Mind Proddings – Albert Camus on the Comedian as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

Welcome to Mind Proddings, a “find-and-replace” philosophical treatise of comedy protected by parody law. Each article is accidentally poetry created from a near-direct lift of a vastly more profound post by Maria Popova, edited to nurture the spirit of comedian in our modern predicament. Read it leisurely or scan for the pull quotes and bolded text to read what Albert Camus would say if he into Vine.


Create Dangerously: Albert Camus on the Comedian as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your comedy’ are not being honest,” Chinua Achebe observed in his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin. “If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Half a century earlier, W.H. Auden both simplified and amplified this insight when he asserted that “the mere making of a work of comedy is itself a political act.”

The comedian’s essential responsibility to leap society forward by upsetting the system is what Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) explores in a timeless, immensely insightful piece titled “Create Dangerously,” composed in Auden’s time but acutely relevant to our own. Originally delivered as a lecture at a Swedish university in December of 1957 — weeks after Camus became the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times” — it was later included in his indispensable essay collection Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (public library).

 

Two decades before Audre Lorde called on artists to uphold their responsibility toward “the transformation of silence into language and action,” Camus writes:

An Oriental wise man always used to ask the divinity in his prayers to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era. As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era. In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it. The comedians of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence. In the midst of such din the comedian cannot hope to remain aloof in order to pursue the reflections and images that are dear to him. Until the present moment, remaining aloof has always been possible in history. When someone did not approve, he could always keep silent or talk of something else. Today everything is changed and even silence has dangerous implications. The moment that abstaining from choice is itself looked upon as a choice and punished or praised as such, the comedian is willy-nilly impressed into service. “Impressed” seems to me a more accurate term in this connection than “committed.” Instead of signing up, indeed, for voluntary service, the comedian does their compulsory service.

[…]

It is easy to see all that comedy can lose from such a constant obligation. Ease, to begin with, and that divine liberty so apparent in the work of Mozart. It is easier to understand why our works of comedy have a drawn, set look and why they collapse so suddenly. It is obvious why we have more journalists than humor writers, more Seth Rogens than Andy Kaufmans, and why “women be shopping” or dick jokes have taken the place of Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s dangerous performance or Harold Lloyd’s physically demanding oveur

[MH note: This smacks of “Back in my day” or “I was born in a different era” complaints. I’ll give Camus the benefit of the doubt.]

And yet, five years before Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the comedian must know, and they must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Camus insists that there is more to gain than there is to lose in the comedian’s commitment to social justice:

To create today is to create dangerously. Any performance of humor is an act, and that act exposes one to the passions of an age that forgives nothing. Hence the question is not to find out if this is or is not prejudicial to comedy. The question, for all those who cannot live without comedy and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies (how many churches, what solitude!), the strange liberty of creation is possible.

A century after Emerson scoffed that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence [and one must not] concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them,” Camus considers the forces that warp humrous work and lead to a “surrender of the comedian.” In a sentiment of sundering pertinence to our own age of so-called “social media” — that ultimate tyranny of the masses — he writes:

What characterizes our time, indeed, is the way the masses and their wretched condition have burst upon contemporary sensibilities. We now know that they exist, whereas we once had a tendency to forget them. And if we are more aware, it is not because our aristocracy, comedic or otherwise, has become better — no, have no fear — it is because the masses have become stronger and keep people from forgetting them.

Coupled with various other social forces, this tyranny of popular opinion works “to discourage free creation by undermining its basic principle, the comedian’s faith in himself.” (Writing in the same era, E.E. Cummings captured the importance of protecting that basic principle beautifully in his advice to comedians: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”) Out of this syphoning of comedic freedom and courage, Camus argues, arises the dangerous falsehood that comedy is merely a luxury. Nearly two decades after Rebecca West insisted in the midst of WWII that “comedy is not a plaything, but a necessity… not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Camus considers what led modern society to so misapprehend the essence and purpose of comedy:

