'A More Comely Beak': Black Humour Reloaded
Scheduled in the Hôtel Fleuriau: Wednesday 7 June, from 14:00 to 14:30
Surrealist André Breton makes the connection between the state of melancholy and black humour in his 1939 Anthology of Black Humor, where an excess of black bile, black humor, or a tendency to mourn for the world, also becomes a way of making light of things, seeing them anew. Freud’s 1927 paper “Humor” does something similar, registering humor as a gloriously self-oriented attitude of the ego as it defies reality, presenting the latter as childlike and inconsequential. And it is of course Freud who points out the repetitive and compulsive nature of melancholy: its play with, and refutation of, the loss of beloved objects. Melancholy and humor are inextricably mixed. Both tend to work and rework the circumstances, discourses and languages in which they find themselves. Both are inherently creatively destructive.
I suggest that the works of Thomas Pynchon offer us many new worlds, using black humor as a means of critique and a challenge to the immutability of things. Such humor articulates the side of Pynchon concerned with radical change and with other worlds: “anarchist miracles,” for instance, as, “[…] intrusions into this world from another, a kiss of cosmic pool balls […],” (CL49, 86) or the Eliotic “[…] crunch of trainwheels over the points as you watch peeling away the track you didn’t take” (GR, 396), a moment encompassing a certain melancholy too. But it also operates at the level of language: the pun as the loss/excess of sense; the infinitely extending sentence; the Nabokovian network of allusions. While Simon Critchley’s work on humour, for example, highlights its capacity to alert the humorist and his/her community to a certain self-consciousness about who, what and where they are, Pynchon uses it, I argue, to undermine any necessity about the determinants that construct the world of praxis. Critchley suggests that,
[…] humour can function as an (un)timely reminder of who one is, and the nature of what Heidegger would call Geworfenheit, or thrownness. If humour returns us to our locale, then […] it can do this in an extremely uncomfortable way, precisely as thrown into something I did not and would not choose.1
Pynchon may return us to our locale but with the latter in great disarray. It is not the existential issue of choice that is central in his work so much as a defamiliarisation that undoes the very epistemological security of locale and of discourse in general.
Ultimately, I suggest, Pynchon’s alternative worlds are experiments in alternative economies and communities, based on relations of obligation and gift. An enemy of bourgeois feeling, as with Surrealist black humour—Breton, in his Anthology declares humour noir the “mortal enemy of sentimentality”—the black humour of the early Pynchon attacks bourgeois and humanist ideologies of sentiment, including the notion of self (one might think of the lack of psychological realism in his characters, or the dissolution of Slothrop). And while they alter in tone and affect, in Pynchon’s later period of writing, melancholy and humor powerfully persist, albeit sublimated into far straighter, less formally experimental narratives. Using examples from both the early and late work, I will try to pick out moments of black humor that are at once funny, uncomfortable, and emblematic of a radical politics that only a humorous “no-place” can generate.
- Critchley, On Humour, p. 75.