The following is an opinion on the recent Lampoon-HRBSA "racist humor" controversy: although written by a senior member of the Lampoon, it does not necessarily represent the opinion of the present Editorial Board of that organization, and may not represent the opinion of the author either.
Humor theory being the bore it is, I will try to make this as efficient a waste of time and space as possible. This will be your last review session in Humor Theory before the Big Boff Exam which begins at Graduation. If you haven't yet learned to laugh at yourself and others, you might try "sicking out" of self conscious existence; Camus did it; you can too. Or you might try that old excuse for tired minds, social realism, in which the victim complains loudly about his socially induced illnesses, thereby proving himself a healthy individual. (Remember, the social realist cannot at any time recognize the laughter down the block, or the guffaws around the corner, for fear they are aimed in his direction.) Insist on the real, the organic, the authentic in an insincere and alien world, and remember, all grins must be grim. There shall be no deviation in our long march to universal self-fulfillment. All lips shall remain pursed, if you please. All humor will be in the service of social realism, and all laughter, determined by economic dictum: the will of the people is to harness laughter in order to further the will of the people. Put on your chin-straps, please. Begin laughing-now.
Laughter is a spontaneous, and by definition, involuntary spasm of mind and body, a confluence of intellect and instinct in a moment of revelation. This is why written humor, deprived of an active context, so often fails. This is why the expression "Ha-ha" appears so pathetic on the page. This is why laying down "laugh-tracks" on sit-coms is like forcing an elephant to do the Hokey-Pokey while spanning the rails in Park St. Under (a game young hooligans call "Shredding the Elephant"). The attempt to institutionalize anarchy deprives anarchy of its essence, and like all large animals, the institution has a tendency to evolve into a grey amblypod with a withered proboscis: prodded by clowns and stampeded by mice. The Lampoon has never been able to decide whether it is the buffoon riding the elephant or the elephant being ridden by the fool. (The Crimson, of course, is just an ungulate of a different color.) Anarchy in the service of institutionalized diversion is ultimately a conservative phenomenon, resembling the Republican mascot. Naturally, when confronted by the Harvard Radcliffe Black Students Association (HRBSA) and, in the person of Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, the Harvard-Radcliffe Administration, the Lampoon could do nothing but capitulate to its own social adaptation. Hence, the parties concerned created the grey agreement we find looming behind this farcical parade of Tragedy and Comedy.
As Giordano Bruno barks, maestro-fashion, at the beginning of this piece, Tragedy taken too seriously becomes Farce, and forced Farce is Tragedy. Real laughter is indiscriminate in its intuitive understanding of the irrational, as well as its recognition of the ubiquity of absurdity. How then can the Lampoon take itself seriously? One might as well ask how a harpoon can harpoon itself.
Tomfoolery is a schoolboy's idea of manic anarchy; he cannot destroy the foundations of dominance without destroying himself, so he resorts to the mockery of mimicry. What he doesn't realize is that his mimicry deprives him of identity (just as the best parody is only barely distinguishable from its victim), and he, the mocking schoolboy, becomes the personification of his school. Similarly, denatured anarchy can exist in the King's Court, the eunuch in the harem, and the Harlequin can blend into the royal robes. Christ, the ultimate fool in his renunciation of worldly existence, can exist in the world but not of it; unfortunately, the institution of the Church and Christianity must live in this world and of it, and so it evolves from the mouse that roared into the whimpering elephant it set out to destroy. It is in this way that a comedy--taking itself too seriously--becomes, at best, satire, and at worst, tragedy. Enter Jerry Lewis, joking on his Telethon. Humor in the service of any institution becomes pathetic.
Jerry Lewis is tragically pathetic--not because he is funny, but precisely because he isn't funny. People who condemn the Lampoon for seeing humor in tragedy insist on their right to see tragedy in humor. These people claim that "Poonies"--like "Moonies"--lack something in their personalities; this is absolutely true, but at least Poonies try to make up for that lack through humor; "serious" people refuse to realize their own weaknesses, and thereby create a new weakness in themselves, a new lack; they lack humor, and the distance entailed in humor, necessary to arrive at fresh perspectives on the world, themselves, and others. These people we call poets--minor poets, because the Great Poets have a sense of the absurd, and through that sense, arrive at a proper sense of themselves, living timidly in an overwhelming Universe. Question: Why did the astronaut cross the Universe? Answer: To get to the same side.
The poet must confront the Universe, cross it, and conquer it if he is to arrive at a metaphysical sense of self. No philosopher had a more playfully metaphysical sense of self than that most exoteric of existentialists, that master mirthful mentation--just in from the Danish Coast, here he is now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Soren "The Psycho" Kierkegaard. You may all stop reading now. I only introduced Kierkegaard as a further inducement for you to stop reading, primarily because I can't understand why any of you would be interested in Humor Theory, the most tedious of philosophical endeavors.
With infinite resignation [the man of faith] has drained the cup of life's profound sadness, he knows the bliss of the infinite, he senses the pain of renouncing everything, the dearest things he possesses in the world, and yet finiteness tastes to him just as good as to one who never knew anything higher, for his continuance in the finite did not bear a trace of the cowed and fearful spirit produced by the process of training; and yet he has the sense of security in enjoying it, as though the finite life were the surest thing of all. And yet, and yet the whole early form he exhibits is a new creation by virtue of the absurd.
