Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Losers and Laughers

I admire champions of lost causes: the beautiful losers, to borrow the title of an early Leonard Cohen opus, by far his best. The Japanese, apparently, have great respect for them; the Japanologist Ivan Morris wrote a whole book about it. Yet the kamikaze pilots don’t entirely qualify—any more than do Muslim suicide bombers--because their sacrifice did not entail what they thought of as a lost cause.

My feeling for lost causes began with an early boyhood French primer, one of whose anecdotes indelibly impressed me. It seems that on a rainy day Voltaire set forth for abroad when he noticed his boots still covered with yesterday’s mud. When he questioned his valet, the fellow replied, “What would be the use cleaning them when today is just as rainy and they would gather just as much mud?” “Very well,” said Voltaire and went out, muddy boots and all. Forthwith the valet came running after him, “Sir, sir! You forgot to leave me the key to the pantry for my lunch!” “What’s the use,” Voltaire answered, “when in no time you will be just as hungry as before?”

There it is: those boots are a notable lost cause. And perhaps, after all, so are the kamikaze pilots, who could not be sure that they were dying for a winning cause, but not the Muslim suicide bombers, who can look forward to gaining paradisiac bliss from 72, or is it 73, virgins servicing them? (When it comes to virgins, one or two more or less makes no major difference.)

When I write in favor of fighters for lost causes, it is, to be sure, somewhat pro domo. For is not criticism of my kind, like so many intellectual endeavors nowadays, a lost cause? How many intellectuals earn a millionth part of what some fellows who can hit a ball with a bat or sink it into a basket make? I don’t deny that those skills come at some sacrifice, but lost causes they most certainly aren’t.

Now just try, as a teacher in the humanities in most colleges, to grade a student with a D, to say nothing of an F, however well deserved, and get away with it. Or try, as a drama critic, to rate plays as they truly deserve and—except in some remote, minor publications—not get fired. In America, you can attack a politician of one party as long as there is a two-party system. But try to question every conceivable prize and award being lavished on some minority playwright of questionable talent (I refrain from naming names) and, bingo, you are a racist, sexist, elitist and whatever other piece of “non-pc-ism” they can accuse you of.

And then, apropos lost causes, there are our theater audiences. Those people will laugh at just about anything: feeble jokes or no jokes at all that they conceive as jokes. As a result, the rest of us lose some needlessly drowned-out stage dialogue.

The customary explanation is that people who spent a lot of money for a good time will imagine they are having fun no matter what. There may even be a more depressing reason though: that because they themselves have no conversation and wit to speak of, they are impressed by whatever seems like cleverness to them. And compared to their ineptitude, it may even be witty. And so they laugh at almost anything. But because the actors expect no laughter there, they rightly do not pause for any, and so lines get lost, which justifiably annoys those who know better.  It is the sort of thing that can make one despair of the human race.

Is there any cure for it? Probably not. Things like sophistication cannot be taught. Neither can honesty, i.e., not pretending that you have understood something that isn’t there. Nor is there a cure for the notion that a good time can be had only from lots of jokes, or nonstop suspense and all kinds of surprises. This clearly overlooks  the appeal of ideas (not understood) or insights (not appreciated).

 Eventually, even a benighted audience may become tired of pretending, whereupon boredom sets in as does bad behavior. Legitimate wit becomes even more ignored, as an insult to unintelligence is even more fateful than an insult to intelligence, and almost guarantees failure of the show.

There is a book out now by Scott Weems entitled Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, which I haven’t read as yet. But from a review of it I gather that it does not concern itself with dumb laughter in the theater. It does, however, tell us things like men wanting women to smile much to the chagrin of feminists, and that women laugh less as they age, whereas men do not.

Well, my wife certainly laughs less and less at my jokes, even though I find them just as funny as ever. So about that, at any rate, Dr. Weems seems to be on target.