Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain
(The obligatory disclosure: Although he said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” I join millions of others in believing that this minor tampering with his actual wording delivers a punch that is more characteristic of the man.)
I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spenser is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I am not feeling very well myself.
News Site Mistakenly Publishes about 100 V.I.P. Obituaries
For a brief moment this week, startled readers of a French news site had to grapple with the apparent demise of Queen Elizabeth II of England; Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend; Clint Eastwood; Bridget Bardot; and dozens of other celebrities and world leaders. . . Several hours after the obituaries first ran on Monday, the public radio station, which broadcasts in France and abroad, apologized and started taking the reports offline.
New York Times, November 18, 2020
Employ humor and perspective if irritation builds.
My horoscope for November 17, 2020 and, in truth, every day of my life
Can Humor and Sorrow Coexist?
I try to stick with the habit of refusing myself the comfort of a foregone conclusion. But now I am throwing that self-discipline to the wind.
Here is the conclusion I knew I would reach before I even posed the question:
Beyond a shadow of doubt, humor and sorrow can coexist. What’s more, they often cohabit. In truth, they wouldn’t know what to do without each other.
A lot of ideas clutter my mind in these troubled times. I won’t deny that I make return visits to that place in the mind and soul captured in the phrase, “at wit’s end.” On those occasions, the compatibility of humor and sorrow is the idea that gives me the most hope.
When well-intentioned observers offer their assessments of what has gone wrong with our nation today, they often declare, “Americans cannot talk to each other.” As diagnoses go, that seems to hit the mark. In every part of the nation, the failure to communicate is at floodtide. Everywhere we look, the divided and disrupted condition of conversation enhances antagonisms and fosters intractable grudges.
And here’s where my opinion veers off on a very different line of thought.
When humor holds its ground, even in times saturated with sorrow, misunderstandings can be a wonderful source of amusement. Since we are currently so well-supplied with episodes of crossed wires and scrambled messages, we are equally well-supplied with opportunities to turn misunderstandings into merriment and, from there, into reconciliation.
But don’t take my word for this.
Take Mark Twain’s.
A Very Funny Book Emerges from an Unbearably Sad Time
Having written about Mark Twain’s Roughing It and having assigned it in many Western history classes over a half century of teaching, I believe I can claim to have read this book at least twenty-five times. (And, yes, professors do make some peculiar allocations of their limited time on the planet.) Beginning sometime around 1980, at the start of every page in Roughing It, I have known what it is coming next.
And so I offer myself as the most qualified person to testify that this is a very funny book: it has made me laugh every time I have reread it. That should explain why I am enlisting Mark Twain to clinch the case I am making for the compatibility of sorrow and humor.
Twain wrote Roughing It at a time of unrelenting misery, sorrow, and grief.
If we can’t find inspiration in that, I don’t know what we’re waiting for.
I confess to feeling a strange sense of violating a vulnerable person’s privacy, but I am going to try to convey how unbearable life was for Samuel Clemens when he was writing Roughing It, the tale of his adventures on the Plains and in Nevada, California, and Hawaii in the 1860s. And I am calling him “Samuel Clemens” here because his pseudonym offered him no insulation or escape from misery.
In 1870, the book Innocents Abroad had brought its author attention, and Clemens was settling in to write the next book. Even as he resolved to work hard, concentrate, and complete this book at a brisk pace, the circumstances in his household made that nearly impossible. His wife’s father was in serious decline, apparently with cancer, and Clemens performed regular shifts as his bedside attendant. On hot summer nights in Buffalo, New York, Clemens was to stay awake and keep a palm-leaf fan moving to ease his father-in-law’s discomfort. In later times, he held on to vivid memories of self-reproach, when “my noddings, my fleeting unconsciousness, when the fan would come to a standstill in my hand and I would wake up with a start and a hideous shock.” After his father-in-law’s death, Clemens’ wife Livy underwent a “nervous collapse” that required her husband’s constant care. And then a friend of the family came to visit. This houseguest, Emma Nye, fell ill with typhoid fever, returning Clemens and his wife to their position as bedside attendants to the dying. His experiences during the vigil before Emma Nye’s death, Clemens said years later, were “among the blackest, the gloomiest, the most wretched of my long life.” After Nye’s passing, the immediacy of death in the household was supplanted by other, equally intense anxieties. Livy gave birth to Langdon, a premature and never robust baby boy. And then she herself fell ill with typhoid. She was bedridden for months. “For seven months,” Clemens wrote, “I have not had my natural rest but have been night and day sicknurse to my wife . . . .”
