Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One of These Things is Not Like the Others: Divine Comedy, Stand-Up Cosmology, Suicide

What is the nature of that little by which we may know much?

We'll let that one percolate awhile in the nonconscious and come back to it later, or maybe answer it in a roundabout way. But surely this is part of the answer: "He who speaks of the farthest regions of the soul soon needs a theological vocabulary" (Dávila).

Alternatively, one may bar extreme seekers from these black diamond spiritual trails by banishing the vocabulary. Perhaps even easier is what I have called "dimensional defense mechanisms," whereby a person essentially amputates higher realities -- the vertical -- from his soul and from his experience.

This is the approach of positivists, historicists, Darwinists, and the rest of the usual academic rabble. Let's say I don't like spaces, or I'm afraid of them -- you know, agoraphobic. One may defend oneself from the attendant anxiety by clinging to the second dimension -- the plane -- and pretending the third -- space -- doesn't exist. Just as Flatland is a defense against Sphereworld, atheism is a defense against spirit.

Yes, it happens. There is a kind of autism that is not genetic but acquired. It's been awhile, but there was a particular theorist, Frances Tustin, who wrote a number of interesting books on this subject. Another term for it is "encapsulation," which evokes the idea of being cut off from some part of reality and being enclosed in one's private Idaho.

Importantly, this private Idaho need not be something we would normally associate with mental illness. Or, think of it this way: as there is tailored clothing that fits us perfectly, there is also readymade clothing we may purchase off the rack.

It is no exaggeration to say that an ideology is a readymade neurosis (and sometimes psychosis), which has a number of advantages over a custom mental illness: first, it will be collective, and there is safety -- or faux sanity -- in numbers.

Analogously, if everyone is wearing wide-flared bell bottoms -- or platform shoes, or rings in one's nose -- then one doesn't look like such an ass wearing them.

Second, a well made retail ideology will cover most of the bases of human experience, the difference being that instead of being that wise little by which one may know much, it will be that ideological little by which one may know even less.


There are frankly too many to chronicle, and besides, it isn't difficult for you to draw the connections. Darwinism is an obvious one (by which I mean Darwinism "without remainder," as if it is a sufficient explanation of man's capacities); for Voegelin, it generally comes down to positivism and scientism, which are perfectly fitting suits for an adolescent McDullard.

The adolescent, of course, will continue to grow, and if he is normal, outgrow the garment and toss it aside. In other cases he may, to his surprise, burst through the seams. But some people -- we call them the tenured -- wear an adolescent suit made of iron. Imagine a teenage knight growing out of his armor. I wonder what that would look like? It's kind of repulsive to think about, but so too is academia, and for the same reason.

Speaking of autism and encapsulation, I ran into this article on Why Funny People Kill Themselves. I personally found you-know-who more irritating than funny, but the question is, was his humorous persona a kind of autistic prison?

First, I don't know if it's true that funny people are any more vulnerable to depression and suicide than anyone else. While I have heard that creative people in general are more prone to mood disorders, I wonder if this is simply because we hear so much more from creative individuals? They are more able to articulate their subjective states, whereas the average boob may be frightfully unable to do so. A lot of people have no earthly idea they are depressed, and their depression mainly manifests by making others feel depressed in their presence.

I mean, what wideawake person would not be a little depressed about the world and about the terms of existence? You might say that in order to not be depressed, you have to be worse than depressed, which is to say, out of touch with reality.

Indeed, In Freud's classic formulation, humor is the highest and most developed defense mechanism. All others are second best or lower.

Having said that, I think it partly depends upon the person. If we pull out old Bion's grid (never mind if you don't know what that is), humor will lay on a spectrum of maturity from, say, Adam Sandler to P.G. Wodehouse, or Jerry Lewis to Samuel Johnson. For me, Robin Williams always had that manic quality which is... well, it's manic, which is to say, a more primitive defense mechanism than humor per se. It is as if the humor is piggybacking on the mania, especially because he seemed unable to turn it off.

The author of the above-linked piece posits four stages whereby the funnyman may end up a deadman by his own hand. Now interestingly, a defense mechanism is always a kind of aggression turned toward the self. Thus, suicide is obviously the ultimate defense mechanism, and yet, it is just the initial death writ large.

One can see this by considering the author's first step; indeed it is rather transparent: "At an early age, you start hating yourself."

True enough, except that the majority of people who who hate themselves are not funny. Intentionally, anyway. Wong would no doubt respond that this is because they don't have the comedy gene, which has some truth to it. People who are not funny should never attempt to be, because they are just annoying.

Step two is the discovery that one may provoke laughter in others. Now, I enjoy making people laugh, but I do not connect it to step one (self-loathing), nor do relate it to a need to control others. To the extent that humor is deployed for these reasons, we have again entered a dimension that has nothing to do with humor per se. After all, the dour Obama is not a humorous person, but he sure loves to control people, and one certainly gets the impression that he exists in an autistic bubble.

