Being Seriously Funny, or Amusingly Serious

A reader of First Things‘ “While We’re At It” section when I wrote it — who liked it — said that it wasn’t “serious” in the way other parts of the magazine were serious. I knew what he meant and was not miffed, but I’d want to say that I was just as serious as the other writer he mentioned, and even more so, because I’d given more thought to how to get our readers to read in the first place and then to see what I was saying, and worked harder at doing it.

That was one reason for writing like that, the other being I enjoyed doing it. It’s a kind of game. I was trying for a voice that sounded natural and informal yet stylized, which one can’t create naturally and informally. It has to be constructed.

The better you construct it, however, the more people respond to the style and miss the arguments or assume you’re not making any argument or point at all. It doesn’t sound “serious.”

Any number of times in my editorial career I’ve been editing an academic who was saying slowly and laboriously, like a man sounding out words after three classes in the language, what I or any other writer could have said in a sentence or two or three, and often said amusingly. But I knew that the writer himself wouldn’t see that the short version said what he’d said and that many of his readers would only take his point seriously if they had to slog their way to it.

And before you say something about complexity or nuance, I’m thinking of examples which offered no increase in complexity or nuance, only more words.

All this reminds me a quote from Chesterton’s Autobiography I’ve always appreciated.

I have never understood, from that day to this, any more than he did, why a solid argument is any less solid because you make the illustrations as entertaining as you can. What [Henry Scott] Holland was saying was perfectly sensible and philosophical. It was that the State exists to provide lamp-posts and schools, as well as gibbets and jails. But I strongly suspect that many, who were sufficiently intelligent not to imagine that he was mad, did imagine that he was flippant.

And I myself have made in the course of a less useful life the same curious discovery. If you say that two sheep added to two sheep make four sheep, your audience will accept it patiently — like sheep. But if you say it of two monkeys, or two kangaroos, or two sea-green griffins, people will refuse to believe that two and two make four. They seem to imagine that you must have made up the arithmetic, just as you have made up the illustration of the arithmetic.

And though they would actually know that what you say is sense, if they thought about it sensibly, they cannot believe that anything decorated by an incidental joke can be sensible. Perhaps it explains why so many successful men are so dull — or why so many dull men are successful.

Similar is his comment in his early book Heretics, in the chapter “On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity.” Joseph McCabe was a rationalist leader (and ex-priest) vexed with Chesterton’s way of arguing with him, and to be fair to McCabe Chesterton doesn’t answer his charge. But what he says in not answering the charge is useful:

I am quite certain that they mean every word they say. I also mean every word I say. But why is it that Mr. McCabe has some sort of mysterious hesitation about admitting that I mean every word I say; why is it that he is not quite as certain of my mental responsibility as I am of his mental responsibility? If we attempt to answer the question directly and well, we shall, I think, have come to the root of the matter by the shortest cut.

Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else. The question of whether a man expresses himself in a grotesque or laughable phraseology, or in a stately and restrained phraseology, is not a question of motive or of moral state, it is a question of instinctive language and self-expression. Whether a man chooses to tell the truth in long sentences or short jokes is a problem analogous to whether he chooses to tell the truth in French or German. Whether a man preaches his gospel grotesquely or gravely is merely like the question of whether he preaches it in prose or verse.

The question of whether Swift was funny in his irony is quite another sort of question to the question of whether Swift was serious in his pessimism. Surely even Mr. McCabe would not maintain that the more funny “Gulliver” is in its method the less it can be sincere in its object. The truth is, as I have said, that in this sense the two qualities of fun and seriousness have nothing whatever to do with each other, they are no more comparable than black and triangular. Mr. Bernard Shaw is funny and sincere. Mr. George Robey is funny and not sincere. Mr. McCabe is sincere and not funny. The average Cabinet Minister is not sincere and not funny.

Which leads me to Chesterton’s defense of his writing in the first chapter of Orthodoxy, the book he wrote after Heretics:

Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.

I find myself under the same intolerable bondage. I never in my life said anything merely because I thought it funny; though, of course, I have had ordinary human vain-glory, and may have thought it funny because I had said it. It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t. One searches for truth, but it may be that one pursues instinctively the more extraordinary truths.

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