The Cruelty of Comedy

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Reading next: Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic.

Snowbound in Nebraska on Christmas night, we watched Funny People.  Underrated movie, great performance by Adam Sandler, a nice peek into the craft of stand-up performance and comedy writing.

It’s a dark movie, though, and not a lot of people like their dark and their light mixed.  But it is a commonplace to point out that comedy comes from dark, weird, even ugly places; that comedy is often cruel.  (One of my favorite scenes in Funny People is when Sandler’s character sings a song in a comedy club about how everyone will miss him when he’s dead and there’s no one left to make them laugh — it’s a funny song, but there are also layers of mock- and non-mock egomania, ironic posturing, Kaufmanesque comedy of the nervous audience, and genuine terror, sadness, and self-hatred involved.  It’s cruel to himself and to the audience to sing the song — and somehow, he finds this funny; and somehow, he is right.)

Here’s how this connects to Dickens: while every Dickens novel includes comic interludes and tragic (or potentially tragic) storylines, Dickens is usually careful to keep the comic and tragic scenes separate, with very different tones for each, at least until the ending, when the comic overcomes the tragic.  But there is, nevertheless, a lot of darkness and cruelty in Dickens’ comedy, however unintentional.  In Dombey, I find his treatment of Mr. Toots rather cruel.

Mr. Toots is a typical secondary comic-relief character: an older classmate to Paul Dombey Jr. at Dr. Blimber’s house, he is regarded as something of a simpleton but befriends Paul, becomes enamored of Florence, and begins to kindly and gently… well… stalk her, I suppose, once he’s come of age and received his inheritance.  His dominant trait is his cheerful self-deprecation, expressed in his constant chuckling and the catchphrase “it’s of no consequence,” with which he typically ends any statement of his desire or feeling.

Toots is incapable of wooing, too nervous to engage in any sort of direct courtship of Florence, instead hanging around to do whatever kindness he might for her and hoping to catch a glimpse of her beauty.  He’s quite funny, in his weird mannerisms and foppish love of tailored clothes and selfless devotion to whomever will befriend him.  But somewhere in the last third of the book, for some reason, I stopped thinking of Toots as merely a comic character and started rooting for him to win Florence’s heart.

But of course, that is an impossibility in Dickens.  The characters he represents as ridiculous do not marry the main characters; they marry maids, servants, other members of the comic-relief portion of the cast.  What I find cruel about the treatment of Toots is that he is handled so deterministically; that his serious devotion for Florence is dismissed so casually, so lightly, by both Dickens and by her; that he is seen, in his comic behaviors, so unworthy of the love of someone less odd, though he has the means and the passion to marry and provide for her; that he is kept in his place as firmly as any Untouchable.  Dickens’s cast, in other words, can function as a caste.

I suppose this would be the opposite of how Dickens would like to think of his characters, that they are locked into their certain roles and must perform them as required by the book’s fictional society.  Certainly Dickens saw much of the cruelty of the Victorian class system, and in Dombey there’s the obvious commentary on the evil of loveless marriage for class status and wealth.  And yet there’s “the Native,” Joe Bagstock’s dark-skinned servant, scarcely a tertiary character, rumored a Prince in his (undefined) homeland, frequently beaten and abused as nothing more than a commentary on Bagstock’s core rottenness and hypocrisy and, yes, I’m afraid, as comic relief.

And yet there’s also Mr. Toots, whose insistence on his inconsequence becomes very sad, to me at least, after many repetitions.  After he repeats his “it’s [read: I’m] of no consequence” catchphrase so many times, throughout the book, in virtually every appearance, you can come to think of it as a kind of metafictional mantra: that Toots knows his role in the novel is unimportant, in the grand scheme of the plot, like a Beckett character in a Dickens novel.  I do not know yet whether Toots gets paired off with Florence’s servant, Susan Nipper, or stays a bachelor, or what (I’d bet on marriage to Nipper, though); I just know that the experience of seeing this character, so much more vivid and alive to the reader than Florence or her long-lost beloved Walter or nearly any other character in the book, so easily dismissed is rather tragicomic.

Doing Good, Being Cruel: The Tenth Day

June 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished: The Decameron.