Speaking of which, number three, "You soon learned that being funny builds a perfect, impenetrable wall around you -- a buffer that keeps anyone from getting too close and realizing how much you suck."

Really? I hope not. I actually try to do the opposite, that is, use divine comedy and stand-up cosmology to provoke the guffah-HA! experience -- to foster vertical escape, not to fortify the prison.

Number four, "In your formative years, you wind up creating a second, false you..."

Again, true enough, but this "false self" is very much related to the neurotic "autistic self" referenced above. It is a shell, an exoskeleton, a defensive structure that prevents vulnerability and intimacy. The more "open" you are as a person, the more you can sense the closed-ness in others, who generally have no idea how closed they are, because it is an unconscious defense mechanism.

And also, while the false self is an exceedingly common phenomenon, most false selves are not funny. The false self can revolve around anything from politics to entertainment to academics to wealth to sports to fitness to looks...

I hate to break up the party, but the laughter is over. Time to put on my false face and get serious.


Blogger mushroom said...

...first, it will be collective, and there is safety -- or faux sanity -- in numbers

Truth by majority vote (teh Won) and Science! by consensus.

... if everyone is wearing wide-flared bell bottoms

You can take my word on this, it is easier to get to your boot knife.

Die, hipster, in your skinny jeans.

Almost poetic.

8/13/2014 09:49:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Now interestingly, a defense mechanism is always a kind of aggression turned toward the self. Thus, suicide is obviously the ultimate defense mechanism, and yet, it is just the initial death writ large.

Sounds familiar. I like making people laugh. I can't imagine a person who wouldn't like to make others laugh if they could. Unfortunately, though I appreciate humor, I'm not especially funny.

I'm not sure it necessarily starts with the statement that "I hate myself". I think if people don't accept us as we are -- as we think we ought to be accepted, that's where it begins. If we don't want to change and grow and develop genuine relationships with people then we find a way to defend the ego. I started out by being angry and mean. After a traumatic incident as a teenager, I found out a) I not only could change but it was a really good idea, and b) I had a lot more fun at least attempting to be humorous.

8/13/2014 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger ted said...

I remember when I did my first meditation retreat years ago. Where in the beginning of the week I was confidently aiming to get "enlightened," by the end of the week I was ready to kill myself. I now realize it was a really nagging mind parasite that I wanted to kill off. It took years, and still every so often...

8/13/2014 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Bob, I'm glad you addressed this article. I don't think I read all of it when it was linked on Ace. I bailed. Is there something to be said for the kind of person the author has contact with? Meaning, there are I am assuming a great deal more of them than well known comedians, and their traits may be why they contact him.
Anyway, at some point I recalled a number of well known comedians that I'd be pretty surprised if they were really angry or depressed inside. Was when someone said Williams was the greatest that ever lived. I immediately thought of Seinfeld, Cosby, Leno. They seem healthy.

8/13/2014 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

But some people -- we call them the tenured -- wear an adolescent suit made of iron.

The Chinese practice of footbinding comes to mind; the end results, when done right, were horrific. But all the hottest chicks were doing it, so...

8/13/2014 12:49:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Re. the Cracked article, I read it yesterday, too, and couldn't help thinking of the contrast between your humor - which has never come across as defensive - and the kind of humor/ comedians Wong was talking about. It occurred to me that if he was right, that almost all comedians are horribly depressed and pathologically self-loathing, it would actually be monstrous to laugh at their antics. But of course, it isn't - because not all comedians do it for the reasons he put forth.

I would guess it's true for most of the writers at cracked, though...

8/13/2014 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Rick: I have reason to believe there will be more on the subject of comedy in tomorrow's post, but there is indeed something pathetic and desperate and insecure about a person whose whole life revolves around trying to make people laugh. Perhaps the writer of the piece mainly hangs out with that type, but I would again say that for such a person, the comedy is just a particular means of expressing a more general pathology that is by no means unique to comedians. It's like a rich guy who can't stop mentioning his wealth, or a tenured guy who thinks others are impressed by his Ph.D. or something.

8/13/2014 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Like the "topper" in the Seinfeld episode....

8/13/2014 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Yes, we've had both of those types here; they inevitably troll, even if they don't start out seeming that way, because they can't resist either constantly bragging about how awesome their stuff is, or constantly trying to "school" everybody here to show how high their IQs are.

8/13/2014 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

I do believe that comedy, if done well, can be a doorway to reflect on human fallibilities: not necessarily to make them acceptable but at least recognizable enough so someone can move through them lightly. The guilt thing is the other approach. But in this day and age we are looking to be entertained so we might as well use the trades that can get an audience.

8/13/2014 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

In this regard, I really enjoy Louie C.K. these days. Talk about a comedian who makes you look at the darkest part of ourselves. But in my opinion, he does it well!

8/13/2014 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

So did Larry Sanders. Doesn't get darker than that, but so brilliant!

8/13/2014 02:59:00 PM  
Blogger ted said...

