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Significance of Humour

Significance of Humour

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Published by: Rose Quentinovna Wallop on May 12, 2012
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01/15/2013

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The significance of humour in
 Everything is Illuminated 
and
 Portnoy's Complaint 
'Jewish wit' began to establish itself in the late nineteenth century and came to define Jewish identityas much as it was based on Jewish preoccupations. The extent to which it has stayed intact after crossing the atlantic and after one hundred years of development and a century of trauma is testamentto its distinctiveness but may also be a function of the Jews' need to hold onto their identity as thediaspora spread ever further. The novels chosen to shed light on the significance of humour,
 Portnoy'sComplaint 
by Philip Roth and
 Everything Is Illuminated 
by Jonathan Safran Foer, show how fast theJewish Americans' fortunes changed in the late 20th century, and how the tropes established in Jewishhumour are now strong enough to be able to be passed on to other characters and demographics.Susan Purdie's encapsulation of the function and effect of joking in
Comedy: The Mastery of  Discourse
synthesises opposing ideas that humour reinforces social norms and that punning rebelsagainst 'collective constraints' by evading discourse:
 
Because joking marks transgressions on the site of their genuine occurrence, it confirmsus strongly as able to keep the rule of same and different, as well as to break it. The effectof joking is to emphatically instate the law, and ourselves as those who master discoursein defining as well as producing the usages which conform to it.'This is interesting from the point of view of various characters' desire for acceptance in
 Portnoy's Complaint 
and
 Everything Is Illuminated 
and may anticipate the ultimate inadequacyof humour to reveal or convey the truth about life or ourselves.
1
Jefferson Chase (2001, p. 43) points out that 'I am the son in the Jewish joke!' can be retranslated fromthe German 'Ich bin der Sohn des Judenwitzes' as 'I am the product of Jewish wit, of a particular typeof discourse'.
2
 
 Portnoy's Complaint 
takes the form of a
 judenwitz 
. It closes with a “PUNCH LINE”(
 PC 
274), making Portnoy's exclamation true in the most literal sense. Within the joke, the novel takesthe form of a
kvetch
, or hyperbolic rant as implied in the 'complaint' of the title, and within thekvetching there are puns and one-liners. All of these jokes reflect the typical themes of the Jewish joke including sexual frustration, the dominating wife, erotically-charged mother-son relationshipsand the pressure to be a success. Chase also asserts that the hyperbolic quality of the
kvetch
“relativises thematic discourse”, meaning that the very extremeness of what he says shows that he isnot serious about it at all. This is a self-aware heightening of the way every fictional character isconceived – as part of a discourse – with each joke revealing Portnoy to be a puppet for Roth's voice.Chase argues that humour is a form of assimilation for the Jews: creating their own distinctive voice
1Quoted in Jefferson Chase, 'Two Sons of "Jewish Wit": Philip Roth and Rafael Seligmann',
Comparative Literature
,Vol. 53, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 45 (Oregon: Duke University Press)2Philip Roth,
 Portnoy's Complaint 
(London: Random House, 1995), pp. 36-37
 
