I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.
Which is something to think about next time we praise Wendell Berry, right?
But then later, sounding like a sane Berry, he writes:
We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment. In 1892 if you were a seven-year-old, you’d read a story – just a very simple one – about a girl whose dog had died. Doesn’t that make you want to cry? Don’t you know how that little girl feels? And you’d read another story about a rich man slipping on a banana peel. Doesn’t that make you want to laugh? And this imagination circuit is being built in your head. If you go to an art gallery, here’s just a square with daubs of paint on it that haven’t moved in hundreds of years. No sound comes out of it.
The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numerals, and about eight punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it’s no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. Now there’s the information highway. We don’t need imagination circuits any more than we need to know how to ride a horse….
Which leads me to my point. He writes about how hard it is to write a joke. “It’s damn hard to make jokes work”, he says, whereas when writing about a tragic situation “you can’t really misfire”. He says,
I’ve known funny writers who stopped being funny, who became serious persons and could no longer make jokes. I’m thinking of Michael Frayn, the British author who wrote The Tin Men. He became a very serious person. Something happened in his head.
Humour is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally, you get just too tired, and the news is too awful, and humour doesn’t work anymore.
I think I was once much funnier than I am now. I was surprised when my wife told me one day that I was a very serious person. I suppose there is some merit in that, but I just think of the Coen brothers movie.
Cultivating an ability to laugh is essential to sanity, surely. And I am amazed that Frayn, who wrote one of my favourite plays of all time, was ever a funny guy. I gotta check that out sometime. Somewhere in Hannah’s Child (I am too busy to check right now- trying to finish this in time to get the washing up done), Hauerwas says the Gospel provokes fury and grief in us over the state of the world but it liberates us to find the funniness in everything.
Perhaps Christians, myself included, who so easily fall into “won’t somebody think of the children” histrionics would be well advised to hear Vonnegut who wonders if his alleged late-life humour deficit (not apparent to me) is down to the fact that he had “seen so many things that have offended me that I cannot deal with in terms of laughter”?
The world is filled to full with stuff to cry over, lament over and rage over but it would do more than keep us sane if we learned how to laugh at anything that still has a giggle in it.
Your Correspondent, Ought oft to exclaim “if this isn’t nice, he doesn’t know what is!”