SILLINESS – A SERIOUS HISTORY

Silliness a serious History

Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia, 2019
Peter Timms
RRP $24.95

Peter Timms

After finishing Timm’s discursive and tumultuous little volume (224 pages), I felt a bit dazed.  Timms spends a lot of time defining silliness, what it is and isn’t, in a very British fashion, dropping names from ancient Greece to the Goon Show.  He has done a great deal of research, admitting in the introduction that “the book can only skim the surface”, but hoping that the reader will gain “an inkling of the great wealth of nonsense, absurdity, gobbledegook, blarney, bosh, tosh and amiable bunkum on offer to dispel melancholy and spark up our journey through life.”  And it is an entertaining, if apparently light-minded, ditzy, frivolous, frothy, giddy, puerile and yeasty little book, all of which adjectives being synonyms for silly in the Merriam Webster Dictionary.  Conversely and very challengingly (to be serious) it’s also a dense read from a masterful, erudite author, packed with impressive details.  I hadn’t before realized, for example, the similarities in humour between the American cartoonist James Thurber and the British (Punch cartoonist) Paul Crum.  

Any serious history of silliness encompasses the field of ornithology:  flighty, featherbrained and generally birdbrained being synonyms of silliness.  It’s perfectly logical the cover of his book displays a ground ape costumed as what appears to be a corvid of some sort with a rather arrogant, smug countenance peering from beneath a beak.  Corvids (crows and ravens) are very intelligent birds, and so perhaps the cover actually depicts a drongo costume with its tail bobbed.  

Timms has largely restricted his book to the Western World, although he briefly mentions the Chinese Court with its tradition of jester-like comedians and the Aztecs, with their retinue of court jesters offsetting their cruel tyranny and horrid human sacrifices. The British have a tradition of eccentricity and the author admits that the British dominate his book “because they just do” without saying why.  We are assured that silliness is a “slippery concept” resisting definition, but is it as slippery as Timms would have us believe?  The Oxford Dictionary, to be British about it, defines silliness summarily as “Lack of common sense or judgment:  foolishness.”  But Timms isn’t content with that.  Our Macquarie Dictionary defines silly as 1) lacking good sense, foolish, stupid or 2) absurd or ridiculous.  Further “silly as a cut snake” is insane, eccentric, while returning to ornithology, “silly as a wet hen” is stupid, idiotic and erratic; in other words, just bird-brained.  

The book is interactive; it’s recommended the reader consult the internet and YouTube.  And there is such an eclectic mix spanning such a breadth of history that this is strongly advised if not mandatory.  YouTube has a clip of the Dadaist poet Kurt Schwitters reciting an excerpt from his epic nonsense poem, “Ursonate”, which presents as pure gibberish.   As silly can also mean “stunned or dazed”, as “scared silly” or “knocked silly”, Dadaism might be interpreted as a sort of shell-shocked PTSD following the senseless horrors of WW I.   That’s altogether a different silliness.  

Timms declares that silliness is quite pointless, defying rules.  I suspect defiance is a big part of what Timms is on about here, but he scarcely refers to “defiance” anywhere in his book.  The author insists being silly doesn’t equate with being stupid or nonsensical, arguing that four of the six Monty Python crew were Oxford or Cambridge graduates.  Timm’s silliness is an intentional irrationality.  There is a certain snobbishness and elitism, a “social posturing, establishing intellectual and moral superiority”.   This is where the secondary education comes into it.  The demands of mass culture, television and film, have necessarily obscured this, but hierarchy is invariably a driver of our species’ behaviour.  As rocker Josh Homme put it, “Making people uncomfortable is one of my hobbies.  I’m always hoping that half the people get the joke and the other half are the joke.”   

The author discusses four theories as to why we laugh:  Superiority Theory, Incongruity Theory such as non-sequitur, Release Theory and Play or Pleasure Theory.  Who asks what makes us laugh?  How many of us have ever pondered or even fleetingly considered it?  Or would that level of seriousness and introspection undermine the pleasure of it somehow?  Does Timms’ analysis of silly humour form a beach head towards a contrived mechanical as opposed to spontaneous and honest humour.  Will it promote the crunching of algorithms for computerized comedy and robot comedians?  

