Our Wretchedness Is Our Greatness

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while.  I’m in the middle of writing a piece for the blog that has required more attention than I thought it was going to and time than I have to give it at the present.  I’ll try to finish it in a couple of weeks.  Instead, I thought I would share this passage that closes Simon Critchely’s wonderful meditation on jokes, humor, and laughter, On Humour[1].  Critchley is citing and discussing a text that Samuel Beckett wrote for Irish Radio in 1946:

Beckett reflects upon his experiences working in an Irish Red Cross hospital in St-Lô, Normandy, after the devastation of the D-Day landings.  After an intense Allied bombardment, St-Lô changed hands between the Germans and the Americans for six weeks and was referred to by the locals as ‘the capital of the ruins.’  Towards the end of the account, Beckett writes,

What was important was not our having penicillin when they had none, nor the unregarding munificence of the French Ministry of Reconstruction (as it was then called), but the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and, who knows, by them in us (for they are an imaginative people), of that smile at the human conditions as little to be extinguished by bombs as to be broadened by the elixirs of Burroughs and Welcome—the smile deriding, among other things, the having and the not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health.

For me, it is this smile—deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation—that is the essence of humour.  This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book.  Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation.  This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful.  We smile and find ourselves ridiculous.  Our wretchedness is our greatness.


[1] Critchley, Simon.  On Humour.  New York: Routledge, 2002.

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