Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Kitchenette Comedy

I've been reading Mikhail Zoshchenko's short satires, which raise interesting questions about the nature of comedy. As someone who is not particularly funny, I'm intrigued by the whole mystery of laughter. Up to a point I buy Freud's distinction between wit and humor, where wit is the superego temporarily allowing an otherwise forbidden thought, and humor the unexpected rise, so to speak, of libidinal instincts at inappropriate moments. But laughter is not comedy. Sometimes people laugh for no reason. Sometimes I'll be at a restaurant and hear uproarious guffawing coming like cannonballs at regular intervals, and I wonder what could possibly be so funny.

Not reading Russian I can't say whether Zoshchenko's stories are not funny or just ineptly translated. I like their fleeting-glimpse-of-modern/communist-life quality. They're absurd, but not in the profound, wrenching, utterly komisch way of Kafka's parables. In Zoshchenko, a fight breaks out in an overcrowded tenement building. Or a man gets married and tries to find a proper home, and is offered a bathroom. He gets so tired of standing in the hall when other people use the toilet that he abandons his forbearing bride and escapes to the countryside. It's Mad magazine's quality of humor. Zoshchenko's theme is the misfortune of living in buildings. Sometimes on winter mornings I look out from the train platform at all the furnace exhaust spiraling out of countless roofs and wonder what the hell people are doing in those houses. It looks so capricious, like they plunked down in these arbitrary constructions out of nothing more than a lack of creativity. Like we should be huddling on a savanna or decorating a cave or something, living a in a little closer harmony with nature.

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