Timms perceives silliness as a counterbalance to seriousness, perhaps essential for our mental health, “to be joyful, just for the hell of it.”  “Humour”, he states, “especially silly humour, lifts us out of our accustomed moral frameworks… combats pessimism…self-absorption and egotism” and “makes us better people”.  Or was George Orwell closer to the truth: “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.”  

Timms sees silliness as an “essential irritant”, with a subversive, anarchic quality; “a thorn in the side of respectability”.  “Violent revolt will only harden their (?) resolve and satire flatters them with attention.”  Silliness is then the most effective instrument of revolutionary activity.  He also points out serious revolutionaries haven’t much sense of humour.  Except for the hard-core anarchist, Timms feels we don’t really fancy anarchy but just like to test the limits to “see how thin the carapace of civilization is and what might lie beneath.”   

Timms does touch on psychology.  He refers to the Trickster archetype and the fine line of distinction between jests and cons.  Where is the line between madness and silliness and eccentricity?  The florid delusions of Don Quixote are schizophrenic, but odd and eccentric personalities are often associated with the autistic spectrum.  Not all eccentricity is affectation.  “Wrong Planet” is an Asperger’s experience of the neurotypical world.   For autistic people, it’s not a choice to be different, the difference, the bent peculiarity of perception and lack of conformity are not chosen but congenitally conferred.  So Timms blunders when he writes “Call them rebellious, unconventional, queer (in the old-fashioned sense), irresponsible or stark raving bonkers, there are those who chose to live the silly life, whether full or part-time.  They are few, because being at a slight angle to the universe is taxing and the rewards, sadly, are few.”  Wealth and being British help, Timms thinks.  Celebrity status, often associated with wealth, is enhanced by “differences”.  Eccentricity among working people, Timms points out, disrupts commerce.  In the author’s view, the aristocrat can flout a delightful eccentricity.  However, the same behaviour in the middle and lower classes would be classed as madness.  The actual psychology is rather more complex.

Somehow Timms overlooks the outrageous farcical and satirical novelist Tom Sharpe with his autistic anti-heroes such as Wilt. This exclusion is particularly puzzling as Sharpe so exceeds most of Timms’ benchmarks for silliness as he defines it.    

Timms mentions the Nobel Prize is for serious literature and, if the great writers Cervantes or Rabelais were alive today, they’d wouldn’t get a look in.  They were certainly far from politically correct in their day.  The author also observes that Aristophanes, Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne and Gogol were “broadly satirical”, while also revelling in nonsense and silliness.  Elevating silliness to a distinct category rather than accepting it as simply a comedic affect is puzzling and problematic.  

In Chapter 3, “Too Silly for Words”, the author explores nonsense words and gibberish.  Some of the gibberish he attributes to the lyrics of Black American musicians may be less deliberate silliness than incidental to the requirements of rhythm.  There is also the musicality of words and onomatopoeia, which again, would make them quite other than just plain silly.    

The author observes that “silliness can sometimes be a mask for mental distress”, bitterness, depression, alienation and alcoholism.  Maybe that’s inevitable for the comic.  As Lawrence Sterne put it, “For every ten jokes you acquire a hundred enemies”.  Now that’s a seriously impressive yield for such a thing as silliness.  At that rate of return it wouldn’t take very long to develop a fully justified persecution complex.   Marshall McLuhan commented “…a joke really requires a hidden ground of grievance, for which the joke is only a figure sitting out front.”  He further noted “When people become too intense, too serious, they will have trouble relating to any social game or norm.  Perhaps this is why jokes are so important.  On one hand, they tell us about where the problems and grievances are, and, at the same time, they provide the means of enduring these grievances by laughing at the problems.” 

