Arthur Koestler, while explaining the logic of laughter, used the following example. An English baron came back home from his hunting expedition and found his wife in the arms of the local Bishop. To this he reacted in a strange way. He opened the window of his bedroom, the scene of the episcopal escapade, and began to bless the passers-by, as a Bishop would. This elicited indignant protests from the Bishop against a baron usurping his function. Thereupon the baron replied: “My Lord, if you are doing my work, shouldn’t I do yours?”

We could respond to this joke in two contrary ways. The first is to organise a protest rally of the faithful, labelling it as a scurrilous attack on bishopric and, by implication, on the Christian faith. The other is to chuckle over the prospect of reacting in a ‘heretical’ manner, as opposed to a stereotypical way, to a situation which could, otherwise, result in bloodshed. Those whose minds are conditioned to trudge only on the beaten track, would expect the jilted baron to stick a knife through the Bishop. Others are free to enjoy discovering that there are alternative ways of dealing with any given situation, including those that are grossly provocative.

The capacity to laugh at oneself is a sign of an individual’s strength and wholeness. The inclination to discover grievances where none exists, on the other hand, is a sign of emotional or psychological ill-health. What is true of individuals is also true of societies. Indeed the illness of a society can be calibrated on its readiness to be provoked, factored on the flimsiness of the provocations involved. The disposition to be immoderately upset by even innocuous situations or statements should get us all deeply concerned.

Humour, however, is not a licence to be frivolous or callous. The very purpose of humour is to enrich, or to add value, and not to trivialise or to devalue. True humour has the touch of Midas. Even if the joke improvised in a given context is of exceptional wit, it will still fail by the canon of humour if it ridicules what is cherished collectively or subverts a shared national pursuit. It would be in bad taste, for example, to crack a joke, even a side-splitting joke, at the expense of the national flag. Such a joke is sure to hurt the sentiments of a nation and cheapen national identity. On the other hand, if one were to create or crack a joke that has the intellectual vigour to provoke the people to re-examine the lip-service they pay to the flag without imbibing its symbolism and meaning, it would pass muster.

Tharoor’s twitter

Shashi Tharoor’s twitter is marked by the sort of ambivalence that, being rather high-brow, is sure to be lost on the masses. It is hard to disagree with the Prime Minister when he says, “it was just a joke.” It is rather obvious, given the circumstances, that it was indeed meant to be. But there is, arguably, a dissonance between the context and the joke. For that reason one can also sympathise with the indignation that Prithviraj Chauhan and Ashok Gehlot, representing contrary poles of the political spectrum, feel on this count. Austerity measures, as a calculated response to widespread hardships, are no laughing matter. But then, who says ‘serious matters’ are out of bounds for humour? As a matter of fact, laughter is a practical and benign way of negotiating serious matters and harsh realities. It is doubtful if Shashi’s intention was either to belittle the aam aadmi or to ridicule his party’s ‘holy cows’ or cherished ideals. One catches in his characteristic remark, on the contrary, a concern that austerity measures should go beyond tokenism and engage the deeper meaning of ‘austerity.’

Austerity is not merely a matter of shaving off, for a period, the superfluities of affluence or indulgence at the expense of the tax payer. Austerity measurers in the end would achieve nothing more than the fleeting mollification of aam aadmi’s sense of under-privilege at a time of unprecedented economic distress — if the sense of identification with his plight betokened by these measures is not woven into the fabric of national consciousness as a principled change in attitude, priorities, and policies.

A Minister’s choice to travel by economy class may assuage the grievance of the deprived lot for the time being. But it attains the authentic stamp of austerity only if such a gesture results from a conscious commitment on his part as well as on the part of his government to ensure that the privileges he sheds are translated into an affirmation on the ground of the worth and significance of the common man.

That is when ‘austerity’ assumes a positive content. True austerity, or austerity of the Gandhian genre, has an egalitarian genius. Without this, austerity could become a joke in retrospect, which is what Shashi means to allude to -- who knows? -- by counterpointing ‘cattle class’ with ‘holy cow.’

Humour has always had a heretical tang. ‘Heresy’ is a word of Latin origin meaning ‘I choose.’ It denotes an inclination, indeed a determination to think for oneself rather than toe the line or conform unthinkingly. What drives ‘heresy’ is an alert commitment to the integrity of one’s own person and a keenness to pursue and fulfil one’s destiny. Such a stance could easily seem ‘heretical’ to the establishment.

According to Peter Berger, the American sociologist, those to whom their sense of self-worth, dignity, and personal authenticity are of paramount significance come under a “heretical imperative” or the duty to be heretical. The alternative is to get assimilated into a faceless collectivity. The heretical imperative could assume either a violent expression, as in the case of various protest movements. Or it could, via humour, stay non-malignant in-house. Whether or not the latter is allowed to be the case depends largely on the robustness of the society or the party concerned. Tolerance towards dissent, and not hyper-allergy to it, is the essence of the democratic culture.

We must tolerate, indeed encourage and celebrate, the spirit of humour even if it is likely to prove vexatious at times; for the alternatives to humour are cruelty and weariness. Living as we do in grim and cheerless times, we should not exile the spirit of humour, just because we feel insecure about the irreverence that is germane to it. Humourlessness is a sort of cultural swine flu. Given the epidemic proportion it has now reached, humour needs to be put on a high premium nationally. The gain thereby is sure to be, in the long run, far greater than the loss or harm that could eventuate from it. And that will be the case, even for the aam aadmi.

So let us tweet each other: “Humour is dead. Long live humour!”

(The author is the Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.)


Humour and heresy September 22, 2009

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