge with characters in their uncertainty"--is not a method that most subsequent 20th century writers continued to practice as if it had been determined to be the "correct" way to write novels and stories. (Neither it nor "mild tragicomedy" have been greatly favored in, especially, American fiction, which by and large Wood doesn't emphasize much at all in The Irresponsible Self; in most of his critical writing Wood appears to be particularly dismissive of post-60s American fiction, which has most consistently sought alternatives to the approach Wood seeks to privilege.)

It doesn't bother me in the least that James Wood approves of psychological realism and the creation of the "irresponsible self" more than any other technique a writer of fiction might choose to employ. To each his own where taste in fiction is concerned. However, Wood's overriding critical precept, that things were done much better back when, that the way things were done then is the only right way, performs no service (no useful service, at least) for the cause of contemporary fiction whatsoever.

In this essay at Prospect, Julian Gough lucidly describes the kind of comedy he traces back to the Greeks and that the Russian linguist/theorist/philosopher M.M. Bakhtin called "carnivalesque." In this tradition of comedy, the comedic text (or performance) presents a thoroughly undeceived view of human life, responding to "our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it," with unremitting laughter. Although Gough doesn't use the term in his essay, Bakhtin further called such an attitude toward human affairs "radical skepticism." No authority is spared the corrosive perspective afforded by this sort of laughter, no conduct or discourse presented with "straightforward seriousness" can finally be taken seriously.

Such later European writers as Rabelais and Swift were literary comedians of the radically skeptical kind, but, as Gough also emphasizes, it was the development of the novel as a literary form that really gave writers the opportunity to exploit this comedy to its full potential. Gough includes Swift and Rabelais as "novelists," but even though Gargantua and Pantagruel and Gulliver's Travels could be called proto-novels, the tradition of carnivalesque comedy in the English novel would include some of the very first writers to produce what we now agree are novels: Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, as well as their greatest disciple, Charles Dickens. Bahktin admired all of these writers, and the broad, thoroughgoing comedy they practiced--separate from whatever "happy ending" their books supplied--is what Gough seems to have in mind when he writes of the novelist as one "who did not have a holy book. The novelist was on his own. Sometimes he's even a she. There were no rules. The chaos of carnival had found its form. The fool's sermon could be published, could live on."

Gough is right to assert that

The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent. It is more vast.

This is especially true of comic novels, or at least those novels that are truly "comic" in the Bakhtinian sense and not just "satirical." Satire has traditionally been corrective, a way of using laughter to mock attitudes and behaviors the author wishes to reform. In other words, satire is usually another way of "saying something." It is not radically skeptical because it holds out one source of authority--the writer him/herself--as immune from such skepticism. The author's ultimate goal, cloaked in humor, is to be serious about the errors both individuals and society are prone to. He has a point to make, and the point exceeds the reach of comedy. The satirist doesn't willingly satirize himself.

Perhaps this is one reason why, after Dickens, comedy in fiction--satirical or otherwise--recedes in importance, replaced by realism and naturalism, both of which assume the structure of tragedy and essentially express the tragic view of life. This is, of course, "straightforward seriousness" of the highest order, and, as Gough points out, to be taken as a "serious" novelist required privileging tragedy over comedy:

. . .western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. . .
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. . . .

With the occasional exceptions Gough notes--Evelyn Waugh, Flann O'Brien--comedy essentially disappears from fiction, or at least so Gough appears to believe. He certainly does imply that little noteworthy comic fiction has appeared since Waugh, especially in the United States. Through the professionalization of fiction writing via creative writing programs, he writes:

The last 30 years have seen the effects of turning novel writing into an academic profession with a career path. As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.
And the language of the American literary novel began to drift away from anything used by human beings anywhere on earth. Thirty years of the feedback loop have led to a kind of generic American literary prose, instantly recognisable, but not as instantly comprehensible. Professions generate private languages designed to keep others out. This is irritating when done by architects. But it is a catastrophe for novelists, and the novel.

Here, I'm afraid, Gough really misses the boat. Comedy in fiction--comedy as Bakhtin would recognize it--has flourished in American fiction since at least the 1960s. One of the few postwar American novels Gough mentions is John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. This is a fine book, but it is far from the only "carnivalesque" novel to be found in postwar fiction. (And I'm not sure I would finally identify it as truly carnivalesque, at least not insofar as this kind of comedy requires "radical skepticism." Ignatius J. Reilly is surely a Rabelaisian character who rejects the authority of everything associated with the "modern," but his own superior status--despite his vices--as one who sees through it all is never really questioned, nor is the authority of his anti-modern views, which have been especially lauded by contemporary conservatives who see Reilly as a kind of moral hero.) Perhaps the finest postwar American writer (in my view) is Stanley Elkin, whose work is relentlessly comic in an almost vaudevillian way, and which implicitly includes within its comic purview Elkin's own hyperactive, gloriously excessive style, its at times ridiculously extended tropes and setpieces offered up as the focus of laughter in and of themselves. Gilbert Sorrentino takes fiction itself as a subject of merciless laughter, in novels such as Mulligan Stew submitting all of its assumptions and devices to his inspired mockery. Novels such as Catch-22Portnoy's Complaint, Gravity's Rainbow, and The Public Burning stretch satire almost to the breaking point, using comedy to deflate even the most "profound" of subjects--war, sex, democracy--and reveal them to be laughing matters like anything else.

Furthermore, despite Gough's quick dismissal of writers "who began to write about writing," this particular mode of postwar American fiction--metafiction--is actually the most radically comic writing yet produced in American or English fiction (with the possible exception of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which was uproariously metafictional before its time). The fiction of writers like Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover, as well as Sorrentino, through its self-reflexivity, its insistence that readers be aware of writing as writing, exposes the act of writing, of fiction-making, to a kind of ridicule. These are the calculations that writers make? Here's how a "story" gets strung together? This is what writers do? In the end, the grand pretensions of fiction are shown to be very artificial indeed, novels and short stories unmistakably disclosed as only words. These writers have been accused of frivolity, of--wittingly or unwittingly--undermining their own craft. But this is the very goal of this kind of comedy. Only by stripping even literature itself of its dignity, of its pretensions to "signify," can fiction keep faith with what I agree with Gough is its real mission: "The task of the novelist is. . .not to fake a coherence that does not exist, but to capture the chaos that does. And in so doing, perhaps we shall discover that chaos and permanence are not, in fact, opposed. The novel, self-renewing, self-destroying, always the same, always new, always… novel… is the art of permanent chaos."

I also agree with Gough that the academization of fiction through creative writing programs has probably discouraged writers from further exploring the possibilities of Bakhtinian comedy. It probably has contributed to the creation of "a kind of generic American literary prose." But I can't agree that it has done so by valorizing metafiction. The problem is not that there's too much postmodernism floating around; it's that there's not enough of it. In my view, only someone who's willfully misreading American postmodernism--the most indispensable ingredient in which is laughter--would say that "Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel's wheels have spun in the sand." Postmodern comedy has taken the anarchic comedy implicit in Joyce and made it explicit. It's the rejection of this liberating anarchy by "professional" Creative Writing that has stultified "literary prose," not the acceptance of a "private language" too influenced by postmodernism. If Gough wants American writers to again see the virtues of his "divine comedy," he could start by urging them to read carefully the very postmodernism he for some reason wants them to think "never happened."


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