A Modest Proposal to the Torch Bearers of Mr. Stephen Leacock
(delivered to the AGM of the Leacock Associates, Nov. 18/12)
After awarding the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour for some 65 years (since 1947) to writers as noteworthy as Earle Birney, Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, W.O. Mitchell, Morley Torgov, Mordecai Richler, Will Ferguson and my late great pal Paul Quarrington (and I do note that these are all men, or at least boys), we might pause today to reflect on what makes a great and lasting comic work.
In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift modestly proposed, in 1729, that the best and easiest solution to poverty and hunger—both—was to sell the children of beggars to the rich. That way beggars could have some income, finally, and the rich could have an almost endless supply of tasty and nourishing meals. “I have been assured,” Swift writes, “by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.”
Swift is, of course, railing against English rule because the social and economic problems of the Irish are of little consequence to His Majesty King George II and his court. But he’s also mocking his own Irish leaders and pamphleteers who pander to the mothership in England and who promote their own egotistical causes ahead of those of their own needy people. What makes the essay so effective is that it mimics the style and rhetorical presentation and thinking of the essays and pamphlets of Swift’s time, all the while skewering the politicians and thinkers who wrote them.
In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift goes even further in his political satirizing. He sends Gulliver, his protagonist, on a series of adventures meant to illuminate for Gulliver the full range of human foibles: the way we govern ourselves, for instance, and the way in which we view others, especially strangers, whom we often regard as a threat.
Just to illustrate, I want to mention the first part of the novel, which, by the way, was bowdlerized, with much of its darkness and bitterness and irony sanitized out of it by Dr. Bowdler himself so that the work could become palatable for children. In any case, in the first part, Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he encounters a society of small people (one-twelfth his size). He becomes a favourite of the Lilliputians, so they ask him to help prevail over their neighbours, the Blefuscudians. Gulliver obliges by stealing the Blefuscudians’ fleet of powerful, fully loaded and charged ships. Now as human nature—or Lilliputian nature—shows itself for what it is, the King of Lilliput wants Gulliver to go a little further. He wants big Gulliver to see to it that Blefuscu become a province of Lilliput. When Gulliver refuses, he is tried for treason and sentenced to be blinded—ironically, of course, because he is beginning to see the King for who he is—but he escapes in the nick of time to Blefuscu and then back home before travelling out again, this time to Brobdingnag, where he is the ever adorable little Gulliver to people twelve times his size, who charge tickets to see the little man, until the Queen herself buys Gulliver and takes him home as a plaything for her daughter, and so the story goes… Swift’s work is satire at its very best because it ridicules our foibles by showing us the kinds of depths to which we might sink to make ourselves look more important, all the while remaining blind to others, even our neighbours, who want the same things we do.
The great American humourist Mark Twain said that “the true source of humour is not joy but sorrow.” Of course he was right. We are funniest when, at heart, we visit the places where we are least comfortable. We are least comfortable trying to impress others, trying to score a date, fearing our own awkwardness, fearing illness, fearing death. Listen to the jokes of our favourite comedians. Listen to what the subjects are that they cover and that make us laugh. Sex and death are the most frequent concerns. Someone once asked Woody Allen, “Do you want to achieve immortality through your work?” He said, “No, I’d rather achieve it through not dying.”
In Mark Twain’s own comic masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck leaves behind his bleak home and his mean Papi and takes off on a raft down the Mississippi River. Only he does so with a runaway slave named Jim. The stuff that goes on on shore becomes the ugly stuff of the novel. People pour kerosene on dogs and set them aflame; families are feuding for generations, even though no one can remember what the original reason was for the fallout between them; people con one another, mislead one another, cheat one another; people settle down, go to school, go to church and succumb to all the civilizing forces that warp people, in Huck’s view. And yet here’s a picture of life on the river:
Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things — we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us — the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.
Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark — which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two — on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to MAKE so many. Jim said the moon could a LAID them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
Once or twice of a night we would see a steamboat slipping along in the dark, and now and then she would belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimbleys, and they would rain down in the river and look awful pretty; then she would turn a corner and her lights would wink out and her powwow shut off and leave the river still again; and by and by her waves would get to us, a long time after she was gone, and joggle the raft a bit, and after that you wouldn’t hear nothing for you couldn’t tell how long, except maybe frogs or something.
The river, then, becomes the ideal world, while the shore is the real world. So powerful is the spell cast by the river that, one day, Huck decides to turn Jim in as the runaway slave he is, but the trouble is he’s grown to love Jim too much and decides, instead, that he won’t, he can’t. All right, he tells himself, “I’ll go to hell,” and he tears up the note he’s written to Jim’s owner.
In Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, our heroes, Barlow and Joyboy, run Whispering Glades pet cemetery. They solemnly come to your house, place your dear deceased dog on a satin pillow, carry it solemnly out to their hearse, take it to Whispering Glades, open the fridge, fling your dog in and get their lunch out. Waugh is satirizing the world of Hollywood, where vanity and egocentricity have overtaken sympathy and generosity and where, for a premium, you can have your dead pet tied to a rocket and shot up into space. In the 20th century, Hollywood has become the shore, and the river flows only through our dreams.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield imagines the river world as a field of rye in which he can catch his innocent sister Phoebe before she falls off the cliff into adulthood and phoniness and corruption. Dark though the story is, we often forget how funny is the ironic voice of Holden Caulfield, who is telling his story of phoniness and truth to a psychiatrist in a hospital.