Accompanying this sequence of sorrow, Clemens struggled with doubt about his future as a writer. Discouraged by reviews of his work, he referred to his standing with a haunting invocation of the time he had spent with the dying: the commentary on his writing was “simply a popular author’s death rattle.” “If I ever get out of this infernal damnable chaos I am whirling in at home,” he wrote his publisher, “I will go to work and amply and fully and freely fulfil some of the promises I have been making . . . . [but] I believe that if that baby goes on crying three more hours this way I will butt my frantic brains out and try to get some peace.”
And then, in June of 1872, when Clemens was still at work on Roughing It, his son Langdon died of diphtheria five months before he turned two.
I do not know how to calibrate and compare sorrows and misfortunes, but it seems to me that Samuel Clemens’ life in the early 1870s offers a reminder to many of us—though by no means to all of us—that we are carrying a bearable burden in the pandemic of 2020.
As troubles came upon him, Clemens held on to a striking recognition of the cohabiting of sorrow and humor: “The resulting periodical and sudden changes of mood in me, from deep melancholia to half-insane tempests and cyclones of humor,” he wrote, “are among the curiosities of my life.” The relationship between Clemens’ immersion in a world of sorrow and his creation of a very funny book was not a matter of coincidence, but a matter of cause and effect.
“The secret source of humor itself,” he said years later, “is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” Those last six words provide one of the few occasions where Samuel Clemens and I part ways.
Humor and Grief Collaborate in Planning a Funeral
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
“The Captain’s Speech,” Cool Hand Luke
It is perfectly viable to read Roughing It in a spirit that never dips below merriment. And yet, if you put the book down for a moment and gaze into the distance, your mind may call your attention to the fact that these jolly tales come well-stocked with references to death and injury. Pick the book up again and return to reading, and the merriment is restored.
And yet one of the funniest chapters involves the planning of a funeral, an undertaking in which Samuel Clemens had become expert in his season of sorrow.
Are humor and sorrow compatible? Can we apply them to discover and release the amusement and relief contained within failures to communicate?
If we take Chapter XLVII in Roughing It as our body of evidence to test those questions, the answer proves to be “absolutely yes.”
I will now commit an insufferable act of literary amputation, paraphrasing and quoting selectively from a piece that deserves to be read as a whole. You can relieve this injury by following this link to the whole chapter.
In Virginia City, Nevada, Buck Fanshaw had been a leading figure in a sector of society that would not be called elite or proper. But he had acquired many, many friends, and his death hit many of them so hard that a large group came together as a “committee” to plan his funeral. Buck Fanshaw’s particular friend, Scotty Briggs, was given the assignment to recruit a minister for the ceremony.
So Scotty Briggs called upon “a fragile, gentle, spiritual new fledgling from an eastern theological seminary.” This clergyman was “as yet unacquainted with the ways of the mines.” He did not know that “slang was the language of Nevada,” or that this way of speaking was “the richest and most infinitely varied and copious” slang “that had ever existed anywhere in the world.” The minister, in other words, was guaranteed to understand nothing that Scotty said, while, on the other side, Scotty was equally unequipped to understand much of anything the minister said.
It took a while to establish that Scotty had come to the right place. “Are you the duck that runs the gospel-mill next door?” he initially asked. Even when the minister finally broke the code on that question, his response sent Scotty spinning: I am the spiritual adviser for the little company of believers whose sanctuary adjoins these premises.” Fluency in the language of poker at least equipped Scotty to convey his defeat: “You ruther hold over me, pard. I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”
Persistence brought some progress, with the minister achieving the recognition that Scotty wanted a preacher to speak at the funeral for his departed friend. But every step forward still provided the set-up for another slip backward.
