Why read? Why write? Why bother? On reclaiming our language and our lives and having a laugh

September 13, 2020 at 12:46 am | Posted in capitalism, Comedy writing, Democracy, humour as medicine, Living creatively, social capital, value of the arts | 2 Comments
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The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

Because I’ve been writing a new novel (working title: Tumult) I’ve postponed writing a new blog post. Immersed in the world of the novel, it’s only when I feel super strongly about a book I’ve read that I’m desperate to tell people about it. Two small books stand out. Carlo M. Cipolla’s The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity and John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing.

Even though The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (Penguin, 2019) was first published in 1976, with its chapters such as ‘Stupidity and Power’, it has direct relevance to the Trump phenomenon. This international best-seller explains that ‘stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals’. Lest this sound like a depressing read, it is actually a very funny one, and Nassim Taleb in his Foreword to the latest edition writes that it’s not cynical or defeatist – no more than a book on microbiology is. Instead, it’s ‘a constructive effort to detect, know and thus possibly neutralize one of the most powerful, dark forces which hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness.’

‘Something is very wrong with the world.’

And when I began reading Dictionary of the Undoing (Corsair, 2019), I thought that John Freeman is our William Blake (see here) Dictionary of the Undoing is an arresting and profound book, simply and succinctly analysing how we arrived at our current mess. ‘Something is very wrong with the world.’ An uncontroversial statement if ever there was one, and it’s the first sentence of John Freeman’s A to Z of where we are now.

The author expresses profound philosophical and political truths in simple, sometimes witty, lyrical language. He reminds us that economic fortunes are not made from thin air. ‘They are produced by seizing the resources and labor of many and putting them in the hands of the very very few.’

The entry, ‘Environment’ states: ‘As rational thinkers, we know inequality to be created by a consolidation of power and resources. Unchecked inequalities reach critical mass and lead to tyranny. We’ve reached that critical mass. Just twenty-six people are worth the collective labor of more than three billion people.’

A call to action

He points out that a society is the sum of the behaviour it tolerates. We don’t even have to think about the US President to be aware of the ramifications of that statement. Look at almost every aspect of contemporary neoliberal society. Which of course brings us to the entry under ‘Fair’, where Freeman writes that US Justice Departments are ‘slowly eroded by a corrosive acid wash of money.’

But this slim book is not depressing. It’s a call to action and this aspect, as well as Freeman’s beautiful writing recalled for me something that that model of clarity Richard Denniss said in a recent seminar zoomed by the Australia Institute https://nb.tai.org.au/ – he pointed out that ‘democracy thrives on high expectations and if we disengage from politics the politicians will only be listening to the lobbyists.’ We have a responsibility not to turn off. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Dictionary of the Undoing is a pocket-sized work of art that exhorts us to reclaim our language and our lives, persuading us with the sober clarity of evidence and the author’s compassionate vision. It is a joy to read language as honest and original as this and no surprise to discover that the author is a poet.

The King of Staten Island

I’m inspired by wonderful books like these and by films such as Judd Apatow’s latest, The King of Staten Island (2020, available at some cinemas and on digital platforms.) Some people are dismissive of his films, in the way that many are dismissive of comedy in general. I think the achievements of comic writers are under-rated because people don’t take them seriously – an easy enough concept to laugh off, but the sober fact is that comedy is far harder to write than tragedy, or, come to think of it, anything else.

I’m in awe of the talent demanded to write comedies as flawless as Election (Alexander Payne, 1999) or A Fish Called Wanda (John Cleese, 1988). And I was amazed at Judd Apatow’s films like Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up because he often deals with male loneliness. I can’t think of anyone else in cinema who does this. And he not only chooses a difficult, unpopular – you could almost say taboo – subject, but deals with it in a humane and humorous way.

Going deeper

He has said in interviews that his wife Leslie Mann, the wonderful comic actor, contributes to the screenplays and doesn’t let him get away with stuff, forcing him to go deeper into a character if something doesn’t ring quite true. It really shows – they’re authentic and we care about them. His characters are the opposite of those in so many lazily-written, yawn-inducing Hollywood blockbusters. They’re not driving fast cars and shooting guns or causing explosions. Apatow’s men are inept, lonely and comically confused. We can relate to them completely because who hasn’t been that way, at least for some part of our life?

The King of Staten Island is about a young man who is lost. And he has been lost since his father, a fire-fighter, died, when he was seven years old. His mother, played with energy and wit by Marisa Tomei, is trying valiantly to hold her work life and family life together as her son flounders, letting his life drift passively by. Every day’s the same for him, with dope-smoking and inanities and comically unrealistic dreams, while his younger sister is excited about going off to college and his mother continues to work her arse off to make ends meet.

A chance encounter, hilarious, bizarre and black, involving a nine-year-old boy, results in the unfolding of a coming-of-age plot, but the film feels so much more than this. It’s funny and moving, unpredictable and totally unsentimental. It’s about love and it’s about that hardest of hard things: self-acceptance.

I saw it at Canberra’s Dendy, with three other people, sitting rows apart from each other and the four of us strangers were just guffawing. Some people think that his films are too dark but isn’t that the best comedy? All I can say is that it is for me. (And for those three I shared the Dendy with that day last week.) The plots of Judd Apatow’s films might be about a particular floundering male character but they go further: they’re about the human condition. Judd Apatow manages to be both comic and profound.

So apart from being buried in the world of my new novel (yes, the emotional tumult is balanced by comic bits) I’m being inspired by offerings like these from fabulous writers. If you take the above three disparate offerings, they all answer the questions: why read (or go to films)? Why write? Why bother? And they all demonstrate that humour is an inescapable part of this dark, unjust, trouble-filled world we’re living in. Humour is an honest expression of those problems and it helps us to grapple with and survive them, to stay sane in spite of them. A sense of humour is a sense of proportion.



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  1. Thanks, dear Pen. Found notification of your latest post in my Spam file and am very glad I did. You’ve inspired me to re-immerse myself in my own Creative writing … and to read even more widely 🙂 Looking forward to Tumult.

    • Hi Merrill, – good! I’d love to read more of your writing and there’s just nothing so satisfying as getting down to those depths and finding mysterious wonderful stuff! xx

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