Friday, 25 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #149. Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? (4 of 7)

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.


CHAPTER 4: The Lord of Misrule. (Does the inversion of carnival challenge the status quo or reinforce it?).

(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)

List of contents

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  • What is laughter?
  • What is comedy?
  • What is humour?
  • Aesthetic judgments
  • Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).
  • Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).
  • Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).
  • Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).
  • Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
  • Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is the superiority theory of laughter?
  • What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
  • What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?
  • Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?
  • Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?
  • What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
  • Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is determinism?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *



*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

CHAPTER 4: The Lord of Misrule. (Does the inversion of carnival challenge the status quo or reinforce it)?

Dario Fo (1991) and Howard Jacobson (1997) view carnival as a universal (or at least ubiquitous and recurrent) form of human and humorous celebration. But what does it celebrate and in what recurrent form?

Jacobson (1997) praises carnival as a celebration of contrariness and possibility:

'In the deranging, disarranging communal laughter occasioned by the contrary clown - a laughter which has something of the devil's unmeaning and the angel's reconciliation in it - we see what isn't possible and thereby make it possible.' (Jacobson, 1997, p.195).

Gray (1994) takes the more parochial view that carnival tends to occur in rigidly structured societies such as feudal ones. Its characteristic form is that of an inversion of the usual hierarchical order, often involving a strong element of parody or blasphemy.

Perhaps most importantly, carnival is a popular and participatory celebration which renders it more resilient to censorship than professional theatre troupes and pressurises the authorities into tolerating it as a temporary aberration.

Carnival's delight in mockery and obscenity can be seen from the perspective of the status quo as a brief and necessary discharge of pent-up energy, a sort of critical mass-hysterical form of Freudian psychic release. The main theoretical debate about carnival turns on what happens during that momentary arousal. Are conditions created in which imaginations are fertilised with the potential of a different social order? Or are the tensions necessary to create a new social order in some way thwarted by their premature ejaculation?

Perhaps the best known exponent of carnival's possibilities was the Russian critic Mikhail Bahktin (cf. Eco, 1984; Hirschop & Shepherd, 1989; Nelson, 1990). Ken Hirschop (1989) details how Bahktin proposed that the 'grotesque realism' of phenomena such as carnival could create the conditions for new forms of dialogue or 'heteroglossia', literally different languages.

Hirschop summarises carnival's place in Bahktin's theories on dialogism thus:

' 'Carnivalesque' works, in Bahktin's parlance, use motifs,themes and generic forms drawn from a tradition of subversive medieval popular culture; a tradition linked to a very specific festive practice and to the significance of the body in medieval and Renaissance culture.' (Hirschop, 1989,p.3).

Nelson (1990) places Bahktin's theories of 'grotesque realism' at the opposite end of the spectrum from the mannered sentimentalism typical of eighteenth-century Restoration comedies. It could be argued here that 'grotesque realism' is a slight misnomer as Bahktin appears to be more in sympathy with a grotesque inversion of accepted reality rather than the proposition of a new one.

Nelson also goes on to draw attention to carnival's inevitable dissipation and defeat:

'But at the end of the festive period the tables are turned, authority is reasserted, and the representatives of riot and anarchy are subjected to a real or symbolic punishment. This raises disturbing questions about the nature and functions of festivity.' (Nelson, 1990, p.171).

Does the festive licence of carnival act as a safety valve under political control or a Bahktinian dialogism, a plurality of alternative possibilities?

Probably the most damning opponent of Bahktin's theories is Umberto Eco (1984). While he agrees with Bahktin's analysis of medieval carnival as subversive, he rejects the conclusion that carnival can lead to actual liberation. Instead it is an 'authorized transgression' (Eco, 1984,p.6). He observes that modern mass media are instruments of social control and have embarked upon what he terms a 'continuous carnivalization of life... To support the universe of business, there is no business like show business.' (Eco, 1984, p.3).

Tom Utley (1999) observes that subversion is the key to comedy then ruefully ruminates on how, with the utilitarian motive of relieving suffering, projects such as Comic Relief disarm satirism; comics are required to 'switch from mirth to solemnity, from comedian to preacher' (Utley, 1999,p.28). When comedy sacrifices its aggression on the altar of altruism it becomes institutionalised in authorised traditions such as Red Nose Day (with the suspicion that popular charity relieves the funding burden on the Treasury). Any subversive potential is deadened by incorporation into governmentally approved mainstream values.

Eco (1984) also observes that comedy is more culture-specific than tragedy. As noted in our introduction, he proposes some general characteristics of comedy (in essence, inversions and diminutions of tragedy). Tragedy deals with the violation of a rule and its subsequent reinstatement. In doing so, it draws attention to the rule. However, he perceives that the comic effect relies upon the rule being presupposed and thus avoiding any real opportunity for criticism. The comic effect is spoiled if the underlying rules are elaborated.