carves a space for that voice in American society.Portnoy's overwhelming experience in his youth is that of being part of the wrong discourse. He isobsessed with what his mother dismissively calls '
 goyische
taste' (
 PC 
143), and loves baseball as anembodiment of what he perceives to be America's calm respect for the individual: 'Oh, how unlike myhome it is to be in center field, where no one will appropriate unto himself anything that I say ismine!' (
 PC 
69) The American discourse is manifested in bodies, in a style of dress and tone of voicethat Portnoy will never achieve. He envies
 goyim
and
 shikses
their parents because they represent a
habitus
that, by definition, will never be his. But the humour of 
 Portnoy's Complaint 
is in the frenziedwriting style, where undertones of paranoia, self-hatred, superiority and hypochondria can be made tocrescendo into prolonged passages of hysteria. One of the most perfect examples is the episode atBubbles Girardi's house, where his fear of catching syphilis, losing his penis, being caught by hismother and featuring in local headlines climax in an inability to get an erection at the hands of the girland a spurt of semen in his eye: masturbation literally blinds him (
 PC 
165-184). He does notrecognise that the nature of every discourse is that it has its own constraints. Portnoy's primary modeof communication, the Judenwitz, is born of his claustrophobic home-life: 'In this householdeverybody tries to get a good cry in at least once a day' (
 PC 
25). The freedom he finds in punning is born of the inescapability of a mother who demands to look through his faeces (
 PC 
22), and hisearliest fantasies are the product of trying to sidestep meanings and identities conferred on him:'Portnoy, yes, it's an old French name, a corruption of porte noir, meaning black door or gate.Apparently in the Middle Ages in France the door to our family manor house was painted.' (PC 149)He has in fact been afforded a greater power over language than the
 goyim
who apparently had somuch more freedom for their bodies.Critics have commented on the fluidity of Jewish identity in Jewish/American literature
3
. To be a Jewis identified in literature with certain motivations, desires and disappointments, which can betransferred to another character within the novel. If Portnoy's identification of himself as a 'Jewishson' hangs on his stifling home life, his desire to be part of American culture and his hankering after sexual experiences, Alex is the Jew in Everything Is Illuminated. Eliot Borenstein mentions Alex asan example of the 'yokel': the mythical Eastern European figure who has not reclaimed his voiceunlike almost every other demographic in the wake of postmodernism.
4
Foer certainly takes part in'the abject humour of yokelisation' at the opening of the novel. When Jonathan keeps complaining of 
3Including Jonathan Rosen's introduction to
The Assistant 
 by Bernard Malamud (New York: Farrar, Strauss andGiroux, 2003)4Eliot Borenstein, 'Our Borats, Our Selves: Yokels and Cosmopolitans on the Global Stage' Source: Slavic Review,Vol. 67, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), p. 3
 
the smell in the car, Alex's diplomatic skills eventually give way to his despair and he cries“It is onlySammy Davis, Junior, Junior. She gets terrible farting in the car because it has nor shock absorbersnor struts, but if we roll down the window she will jump out, and we need her because she is theSeeing Eye bitch for our blind driver, who is also my grandfather. What do you not understand?”
5
The fact that this is Alex's description of the situation, however, shows perhaps with Jonathan'sinfluence he is beginning to understand the comedic value of drawing out such moments reflectingone's own incompetence or powerlessness to an audience: the self-deprecating yokel. This anticipatesAlex's symbolic transformation from the abject yokel figure to the real hero, and indeed
mensch
, bythe end of the novel. Foer has said in interview, 'The person who we think is the fool...becomes thehero'.
6
Foer allows his namesake in the novel unkindly to exploit Alex's unsophisticated tendencies,apparently encouraging him to make 'more protracted' his deluded self-portrait in the opening chapter,so that the reader is complicit in a bullying process.Foer does make amends, however, by allowing Alex to go through the psychoanalytic growing-up process of expelling his father from his life, as well as allowing him to be a father figure to Jonathan by being a 'funny person': '(But I do. That is what you always fail to understand. I present not- truthsin order to protect you. That is also why I try so inflexibly to be a funny person. Everything is to protect you. I exist in case you need to be protected.)'
 
(
 EII 
227). Zizek, assessing Benigni's
 La Vita E  Bella
, says 'The fantasmatic protective shield is the benevolent fiction allowing the son to come toterms with harsh reality': perhaps Foer had Zizek's, if not Lacan's, father figure in mind when hecreated this dynamic.
7
 Thus Alex participates fully in a process of intersubjectivity from which hemay initially have appeared to be excluded by imperfect command of the discourse. When comedy becomes tragedy Alex emphasises that he does not want to be funny any more, or 'disgusting' (
 EII 
219), showing his awareness of himself as what he may represent to readers. The revelation that Alexunderstands his appearance to the reader and that he has been holding this understanding back inorder to present a certain impression of himself for Jonathan's sake takes us by surprise. WhenJonathan and Alex are talking outside 'Augustine''s house, Jonathan says 'I used to think that humor was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is.But now I think the opposite. Humor is a way of shrinking from that wonderful and terrible world.'Alex has realised this but also knows that we have to be protected from the world in some way.If the act of laughing at someone is subtly problematised earlier in the novel, Foer makes more and
5 Jonathan Safran Foer,
 Everything is Illuminated 
(London: Penguin, 2003)6
Connie Martinson Talks Books
, Everything is Illuminated – Part I (June 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQxElQbEupY)7 'Laugh Yourself to Death: the new wave of Holocaust comedies!',
 Did somebody say totalitarianism? Fiveinterventions in the (mis)use of a notion
(London: Verso, 2002)

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