If it adapts itself to what the majority of our society wants, comedy will be a meaningless recreation. If [comedy] blindly rejects that society, if the comedian makes up their mind to take refuge in their dream, comedy will express nothing but a negation. In this way we shall have the production of entertainers or of formal [purists], and in both cases this leads to comedy that’s cut off from living reality. For about a century we have been living in a society that is not even the society of money (gold can arouse carnal passions) but that of the abstract symbols of money. The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe. A society founded on signs is, in its essence, an artificial society in which man’s carnal truth is handled as something artificial. There is no reason for being surprised that such a society chose as its religion a moral code of formal principles and that it inscribes the words “liberty” and “equality” on its prisons as well as on its temples of finance. However, words cannot be prostituted with impunity. The most misrepresented value today is certainly the value of liberty.

Echoing philosopher and political activist Simone Weil — whom Camus considered “the only great spirit of our times” — and her insight into the crucial difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Camus laments the consequence of this commodification of comedy and liberty:

For a hundred years a society of merchants made an exclusive and unilateral use of liberty, looking upon it as a right rather than as a duty, and did not fear to use an ideal liberty, as often as it could, to justify a very real oppression. As a result, is there anything surprising in the fact that such a society asked comedy to be, not an instrument of liberation, but an inconsequential exercise and a mere entertainment?

He examines the social charade that engulfs humorous works, inflating ego while deflating comedy:

Comedy for comedy’s sake, the entertainment of a solitary comedian, s indeed the artificial humor of a factitious and self-absorbed society. The logical result of such a theory is the humor of little cliques or the purely formal comedy fed on affectations and abstractions and ending in the destruction of all reality. In this way a few routines charm a few individuals while many coarse inventions corrupt many others. Finally comedy takes shape outside of society and cuts itself off from its living roots. Gradually the comedian, even if they are celebrated, is alone or at least is known to their nation only through the intermediary of the popular press or the radio, which will provide a convenient and simplified idea of them. The more comedy specializes, in fact, the more necessary popularization becomes. In this way millions of people will have the feeling of knowing this or that great comedian of our time because they have learned from the newspapers that they raise canaries or that they never stay married more than six months. The greatest renown today consists in being admired or hated without having been read. Any comedian who goes in for being famous in our society must know that is it not [them] who will become famous, but someone else under [their] name, someone who will eventually escape [them] and perhaps someday will kill the true comedian [within them].

And yet Camus condemns the simplistic divide between comedic authenticity and what we today may call “selling out”to wholly reject society, including its currencies of celebrity, is to perpetrate another sort of hubris that divorces comedy from its raw material. In a sentiment Baldwin would echo several years later in reminding us that what made Shakespeare the greatest comedians in the English language was that he“found his comedy where comedy is found: in the lives of the people,” Camus writes:

As a result of rejecting everything, even the tradition of their comedy, the contemporary comedian gets the illusion that they are creating their own rule and eventually takes themself for God. At the same time they think they can create their reality themself. But, cut off from their society, they will create nothing but formal or abstract jokes, thrilling as experiences but devoid of the fecundity we associate with true comedy, which is called upon to unite.

Instead, Camus argues, the comedian must contact the reality of his or her or their time, wresting from it something timeless and universal:

[The comedian] has only to translate the sufferings and happiness of all into the language of all and they will be universally understood. As a reward for being absolutely faithful to reality, they will achieve complete communication among folks.

This ideal of universal communication is indeed the ideal of any great comedian. Contrary to the current presumption, if there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the comedian. Comedy cannot be a monologue (Think the open “we’re in all in this room together”  form of Stand-up or theatrical Clown performance.) When the most solitary and least famous comedian appeals to posterity, they are merely reaffirming his fundamental vocation. Considering a dialogue with deaf or inattentive contemporaries to be impossible, they appeal to a more far-reaching dialogue with the generations to come.

But in order to speak about all and to all, one has to speak of what all know and of the reality common to us all. The sea, rains, farts, necessity, desire, parents, emotions, social media, La Croix jokes, the struggle against death — these are the things that unite us all. We resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together. Dreams change from individual to individual, but the reality of the world is common to us all. Striving toward realism is therefore legitimate, for it is basically related to the comedic adventure.