Travel, unfortunately, delayed this last post on Boccaccio, but I thought there was enough of interest on the tenth day to write a little something, however stale in my mind. (Besides, there’s no way the structuralist in me would allow a post on every day but the last.)

The stories on this last day, Panfilo’s, are largely a fun game of one-upsmanship: each teller tries to tell of the most munificent deed he can think of. Fortunes are awarded, wives bestowed, the “dead” returned to life. Many of these stories center on the deeds of the nobility or the enormously wealthy, and Filomena makes the excellent point that “Those people do well… who possess ample means and do all that is expected of them; but we ought neither to marvel thereat, nor laud them to the skies, as we should the person who is equally munificent but of whom, his means being slender, less is expected.”

The most interesting stories are the last, Panfilo’s and Dioneo’s. Panfilo’s is especially remarkable: it seems lifted from the Thousand and One Nights, and dramatizes the remarkably complex attitudes at the time toward Islam and the “East,” though I’m not sure whether Italians of the time would even think of it as such a thing other than directionally. It features Saladin, the Muslim ruler who recaptured Jerusalem and many other territories from the Christian crusaders. He travels to Europe in disguise as a merchant from Cyprus to scout his potential foes and is received very hospitably by a Messer Torello, whom he happens to unwittingly capture when the crusades actually begin. Saladin treats his servants very well and keeps Torello as his falconer; when Torello reveals his identity, Saladin does all in his power to restore him to his family and then some. I’m not an expert in medieval or Renaissance literature by any means, but the story seems remarkable to me for its depiction of respectful relationships between Christian and Muslim; it’s also remarkable in the Decameron for its use of magic, as Saladin’s magician whisks Torello back to Italy in one night to stop his wife’s marriage to another.

Then comes the last story, and this truly does seem a response to Emilia’s of the previous day, the wife-beating story. It is also remarkably cruel, especially for Dioneo. Gualtieri, a rich young man, succumbs to the pressure to marry and takes a very poor but virtuous wife, Griselda. After she gives birth to their child he “was seized with the strange desire to test Griselda’s patience, by subjecting her to constant provocation and making her life unbearable.” (The setup resonates, for me at least, with King Lear, in that it concerns a capricious ruler demanding ridiculous levels of deference for no good reason of his remarkably patient beloved.)

So, for about twelve years, he “pretends” to hate her and despise her low condition. He pretends to have their children killed (he really sends them off to stay with relatives). He ostensibly divorces her, forcing her to return to her impoverished family in only a shift. He pretends to have a new wife coming and wants Griselda to prepare his house and wait on her, since she’s a good cleaner and knows where everything is. Then, finally, being convinced that this girl (her own twelve-year-old daughter) is to be her husband’s new wife, Gualtieri says, basically, “Gotcha! It was just a goof.” And, one would hope, out comes Griselda’s machete. But no: she accepts it all, patient as ever (just like maddening Cordelia).

This is adapted by Boccaccio, I think, from a French folktale. And Chaucer uses it too, in the “Clerk’s Tale.” So you certainly have that sense of suspended reality, of humans acting inhuman to make a point about humanity. But it’s a pretty crappy point, here. Dioneo does, at least, end his story by acknowledging that Griselda’s trials were “cruel and unheard of,” and that it “perhaps would have served him [Gualtieri] right if he had chanced upon a wife, who, being driven from the house in her shift, had found some other man to shake her skin-coat for her, earning herself a fine new dress in the process.” Perhaps? Perhaps it would have served him right if Griselda came after him with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch. She certainly should have screwed around, according to the logic of the previous 99 stories.

(Actually, since I’ve been Tarantino-riffing, thinking about Kill Bill is interesting in comparison to this story.  Imagine if Bill had reconciled with the Bride at their climactic meeting.)

I’m not sure how to take this, and especially how to read its correspondence with Emilia’s story of a less psychological torture. It would be comforting to me to imagine that he’s actually being deliberately over the top to point out the cruelty and absurdity both of his own story and of Emilia’s, but it seems unlikely. Somehow Love and torture coexist — and can actually depend on one another — in this universe. (I suppose for many, it is a less foreign concept than I’d like to believe.)

There are all kinds of interesting things to say about the conclusion and epilogue, too, but I have to stop. (Too much good stuff in Dog of the South to think about.)

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