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All Classics Are Funny
If it isn’t hilarious, do you really think anyone is going to be reading it in ten thousand years? I didn’t think so.
THE MOST FAMOUS OPENING LINE in American literature is also one of the silliest. “Call me Ishmael,” says a New England deckhand. That is a joke. Imagine Good Will Hunting opening with an establishing shot of Matt Damon’s character hammering a nail and saying to the viewer, “Call me Socrates.” There might be some symbolic meaning behind “Socrates,” an egghead who famously knows more than others because he understands he knows nothing. But the Boston accent would still boil “Sah-craw-tees” to a delightful pulp. The dissonance in Melville’s opener is the same, and it’s not a one-off. The great American novel, Moby-Dick embodies several narrative forms, but the one it begins with is comedy.
Melville’s language for most of the first chapter, in fact, is less biblical than playful. Being restless and penniless, Ishmael decides, “I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” We likewise know Ishmael is deeply sad because he finds himself “pausing before coffin warehouses.” Not funeral homes, importantly, or graveyards. “I’ve always wanted to travel,” is his sentiment, “which is why I keep loitering at car dealerships.” Ishmael is forlorn enough he can barely keep himself from “stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” We’re in Charlie Chaplin territory at this point.
I have developed a modest theory about all this having to do with classic books1: All classics are classics only insofar as they’re funny. It might sound more reasonable to say, “only to the extent that they can be funny,” or “only if they’re sometimes funny,” or even, “All classics are not funny, except for Jane Austen.” I hold no truck with such tact. Consider Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a work dedicated to depicting the horrors of America’s chattel slavery. One-liners abound: “Sethe struggled to stand and discovered that not only could she do a split, but that it hurt.” Another grand volume in the canon of world literature, War and Peace, is outright farcical: “Can they be coming at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?” Even Faulkner gets his licks in, devoting an entire page in As I Lay Dying to one line: “My mother is a fish.”
Maybe you’re not laughing out loud. But even if Morrison’s and Tolstoy’s and Faulkner’s humor isn’t the whole of their work, that doesn’t mean it’s not crucial.
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Tolstoy is especially notable for how he drags his characters through maiming, cuckolding, boozing, bickering, seducing, and other daily dramas, which he uses to cover over a multitude of small, and sometimes significant, reversals of fortune. But he almost always unwraps his principals with humor. Pierre Bezukhov, one of the heroes of War and Peace, is introduced both to the reader and his peers within the novel by way of Austenian satire: After promising a respected friend he will stop partying, Pierre swills spirits with some no-good soldiers, finds a bear, ties the bear to a policeman, and throws the newly bound couple in the Moyka River. The bear, I want to emphasize, is strapped to a policeman in the manner of a bestial “Kick Me” sign.
There’s more. The fulcrum of War and Peace is the young countess, Natasha Rostova. We meet her and the entire Rostov family not long after Pierre’s bruin punking; it is during their conversation that the incident with the bear is first elaborated. Through the Rostovs’ discussion, the reader comes to understand the worn but essentially proper mien of Natasha’s mother and the good-natured, silly affect of her father. “I can just imagine what a funny figure that policeman cut!” says Count Rostov, waving his arms in pantomime of the unlucky lawman. The reader can imagine it, too, laughing both with and at the simple and kindhearted noble. When the family insists Natasha takes after the count, her own charms and weaknesses settle into place.
War and Peace might be the most famous novel of all time, but not enough people hear about the bear. Let the people know about the bear! Given the austere reputation of the novel, it’s hard to avoid the assumption that War and Peace is good in a capital-G sense—that is, Good for you. Why all the fuss otherwise? And if it’s not a kind of narrative vegetable, then perhaps it’s a kind of literary strongman: War and Peace wants to conquer you, to force you into obeisance by sheer, magnificent word count. Add in the consequences of the high-minded adaptations that have defined War and Peace in the public imagination, and you end up with the novel as a cultural palimpsest of itself. By abstraction, by reputation, by mediation, readers believe they know War and Peace without ever having to open War and Peace, and one of the main things they know is that it’s a humorless book.
We might call this phenomenon the Jane Austen Effect. Austen’s romances will always be read because of her wit, which is transcendent. Yet most adaptations would have you believe the romance comes first, that hers is a heartfelt oeuvre sprinkled with pithy zingers. Of the many films made from her books, only the 2020 Emma and Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship accurately convey Austen’s precise mix of satire and sincerity. As for War and Peace, if it’s so monstrously impressive, the nonreader—sometimes called the “general reader,” sometimes called the “Goodreads egregore,” sometimes called “my preference for watching TV”—won’t expect it to be light. And why would they? The melodrama and the heft of Tolstoy’s grand story are easy to translate to our culture’s preferred forms—a three-and-a-half-hour Hollywood feature, a six-hour BBC miniseries, even a stage musical drawn from a small chunk of the text. But the laughter remains bound to Tolstoy’s narration.
