Monday, August 30, 2010

Black Humor

"I've had worse!"

You wouldn’t know it reading these posts, but yes, I have a sense of humor. The more ridiculous and offensive the better. Monty Python, Marx Brothers, Three Stooges. I watch standup on the Comedy Channel on cable. A lot. In social settings I am first to spot the absurdity in a situation and point it out, often in language that would make a sailor blush. (I do this in professional settings too. Apparently my lack of recognition of propriety and authority go quite nicely together.) I love playing with words and poking my friends in the gut and making them giggle. I’m sure there is something deeply wrong with me and this all comes from old insecurities that I must be amusing or be rejected, plus what seems an evermore necessary use of lightheartedness as defense against the rising tide of doom and gloom in the world around me, never mind the world within. Fact is, for everyone that thinks I am so contemplative I must never do or say anything silly, there is someone out there who envies me being such a happy idiot I must never ponder the serious side of life.

Verlaine au café Procope, d'après Cesare Bacchi

                                                          Il pleure dans mon coeur
                                                          Comme il pleut sur la ville.
                                                          Quelle est cette langueur
                                                          Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

                                                          O bruit doux de la pluie
                                                          Par terre et sur les toits !
                                                          Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
                                                          O le chant de la pluie !

                                                          Il pleure sans raison
                                                          Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
                                                          Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
                                                          Ce deuil est sans raison.

                                                          C’est bien la pire peine
                                                          De ne savoir pourquoi,
                                                          Sans amour et sans haine,
                                                          Mon coeur a tant de peine.

Yes, I can be Chuckles the Clown in person, but for some reason, I have never been a funny or a happy writer. Put paper in front of me and I turn into a wise, wistful old fart. From Europe. Not unlike the wise wistful old farts like Verlaine whose lament above is indicative of my reading material when I was still too young to understand what there was out in the world to be so vexed and melancholy about. It wasn’t happening yet, the exhausting disappointments and devastating betrayals, but oh, they were coming. It didn’t help to have parents whose favorite form of wordless expression next to laughter was the indignant exasperated sputter. I had a lot of mixed messages given to me when I was a child, but chief among them was that I could be and do just about anything in this wonderful thing called life. Of course, sigh, don’t be surprised when it all turns to shit. And it will.

who I'm from

A se stesso - por Giacomo Leopardi
                                                    Or poserai per sempre,
                                                    Stanco mio cor. Perì l'inganno estremo,
                                                    Ch'eterno io mi credei. Perì. Ben sento,
                                                    In noi di cari inganni,
                                                    Non che la speme, il desiderio è spento.
                                                    Posa per sempre. Assai
                                                    Palpitasti. Non val cosa nessuna
                                                    I moti tuoi, nè di sospiri è degna
                                                    La terra. Amaro e noia
                                                    La vita, altro mai nulla; e fango è il mondo
                                                    T'acqueta omai. Dispera
                                                    L'ultima volta. Al gener nostro il fato
                                                    Non donò che il morire. Omai disprezza
                                                    Te, la natura, il brutto
                                                    Poter che, ascoso, a comun danno impera
                                                    E l'infinita vanità del tutto

I think this has a lot to do with being Italian. We have a reputation of being very happy idiots indeed. We sing, we eat, we love and laugh at life with the passion and abandon of the hot blood in our veins. But the Southern dialect I inherited from my grandparents (pictured above) has more colorful curses than words of celebration, every song my grandmothers sang was about longing for a lost or elusive love, every meal was eaten as a battle with death (quando si mangia si combatte con la morte), and every joke handed down to me in translation involved poor hapless characters and their misfortunes. Someone else’s, the funniest kind! By the time I heard them, the punch lines had long since been removed to use as real-life commentary in any similar situation of bad luck, and no one needed or was able to tell the whole joke anymore. Maybe they were more instructional tales after all. My grandparents were immigrants and survived great hardships. Black humor in the mother tongue was just one of the unique sources of strength comprising their immeasurable legacy to me.

Hide and Seek

There is also la bella figura, a system of belief that divides the world into stranieri and famiglia, and involves always showing your best face to strangers and keeping your ills to yourself or among family. For my people, one of the greatest social gaffes one can commit is called troppo la confidenza, what Americans now call “oversharing,” usually muttered by my parents at restaurants in the wake of waiters that are too friendly. (The phrase piglia una sedia or “pull up a chair!” said with deep sarcasm is also applicable here.) This may be why I have always been more comfortable taking intimate photographs of objects than people. And maybe when I’m writing, the social reflex of respecting boundaries and appearing pleasant and amusing vanishes, as if I were sitting here talking to myself. And those conversations are hardly ever funny! So, even though the newspapers assure us the end might just be near, I’ll do my best to lighten it up here from time to time. And look at what happened. I set out to write something funny, and ended up writing something very serious about why I’m not funny! I guess life has been roughing me up a little lately. But as the armless and irrepressible Black Knight once said -- tis but a scratch!
End might just be near!


  1. this is a beautifull post, interessant and well done

    ps: I love black HUmor

  2. Mille grazie, Laura, for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed my post. They always seem to start about one thing and then become something completely different, so I enjoy writing them - to find out what I'm really thinking! Have a great week.

  3. Loved your post!! I'm a girl who loves humor also!! My mom always tells me I should of gone into comedy..... ya...well....she's my!!

  4. Hah, Manon! If we couldn't laugh at ourselves and the world around us, where would we be? Ah yes, comedy as a career choice, not unlike artist...aren't the funniest comedians the ones with the deepest knowledge and experience of the dark side of life? Thanks for stopping by!

  5. What a fantastic post, I loved it. My grandparents were also italian immigrants. But unlike you I cannot speak a word of italian.

    I can really relate to the things that were passed down though.


  6. Hah, I knew there was a reason we got along! My grasp of Italian is tenuous at best - I can read it a little, but the expressions handed down were never written down and have been altered by the Southern dialect to be almost incomprehensible to anyone not born in the same town! I can repeat certain phrases, but that's about it. I need Google assistance for anything more. It's mostly the temperament behind the language I've inherited! Plus I can't seem to talk without moving my hands. Thanks for stopping by!