Th’is a reason to be jolly (even, yes, for philosophers)

voltaire image.

Dear Conversation,

Christmas (we have it on the best authorities) is a time to be jolly.

Sure, like being told by your parents that “you shall not only go to your cousins, but enjoy it”, the whole thing can become paradoxically onerous, as Slavoj Žižek used to say. (Why are you telling us we should be happy when we really should, by ourselves, actually be happy …)

But, as I think back over another year of philosophising this Christmas eve, and ask myself: what, if anything, could possibly be better in this best of all possible worlds?, I find myself drawn to the answer that the academy is becoming, every year, a little more humourless.

Please: humour me this.

The heroes of the field of philosophy I was raised in, certainly, are a fairly dour bunch, and their most recent successors seem hardly more gay.

“Serious” is no longer the term of suspicion it was for Nietzsche, but regular fair for grumpy book reviewers; and “rigor” has now completed its migration from military mustering yards to become de rigueur (excuse me) in the sacred groves of Academe.

Even the aforementioned Žižek’s humour, always a subject of suspicion amongst the grave (“is he serious?”), has given way to open calls for “militancy” in some circles; the most esoteric hermeneutics in others; and solemn intonations on a post-secular dispensation.

Was it not always so? Aren’t philosophers paid to be dour, a gloomy lot?

A little memory says no.

Smiling at us from the origins of city-bound philosophy leers Socrates, whose irony was legendary, and whom one jilted admirer could find nothing better to compare to than a Satyr.

Epictetus the Stoic (I think) is funny, in his own abrasive way, if you are prepared to be told flat out that everything you think about most things has them the wrong way around. Utterly.

Nietzsche, at times, is humorous — and certainly the aphoristic writing of the author of The Gay Science (1882) is spirited in the best sense, on which more anon.

As for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche’s contemporary, there is definitely laughter in a writer over half of whose writings are written behind masks, even as he ends by calling us to the most impossibly demanding form of Christianity imaginable.

Wittgenstein once punned that a work of philosophy could well be constructed entirely of jokes, to give an analytic case.

And then there was Voltaire. Nietzsche, his admirer, once called for “laughing lions” to challenge Europe’s spirit of seriousness. “Well, Voltaire came, and he annihilated with laughter”, the great American historian Will Durant replied.

Why all the laughter, then? After all, aren’t we human beings engaged in that fairly serious and occasionally deadly business philosophers are paid, these days, to think about — namely life?

There are many reasons to be jolly, even at this time of year. I promise. And some have been explored and even practised by philosophers.

Humour is one way of making the unchangeable bearable. This is why gallows humour will never die.

It is also, perhaps, why many of the world’s peoples (the Irish spring to mind) who have suffered longest under the yokes of the most heinous oppression are also the most legendarily amusing.

Humour can also a way of showing up the contingency, changeability and even absurdity of many things that are foisted upon is in our daily and political lives.

For humour, in all its kinds, involves taking a second look where we might otherwise have been contented with not thinking twice.

It’s all about bringing a different, perhaps larger, perhaps more elevated perspective on things we usually take for granted or as unchangeably given.

This is why the great author Arthur Koestler aligned humour with artistic creativity and scientific discovery in his fascinating work The Act of Creation (1964).

By contrast, someone “who takes themselves too seriously” refuses to stand back and take a look at themselves from the outside. They see through their own eyes only, as we might say. And that is why they can sometimes be palpably blind, when they are not many things worse.

The kind of philosophising that takes its own perspective as sacred writ has always been the butt of the best humorists.

Think of the ancient Greek Aristophanes presenting Socrates (unfairly) hovering in a basket, his disciples measuring the lengths of a flea’s leap, insisting he be addressed as “He Himself”, like the Gods his deliberations show to be laughable fictions.

Then there are the later ancient comic writer Lucian’s satires on “philosophers for sale”. As if free thinkers’ minds and ideas could ever be subject to economic and institutional determinants. I for one refuse to countenance the idea.

The great joke teller knows how to create suspense, and lead her audience to expect one thing. His punchline delivers another.

Voltaire tells us of a man who fell gravely ill and, “despite the attention and ministrations of the leading medical doctors of Europe … he survived.

After the punch hits us, we realise (Pete Townsend aside) that we have been fooled again. And it’s likely to continue.

The great satirist looks at someone or something that takes itself too seriously, and shows that they may have missed something vital.

Umberto Eco’s stunning Misreadings (1963), for instance, takes a series of second looks, from improbably illuminating perspectives, at established literary and cultural phenomena.

One story in the collection, impiously, imagines a modern publishing house receiving, and duly rejecting, the Bible as a literary work. The reviewer suspects there may be multiple authors, and that different parts seem to have been written at different times, with different audiences in mind. The connection between the two major parts seems somewhat forced. The motives of the invisible, sometimes nameless hero seem opaque to ordinary human understanding. The whole thing is thus scarcely coherent. It might work better, the closing suggestion is, if just the first five books were packaged as a single volume. Has anyone thought of that…?