Kooky Kierkegaard separates conscious man into three classes: the Unreflecting Esthete, the Ethical Man of Law, and the Religious man. The Esthete transcends himself through Irony to become the Man of Law, and the Man of Law transcends himself through the recognition of the Absurd to become the Religious man who lives in the world but not of it. This explains Woody Allen's fascination with the works of Kierkegaard (it also explains Kierkegaard's continual use of pseudonyms as an escape from fixed identify). The humorist desperately wants to take himself seriously, and concomitant to this, wants others to do the same. The only defense the humorist has against his own cynicism is to say serious things in a funny voice, and funny things in a serious voice. But the humorist must reject this escape, sacrificing the "funny" to attain the "Religious." In Allen's Annie Hall we see the humorist beginning this metamorphosis. Allen's male friend in the movie represents the Ethical Man of Law, and is in fact, a lawyer. He plays the cosmic straight man to Allen's cosmic nihilism. But Allen is no longer a pure nihilist; he is using this nihilism to affirm himself. Kierkegaard chose the story of Abraham to illustrate this metamorphosis: Abraham must sacrifice his son, Isaac (whose name means "laughter"), to fulfill an unknown Being's absurd and meaningless request.
The members of the Lampoon are not a collective Abraham; at their best, they are a collective Isaac. The Lampoon cannot, therefore, sacrifice itself in order to affirm the Absurd truth it hopes to represent. The members of the Lampoon should not be expected to take the final step backwards (tripping on the banana peel as they do so), and arrive at a Religious communion with the Absurd. They will continue to reject through humor rather than accept through humor for as long as they need the Law as straight man. This is why the grey agreement reached last week between the administration, HRBSA, and the Lampoon will not be adhered to by the members of the Lampoon, except according to the letter. As an organization within an organization, the Lampoon must adhere to the agreement, but as a spiritual entity whose purpose is anarchy, the Lampoon must reject any accord with the world at large.
Epps's recent condemnation of a Lampoon parody advertisement (penned by the author), appearing in the Lampoon "Religion" issue, claimed the piece was horrific for its making light of a tragic incident in history (Jewish persecution and annihilation in German Death Camps). He sees the tragic in seeing humor in a tragic event. One might also see humor in his seeing the tragic in seeing humor in a tragic event. (I could do this all day.) The argument has been writhing through history since Aristophanes angered Athens. Epps would have the Lampoon become an institution devoted to the cause of social irony, poking fun at the Law Epps represents, and HRBSA would have the Lampoon send a few haymakers the way of the Black sellout, or Uncle Tom. Uncle Tomfoolery is just what the Lampoon was doing in two of the three cases cited by HRBSA (in the case of the "Negrosis" article there seems to be a better case for the substantiation of their charge of racism). the point, however, is this: comedy and tragedy deal in stereotypes, and both Epps and HRBSA merely want to change the stereotypes, not the institution which perpetuates them. If HRBSA were truly interested in social change, they would attack the institution itself, not the nature of its humor. Lampoon humor will not change substantially as a result of this agreement, and it will not change at all in spirit. Both organizations have damaged their integrity by submitting to arbitration via the administration, the very hierarchy they both supposedly oppose, but in fact support.
The Lampoon, in its ideal form, is not a racist institution, but an objectively absurdist organization of anarchists; unfortunately, it fails at this because it is an organization of anarchists--a contradiction in terms. Therefore, its humor tends to be conservative and elitist. The only way to remedy this situation would be to have the organization itself decide to disband, after which the Lampoon, as such, would no longer exist. This might be for the better, since the phrase "Ha Ha" has always seemed pathetic in print--deprived of its active, spontaneous context. But the Lampoon will exist for as long as Harvard exists, and the Lampoon spirit will, when the cup of Death is passed, drink John Harvard under the table.
Epps and HRBSA may be correct in pointing out possible instances of Lampoon racism, but even if they are correct in this, they will not eradicate "Lampoon racism," and have wholly disregarded the nature of the organizations with which they are dealing. Humor will always deal in the explosion and/or extension of stereotypes; comedy does not deal with subtle gradations so much as subtle degradations; if any charge is to be leveled against the Lampoon it is the charge of a lack of perspective on itself--a refusal to recognize and overcome its own limitations.
Eight years ago Epps and other administrators were forcibly expelled from University Hall by a group of students. Eight years ago Epps would not have been asked to arbitrate an inter-organizational dispute among students--they believed he had sold out to the "oppressive" institution of Harvard University. This year it seems these former adversaries have sold out to him. This conservative trend indicates a fear on the part of HRBSA and Epps to question the organizations in which they have ensconced themselves. This is another example of the '70s' Soul on Crushed Ice effect, in which a facade of liberal action hides an indolence and stagnation matched only by the indolence and stagnation of liberal rhetoric. The Lampoon may be an elephant, but HRBSA isn't mouse enough to take it on, and neither organization can hope to match the grey hulk of Harvard. It's yet another example of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum twiddling each others' twaddle.