I never actually regret having dropped out of grad school, but there are times when I’m particularly glad that I didn’t become an academic, such as when I’m reminded how out of touch academics can be. (This does not apply, of course, to academics who read LH, who are totally hip.) I just read Thomas Keymer’s LRB review of Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century by Simon Dickie, becoming more and more astonished at the attitude expressed and assumed therein toward low humor:
In Cruelty and Laughter, Simon Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm’, by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that revelled in human suffering and physical affliction. … Dickie painstakingly retrieves the older pleasures from fugitive jestbooks and trashy ephemera: an archive little studied not only because of low survival rates – the books he describes were read to pieces – but also because of its content. With their unrepentant nastiness and gloating delight in other people’s pain, the ubiquitous jestbooks gleefully up-end the official values of the age. The humanitarian sensibilities we associate with the Enlightenment are nowhere to be seen. In compilations with titles like England’s Witty and Ingenious Jester, The Buck’s Pocket Companion and Fun for the Parlour, blind women are walked into walls, crutches are stolen from one-legged beggars, dwarfs are picked up and tossed from windows and starving paupers are fed shit pies. Some of the most rebarbative jests, often whole sequences of them, reappear across the decades. Even works like The Delicate Jester; or, Wit and Humour Divested of Ribaldry (a lucus a non lucendo kind of title) reprint them without any softening. … To what extent can we put these unendearing but popular texts down to cultural lag, to the persistence of the coarsely medieval in the age of reason?
The persistence of the coarsely medieval? Has the Chancellor Jackman Professor of English at the University of Toronto never gone online? Did he not have school friends who told exactly such jokes with boisterous relish? Is he really not aware that cruel jokes about women, the blind, paupers, and indeed every identifiable subgroup of people have been told and laughed at since the beginning of time and will doubtless continue to be told and laughed at until the human race evolves into the kind of ethereal beings foretold by the more high-minded sort of sf writer a century or so ago? I’m not defending that class of jokes (though I have laughed at them), but words like “rebarbative” and “unendearing” reek of an arm’s-length distaste that makes me want to recite from Fun for the Parlour in his class. And “medieval”? Really, professor! Wake up and smell the crooked timber of humanity!