The voice of the narrator of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town learned to speak from Swift and Twain, not to mention the ironic voice of Cervantes in Don Quixote, or the diabolical voice of Aristophanes in Lysistrata. Twenty-five centuries ago, Aristophanes’ heroine says, “There are many things about us women that make me sad, especially since men see us as silly and uncontrollable.” Her friend Calonice says, “So? Aren’t we?” Aristophanes had long ago observed that the trouble for women was that men still held the keys to the kingdom.
In Mariposa the river meets the shore, or at least the lake does. It’s where the world we want to inhabit (the ideal world) meets the world we do inhabit (the real one). Leacock tells us we “are probably well acquainted with a dozen towns just like it.” Leacock’s characters throughout reflect the duality he intended (or not). Mr. Smith, the hotelier, for instance is described in this way: “As for Mr. Smith, with his two hundred and eighty pounds, his hoarse voice, his loud check suit, his diamonds, the roughness of his address and the goodness of his heart—all of this is known by everybody to be a necessary adjunct of the hotel business.”
Mariposa is “a town of false fronts,” to quote Will Ferguson. “It is a town where boats sent to rescue passengers from a sinking steamer have to be rescued themselves—by the very vessel they were trying to save. A town where the heroic cry of ‘Women and children first!’ is put forward mainly as a way of testing the lifeboats.” Here’s Leacock’s narrator: “What would be the sense, if it should turn out that the boat wouldn’t even hold women and children, of trying to jam a lot of heavy men into it?” What Leacock has given us, besides many laughs, is a portrait of a town which still lives, one in which blind ambition and self-centredness, in which politicians will vie for your vote (or votes, if you can get in some extra ones under the table)—in short, a town in which our foibles are tossed in a blender with ripe human goodness and charity.
Which brings us to our newest Leacock Medal recipients: Trevor Cole and Patrick deWitt.
Let me start with Trevor Cole’s Practical Jean. This dark, wry novel falls squarely in the tradition of Swift, Twain and Leacock. It is a modest proposal of its own kind. Jean Vale Horsemarsh, our protagonist, is a potter and sculptor of ridiculous ceramic plants full of leaves but no flowers because flowers generally get all the attention. She watches her mother die after succumbing to cancer and wishes she could have given her mother a “moment of beauty” before death, a moment of “joy, something exquisite and pure,” before smothering her with a pillow, which would have made her exit more bearable and “practical.” So she decides that she can do this favour for several of her friends before they face illness, old age and death. She can give them a moment of beauty before snuffing them out. As she observes them, she concludes that “Vicious, ruthless time was grinding away like a jackhammer, pulverizing bit by bit the foundations of their contentment.” Why wait for unhappiness before dying? Why not expire during a period of happiness?
It was an old shovel, made of a kind of cast iron, and quite a bit heavier than [Jean] had anticipated. So it travelled a few inches farther than she wanted and plunked Dorothy on the back of the head.
“Ow, Jean, what the hell.”
Jean’s heart nearly stopped. “Sorry! I’m so sorry, Dorothy! That was an accident….But….you’re still happy, aren’t you?”
Dorothy wobbled her head as if to clear it…. “Yes, I am.”
“Phew,” said Jean. She raised the shovel again over Dorothy’s head and brought it down like an ax.
Practical Jean is a novel about hypocrisy and phoniness and corruption, every bit as much as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is. They are both darkly funny, but where Holden Caulfield resigns under the weight of his world, Jean Horsemarsh takes matters into her own hands.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is also a novel about killing, it so happens, but killing of a different kind, killing for a living. Eli and Charlie Sisters are sent by their boss to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, but as in the best comedies, this story is based more on character than plot. [Think about your favourite sitcoms. We know exactly how Kramer and Niles and Lucy and Ricky and Archie Bunker will react to every conceivable situation.] Eli is the kind, regretful brother who wants to hang on to his old, wobbly horse, Tub, out of sympathy and mercy, who falls for the wrong kind of woman and who regrets the cold-bloodedness of their profession. “My very centre was beginning to expand as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless.” Charlie is more ruthless, less conscientious and less thoughtful, as he must be to carry out his work. Yet the two are brothers at the same time, spelling each other off, holding each other up where one is weak and the other strong.
Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Sisters Brothers, moreover, is a sardonic commentary on 19th century America, a commentary on the wild west as it rubs up against civilization. Referring to San Francisco, Charlie Sisters remarks that “It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busy burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.” The Sisters Brothers has moments of hilarity. When Eli and Charlie are surrounded by killers, Charlie suggests his brother count to five and then they all shoot. After counting only to two, the brothers make quick work of the gang. There is all kinds of childish banter and buffoonery throughout the story, and it is in the daily carryings on of these two brothers—where they sleep, how much more than the other one drinks, how much chubbier than the other one is becoming, who has the better horse, how each cleans his teeth—it is in these antics and details that much of the observation of their time and ours, their character and ours resides.
It is for these reasons that these books represent comic art at its best. The Leacock Award cannot merely reach for the books with the easiest laughs—although laughs and literature are not mutually exclusive. It should be funny but with a shadow passing over it—in other words, a story with depth to it, one that reflects its time and ours, all the while making us smile and sometimes laugh, the more often the better.
Joe Kertes is the winner of the 1989 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. Mr. Kertes founded Humber College’s distinguished creative writing and comedy programs and is currently Humber’s Dean of Creative and Performing Arts.