Present Mirth

Howard Jacobson’s a funny guy. Writes well, too.

The other proof of our philistinism is our politicising of literature…The old complaint that Jane Austen left out the Napeolonic wars is making itself heard again. If a novel isn’t politically au courant, if it isn’t ratified by events outside itself, we have trouble remembering what it’s for.

What used to be (tediously) called ‘relevance.’ How is Shakespeare ‘relevant’ to the yoof of today? Answer: he isn’t, so let’s not read the pesky old bastard any more.

It takes the most responsible of writers to see why irresponsibility is so important…Once upon a time, when we knew aesthetically what we were about, the novel was comic or it was nothing…Gargantua and Don Quixote are novels of grand design and purpose; they mean to liberate us from the debilitating certainties of God and hero worship, whether those certainties take the form of sermons, laws, sagas, patriotism, idealism or romance…

Yeah. If only someone would – liberate us from all those debilitating certainties. We’re all badly in need of some certainty-liberation these days.

In their guidelines for aspiring writers of eroticism, the publishers of Black Lace warn specifically against comedy. What they do not go on to say is that laughter is the operation of intelligence, an act of criticism, and the moment you subject porn, soft or hard, to intelligence, it comes apart like a mummified artefact exposed to light. Ditto The Da Vinci Code. Ditto the modern novel of highly responsible ideological intent.

Now that is really interesting. ‘No comedy, don’t forget, it messes up the concentration. Focus on the throbbing genitalia, and leave the wit at home.’

The isolation of comedy from everything else we do is symptomatic of this. We are right to shrink from the very idea of a “funny” book. There should be no such genre. We should expect laughter to be integral to the business of being serious. We are back in a new dark age of the imagination. We read to sleep.

And that’s even more interesting (well, to me), because that’s the Dictionary. It is funny (in intention), but it’s also serious. We even bothered saying that in the introduction. And I felt quite squirmy about having it shelved in the comedy section with all the chav books and crap town books. It’s not that kind of book. (But, as Jeremy kept sagely pointing out when I whined, more people would see it among the crap town books. They still wouldn’t buy it, but they would see it.) But anyway, this idea of laughter being integral to the business of being serious – that’s very B&W, I think. B&W has been lashed and laced and intertwined with mockery from the very beginning – but it’s also been quite serious.

Some things, we believe, should not be scrutinised or ridiculed. And day by day the list of sacred sites and objects – like one of Gargantua’s spiralling menus of excess – gets longer. Soon parliament might even harden our jokelessness into law. A radical confusion between art and action is at the heart of this. What we consider unacceptable in human behaviour, we consider unacceptable in art, forgetting that art exists precisely to say the otherwise unsayable.

Just so. The list of sacred stuff gets longer and longer and longer. That trend really needs to be reversed.

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