Eagleton on Humour

This review was first published in The Weekend Australian in August 2019.


Terry Eagleton, Humour

Yale University Press; $37.99; 224pp

Not long ago a new category appeared, temporarily, on the Netflix homepage, called something like ‘Politically Incorrect Comedy’. Whether this was meant as a warning or a promise, or a bit of both, is hard to say; but there’s no doubt it spoke to something in the culture: a self-consciousness in debates around women and minorities, related to the political moment. When US comics Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari fell foul of the #MeToo movement, the attendant calumny played into a wider discussion about the relationship between power and joke-making. So too, from a very different direction, did Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, in which Gadsby effectively deconstructs her own set, laying bare the emotional pain beneath the gags. Today humour feels implicitly political in a way that it hasn’t since the 1980s and the rise of so-called ‘alternative comedy’. No wonder that some of the most interesting comics traverse the border between wokeness and outrage, milking the resulting discomfort for laughs.

Ours is an excellent time, in short, to be thinking about the nature of humour, and I can’t imagine a better person to think alongside than Terry Eagleton, the British critic as renowned for his humour as for his unreconstructed radicalism. His new book Humour is an engaging study of how and why we laugh, and at what, and what these things tell us about the kind of animals we are. Ranging from Freud to Frankie Howerd, and from Tristram Shandy to David Brent, it is beautifully written and full of wisdom. It’s also a matchless demonstration of how humour outruns our attempts to understand it, or at least to generalise about its character.

As befits a thinker from the Marxist tradition, Eagleton begins with a chapter on laughter, a phenomenon that speaks to both the creatural and the cultural aspects of the human animal, and to the relationship between the two. Laughter, writes Eagleton, is ‘sound without sense’ – a reminder of our bestial nature, and often frowned upon for that reason. And yet it is also socially coded in a way that reveals our creativity. There’s a big difference between a cackle and a belly laugh, and it follows that humour is similarly diverse. What is the connection – is there a connection – between the wit of Oscar Wilde and the slapstick of Jim Carrey? Why do Germans laugh at Mr Bean and Englishmen fall over when they hear the word ‘knickers’?

Frustratingly for the Big Theory merchants, there are no straightforward answers to these questions, and Eagleton is at his dazzling best when critiquing the different explanatory frameworks. From the ‘release’ thesis favoured by Sigmund Freud, which sees humour in terms of psychological tension, to the idea that humour springs from a sense of the failures and frailties of one’s fellow beings, Eagleton weighs the major theories and concludes that, while each has something to be said for it, none is sufficient on its own to explain the spectacular diversity of humour. Nor is the relationship between humour and power as simple as some commentators assume. It is a contradictory phenomenon, like nationalism – a tool, potentially, of both liberation and oppression. Sometimes it moves in two directions at once. As Eagleton puts it, echoing Freud, ‘In the little insurrection of the wisecrack we can reap the pleasures of rebellion while simultaneously disavowing them, since it is, after all, only a joke.’

The question of power is crucial, of course, and the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin looms large over this part of the discussion. Bakhtin was a student of the ‘carnivals’ of medieval and Renaissance Europe, and regarded them as a subversive force, turning authority on its head and inverting the priorities of power. His ideas have thus proven attractive to radicals looking for signs that humour is inscribed with a desire to be free from oppression. But here, again, Eagleton is sceptical about the claims being made for humour’s instrumentality. Carnival is drawn to the base and the bodily, but why, asks Eagleton, should such an outlook not also undermine our humanity? ‘If humour can deflate the pompous and pretentious in the name of some more viable conception of human dignity, it can also strike, Iago-like, at the very notion of value, which in turn depends on the possibility of meaning.’

In his final chapter, on politics and humour, Eagleton turns to Trevor Griffiths’ outstanding play Comedians, which is centred on a group of working-class men hoping to make it as stand-up comics, and which feels as relevant today as it did when I first saw it, as a student in the 1980s. Eagleton’s exposition is brilliant, and I found myself wondering if some enterprising theatre could be persuaded to give it another run. We’ll see. But in the meantime this treatise should serve a comparable purpose: to remind us that humour is a lot more complex and contradictory than our cultural politics allow.