Mark Twain famously said many things, one of them being “humor is tragedy plus time.” No one in particular appears to have said that a story has many sides. Yet it is a common refrain about narrative. All stories, all experiences, are viewed – and then told, and heard - from a particular point of view, history, voice, vocabulary, imagination, and memory. There is no homogeneous way to tell a story, nor receive one. Yet we profusely ascribe the word tragic to any sad or untimely event. And then we are quick to render the tragic sacred. The sacred becomes monolithic. How often do we bristle at the perceived insensitivity when someone attempts a humorous quip about an incident deemed tragic? Of course there is real, true callousness in the world: people who are out of touch, unable to empathize. Many more jokes still are likely made to distance oneself from fear or vulnerability, rather than out of poor taste. However, humor seems to have a vital place in our dealings with tragedy, and not just as a diversion. It presents another side to a story. Jokes about difficult subjects provide a way to talk and think about topics otherwise hard to address. Humor does productive work. Successful jokes are those that require us to synthesize information and make new meaning. Then is it any real surprise to see humor at work in stories about those moments that are often also the most difficult? Situations of illness and disease; caregiving and hardship; life and its inevitable loss.
Some of my favorite submissions to The Intima elegantly navigate the boundaries of tragedy and comedy. I will note two poems from the Fall 2015 issue. I invite our readers to go through the archives and find others, and keep an eye out for this interplay in future issues. Jenny Qi’s poem “Writing Elegies Like Robert Hass” broaches the idea of including humor in a mother’s elegy. The speaker says: “Gee, I wish I could write an elegy to induce chuckling.” The “gee” makes it casual, conversational, with an eye to being funny. Yet the next two lines land all the more poignantly and sad when she continues “what I meant was I wish I could/remember her and chuckle.” How quickly Qi moves us from the desire to write an elegy that is humorous, to her poem in fact being an elegy that captures so much of the desire and betrayal of memory for someone gone.
L.N. Allen’s “Comma” is a musing on a grammatical error, making the tragedy of a patient in a coma into the farce of being deemed a patient in a comma. Allen riffs on the respite it would be to fall into a “soft, harmless comma,” turning the poem into a sort of surreal literary game. Yet again, this humorous conceit gives way to gravitas when the poem continues to pun on the comma by eliding a run-on sentence with “a long life sentence.” Grammar turns into an allusion to imprisonment, brought about by a comatose state, or perhaps by the sheer conditions of life.
Stories do have many sides, sometimes contained within them. The antipodes of humor and tragedy can be two (or more) of these sides. Twain may have been right that tragedy can become comedy when the once tragic event is firmly in hindsight. However, humor also has a refracting effect, one that works on the tragic in the present moment. It points the reader in a new direction. It helps us see and feel what is lost, sad, or tragic more deeply. What these poems by Qi and Allen reveal is that not only is humor tragedy distanced by time, but humor when employed with expert timing, can reveal so much more of what is tragic.
Elizabeth Lanphier is a doctoral student in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Before moving to Nashville, she studied literature and history at NYU and received her MS in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. For nearly ten years she worked in global public health and humanitarian aid, most recently implementing HIV/AIDS programs in Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Lanphier is interested in the intersection of story and performance, how fiction can at times be truer than reality, and the way art is a tool to approach the unknown. She is a poet, a baker, and a sometimes drummer in a rock and roll band
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine