Christopher Hitchens, James Joyce, jerking off, Louis CK, Mark Twain, Martin Amis, Philip Roth, stand-up comedy, Ulysses
As mainstream discussions in print, blogs and on TV panels increasingly feature a class of people unfit to talk and write, I felt not just pleasure but sincere relief after seeing live comedy for my first time. It was local amateurs performing in the basement of a seedy little bar last week, and though I expected the comedians to be worse than TV professionals they were upliftingly smart and engaging. After each of the first three acts talked about masturbating, it dawned on me: comedians are honest. I realised that while a certain amount of blunt exaggeration is built into the delivery, comedy must contain a resounding truth. If the audience feels they are being lied to, they will not laugh. Laughter doesn’t just signal empty amusement, laughter signals that a truth is resonating. Nobody nails personal truths like comedians.
Profane comedians are not simply vulgar boors saying inappropriate things to get an easy laugh from other vulgar boors. To be sure, stupid easy jokes infect this artistic genre, as no genre is immune from trash, but don’t let parlour manners prevent you from seeing that unrefined language is necessary to describe unrefined truths about our species. Yet because they’re regarded as “only” comedians, their insights aren’t taken seriously. Nonsense!
If you think the subject of masturbation is only the province of Jay & Silent Bob (who I love, by the way) and other juveniles, think again. In the 2004 Vanity Fair article “Joyce in Bloom,” Christopher Hitchens recalls some heavyweight writers focused on masturbating: Mark Twain in, “Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism”; in Money, Martin Amis reminds us that masturbation is thankfully economical (“overheads are generally low”); naturally, there is Philip Roth’s obsessively meditative Portnoy (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off!”). But Hitchens calls Ulysses the ultimate “mastur” piece because Joyce’s libidinous novel weighs in on sex and jerking off with unprecedented length, style and complexity. Included too, for good measure, are pissing, shitting, burping, farting, eating—anything bodily. This is fused with the minutiae of a single day’s happenings in Dublin 1904 as an alternative epic vision to the various falsely-enlarged ones entrenched in us by national jingoism, religion, and other myths.
Zach Bowen says in Ulysses as a Comic Novel, “The reader is left with the paradoxical impression that the every man in each of us is vital and unique, that the trivial aspects are in fact more rationally and meaningfully heroic than the rantings of tragic heroes caught in their own self-inflicted moral dilemmas.” Hitchens echoes this, “For all its soaring, Ulysses repeatedly comes back to earth in the earthiest sense, and reminds us that natural functions and decay and frustration are part of the common lot.” This is the mark of a serious writer who cannot be dismissed as a juvenile vulgarian, yet Joyce’s territory overlaps immensely with the comedian performing in the seedy basements of downtown bars.
We tend to take too seriously any so-called highbrow author we don’t know and attribute to them an air of solemnity that doesn’t fit them at all. Hitchens recalls Joyce’s well-known quip: after a stranger in a café in Zurich seized him by the mitt and asked, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” Joyce responded, “No—it did a lot of other things too.” Hitchens saw this as evidence of Joyce’s personal pride in the department of masturbating. Perhaps people expect men in togas and long white beards to descend from the mountains and issue grand profundities about life. More likely these days, people prefer neatly packaged pseudo-mystical truths written on the lining of their yoga bags. But there can be no fundamental truths about the human condition that ignore the fact that we have human minds and human bodies, and all the low, sordid things that entails. Like Joyce, comedians nail this.
So, humourless people who think being grotesque automatically makes you ineligible as a serious thinker have it exactly backwards: we can’t talk about our species honestly if we exclude the bodies’ various functions and impulses—our prime motivator. The refusal to stare our human condition in the face leads either to the abhorrent repression of sex found in various cults and basically every religion, or to agonizingly naive formulations like “racism is bad” or “world peace is good.” Good comedians ignore these hollow clichés and address more complex, less-immediately uplifting formulations like, “our hidden, subconscious motives are coarse, irrational and fundamentally absurd.” Unlike banal pundits who risk nothing and say only what their audience expects, comedians are refreshing because they are disproportionately atheists, cynical, irreverent, and incredulous. Louis CK isn’t just hilarious, he’s a courageous and relentless thinker who confronts the uncomfortable aspects of family, work, life and sex head on. I’d way rather hear his perspectives on life than those of pious strivers or media “experts,” usually self-proclaimed or endorsed by Oprah. I think Joyce would agree. It’s no coincidence that comedians have always been some of the most forward-thinking, hate-free people out there. Rather, they don’t hate people for their race or gender but, quite appropriately, for generally being stupid and barbaric.
It’s a shame that Joyce, the certified genius, is needed here to show that humour and frank examination of our bodies is a required element of being a serious thinker. Dismissing the honest observations of profane comedians for being obscene is no better than banning Joyce’s work, which was indeed internationally banned until it was internationally hailed as a first-rank masterpiece. Calling a comedian merely “funny” is a backhanded compliment. Any stand-up act is only funny if it’s truthful. So any time a comic or satirist, anonymous or famous, makes a keen observation we all recognize about our irrational impulses and bodily functions that everyone is afraid to say in public, don’t just call them funny. Be grateful for their honesty and call them a hero.
Also, as a rule, ignore anyone who tries to sound profound when talking about the human race if they’re incapable of discussing jerking off.