Eco (1984) thus rejects Bahktin's theory that the comic inversion of carnival can be a liberating force as the comic effect relies upon its target as an unspoken rule. We are trapped in a paradox: in order to liberate its audience, comedy must make explicit the rules of repression; but if it were to do so, it would lose its comic power. Comedy is thus enfeebled as a corrective. Instead, he proposes that humour is a more effective mode of transgression and social criticism.

Eco differentiates between comedy and humour by placing the comic effect in the narrative structure of the text and the humorous effect in 'the interstices between narrative and discursive structures' (Eco, 1984, p.8). This seems to concur with our introductory definition that comedy functions as a text while humour functions as a production of meaning. As Eco puts it: 'Humour is a cold carnival' (Eco, 1984, p.8).

We can now see that carnival's effectiveness as an instrument, either of social change or social control, is largely one of entertaining grotesque fantasies rather than entertaining alternative realities. A more disturbing possibility though is that the grotesqueries of carnival may mask uglier realities such as racism. Howard Jacobson (1997) briefly alludes to an eastern European tradition of carnivalesque anti-Semitism enjoying occasional rural revivals after the collapse of Communist repression.

Jacobson appears sensitive to accusations of over-reaction on this point and carefully avoids overstating his concerns by adopting a blasé attitude:

'More than a few carnivals over the years have given Jews a hard time... Ethnically speaking, there's nothing here to get too het up about. Jews are just a manner of speaking. The inverts could just as easily be gypsies... My point is only that when a community celebrates its shared pleasure in the ordinary, something perceived as extraordinary has to get it in the neck.' (Jacobson, 1997, p.206).

However, even if more than one ethnic or religious group is targeted, and even if the target group connives in the laughter in a self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing way, we are still left with a troublesome question: should the ridicule of minorities ever be tolerated as an inverse acceptance of them into the community?

The satirist Armando Iannucci (1999) claims that prejudice, even in its benign form, undermines society with the observation that 'if we are to plead for the protection of our national culture, we must be brave enough to ask what that culture is... One thing it is not is monocultural [or monoethnic]' (Iannucci, 1999, p.20). Also, bearing in mind that Jews and gypsies were the two main ethnic groups selected for genocide by the Nazis during the 1940s, we should give this unpleasant side-show of carnival a more attentive treatment.

Boyes (1999) moves the focus of our attention to western Europe with a report on a modern German carnival in Cologne. He makes a similar point to Eco (1984) that carnival is a licensed mockery which camouflages serious political activity on the part of the authorities. Boyes observes that [contrary to Jacobson's carnivalesque 'contrariness'] carnival in Hitlerian Germany tended to mock the victims of persecution rather than the authorities:

'Cologne historians say the carnival revellers of the Third Reich defied and made fun of the Nazis. But there is scant evidence of that. Carnival floats in 1935 made fun of deported Jews; there has always been a slight anti-Semitic undercurrent.' (Boyes, 1999, p.9).

Goldhagen (1996) argues that, contrary to their apologists, ordinary German people in the Third Reich participated in the persecution of the Jews not through coercion but through popular and accepted anti-Semitism:

'Germans' anti-Semitic beliefs about Jews were the central causal agent of the Holocaust... Not economic hardship, not the coercive means of a totalitarian state, not social psychological pressure, not invariable psychological propensities, but ideas about Jews that were persuasive in Germany, and had been for decades, induced ordinary Germans to kill unarmed, defenceless Jewish men, women and children by the thousands, systematically and without mercy.' (Goldhagen, 1996, p.9).

Rather than seeing carnival in the Third Reich as a comic subversion, it may be more accurate to view the massed Nazi rallies as 'carnivals of order' inverting the traditional values of intellectual dialogue in western Judaeo-Christian civilisation in favour of a more primitive and emotional (and theatrical) demagogy. There was no place for Bahktinian dialogism or heteroglossia in German carnivals of the 1930s because, although the Nazi regime was clearly authoritarian and repressive, it was also popular and participatory.

Here is another paradox of carnival: authority must be unpopular for a subversive potential to arise (since popular authority simply creates 'carnivals of order'); but if an unpopular authority is already perceived as being unpopular then surely the subversive potential has already arisen? Alternatively, if a more apathetic attitude prevails, and authority is perceived as being neither popular or unpopular, then surely it is simply accepted as a fact of life? If authority is accepted as a fact of life then surely the fantasy of carnival must consequently be accepted as fantasy and nothing more?

In each scenario, it is difficult to see how Bahktin can give credit to carnival for imagining alternative possibilities. Celebrations of order or fantasy do not engage the critical faculties of the celebrants.  Even if the conditions for subversive potential already exist then subversive carnival only acts as a substitute for social change, not a catalyst for it.

Even satire, carnival's distant intellectual relative, cannot overcome this paradox. As the critic Brian Appleyard pessimistically observed: '... anti-Nazi satire did nothing to stop Hitler. Satire... makes nothing happen'. (Appleyard,1998, p.3).

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