Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Monday, June 27, 2005



One of the things I find hilarious about human beings is how radically different their self-image can be from their real identity. Of course, often this phenomenon is a very long way from being amusing. But sometimes, when a person is harmless, it is really quite impressive and that's why we laugh: at the awe-inspiring ability of the human brain to accomplish the apparently impossible.

Children, especially young children, specialise in this skill. Many a three-year-old boy decided he was controlling the universe through a team of small robots in the corner of his bedroom, before the arrival of bedtime burst his bubble, for the next few hours anyway. And adult characters who routinely misperceive themselves as being successful, skilled, intelligent people while actually bumbling through life breaking every piece of china in the shop are the stuff of many a comedy series. We regard the Frank Spencers and Del Boys of life with affection, even though they may arouse us to rage when it was our china. We can't be angry for long, because despite their total lack of self-awareness, these characters are endlessly optimistic and well-intentioned, and most of all they keep on trying. If they weren't trying, the mistakes wouldn't happen. So we cannot but forgive them.

On the other hand, ill-intentioned or egotistical characters in drama etc are often bumbling idiots too, very often cut down to size revealing their true bumblingly idiotic selves by the triumph of good over evil. And that's funny too, because it's a revelation of truth. Not that their wicked deeds are bumbling errors- quite the opposite- but that despite doing bad things, they remain obviously awkward and silly at the same time.

That's why evil characters they are often portrayed with nervous twitches, bizarre obsessions and awkward, stammering modes of expression. Brecht's play about Hitler, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, makes full use of the comic awkwardnesses of the Nazi dictator, and the way he turned them into those threatening expressive trade-marks: the stiff gait, the nervously feminine tightly folded arms, the Chaplainesque protective moustache that hides the upper lip and therefore any unwanted display of quivering emotional vulnerability. By contrast, Churchill's extremely relaxed and ponderous style of speech, familiar friendly V sign and great fat pleasurable cigar demonstrated the kind of deep, calm, moral authority that is simply impossible for bad guys to fake. So it was very easy for the Allies to make fun of the utterly inane and ridiculous Hitler, thus keeping up their morale and ensuring the outcome of the war.

We can tell from Hitler's body language that he was a highly self-conscious person, and from everything else about him that he had no self-awareness whatsoever. This is common because self-consciousness and self-awareness are pole opposites. You can have a little of both, but too much of one renders the other impossible.

Luckily deluded people are far more often "Ooooh, Betty!" than WWII. But probably the reason I found Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em scary as a child is that it describes a phenomenon that characterises evil as well as well-intentioned dumbness. I still don't really think it was funny. But growing up and earning your freedom changes things. I do laugh a lot at the real Frank Spencers in my life now - including any bad ones.


Post a Comment

<< Home