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Interview: Simon Critchley
Philosopher and author of On Humour

Shirley Dent

SD: You end On Humour with a definition of the risus purus, the highest laugh. I will read that definition back to you:

For me, it is this smile - deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation - that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

Although I sympathise with your celebration of humanity's ability to overcome the worst, through laughter, this wormhole of escapism, I am deeply suspicious of any theory that concludes 'our wretchedness is our greatness'. Can you really defend this statement?

SC: It's a quotation from Pascal. I've always been very keen on Pascal, and what I'm most keen on in Pascal is his emphasis upon human wretchedness. He has a phrase which goes something like 'Anxiety, boredom and inconstancy, that is the human condition' and I've always been very partial to that. But obviously for Pascal the flip side of that is religious experience, that experience of God that would transform or redeem your wretchedness. I've long wanted to have an occasion to include it in something I wrote and that's why it's there.

I do mean it, it's very important to me in so far as I think, and this is one of the arguments of the book, that there is a black sun at the heart of the coloured universe, there is something melancholic at the heart of humour and in the last chapter I try and trace that out using Freud. I try and show how the structure of melancholia and the structure of humour are the same structure. Melancholia for Freud is the relationship that the subject takes up with respect to itself from the position of what he calls conscience or what he later calls the super-ego. And that can be lacerated - if you think of the anorexic who sees themselves from the perspective of the image they have, of the image they have of themselves in the mirror which is false - that would be the super-ego. Super-ego is what generates depression and it is what has to be dealt with in psychoanalysis.

The thing about humour is that the super-ego is also at play, so what interested me, particularly in the last chapter which is key to the book -and no one seems to have picked this up in writings on Freud - is that, in the later Freud, the essence of humour is the ability to look at myself and find myself ridiculous. That makes me laugh. So the pathology of humour is the same pathology as that of melancholia or depression The difference with humour is that humour can alleviate that, can transform that experience of wretchedness into something elevating, and liberating, in Freud's words. I don't want people to dwell in their wretchedness, I want people to find themselves ridiculous, and in so far as they can find themselves ridiculous they can rise above that wretchedness.

SD: What you are saying then, is that the final quotation, your thesis on humour, is not so much descriptive as prescriptive?

SC: Both. It's a very difficult line to tread. I begin the book by trying to describe the phenomena of humour and the phenomena of laughter. And then I say I am going to make normative claims. It is normal to say about humour that it is good to laugh at yourself and not good to laugh at others - that is the ethical headline of the book. It is descriptive therefore, in that I am feeding of what happens in humour and trying to offer a certain idea of how humour ought to be, what the best sorts of humour are capable of.

SD: Freud and Pascal are not the only figures in the last chapter. Samuel Beckett features a lot. Why so many helpers? Is it because humour is like that, it's a communal thing?

SC: Absolutely - everybody's an expert and everybody's got a gag. I was giving a talk in Bath at a conference on animals - there was no reason why I should have been there - but I was giving a plenary on humour and animals. Afterwards I got twenty-five references that I might follow on the basis of that talk - and they were good things. Why the book is so eclectic is that I was being taken off in different directions by people responding to it, but they're responding to it because they feel they have something to say, that they know about humour, they know what it means.

That's the place where I begin: everybody's an expert when it comes to humour. What humour feeds off is a tacit knowledge, an implicit knowledge of the social world that we have.

The quote you read at the beginning of this interview, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, is from Beckett's Watt. In many ways this book comes out of earlier work on Beckett.

SD: Just to back track a little bit, when you mentioned Pascal, you talked about the flip side of wretchedness as being religious experience. That's fine if you have a God or a religion. Are you suggesting that in a secular age, humour is the new God?

SC: This is an important question and it strikes me that there are about twenty things to say. First, there is no God. I begin from the assumption that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity. That's where I begin from and that is axiomatic for me. It means that if I had a religious experience I would stop doing philosophy: philosophy for me is essentially atheistic.

Now that's an anxious atheism. It's an atheism that is anxious because it inhabits questions that were resolved religiously in the pre-modern period. So the difficulty of modern life, of modernity in the full sense is this: the way in which we make sense of ourselves, those things we value and attribute meaning to, is still within a religious framework. Yet we cannot believe that religious framework. So from my perspective, modernity as a fully secular worldview has never really been achieved. We still inhabit the traces, the memory of, that religious perspective. And that's an ambiguous thing.

