The Great Comic Shift

I am enjoying the first of my Hornby-recommended books (Don Paterson's The Book of Shadows) tremendously. It is a collection of aphorisms (a genre you don't see that often nowadays outside of the snooty halls of high theory), and very early into it I started feeling a irresistible compulsion to write down every third or fourth aphorism, squirreling it away for future consumption. I marked down sayings that I felt particularly applied to friends and relatives, and even began whipping out my list in conversation and declaiming Paterson's thoughts in Rochefoucauldian fashion.

So I might impose some of my favorites on you, readers mine, over the coming days.

Here is a particularly striking one, which speaks to Paterson's talent for defamiliarization, his obsession with the world of objects once the human presence and point of view are removed from the equation:

Almost everything in the room will survive you. To the room, you are already a ghost, a pathetic soft thing, coming and going. (22)

A few pages earlier he had reflected on the same topic, but shifted our empathy to the objects' point of view:
All those chairs and bathtubs and cars and shoes which, emptied of us, are immediately returned to absurdity. How many lonely things we make for the world. (15)

Less aphoristic, but thoughtful and true, is his observation on what I would call "The Great Comic Shift":
Writers often end up humorists if they read in public too often. Barring the odd and worthless snort of self-congratulation, laughter is the only audible response we can ever elicit. The silence of the unbearably moved and that of the terminally bored are indistinguishable. (9)

I have never been a public intellectual of the writerly sort, but everything about my experience with acting and teaching resonates in sympathy with this observation. On stage, I always found that my perception of the audience was muted, so nothing but the most uproarious of comic responses was lost to me. Any genre but farce yielded the most isolating of artistic experiences for my young actorly self. The exception of course, was one horrible moment in a production based on tragic historical events: I was in the midst of a soul-wrenching monologue about incomprehension and suffering when I heard a strident voice from the quite small audience - "Why is she screaming?" At that moment, I reconsidered my calling as a thespian.

This impulse towards the audible response is behind the broadening quality of bad comic acting, but it is also a siren song that most teachers have heard. Although students are more "readable" than theatrical spectators, the thoughtfully silent pupil is often hard to distinguish from the abysmally distinterested one. And so I find myself playing for laughs, treating literature (which is what I teach, generally) like really juicy gossip, weaving pop culture references through my analysis. (I recently heard a scholar at a conference remark that "America's Next Top Model" can be a really useful pedagogical tool, and I can see what he meant.) I can't say this has always always yielded the most nuanced classroom discussion, but it certainly does produce a more widespread engagement.

At any rate, expect more aphoristic excesses in the future. I am quite enamored.

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