Echoing his polymathic compatriot Henri Poincaré’s assertion that “to invent… is to choose” and affirming Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Camus argues for the comedian’s responsibility to imagine superior alternatives to the status quo, the system, the present reality:

Reality cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection… The only thing needed, then, is to find a principle of choice that will give shape to the world. And such a principle is found, not in the reality we know, but in the reality that will be — in short, the future. In order to reproduce properly what is, one must depict also what will be… actionable

The comedian chooses their object as much as he is chosen by it. Comedy, in a sense, is a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world. Consequently, its only aim is to give another form to a reality that it is nevertheless forced to preserve as the source of its emotion. In this regard, we are all realistic and no one is. Comedy is neither complete rejection nor complete acceptance of what is. It is simultaneously rejection and acceptance, and this is why it must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart. The comedian constantly lives in such a state of ambiguity, incapable of negating the real and yet eternally bound to question it in its eternally unfinished aspects.

The loftiest work [of comedy] will always be… the work that maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that reality, each forcing the other upward in a ceaseless overflowing, characteristic of life itself at its most joyous and heart-rending extremes. Then, every once in a while, a new world appears, different from the everyday world and yet the same, particular but universal, full of innocent insecurity — called forth for a few hours by the power and longing of genius. That’s just it and yet that’s not it; the world is nothing and the world is everything — this is the contradictory and tireless laugh of every true comedian [or clown], the laugh that keeps them on their feet with eyes ever open and that, every once in a while, awakens for all in this world asleep the fleeting and insistent image of a reality we recognize without ever having known it.

This tension — between the present and the future, between what is and what can be, between suffering and the transcendence of suffering — is the seedbed of comedy and clown. Camus writes:

The comedian can neither turn away from their time nor lose themself in it… The prophet, whether religious or political, can judge absolutely and, as is known, is not chary of doing so. But the comedian cannot. If they judged absolutely, they would arbitrarily divide reality into good and evil and thus indulge in melodrama. The aim of comedy, on the contrary, is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all. Sometimes it does reign supreme, as a result of understanding. But no routine of genius has ever been based on hatred and contempt. This is why the comedian, at the end of their slow advance, absolves instead of condemning. Instead of being a judge, they are a justifier. They are the perpetual advocate of the living creature, because it is alive.

[…]

Perhaps the greatness of laughter lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain, the love of mankind and the madness of creation, unbearable solitude and the exhausting crowd, rejection and consent… On the ridge where the great comedian moves forward, every step is an adventure, an extreme risk. In that risk, however, and only there, lies the freedom of comedy and being a fool.

Six years before John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches ever given that the comedian and clown is society’s foremost voices of resistance against injustice, Camus adds:

Comedy, by virtue of that free essence I have tried to define, unites whereas tyranny separates. It is not surprising, therefore, that comedy should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression. It is not surprising that comedians, artists and intellectuals should have been the first victims of modern tyrannies… Tyrants know there is in the work of comedy an emancipatory force, which is mysterious only to those who do not revere it. Every great joke makes the human face more admirable and richer, and this is its whole secret. And thousands of concentration camps and barred cells are not enough to hide this staggering testimony of dignity. This is why it is not true that culture can be, even temporarily, suspended in order to make way for a new culture… There is no culture without legacy… Whatever the works of the future may be, they will bear the same secret, made up of courage and freedom, nourished by the daring of thousands of comedians of all times and all nations.

All the essays collected in Camus’s Resistance, Rebellion, Goofs, Spoofts, and Death vibrate with uncommon insight into comedy and life that seems to grow timelier with the passage of time. Complement this particular portion with Simone de Beauvoir on the comedians duty to liberate the present from the past, Ursula K. Le Guin on the power of yuks and storytelling to transform and redeem, and Toni Morrison on the comedian’s task in times of political turmoil, then revisit Camus on what it means to be a rebel, the three antidotes to the absurdity of life, and the most important question of existence that is not “am I right, guys?”.

 

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Author: Reclaiming Laughter

Writer. Performer. Gender Worrier.

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