I never saw the whole series, just episodes here and there. It's time to dig it up! Just finished the Curb Your Enthusiasm series, which is so similar in its brilliance.

8/13/2014 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Larry Sanders is filled with moments of Comedic Perfection.

8/13/2014 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Fawlty Towers was like that, minus the real darkness. Although Fawlty was based on a real character.

8/13/2014 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I remember a program on PBS about 15 years ago called The Newsroom, which was a little like Larry Sanders. My recollection is that it couldn't keep up the quality, so the humor started getting more broad...

8/13/2014 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Not the Newsroom.... something else. A Canadian show, it was...

8/13/2014 03:55:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Actually, it was The Newsroom.

8/13/2014 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

I was just reading today, some group is doing a live-action dinner theater version of Fawlty Towers. I can't decide if that would be really funny, or just annoying. Unless it were actually hosted by John Cleese.

8/13/2014 03:58:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Just give me a pinata video.

8/13/2014 04:04:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I guess that's the thing I didn't care for about Williams' comedy: undisciplined, and so scattershot that ten lame jokes might fly by before he says something that's actually funny. In Fawlty Towers, Cleese has that same crazy intensity, but burnished to such a sharp edge. Same with Shandling: it takes much more effort to focus the energy than to dissipate it as Williams did -- I suppose for the same reason it's harder to come up with a DC-level aphorism than to write a lengthy article or most books.

8/13/2014 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Also why Iowahawk is such a master!

8/13/2014 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

For example

8/13/2014 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Seinfeld too obsesses over each word. Can't imagine him going out there with Loose Shit. It's disrespecting the audience.

8/13/2014 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I'm really starting to enjoy this bio of CS Lewis (in sidebar). Really picks up the pace after his conversion. Maybe because of some of his fans, I'd thought of him as a bit of a lightweight, but it's amazing how much Raccoon territory he staked out.

8/13/2014 04:14:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

What I mean is, he seems to appeal to a lot of people who don't appeal to me...

8/13/2014 04:15:00 PM  
Blogger John Lien said...

For me, one of the greatest joys in life is to share a one-off, situational joke with a close friend or loved one. Something that would only make sense because of shared experiences.

It's a form of communion I suppose.

8/13/2014 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity, the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us. --Eckhart

8/13/2014 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Yes, just so.

Mushroom - those are painfully funny.

Re. CS Lewis, looks interesting. I loved his books, growing up. Did a report on him in 8th grade; partly because most of the other historical figures I could think of at the time were already taken. I was too young, though, to understand much of what I read about him.

As an adult, I find his life more interesting than most of his writing, but I'll always have a soft spot for Narnia.

8/13/2014 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Really? I hope not. I actually try to do the opposite, that is, use divine comedy and stand-up cosmology to provoke the guffah-HA! experience -- to foster vertical escape, not to fortify the prison."

Aye, i can testify.
Meaningful humor, and you do a Big-Bang-Up job, Bob.
Jest sayin'.

8/13/2014 05:19:00 PM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Can't find the CSLewis book you are referring to. The little wheely display is small. Can you give us the title?

8/13/2014 06:31:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

The Narnian -- which he was. It's first citizen.

8/13/2014 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Ooh! Thanks! I've been a Narnian since age 23. Interestingly enough, I was introduced to the series by a musical called "The Roar of Love" done by the Christian group called 2nd Chapter of Acts.

8/13/2014 06:57:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

What I mean is, he seems to appeal to a lot of people who don't appeal to me

Yes, Lewis is accessible on different levels, which means you get a lot of focusing on the more exoteric aspects by the more mainstream, exoteric Christians. I really like every thing he wrote, but Till We Have Faces may be the most ignored and underrated.

8/13/2014 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Painfully funny -- I was picking beans and thinking that maybe originally humor was a response to other peoples' pain. So the first caveman comedy routine was when some guy figured out you really didn't have to rack yourself to make everybody laugh. You could get the same effect by pretending to be hurt, and the rest is history.

8/13/2014 07:21:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8/13/2014 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

My Samuel Johnson book came today.

And there're riots across the river tonight.

There ya go.

8/13/2014 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

A writer fellow I've 'known' for a number of years online, decided, following Robin Williams, to post his personal take on depression. This snippet is where he's just building up steam, but it struck me as he's using something similar to a term familiar term here, colonizing the innerscape, but in the opposite direction, to describe his depression:

"...People say depression is anger directed inwards. This doesn't do it justice. It's not anger. It's rage. And not bullshit rage like Occupy kids say they feel against "the system." The kind of rage that makes decolonialization movements start. I say decolonialization because that's literally what you want when you're depressed. You want to be yourself. You want the person that is you to GET OUT AND GO AWAY because you hate it so much and it's killing you...."


8/13/2014 07:58:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

The proximity of barbarism will make the civility that much more piquant.

8/13/2014 08:01:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Referring to Dr. J. and the howling mob across the river.

8/13/2014 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Yep, that's what I was thinking too.

8/13/2014 08:29:00 PM  

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