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NOT A LAUGHING MATTER…

Let talk about laughter for a moment. No, we aren’t going to laugh, just talk. (No laughing, please. Thank you).

Beyond the wild fun it connotes, very few persons have a clear notion of what laughter is all about. Indeed, it is difficult to discuss laughter with a straight face (no pun intended). But one wonders whether that is by design, or by mere association of ideas (and there even is no test by which to distinguish one from the other).

Really, what makes us laugh? No, do not look at me like that; I am asking a perfectly reasonable question. A valid one too; for a danger looms on the horizon of our humour. Or if we do not realise how and why we laugh, we might not be aware when our conditioning to laugh is being surreptitiously altered. And that is the thrust of this short, straight-faced discourse (that came across as a tad pretentious, so I forgive you already if you did crack a smile).

There is much more to laugh about in the world today, even as we find less and less reason for amusement. This age has succeeded in creating humour that is not in the least bit funny. And I can trace this development to three main causes:
1. Comedians
2. Social media
3. Politicians

In years gone by in eras bygone, everyone strove to be taken a little seriously in the affairs of daily life, and no one made it a business to be an especial repertoire of jokes except such was a court jester or the village idiot, in which latter case the fellow had little choice. Of course, people wanted to be seen as people who were fun to be with, so they cultivated wit (in its pristine form, of course, and not the bastardised manner of it we are now used to that reduces everything to a laugh and a punchline) which was either very high, or very low. The wit of one age gave it its popular entertainment, and in many cases (especially true of the high wit) provided the literary classics of the next age. And the world proceeded on its merry course where for instance a Dr Johnson could give rein to his famous wit in an evening spent among friends after a day spent among his books and not be thought the lesser for it, or a Shakespeare soberly mind his business enterprises during the day then thrill audiences with his clever cast of words put in the mouth of picturesque characters.

Then we come to the twentieth century (the century in which Africa got fully inserted into the mainstream, whirl of the world’s concourse), and due to a lot of developments I have neither time nor inclination to treat here (but chiefly resolved into two things: (i) the debasement of the human in favour of the machine, and (ii) the divorce wrought between the heart and the head in the human; the latter which made the former possible, and these will be considered in fuller detail in subsequent posts), and we find that an hunger for the merely funny has been created; a travesty has occurred – humour now exists apart from the context of life, and the context in which it takes place is now a thing risible, never mind the degradation or despoliation that may accompany such.

And now we approach my thesis. The hunger alluded to in the previous paragraph might have withered away, fated either to be sated by the more “usual” forms of humour – the humble offerings of wit – or to gnaw incessantly at its patients’ innards till they drop dead from its internal consumption (and thus spare the rest of us that infernal compulsion). But the comedian steps up to the dais, and prolongs the agony of the hunger. To be sure, it is a sweet agony, and its stoking by the comedian tickles something pleasantly within us that the pure notes of laughter ring out in spite of ourselves. And that, those pure notes of laughter, are the whole problem.

For “pure laughter” is an artificial concept. Hitherto, laughter was either cruel or comradely; a mind which takes pleasure, and sees humour, in discomfiture, awkwardness or downright misfortune is cruel, and this has been the general consensus for the six millennia or so of civilized humanity. Laughter that results from evoked memories or self-deprecation is mostly comradely, yet we find overtones and undertones of mockery and cruelty here and there but these are mitigated by a lack of superior feeling which is manifest in the plainly cruel laughter. And men qua men (in whom head and heart remained a unity) knew the distinction; when they laughed, they knew which was cruel and which was comradely, but currently we have lost that distinction, and our laughter cannot even be said to cruel anymore – comradely it cannot be, when we are no longer men to begin with – just pitiful at the best of times, and cowardly and bestial the rest of the time. When man lost his unity of being, “pure laughter” was one of the ills that was displaced from that Pandora’s box. Pure laughter is an animal concept unique only to humans, and we should not be surprised to find it manifesting in situations that ape bestiality in varying degrees (again no pun intended). The comedians perpetuated this ill to us. And they do still. But a bigger scourge than even them is now on the scene.

Social Media. If we term it simply S & M, it evokes the appropriate images of what it is, in the final analysis. Without detracting from the “benefits” touted for it, and indeed which one may consider its mask of acceptability, the real reason it caught on so fast was the increased scope it gave us for exploring antics that bring about pure laughter. And the demeaning results are further evident for us to see. It is indeed ironic when we attempt to curb the “ills” we identify of social media by the same social media (and unwittingly informing those who did not know earlier of the increased scope available for the acting of weird fancies born of that unnatural divorce already alluded to). It is doubly ironic when the futility of such approach is pointed out using the same media. But such is the type of life we are reduced to living in this global village. Whereas we paid to have the comedian tout his wares to us, and further sought him in his lair, on social media we are the new vendors and we hawk indecent wares for the paltry wages of dubious approbation.
This discourse could easily have ended in the last paragraph, and it would still be a reasonably short one (about a thousand words and few more), but we must justify our apparent slander of politicians. We reasonably might have recovered our humanity, slim though the chances are, by the ministrations of our priests, our prophets, and our social critics. But the antics of our politicians make that impossible. From the utter disconnectedness of earlier centuries to the larger-than-life posturing of the late nineteenth century (and extending as late as the eighth decade of the twentieth century for African) to the cluelessness, idleness and plain irresponsibility seen in the twenty-first century (and these particularly accentuated in the third world countries, most particularly African polities), politicians have been a never-ending source of dismal amusement.

But whereas, the populace in earlier centuries were either (benignantly) human enough to ignore them or (violently) human enough to have them face the fusillade of public ire, be it by stoning them in the streets or stringing them up from street-corner lamp-posts (as during popular revolutions) or some other invention, literary or literal, to give vent to the public mood, we in our days are merely content to parody their failings in popular media. And that, without the needed vitriol. In fact, whatever splenetic discharge we summon are mostly expended on their familial or social or political affiliations, as if these were the culprits (and we unwittingly give armour to their would-be apologists by our rather irrelevant ad hominems).

And in their parody, these politicians can be seen do more harm than all their official malfeasance can bring about. For they become a kind of the ultimate personification of the soulless humour of our time. They have become a lasting monument to the reality of “pure laughter”. And in that capacity, they unleash the worst tendencies of the body politic. For when the unimaginable becomes visible, that unimaginable becomes risible, and man sinks further lower in his descent into non-entity.

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