In Chapter 5, “Worlds within worlds” Timms explores mise-en-abyme, locating a story within a story, a painter painting a painting within his painting, the solipsistic refraction of “watching you watching me”.   Lawrence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy is a bewildering example, where Tristam is “writing about why he is not writing his life story.  And the reason he is not writing his life story is that he is too busy writing about why he is not writing his life story.  The more time he spends writing about his reasons for not writing his life story, the more life he has lived that needs to be written about, hence the further behind he falls.”   Timms didn’t find Don Quixote funny, “the jokes are cruel and infantile”, the humour of the day “vicious”. “They laughed at things then that would horrify most people today.”  In “Gleeful disgust”,  Timms writes “The British love gore, the grosser, messier and more irksome the better, although not until moral codes were relaxed in the seventies and eighties could its full comic potential be milked…only the Americans, unsurprisingly, have latched onto it with enthusiasm, even coming up with a name for it:  gross-out comedy.”  I wondered if our modern extremes would have horrified the people of Cervantes’ day.  How much of our modern recoil stems from the humourlessness of political correctness, rather than a truly visceral response?  Timms further notes that British sitcoms of the past half century often feature failure, which he posits reflects their loss of empire and status.  “Food porn”, the classic “pie in the face” might be classified as a type of gross-out comedy.  Oddly, Timms doesn’t mention Australians here despite our meat pies, sausage rolls and kegs of beer.  

The technique of excess so brilliantly employed by Rabelais raises the question as to how far you can go before becoming tedious.  Timms discusses the transition from silent film to talkies, with examples featuring Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, and The Marx Brothers, moving on to the tv show “I Love Lucy”.  As everyone who’s ever had to listen to someone recounting a film knows, it quickly becomes tedious and tiresome and so too with Timms, but only for that reason.  Chapter 7, “Getting out of hand”, explores the theme of ascending chaos.   And then there’s “laughing and gasping”, the combination of laughter and fear.  In “Raising psychopaths”, Timms compares the brutality of children’s cartoons to the relatively more sedate entertainment of their parents.  The characters in cartoons never succumb despite repeatedly suffering violence which would be fatal in reality.  Generally causing mayhem is considered funny, but does this encourage vandalism?  Do we inadvertently encourage cruelty, qualities of schadenfreude and outright psychopathy with the brutal violence in children’s cartoons?  Serious, unsilly questions.  

According to Timms, some groups are formed for the celebration of pure silliness like The Order of the Occult Hand for journalists and scribblers, where membership is based on inserting the hackneyed phrase “It was as if an occult hand had…” somewhere in their work.  The Church of the Flying Spaghetti was formed as a protest to the teaching of intelligent design alongside the theory of evolution in Kansas in 2005 by American physics graduate Bobby Henderson.  Members, known as Pastafarians, wear a colander on their heads.  Although Timms would classify these groups as silly, they might better be considered satirical.  

In his introduction, Timms declares: “This is something we need, today more than ever.  To be taken seriously, novels, films, plays, works of art and even ballets must be ‘about’ (or must ‘address’) some social or political issue, usually in ways that bolster the fashionable liberal view…Even children’s books have succumbed to hectoring polemics about gender re-alignment, bullying, environmental destruction or stranger-danger.” Timms concludes his book “By poking fun at rules and restrictions, dismissing the powerful with an airy wave and turning logic on its head, silliness summons laughter and points the way to freedom.  How extraordinary that something so apparently useless can turn out to be so important.  And rarely has it been so important, indeed so necessary, as it is today.”  An attack on what’s commonly called political correctness.  So the slippery serpentine concept of Timms’ silliness, tail firmly in its mouth, wheels dizzily to the finish.  Seriously disturbing silliness, if you bother to take it at all seriously which you really must do for it to be appreciated as a Serious History.   Attempting to establish silliness as a distinct category of humour, rather than accepting it as a comedic affect is problematic.  It would be simpler and less confusing and less silly to say this book is an analysis of humour.   

We might regain our equilibrium succinctly, if banally, by dispensing with this silly category of silliness.  Adopting the employ of proverbs by which Sancho Panza so consistently irritated Don Quixote: 

Many a true word is spoken in jest.  He that jokes confesses.  Laughter is the best medicine.   

Ironically, the antonyms of silliness seem required now more than ever as we approach the Sixth Extinction Event, albeit with a profound change of focus:

Earnest, Serious, Serious-minded, Sober, Unfrivolous: 

Qualities essential to good character, social cohesion and responsible environmental stewardship. 

Shall Homo sapiens finally go down laughing itself silly?  

John Stockard 

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