On the one hand it's a good thing: there's a story I use about Foucault in something I've just been writing on Racine and Christian subjectivity in drama. Foucault makes this comment in 1980 in a seminar at NYU where he asks 'How would we differentiate the pagan from the Christian?' The he says it would be in terms of the following two questions: the pagan of late antiquity asks himself the question 'Given that I am who I am, who can I fuck? Boys. girls, animals, whatever?' The Christian asks himself the question 'Given that I can fuck no one, who am I?' And we're still very much within a Christian framework: what Christianity in the West, and perhaps Islam does that elsewhere, and Judaism cuts across both in interesting ways, but Christianity in the West, opens up a perspective of depth into what it means to be a self. And that depth of the self is something that is experienced in the sight of God. So that the great thinkers of self and subjectivity are Paul and Augustine. They look at the self from the perspective of God and they find themselves wretched and interesting. Constituted by conflictual desires.

The difficulty we have is that we have that wretchedness of conflictual desire without reference to God. So humour is one way of thinking that complexity through. But there are other ways as well. I take it that why psychoanalysis is interesting is that psychoanalysis is a way of attending to the deep complexity of what it means to be the self.

SD: What about other strategies? Is humour a strategy that cuts across other ways of dealing with what it is to be human? For example you can have psychological humour but you can also have political humour.

SC: Again, it's fairly difficult because a question that is often raised about humour and it's been raised to me about what I've done with the topic, is humour fundamentally reactionary or can it be revolutionary. And I think the best answer is that it can be both. What's interesting about that is that jokes that are reactionary and jokes that are revolutionary have the same structure. So for example, the joke that I tell in the book is the radical feminist joke that goes. "How many men does it take to tile a bathroom? I don't know it depends how thinly you slice them." Which could be seen, if you wanted to, as a progressive joke, arguing for women's emancipation from the bondage of DIY or whatever. But it has the same structure as a racist joke or a Daily Mail reader joke, if you change the target, or you switched it round and it becomes a mother-in-law joke. So jokes have a very common structure and there's nothing about the structure of humour that can determine its political uses.

SD: What about political correctness? Would you ban Bernard Manning for example?

SC: Are there things you shouldn't laugh at? On the one hand I'd say no, there's nothing you shouldn't laugh at, and I can imagine making a strong anti-censorship argument, that we should have racist and sexist jokes because they are part of the lived experience of humour and to ignore them is just to repress them and to ignore a deep truth about ourselves. On the other hand that could be seen as a licence to permit racial and sexual hatred, or hatred of immigrants and asylum seekers. I was debating with Will Self at the British Library about three years ago. He was talking about satire and he's a very interesting man when he's pushed. Someone asked him the question 'Are there things you wouldn't laugh at? Are there things you wouldn't satirise?' And he replied 'Absolutely. Yes. I wouldn't do satire that used racist and sexist assumptions'. I found that interesting because if you think about Will Self's work you would imagine that nothing is off limits.

So I don't know. I think that racist jokes, ethic jokes, it's interesting in so far as racist humour reveals deep anxieties, they reveal how far we are still captive to assumptions that we would rather not have. As a good liberal, Guardian reading, anti-sexist male, I'd find myself unwittingly, against myself, laughing at things I don't want to laugh at. There are lies I'm telling myself.

So there are case of progressive humour and cases or reactionary humour. But the structure of humour is similar.

SD: At one level, don't you just judge it in the way we would judge art. Is it good? Is it funny?

SC: In many ways the key passage in the book is the one from Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians, which I remember watching as a kid on Granada TV, and which made an impression on me. In the TV version, the character that is played by Jimmy Jewel, the old music hall comic, makes this point, that any gag relieves tension. You can make people laugh. That's not difficult. But a true gag, a comedian's gag, has to do that and change the situation in which you understand yourself and the world. And great comedy does that.

A good example is watching the first episode of The Office and the first gag is this racist gag about the royal family thinking about a black man's cock and the joke is told three times in the show. It seems to me that this is a good case. We've got this gag - and it's a funny gag - but the way in which it's handled is that you're forced to effectively question all sorts of assumptions you have.

SD: What do you think of The Office?

SC: It's painfully accurate. I almost can't watch it, it's so painful. I wonder, I'm an academic, I've worked in factories, but I've never really worked in an office. But I wonder what it's like for people who work in offices. I watched the first episode last week and at three points I had to turn away. I couldn't bear to watch it. I found it so painful.

To that extent, we're attracted to situations of embarrassment and pain, the same reason that people watch horror movies with their hands over their eyes. Humour at its best is making explicit what is tacit, what is assumed, the stock of social know-how, and calling that into question, but calling it into question in a way that is recognised. Genuinely great humour recognises the world it's describing and yet we are also called into question by it. That's what great art should do. That's what great philosophy should do. The one thing about humour is that this is an everyday practice that does this.

So if philosophy is the activity of reflection about that which passes for truth, and what is asked of a philosopher is to question what passes as truth, then it seems to me that humour at its best is doing a very similar thing. Great humour is blowing apart what passes for truth in the world. Most humour is rubbish and most humour doesn't do that. And that's way you need to be prescriptive, to just say that this is better than that.


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