We first encountered Julian Gough in an essay for Prospect magazine, as part of his campaign to bring comedy back to fiction: “Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.”
Ever since, we've associated comedy with Julian Gough. One of our editors also enjoyed a reading by Julian—a first-rate performer—at the short story festival Small Wonder in a barn at an East Sussex farm, where he competed with milking machines and cows lowing off stage. Thus, when the notion came to our mind to open APS 11 with a conversation on comedy and laughter, in connection with the fiction in the issue (including his wonderful piece How to Fall in Love Properly), we thought Julian would be a perfect person to start things off.
Comic writers laugh at the folly of humanity ("Poor, sufferin' Hugh Mannity," as Flann O'Brien put it). Many, therefore, claim that comic writers should laugh from a position of non-folly: that comic writers need a solid ethical foundation under their feet as they write, in order to justify their attacks. But this is entirely wrong. In fact it is necessary to have no ideology, no religion, no politics, no opinions, when writing comedy. It must come from a pure moral void. Comedy which comes from a specifically Christian point of view, or socialist, or libertarian, contrarian, feminist, Freudian—from any merely human point of view—will be, to that extent, damaged and limited. Comedy is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and it is free of all ethics, all systems. It is pure. It has the sincerity not of religious leaders preaching, but of animals fucking.
But surely we have to stand somewhere? When Aristophanes wrote of Athenian political life, he put himself on Mount Olympus, in the position of the gods, looking down on humanity and laughing. But we are no longer writing from the point of view of the gods. So where do we stand when we write? We stand nowhere. We float in the void. Laughing. The point of view we express is that of the universe itself.
We know far, far more about the universe than the Greeks ever did. They looked up at a night sky that was no more than a high ceiling, dotted with splashes of milk. We look up at supergalactic clusters fifteen billion light-years away, their bright white stars redshifted down into the infrared, accelerating away from us as space-time expands. The Greeks looked down, and saw an ant. We look down and see the charged leptons and quarks that hold together the atoms of dust adhering to the antennae of the microscopic parasites that live in the cracks of the ant’s armor. This knowledge changes everything, including comedy. And it changes nothing, including comedy.
As Professor Albert von Szent-Györgyi points out, there are only two fundamental reactions of life: Energy + nCO2 + nH2O = nO2 + CnH2nOn (Making little packets of energy.) And CnH2nOn + nO2 = nH2O + nCO2 + Energy (Unpacking them again.)
Any given tree, insect, shark, lichen, bacterium, or professor of linguistics is merely a baroque expression of one of those two formulas. The idea that we are the best and most complex thing in the universe is so funny it’s beyond funny. And yet, even in our post-religious humility, we are boastful: we’re the most flawed animal! The most humble! The most evil! The most fascinating!
Human beings, like every other creature, make sense of the universe up to the level of their comprehension. No doubt our red blood cells, as they rush about the place, think it’s all about red blood cells. (“Look! This universe is optimized for us! Amazing! God loves us!”) They yearn for oxygen, fear clotting, and think red blood cells are as rich, fascinating, and complicated as it gets. But the red blood cells are entirely oblivious to the ever-more-complex patterns of which they are a part—my erection; a performance of Hamlet on roller skates, using real blood; the Battle of Stalingrad.
The relationship of a rock to its mountain will never be funny, because the rock does not believe it is the center of the universe. Does not lie to itself. Does not have an animal nature running like a refrigerator motor, day and night, beneath the babble of a consciousness.
But we are matter with attitude. We are inherently funny because we are inherently wrong about everything. All thoughts are lies. As a species, our thinking suffers from precisely the same intractable problem that afflicts us as individuals, a problem most elegantly expressed by Emo Phillips: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
We experience reality through a—fiercely distorting—set of filters. We exist curled up at the bottom of a well of ignorance a billion miles deep, and as narrow as a straw. All we can experience of the universe is the little sound and light that leaks down that straw. And so we think we stride about the universe, while we are merely stirring in our sleep at the bottom of the well.
If writing is about committing acts of radical empathy, then the ultimate act of radical empathy is with the entire universe. And the result will always be comedy. Comedy with only one punch line: the gap between what we think we are, and what we are.
We look at the universe and see ourselves: look! From Aquarius to Sagittarius. From Star Wars to Avatar. But comedy is the art of putting us in our true context. And our true context diminishes us to nothing. And yet we live.