shu and joe

Humor Runs in the Family

Published on December 28, 2008

Zadie Smith writes in the New Yorker about the role of comedy in her father’s life.

In birth, two people go into a room and three come out. In death, one person goes in and none come out. This is a cosmic joke told by Martin Amis. I like the metaphysical absurdity it draws out of the death event, the sense that death doesn’t happen at all—that it is, in fact, the opposite of a happening. There are philosophers who take this joke seriously. To their way of thinking, the only option in the face of death—in facing death’s absurd non-face—is to laugh. This is not the bold, humorless laugh of the triumphant atheist, who conquers what he calls death and his own fear of it. No: this is more unhinged. It comes from the powerless, despairing realization that death cannot be conquered, defied, contemplated, or even approached, because it’s not there; it’s only a word, signifying nothing. It’s a truly funny laugh, of the laughor-you’ll-cry variety. There is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!” This is a cosmic joke told by Franz Kafka, a wisecrack projected into a void. When I first put the partial cremains of my father in a Tupperware sandwich box and placed it on my writing desk, that was the joke I felt like telling.

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