“Would it not expedite matters,” the minister declared at a peak of desperation, “if you restricted yourself to categorical statements of fact unencumbered with obstructing accumulations of metaphor and allegory?”
Battered by polysyllables, Scotty found his refuge again in the familiar terrain of poker: “You’ve raised me out, pard. . . . Why, that last lead of yourn is too many for me . . . I can neither trump nor follow suit.”
And then, when the minister tried to inquire into Buck Fanshaw’s religious history [“Had he ever been connected with any organization sequestered from secular concerns and devoted to self-sacrifice in the interests of morality?”], Scotty went down for the count: “When you get in with your left I hunt grass every time.”
Nonetheless, the goodwill of both Scotty and the minister prevailed over this prolonged failure to communicate. As Mark Twain summed up the event brought into being by their seriously addled conversation, “for years afterward, the degree of grandeur attained by any civic display in Virginia [City] was determined by comparison with Buck Fanshaw’s funeral.”
In my opinion, Mark Twain’s achievement in writing this chapter was immeasurably grander as a “civic display.” Writing the story of Scotty Briggs and the minister, Twain endowed all those who would follow him on the planet with a lesson, put into my words (not Scotty’s or the minister’s!), that we have every reason to embrace in 2020:
When goodhearted people struggle to understand each other, and when they do not flee, storm out, or drift into inattention, there is a pretty good chance that they are going to figure out how to cope with each other.
Even more important, when misunderstanding shifts into its highest gear, there is at least an even chance that a redemptive humor might be looming on the horizon, even on the sad occasion of planning a funeral.
The impossible conversation between the minister and Scotty delivered an important outcome besides a successful funeral (whatever that might mean). Here is Twain’s summation of what became of Scotty, a passage that I quote it at length for your full contemplation in 2020 when differences of class and faith—and language—fracture American society:
Scotty Briggs, in after days, achieved the distinction of becoming the only convert to religion that was ever gathered from the Virginia roughs [a.k.a. the working miners]; and it transpired that the man . . . was no mean timber whereof to construct a Christian. The making him one did not warp his generosity or diminish his courage; on the contrary, it gave intelligent direction to the one and a broader field to the other.
If his Sunday-school class progressed faster than the other classes, was it matter for wonder? I think not. He talked to his pioneer small-fry in a language they understood! It was my large privilege, a month before he died, to hear him tell the beautiful story of Joseph and his brethren to his class “without looking at the book.” I leave it to the reader to fancy what it was like, as it fell, riddled with slang, from the lips of that grave, earnest teacher, and was listened to by his little learners with a consuming interest that showed that they were as unconscious as he was that any violence was being done to the sacred proprieties.
And now for a moment of full authorial disclosure. Scotty and I have a certain amount in common. We share an enthusiasm for the use of vigorous and unexpected figures of speech, and also a receptivity to new ways of thinking and believing.
On August 9, 2020, I joined a church for the first time in my life. The lesson I draw from noting the similarity between the choices Scotty and I made is not that everyone in troubled times should pursue a religious affiliation! On the contrary, here is what I take to be the moral to the story of Scotty Briggs: when you take part in a conversation that does not initially make an ounce of sense, it is still possible that what you heard from your unintelligible partner in conversation may be worth taking seriously.
And now a heavy-handed reminder: Samuel Clemens wrote a redemptively funny book at a time when sorrows filled his life.
Sorrow and Humor Refuse to Part Ways
At nearly every funeral or memorial service, humor is in attendance. The stories often convey the wit that characterized the departed folks, or the charm of good-humored self-mockery they used to make others feel at ease, or the way they used a wry remark to disarm opposition or reduce tension. The telling of funny stories is often the most effective way to restore life to the memories of the dead.
And then, sometimes, an unexpected twist or turn in the proceedings will make humor a feature of the funeral in ways that no one intended.
I am personally familiar with a situation or two of that kind, examples that also providentially make the case for the power carried by the humor of miscommunication and misunderstanding.
