I can’t believe that I’ve never come across this essay before:
Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.
Many of the finest novels—and certainly the novels I love most—are in the Greek comic tradition, rather than the tragic: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, and on through to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.
Yet western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn’t even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, “with a beautiful grave formality.”
The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time’s Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.
But why this pressure, from within and without? There are two good reasons. The first is the west’s unexamined cultural cringe before the Greeks. For most of the last 500 years, Homer and Sophocles have been held to be the supreme exponents of their arts. (Even Homer’s constant repetition of stock phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” are praised, rather than recognised as tiresome clichés.)
The second reason is that our classical inheritance is lop-sided. We have a rich range of tragedies—Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (18 by Euripides alone). Of the comic writers, only Aristophanes survived. In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, “Boy, it’s a tough job, leading a nation” tend to survive; plays that say, “Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us” tend not to.
More importantly, Aristotle’s work on tragedy survived; his work on comedy did not. We have the classical rules for the one but not the other, and this has biased the development of all western literature. We’ve been off-centre ever since.
It gets better. Read it.