Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Agelasts, Hypergelasts, & Me

The word, "agelast," is from Rabelais, who's masterpiece I've never been able to finish, (I shall have to try again, someday,) by way of George Meredith's An Essay on Comedy, which I've just barely read. The word is meant for those who can not be made to laugh. Working in retail, this is a condition with which I am familiar. There are always people who do not laugh, or even smile, when one thinks they ought. When this happens to me with a customer of the bookstore where I work, it seems safest to assume responsibility for the failure. Usually, I have mistaken expedience for rapport. All that was wanted was information, thank you very much, not chat. I have overstepped. I have been, as they say, "too familiar." What this actually means, more often than not, is that I have misjudged my interlocutor's interests, and or motivations, based on the title or titles requested, on the assumption of a familiarity with, or an irony in the selection of, a book. Such assumptions are not safe.

A request, for instance, to be shown our selection of books on marijuana does not always imply a relaxed attitude to illegal drugs. The customer making such a request, in my experience, may be the mildly altered dope fiend he appears to be, but alternately he may be a parent sleepless with worry. This has happened to me. A well dressed woman smiling as she asks for a recommendation of the best instructional materials on raising chickens in an urban setting, may be desperately anxious to start a new career, having just lost her husband, her job and her sense of proportion. That happened to me too. Best not to judge, joke or assume.

But then Rabelais, I assume, was not describing such circumstantial unhappiness, but rather a category of person; an unfortunate who not only does not find me funny, but who finds nothing funny. Such a misfortune, as Rabelais seems to have suggested, if permanent, does not limit the individual's humanity, so much as translate the sufferer out of the human race. There are certainly people who miss the joke, or who laugh at unfortunate things, or who haven't laughed in ages. There are certainly people I find less than amusing, often as not because I am unable to amuse them, but I always assume the fault to be mine, or the cause circumstantial, if not me. I can not quite accept the existence of the entirely humorless human being, the "agelast," all anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Depression, piety, unhappiness, insanity, any or all of these might seem sufficient to sap humor to a nullity. I've know disappointment, and religion, to make unbearable otherwise presumably decent people. I'm thinking of one bitter, burned out old hag of an algebra teacher in my junior high school who had made her classroom a Hell for me. I remember my shock, on coming across her unexpectedly in the hallway one day, laughing with a colleague. Cackling might be the better word, but still. I was shocked to overhear, as I passed unnoticed by, that they were discussing a student. Not me, you understand, but still. A Presbyterian minister, the father of a childhood acquaintance, and a man of such epic dullness, in church and out, as to make him a person of unparalleled piousness, so far as I was then concerned, once told me a joke that was slightly off color for a boy of my age. At least, it must have been a joke, as he laughed having said it. I certainly didn't. Something to do with women in summer dresses being a distraction when seen from the pulpit. When I did not so much as smile at his quip, he immediately reverted to type and quoted something vile from Genesis, before marching saintly away. The gesture of the joke had been friendly, I now think, if his audience completely misjudged, but at the time, I found the joke embarrassing and the minister a hypocrite, and a little sinister. Still do, actually. Neither of these ugly instances of people I found humorless even as they manifested their amusement proves or disproves a thing, beyond my own understandable failure of sympathy as a child when confronted with the inexplicable complexity of unsympathetic adult personalities. I only mean to suggest, in referencing them here, that neither is it safe to assume that even the worst people may not find something in life laughable.

(Even God laughs, at least in The Old Testament, and only at us. I've just checked. See 2 Kings 19:21; Isaiah 37:22. As unrepentant sinners (Proverbs 1: 26), and those plotting against the just (Psalms 37:13) for example, He seems to find us awfully amusing. That should give a shiver not unlike that experienced when one thinks of old algebra instructors and Presbyterian divines, and yet I, for one, am indifferent.)

Of course Rabelais was not discussing theology, or making a clinical diagnosis, but a joke. George Meredith -- himself perhaps the most ponderously serious humorist ever to address the subject -- would seem to have understood this, though he does make it a little hard to believe that Rabelais was quite his cup of tea either, despite the approving quotation. Meredith's essay, so far as I can make heads or tails of it, is one long argument, not so much for laughter, as for an educated, dignified, wry and elevated amusement, more appropriate to proper Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Rabelais, like God before him, according at least to George Meredith, was masterful, but frankly a little vulgar. So if, in Meredith's essay, Rabelais is made to have argued against the agelast, he likewise had no use for the hypergelast; one who laughs at everything, a sorry sort with whom George Meredith had even less patience. But here I think Meredith may have misinterpreted Rabelais, for whom I speak admittedly in almost total ignorance. What didn't Rabelais find funny? Meredith seems to think some things that happen to be funny ought not to be, or that finding some things funny is lowering and mean. I would agree with Meredith, if not as to the particulars, then at least with his point, in practice. Rabelais, whatever his genius, unlike George Meredith, would have made a dreadful retail clerk. I think, however, based on rereading tonight a bit of either, while I'd rather work the floor with the Englishman, I'd rather read the Frenchman's books. As with Cervantes, Rabelais may not be the kind of comedian I find I can read at length, anymore than I could watch a week's worth of nothing but The Three Stooges, but I spend so much time at my job trying not to laugh inappropriately, trying to be sensitive to the humorlessness of others, I don't much care, always, for the company of authors of such painful delicacy as George Meredith. I'm glad I read his erudite little book on "the comic spirit," I just wish I'd understood it better, or had a better acquaintance with all the endless references, or laughed, just once, or even smiled, however wryly.

What Meredith, or at least his essay, wasn't, it seems, any more than this squib of mine has proved to be, was funny.

No comments:

Post a Comment