Some thoughts on my long day in class:
We were talking about our police ride-along assignment (which I will not be able to write about here or on any other public forum) and our professor was (as usual) inundating us with amazing and clever examples from her own students. (One of the nice things about having such a veteran professor is that she can cite her own accomplished students and you realize that there is hope.) A former student of hers had encountered a corpse on his
ride-along, and his piece was full of the grim and seemingly insensitive humor that the cops employed while dealing with the decayig body. At the end of the story the student noted that all such humor evaporated when the police contemplated facing the dead boy's family.
I was thinking about that in light of my weekend encounters with Neil Gaiman, who, as I said, is a charming and pleasant gentleman in person and on his blog. But his fictional work is full of very dark and often gory scenes, and has a very dark humor; lots of people find it really disturbing and weird. Yet I know there is a value in being able to laugh at your own worst experiences. On the second night that I saw Gaiman, he was in conversation with Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman came to fame writing Maus, a comic featuring himself as a mouse and memorializing his parents' experience in the Holocaust. What I think is important to remember is that such humor and laughter is not a way of tying up and throwing away the grief, but simply a way swabbing at it when necessary. Just because someone is laughing at their own experience doesn't mean they have to stop grieving over it.
The question is: how does this work when we're tossing and rechewing and reformulating experience between ourselves in society in the forms of journalism and art? How much and when can we laugh at someone else's experience as a way of staving off our own nightmares? I know we can't be purists and ascetics, maintaining absolute and sober respect for any experience not our own. For example, I'm sure someone somewhere has been injured by wolves. They might be offended at Gaiman's newest children's book, The Wolves in the Walls, which apparently portrays them playing video games and eating jam. But his daughter had a nightmare about wolves as a child, and he spun tales to comfort her. Dreams and archetypes and stories, whether fictional or real, once cannibalized by culture (the newspaper, the movies) have a ghostly impact on all of us, and we might all have to deal with them.
If the intent of classical tragedy was to provide catharsis for the audience, the Elizabethan improvement* of injecting comic relief into even Hamlet's tale must have only improved that process. The cops aren't going to laugh in the face of the family, whose share of the experience is heavier than their own, but they can laugh in front of the student reporter, who only has to see this kind of thing once and not every few days. The reporter can have more grim laughter than the reader, who didn't have to see the decay. The reader can smile at the joke more than someone being told about the article, who would probably be offended at being asked to laugh at such a subject. Experience spreads out in concentric circles like waves from a dropped stone, transmitted through briefly touching lives and then art and journalism. If we can be sophisticated enough to analyze our reactions with weights and densities, shades of gray instead of black and white, then we can afford to profit from the spreading without become completely numb or completely sensitive.
*Somebody with some scholarly knowledge let me know if I'm correct in guessing that comic relief is a fairly modern addition to tragedies? I can't remember much humor in the Oresteia or Sophocles, but then there's the Bacchae. . .and who knows about the Romans. Obviously I'm taking a Eurocentric viewpoint here.