“A NOVEL,” MILAN KUNDERA ONCE WROTE, “is based primarily on certain fundamental words.” He told an interviewer that his best-known book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was built on “weight, lightness, soul, body, the Grand March, shit, kitsch, compassion, vertigo, strength, weakness.” He borrows the musical term “tone row” for these jumbles. If I came across a “tone row” of Kundera’s sort in the wild, I think I could be forgiven for assuming I was reading a block of SEO keywords.
But if we accept Kundera’s idea of the literary tone row, we can use it as a semiotic pillar to brace whole genres. High fantasy’s tone row, for example, would include “heroism, magic, Tolkien, Tolkien-esque, Anti-Tolkien, Tolkien-by-Tolkien, and ‘worldbuilding.’” Romance might be something like, “lust, abs, power, trust, devotion,” and so on. All genre novels involve recognizable formulae that can be articulated in these word clouds, but what matters for our purposes is how books of the highest quality—the ones that break out of the limitations of their genre and end up being hailed as all-purpose “classics”—often share what deeply learned critics like to call “similar vibes.”
Kundera’s tone rows give us a chance to name even these vibes. Doing so isn’t easy, of course—putting words to a vibe sometimes kills it, like a subtle joke—and to be sure, grouping such distinct, lasting texts as Things Fall Apart with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a fool’s errand. After all, “classic” doesn’t designate a genre, but a prominence. Whatever Things Fall Apart and Tristram Shandy have in common at the core of their conception is distillation upon distillation.
Even so, the whiffs I still catch from these books, the “fundamental words” that undergird both—and probably any work similarly destined to be enjoyed in perpetuity—can be derived from your average review: “humanity, warmth, and humor”; “slightly mad . . . uniquely entertaining.” Remarks accumulate concerning form, truth, morality, culture, humor. Thin gruel, maybe. Crucially, however, those reviews, to say nothing of most readers’ experiences, also center “shock” and “surprise.”
It’s a whiff of a whiff, but “surprise,” the reader’s surprise, is the central paradox of every classic: The designation identifies a book read and re-read and re-contextualized by different eras, yet when I push away all the hands that have held it before my own and encounter the text for myself, I am astonished. And when I return to the classic at some later date, I am astonished again, and for different reasons. If I’m ever forced to speak about such books—let’s say in my day job as a librarian (from the Latin librārius: concerned with . . . Libras. Libras, right?)—my hope is to communicate this jolt. “I don’t think a Penguin Classic has ever made me laugh harder,” I’ll tell anyone who will listen, “than Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.”
That’s not a random example. A rival to War and Peace in both length and profundity, West’s 1941 “travelogue” completes a smash-cut so shocking and delightful the English critic Geoff Dyer calls it “the most daring time-shift, the most outrageous deduction—ever.” And that’s not a one-time flourish. West’s investigation into the cultures and characters of interwar Yugoslavia is strewn with incisive wisecracks. “We took an early opportunity to ask [some friends] why they and their world were against the Yugoslav state. Their first reply was simply to look very handsome.” Her friends’ self-conscious dignity is palpable with that last line, which could be a still from Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. Living decades before the violent outworking of post-Soviet Balkanization and the horrors of the ethnic cleansing with which the region is still associated, her interlocutors carry the ridiculous, often charming air of heroism common to so many revolutionaries. None of which West needs to unpack. Her joke cuts through the fat, a biopsy of insight that combines description and diagnosis in one entertaining jab. She’s always doing that sort of thing, Rebecca West.
ALL THE BEST JOKES, whether literary or otherwise, include some obscure and mysterious mix of expected and unexpected. If a punchline lands—if you get walloped, or even tapped upside the head—it’s because the writer used the quick hit of the expected to distract you from the oncoming haymaker of the unexpected. There’s no getting around metaphors here. Why is a joke funny? We will see the face of God before the truth is known. Possibly God will say, “What do you call a sea creature who keeps banging on the door?” And as the seventh seal is opened, we will glow with glory, murmuring, “O Lord, a knock-topus.”
But I don’t mean that all jokes are simply puns. Consider Norm Macdonald’s all-time late-night routine. “In the early part of the previous century, Germany decided to go to war. And, uh, who did they go to war with? The world.” This verbal gag turns on the way “World War” has been lodged into our brains as a stock phrase, one that has become abstracted and detached from the specific historical realities it’s meant to designate. Norm’s brilliant reifying swerve is the result of his attention to that curious slippage. (“It was actually close,” he says, keeping at it.)
The same deep attention that enables great jokes can be found in all the books that have earned the “classic” label. Without humor, without the heel-turn of wit, a book’s range shrinks. The re-readability of lasting works is based on the vivacity of the text’s continual swerves, the mix of expectations met, undermined, and overturned. Humor is a virtuosic form of the mind’s spontaneous engagement with the world: Take it away, and the text’s formal vitality, even in the best dramatic outings, withers.
