When I was growing up, the mother of the family across the road, Marilyn Chapman was a teacher at a local school .
I remember talking to her at some party at their house when I was 17 or so. I was talking about my French ‘A’ level set texts and was moaning about how much I hated ’L’Avare’ by Moliere.
“It’s stupid steretypical comedy. I much prefer the Sartre’s ‘Les Main Sales’,” I said rather ponderously.
The younger self loves tragedy because the younger self is so self-absorbed
She seemed bemused. “Ah,” she said, “as I get older I like comedies more and more. I love Moliere. He’s so… human, so sweet. Perhaps it’s an age thing?”
That comment has been burbling around in my head all these years. And now that I’m 50 I think I might finally understand what Marilyn Chapman meant.
The younger self loves tragedy because the younger self is so self-absorbed.
Of course, when you are the be-all and end-all of existence any problem, defect or obstacle naturally becomes ‘tragic’.
The seriousness of the existentialists, the blood and fury of Lear and Macbeth and Othello, Sylvia Plath and Dostoevsky. These are all beloved by the young because for the young every event in life seems so very IMPORTANT and WEIGHTY.
From a Buddhist point-of-view this is all of a piece with having too much self.
When we have too much self (a glimpse at any of my journals from 18 years to 35 years will give you a flavour of that) then we suffer. When we let go of the GRAVITY of the self and surrender to the ANTI-GRAVITY of selflessness, then suffering stops.
Being narcissistic doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re great.
Noticing, caring, watching, admiring, smiling at and talking to other people is krytonite for tragedy. If Othello had simply talked to Desdemona about his jealousy then they would have lived happily ever after. But tragedy depends on a closed and claustrophobic circuitry of self. And it makes no difference if I’m as gradilioquent as a Lear or as doubtful as a Hamlet.
If I think that the world is out to get me; that no one loves me; that I am fatally flawed; that I’m a hopeless, insignificant nothing. Well, I’m still always thinking about ME.
Being narcissistic doesn’t necessarily mean you think you’re great. You can be equally egotistic when you are constantly telling yourself (and everyone else) how shit you are. It’s still a morass of self-thoughts.
Which brings me back to comedy.
It struck me as I was talking to a client the other week that we would do well to live our lives more comedically. To stop making a drama out of our lives all the time – or at least see the comedy in the drama we make.
Tragedy would have us be all transparent and timeless but comedy insists on flaws.
Rather than criticise ourselves for being jealous or needy or judge others for being selfish and remote – we can recognise that this is both sweetly unique AND charmingly human. Yes, my neurosis about being single is a pain. But it’s my own sweet characteristic that adds savour to the unique thread of my life. Tragedy would have us be all transparent and timeless but comedy insists on flaws.
In fact, you could say the very stereotyping that Marilyn Chapman found charming and I found offensive in Molière illustrates the two views quite neatly.
We like to think we are unique and our suffering is tragic. But the truth of the matter is that we are part of an infinite sprawling mass of similarity.
Probably nothing that we experience is not also being experienced by a billion other human beings at the same time.
It’s unacceptable for my ego to admit that my issues around myself are actually common-a-garden and generic
“My sadness. My OCD. My neuroticism. My family woes. My pain” is so much more painful (and tragic) than “All the sad people in the world. All the people with the same OCD, neuroses and pain. All the squillions of people who get tangled with their parents.”
Of course, it’s humiliating, shameful and unacceptable for my ego to admit that my issues around myself are actually common-a-garden and generic. Because that would turn my experience from a tragedy (poor unique me) to a comedy (charmingly human me).
But perhaps the ego needs to laugh more and not take everything so seriously?
It seems to me that the essence of comedy is that there’s no perfection. The foibles and madnesses of every character (miser, lover, misanthrope, hypochondriac, king) are all held up to the light of humour and not taken too seriously. They’re celebrated in a way but it’s a very wry celebration.
There’s a good case for simply living our life as a comedy rather than a tragedy
Moreover, there is a strong recognition of contingency in comedy. The farcical coincidences and sudden changes of heart that are integral to comedy are actually a more accurate mirroring of life that the leaden certainties and fixity of tragedy. We do change our minds (a million times a day). There is no reason to be the same person day-in-day-out. Life is always throwing massive curve balls. And we can cut ourselves some slack when things go wrong.
Things go wrong in life. And likewise, things go wrong in both tragedy and in comedy. But in comedy we think it’s charming.
So, there’s a good case for simply living our life as a comedy rather than a tragedy. Which is not to make light of painful things and shocking traumas, but to simply frame them differently.
I could grow old as a tragedian seeing the inevitable arrival of old age, sickness and death as a personal tragedy. Or I could grow old as a comic, seeing the delightfully painful humanity in all those things.
When we embrace impermanence, non-self and interconnectedness then we are almost forced into the comic camp
We all know old people who have made that choice – in one direction or another – and we know what it’s like to sit in their presence for extended periods of time.
For that reason, it’s salutary, I think, to make a choice for the comic view each morning. Yes, there are difficulties and pain in each day but in a tragic view that’s where the story ends (Elsinore, a bloodbath. Dunsinane, the same.) But in a comedy there’s always a twist, a resolution. Bad things turn good. (Or at least they turn.)
The Buddha was quite clear there was pain in life. No kidding. But he’s not a tragedian. The Pali canon and all subsequent canons of Buddhist writing spend much more time talking about sukka (sweetness and joy) than dukkha (suffering). When we embrace impermanence, non-self and interconnectedness then we are almost forced into the comic camp.
Nothing lasts (not Harpagon’s piles of gold, not David Brent’s job), nothing is fixed (the lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream can fall in love elsewhere, Fleabag can let the Sexy Priest go). And we are all interconnected. We are all suffering together and we are also being human together too.
So why not laugh?
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