One of the most intriguing and helpful books I’ve read all year is Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival, first published in 1974. I heard about the book years ago in an essay by Mandy Brown, whose wonderful website, A Working Library, has several posts about it.
As Brown notes, Meeker argues that Western Civilization is mostly founded on the “tragic mode,” inspired by the great tragedies in which a “larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image.” The character’s success “is also his undoing,” and tragedies end in bloodshed, death, and a funeral of some kind. Our civilization has been built on the tragic idea that we can bend nature to our will, the result of which has been complete ecological catastrophe.
Meeker proposes an alternative for surviving our disastrous times: the “comic mode,” inspired by comedy:
Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things, the avoidance of pain wherever possible, the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us make the best of the messes around us and within us.
Upon reading this, I was immediately struck by how well the tragic and comic modes map to Brian Eno’s concept of genius vs. scenius, with one being a egosystem and the other being an ecosystem:
Our world is an ecosystem in which our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.
Comedy and scenius show us a way forward. A chance at survival that, in Meeker’s words, “depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.” Comedy, like scenius, gives all the characters in the story a surviving role and a chance to live to see another day.
So how do we get into the comic mode? In the third edition of the book, published in 1997, Meeker argued that play was the quickest way in. Giving ourselves over to open-ended and improvisational activities, like music, art, gardening, etc.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 13, 2017
Humor and jokes, too, of course. I’ve been struck in recent years by how many activists and writers — especially women! — emphasize the importance of a sense of humor for survival.
bell hooks: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail.”
Mary Beard: “A bit of outrage is good, but having your only rhetorical register as outrage is always going to be unsuccessful. You’ve got to vary it. Sometimes, some of the things that sexist men do just deserve to be laughed at.”
Gloria Steinem, when asked why she’s lasted so long:
If I had to pick one reason, it’s because I have a sense of humor. That’s crucial. It allows you to laugh at yourself and say when you’re wrong. One of the things that Native American culture understands and we probably don’t is that laughter is the only emotion you can’t compel. You can’t make anybody laugh unless they want to. I suspect that the people who last the longest, who continue to be trustworthy, are people with a sense of humor.
Camille Paglia: “Comedy is a sign of balanced perspective on life and thought. Humorlessness should be grounds for dismissal. ”
Comedy is also a crucial survival strategy as a parent.
Tragedy vs. comedy maps to Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter, in which she argues that being a good parent is about being a “gardener,” and nurturing children as a plant with the right air and soil, etc. (I should note that I love the gardening half of the metaphor, but I don’t think the other half is right: carpentry seems to me to be an artisanal trade, which requires a sensitivity to materials similar to gardening. Do not some pieces of wood cry out to be certain objects and not others? Think of the story of Pinocchio, which literally starts out with a talking log, and is about the perils of trying to “shape” young boys.)
In the tragic mode of being a parent, you rigidly try to shape your kid into your ideal of a Great person; in the comic mode, you discover who the child is, together, with constant adaptation and improvisation.
An excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story explains how I feel about being a parent:
Life itself is a comedy—a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected. You reach to get the thing you want—slap! bang! It’s gone! You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently, and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair’s breadth between them.
Here is another tangent: Tragic and comic modes also seem to me like they could map to the “medical” and “social” models of disability.
Take stuttering, for example.
In a tragic or medical mode, stuttering is seen as a pathological impairment you try to “fix” with endless hours of speech therapy, trying to turn the person who stutters into a “normal” speaker. In the comic or social mode, stuttering is only a disability if it’s made one by the people surrounding the person who stutters. Given the right environment, supportive and understanding of difference, a person who stutters can teach us new things about time and patience, silence and rhythm, and the art of conversation.
I could go on, but I need to stop there for now.
A question we could all ask ourselves every morning: Do you want to live in a tragedy or a comedy?
I know which one works best for me.