For example: Why hasn’t John Steinbeck aged well? Some of his work still moves and shakes, especially for readers who encounter him in high school, but if you try to read Grapes of Wrath as an adult, you’ll find a book ossified by self-seriousness. His cardboard Okies are figures from a pamphlet. Not content to write genuinely great pulp dialogue such as, “When you been in stir a little while, you can smell a question comin’ from hell to breakfast,” he throws his pithiness away in hopes of sounding profound.
An overview of Steinbeck’s novels in the New York Review of Books characterizes this as a consistent failing. Even the memorable East of Eden “is highly overheated, its fervid drama uninflected by humor or irony.” Worse, in Grapes of Wrath, the characters “are somehow generalized, more real as a group force than as individuals.” Not only is “Ma Joad too good to be true,” but Tom is merely a “strong, virtuous young man trapped by fate and history” and “Rose of Sharon . . . more a symptom than a real young woman.” Wit, in the end, is symbiotic with fresh insight, with keeping perspective. Steinbeck goes stale because he refuses to see the ex-Sooners as comedic and not only as victims. Dust Bowl Okies were pitiable, sure, but they were also ridiculous, inane, silly, and sometimes betrayed by bodily function, that great redoubt of hilarity.
On that last topic, we find ourselves again at the feet of Toni Morrison. Early on in Beloved, Sethe sits “in front of her own privy making a mudhole too deep to be witnessed without shame. Just about the time she started wondering if the carnival would accept another freak, it stopped.” Going her one better, James Joyce sets an entire scene of Ulysses in the outhouse. Man’s proclivity to read the news in foul repose has never been better documented. “Hope it’s not too big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive.” This is Seth Rogen territory.
Even these juvenile asides do something that is necessary to the novel. They are risks, often at the level of language, which help expose every wavelength in the spectrum of emotional reality. If you can tell a joke, narrative problems like A versus B and “character growth” can take a breather. Even better, they can be approached sideways. Whole plots can be repurposed in a single phrase before being snapped back into place the next line.
In Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, two young girls discuss their teacher’s philosophy of life. “Miss Brodie says prime is best,” says Sandy. She’s speaking in private with her best friend, Jenny. They’re ten. Jenny replies,
“Yes, but she never got married like our mothers and fathers.”
“They don’t have primes,” said Sandy.
“They have sexual intercourse,” Jenny said.
The sexual intercourse which Miss Brodie may or may not be having is the major through-line of the novel. The girls are in the grip of Miss Brodie’s charm, but sex? Until this point, it’s been held offstage. Exploiting our sense of parallel structure—“have primes” and “have sexual intercourse”—Spark redirects the plot with one girl’s precocious turn of the tongue.
TO RISK BANALITY: I CARE about great books. I’m not someone who thinks reading is always value-neutral—that the best stories are glassy, moral blanks into which we look and out of which we pull things that we ourselves have contributed to them. I mean, sure, sometimes that’s the case. Maybe always, for some people. But great books, and even good books that were great in the moment I read them, constitute a force that moves by its own power in my life.
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” I’m not totally sure what that means, but I did read Macbeth this year. The barbarity and ingenuity of its villains and heroes, to say nothing of the poetry, overwhelmed me. Great, fine, expected. “Have you heard that Shakespeare is . . . good?” But as a father of three young children, I was surprised and moved by the story’s attention to family exhaustion as a core feature of family warmth.
This dynamic was most convincingly evoked in a scene between the doomed Lady Macduff and her extra-doomed son.
LADY MACDUFF. Now God help thee, poor monkey! But
how wilt thou do for a father?
SON. If he were dead, you’d weep for him. If you would
not, it were a good sign that I should quickly have a
LADY MACDUFF. Poor prattler, how thou talk’st!
I live with this same child. To find his pertness, his intelligence, in the Bard’s Scottish tragedy is to step outside myself without losing myself. More to the point, there’s just no reason for the scene’s length or ingenuity. We’re meant to feel sympathy for these bystanders about to die. Horror, even. But Shakespeare goes beyond dramaturgical utility. The characters are too memorable for their limited roles entirely because of their humor. Macbeth might still command respect without their laughing voices, but it would be a lesser play.
Regardless of how we understand “timelessness,” that vague but irreplaceable quality we take to inhere in any classic, a good joke comes as close as possible to embodying its reality in the written word. A joke is language unmasked. A joke grounds and justifies itself. A joke bears all things, believes all things. “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial,” goes the oldest recorded one-liner: “a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” For some reason, that’s the only Sumerian tablet I can ever recall word for word. Most comedies aren’t classics. But among the great works of our literary and cultural history, the funnier a novel or play or comic artifact, the likelier it is to become immortal.
While the idea of a “classic” itself is debated, I will stipulate its existence for the purpose of this article. What is a “classic,” you ask? It’s like, you know, the sort of book nerds read.