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    Volume 9 Issue 33| August 13 , 2010|

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The Comic Life

Mausumi Mahapatro

As we plunge into all the newsworthy catastrophes of the present day economic booms and busts, bombs that detonate where (Muslim) children play, and (poor) nations that sink inch by inch, I propose a question.

I take no interest in freedom or democracy. In fact, my question(s) may be considered objectionable, given the context I have just placed it in and it goes like this: In all of our lived experience and in all that we know, hear, see and feel, do we find a common thread that can sum up our lives explicably? And if so, if we can summon the language to describe this common circumstance, would we name her Tragedy, or is Comedy more befitting?

I think of the decisions we make in a lifetime and wonder if we shall ever come to a crossroads, the way Medea or Antigone did. Iris Murdoch writes, “Tragedy belongs to the cunning of the stage.” Yet a young boy, perhaps, who chooses to explode alongside a bomb or join a war in some distant (god forsaken) land is our tragic hero beyond the stage, filled with either remarkable courage or foolishness, or both.

But what of the rest of us, our lives steeped in platitudes that remind us, there is still so much to be done. “Just do it!” they remind us in a language that puts us on our feet, ready to take charge and redefine our lives, take decisions, and make life more complete. This is when some of us buy a home or a plasma television and others travel in quest of redemption and high spirits.

We are the comic heroes, are we not, impressionable and hopeful despite all our melancholy, that this will all pass, that we shall one day remove the tyranny that lulls us into daily defeats. We rise in the fever of morning, ready to pursue our aims, millions of Quixotes in the wake, only to retreat as the dusk settles, forlorn.

But by morning, once again, the same cycle repeats itself, as we muster our undying, comic optimism to live another defeat, identical to Sisyphus, every time he scales the mountain, knowing full well he would have to do so again and again. Despite a tragic awareness of his fate, Sisyphus is imagined to be happy, Camus tells us.

And so, life goes on in a humorous vein.

Our lives inspire laughter when we sit befuddled with the machinations of new technology. The machines we use do not read the cards we swipe into them and we stand confused, taunted, and blown by defeat.

Or when we see a vision in a dream that precedes a significant turn of events in our lives like a death, promotion or relationship. We owe the change to the dream; we become clairvoyant, see the world as connected and search for signs to reveal some determinism. Things fall into place for some time except that we see the same vision in a dream and nothing happens.

We still hold on to the absurd belief that we have the power to transform or be transformed, though we are all incrementalists, save a few. We strive to record our experience, either to remember ourselves the way we once were or to leave a trace for others to see, but in so doing, we become tourists within our experience, or non-interventionist, as Susan Sontag had described the person behind the lens of a camera. Indeed, we are infatuated with image and driven by it.

The language we utter belies the emotions we may feel, though not necessarily as an act of intention or deception. Love is one such word, especially when it is used as a valediction in letters.

Our moral righteousness is indeed laughable (not laudable) or the ways in which we aspire towards morality. We are proud of our benevolence and the language that demonstrates our morality that is, the language that speaks of human rights and equality. This smug pride that emanates from our own (sense of) morality is contingent on the absence of morality we observe in others. But I doubt whether we have the courage to forfeit our self-preservation for morality's sake like Antigone.

Even our impending deaths, this one act of ours that can be considered to be wholesome, spiritual, and mystical, we have corrupted with mundane tasks and to-do lists. It is this trivialty that defines us. In life, we muse over purchases or scramble for recognition or a private space that we can mark as our own. In preparation for death, we scramble just the same, for a space that can be marked out as our very own, not to be shared with others. Even as we decompose, we wish to do so in privacy.

Our intelligence is our pride and joy – the way we can classify dinosaurs, say clavicle, or pronounce onomatopoeia - but why our wits cannot resolve this population crisis that leaves us no space to bury our dead? Forget the living and think of the dead in a moment of silence.

Death is unsettling, but we respect our dead for taking (or being given) such a sojourn, the last rite of passage of the kind we can only contemplate. We are all virginal in their company, naïve and inexperienced on the afterlife. So our thoughts turn to earthly matters like family, food, or insurance. Insurance is a particularly funny matter because it requires the valuation of life using a metric made only of paper (metal would also not suffice). We protest women being bought and sold but this is no small matter either!

And finally, there is nakedness, the unabashed shame that is our bodies. There is humour here, within the sagging folds of skin and fat, in all the miscreant layers that belie the images we behold in our minds of masculine or feminine.

We laugh at nakedness when it laughs back: say, for instance, a man who flaunts his nudity in public, the whole time parading, laughing and gesturing for cheers. Or we may frown in disgust but only with a frivolity that the scene commands. This same nude body, taken in the context of force – nakedness thrust upon someone out in the open would perhaps evoke a different set of emotions amongst us, depending on the acts that preceded it and our sense of just versus unjust.

Let's say a security officer commands a man to take his clothes off and he begins to do so unflinchingly. I saw this once in an airport where the metal detectors are in place. I presume the man was travelling for the first time and was working abroad, ready to begin a new life, send remittances home, or something of the sort. It was meant to be a joke and the officer stopped the man before he went too far.

Though I found the entire incident disturbing, it is true the way we can extract comic excesses from just wielding the power that we have over others. A landlord instructs his serf to dance or stand on one leg like the Simon Says game that children play and at once, servility becomes a comedy, however horrid.

The same is true of death, I suppose. A histrionic, child-like display of emotion over a timely death is amusing. But death itself and of its own accord, I would dare say, could never be ridiculed. Even spectators viewing the death of an indicted killer would respond only with gravity, perhaps due to the association of the death they can watch with the other(s) they can only imagine or recollect.

And I cannot speak of the public killings of a time gone past and whether people looked on in fear, approbation, or an unbridled enthusiasm over 'justice' being dealt. Nor have I witnessed a person in the present day being stoned to death.

But I can only presume that my comic heroes would fantasise the greater part of days on such things: their (our) courage in the midst of barbarism, a life (or more) saved, and the public silenced in inspiration.


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