But to see why “th’is reason to be jolly”, even for philosophers and even at christmas, we can do no better than listen to Voltaire himself, in the famous comment on “wit” (esprit):

What we call “wit” is either a fresh analogy, or a delicate allusion: sometimes it’s the use of a word which is presented as having one meaning, but which the reader is invited to understand in another; sometimes it’s the subtle linking of two ideas which have little in common; it can be an unusual metaphor; it’s the quest for something which an object does not at first reveal but which is intrinsic to it; it’s the art of bringing together two separate things, or of dividing them where they appear linked, or of setting one against the other; it’s a way of revealing only half of one’s thinking in order to let the reader guess the rest.

Voltaire’s work, it has thus been (wittily) commented, is “a chaos of clear ideas”. This is doubly opposite to the kinds of clear instances of ideological chaos like the instance we are about to consider, and which we all increasingly experience every day of our lives.

So what is the “genius of the mockery”, to invoke another famous book-title on this today-forgotten “patriarch” of the enlightenment philosophes?

And why is there, even today, as we academic philosophers are rushed into writing more, being cited more, competing with each other more (dear friends, apologies), thinking of ourselves as academic entrepreneurs more — why is there, as much as ever, a real need to keep wit and humour alive?

Aren’t there more important things to worry about? (And who’s got the time?)

Consider, as my colleague Pat Stokes has, the kind of language that is increasingly populating our public lives, and governing our institutions. A clear instance of chaos in ideas, it comes from the recently-minted “Department of Immigration and Border Control”, and neither Pat nor I are the first to marvel at its higher lucidities:

We consider the border not to be a purely physical barrier separating national states, but a complex continuum stretching offshore and onshore, including the overseas, maritime, physical border and domestic dimensions of the border. Treating the border as a continuum allows an integrated, layered approach to provide border management in depth— working ahead of and behind the border, as well as at the border, to manage threats and take advantage of opportunities …

Since it is Christmas, can you pass me another cup? Thanks.

Don Watson has done the most in this country to decry this kind of imagination-numbing managerialese. Your humble correspondent can agree with folk a good deal more fond than he of what is called the “secularisation thesis” that such talk, at least, makes the kinds of theological arcana the councils debated for over a millennium, and which Voltaire’s wit targeted (amongst many other things) look like so many exercises in stunning clarity.

More worrying than the prolix drone of “partners”, “threats” and “risks” (but please, where are the “stakeholders”?!) is the proliferation of the vaguest, almost-quasi-fashionable-postmodern-sounding language to re-describe our nation’s border in such a way that (this alone seems clear) “border control” is no longer the kind of thing that is going to be policed in ways the public or its tireless messenger, the fourth estate, is going to be able to observe and evaluate.

Social democratic legal theorist Franz Neumann long ago commented (now I am being serious) that vague blanket terms in documents of state — think “that’s classified”, “it is a matter of national security”, “there was collateral damage” — are key devices in the armouries of illiberal or undemocratic forms of governance.

Since they mean nothing determinate, authorities can operate behind their semblance of real-world-reference with more or less unaccountable sovereign will, doing whatever they deem necessary — all “from time to time”, as you understand.

A nameless former-colleague of mine who once worked in university management confided that the people writing managerial reports knew that to make them as vague and jargonistic as possible was to reduce the possibility of comprehension and “critical feedback” by staff.

This kind of “strategic” cynicism (for “strategic” is another of today’s “weasel words” (strategic for what?)) is deadly serious, to the extent that it has become de rigueur.

Looked at from the outside, in the scales of history or the eyes of an informed ironist, its precedents are no laughing matter for anyone who values democratic ideals.

It is just that, when we are all involved or immersed all the time we are at work in such language, it can seem surprisingly difficult to think our way outside of it — even for academics, who offside from time to time as human beings, fathers, mothers, mortgagees, wage earners, not to mention reviewers and rivals in a position-starved job market.

And here, I suggest, is where humour can help, especially satire.

We are not at the gallows yet, not by a long shot. Don’t believe everything you read. And it is the season to be jolly, after all.

But the weight of this numbing language and the practices it enshrines is not getting any lighter, even as I hear Santa’s sleigh bells getting closer by the second.

And this is where the kind of levity that wit involves, allowing us to stand back from ourselves - less a “shock” than a “mock doctrine”, let’s say — can be of some assistance.

All philosophy is not satirical. Not by a long shot. But satire can be philosophical. And irony often has been philosophical, right from the start.

So as Santa approaches, I ask you to imagine, dear readers, just for a moment, that he brings this year a strange gift: dropping a Voltaire or a Socrates on Christmas morning alive and well on one of our university’s gilded lawns, now duly lined with glossy ads selling the credentials of said institution in today’s crowded ideas marketplace.

Voltaire with his 200 volumes would be quite a competitive acquisition; Socrates not so much, although “prestige” should probably count for something in his case. (Perhaps at the performance review stage this could be considered, with a union rep present: and citations should also be weighed here).

I suggest that these arch-ironists’ abilities to stand back from things and look at them with different eyes — tied in both cases to a signature, so-sage scepticism — might just come like a gust of fresh air across said lawns, wafting up towards the conference halls and administrative precincts on echoes of laughter.

Indeed - but what do I know?, as someone said - it might even wake up a few of us napping there, all-too-weighed down under that uncritical spirit of seriousness Nietzsche so disliked. _ But ah, there is Santa now. _

Most sincerely, and with Christmas best to all concerned,