A Major Malfunction in Enunciation
I was speaking at a memorial service for a treasured friend, a person who I have never stopped missing over the decade since his passing. Even though I had a pretty good sound system working in my favor, we were assembled in a big, outdoor amphitheater that provided an ideal ambience for a sound wave to go rogue.
And then I had a mishap in enunciation.
I wanted to tell a story about the last time I saw the distinguished person we were mourning. Speaking too fast, I said that he and I had gone to dinner at “his favorite tapas restaurant.”
A couple of hours later, I learned that the great majority of the audience thought I was reminiscing about a memorable outing I had taken, with a departed friend of great character and rectitude, to “his favorite topless restaurant.”
The timespan of self-reproach for a shortfall in enunciation is, blessedly, limited. When this failure to communicate was called to my attention, for a few minutes I put everything I had into yearning to reverse time, to return to that amphitheater, and to rewrite my remarks to something on the order of “a Spanish restaurant that is best known for its abundance of small, tasty dishes.”
But then I got reacquainted with the compatibility of humor and sorrow. The self-reproach died down, replaced by the recognition that human beings retain an inalienable right to enjoy the humor inspired by misspeaking, especially when we are grief-stricken and sad.
Music of a Disappointing Tempo
Planning the 2005 funeral for my husband, Jeff Limerick, my sister Sunnie and I had made very thorough plans for the music in the service. I had told her that I wanted to use “Blessed Assurance” because of a very cheerful association that hymn had acquired for me on a recent visit to Kamiah, Idaho. We tried to find an instrumental version of the hymn that we could use for what I suspect I should not call “sacred karaoke.” But we could only find a very dismal, mournful, and lugubrious instrumental recording, carrying quite the opposite mood of the hymn itself. Since Sunnie has a very fine singing voice, we decided that we would skip this glum instrumentation, and just have her lead us in song.
But here’s what we didn’t realize: this dreary recording hung around, despite our effort to discard it, and infiltrated its way into a digital storage hiding place where it was not wanted.
For the recessional, departing from the Old Main Chapel and moving upstairs to the reception, my sister and I made the bold move to honor Jeff Limerick’s devotion to the Pointer Sisters. The service was, after all, well-supplied with serious tributes to Jeff and his many talents and charms, and also with sufficient expressions of sorrow over his passing. So Sunnie and I found it perfectly acceptable to conclude the service with Jeff’s particular favorite: the Pointer Sisters’ rendition of “I’m So Excited.” At the end of the service, that recording would start up, and the attendees would stand up, and, depending on their own preferences for dignity and decorum, they could dance out the door, headed to the reception.
When we attempted to execute this plan, humor and grief refused to be separated.
In a dramatic contrast to the expectation that we were about to hear the Pointer Sisters being very excited, instead, we heard the dismal, mournful, and lugubrious instrumental version of “Blessed Assurance.”
For a minute or so, I felt frustrated and rattled and even sadder than I had been before this musical “switcheroo.” But then, in an instant, the fact that Jeff Limerick had had a very lively sense of humor returned to my mind, and the minds of all the other attendees. And so we all surrendered to laughter, with an intensity of merriment and relief that was directly proportionate to our unyielding sorrow.
The Return of the Foregone Conclusion
I now restate the answer that I had reached before I began this supposed “inquiry.”
Can humor and sorrow coexist?
Beyond a shadow of doubt, humor and sorrow can coexist. What’s more, they often cohabit. In truth, they wouldn’t know what to do without each other. This matters a great deal, because humor is most needed when people are struggling to communicate with each other. As the WD-40 for tense confrontations, humor’s best service today is to transform our approach to failures of communication.
Here is what I know to be true from nearly seven decades of field-testing. Misunderstandings are often more fun, and certainly more memorable, than conversations where everyone is on the same page. The humor that can come into play when we say to each other, “Oh, I thought you said . . . ” is a lot more amusing than the “ho-hum-ness” of “I heard exactly what you said and I understood you perfectly.” Humor invites us to pay attention to the role that words play as tricksters when human beings with differing views try to communicate. Even when—especially when— people draw lines of division through the use of seemingly very serious words like “freedom” or “responsibility” or “justice” or “patriotism,” there is still an element of humor in play, waiting for our recognition and offering us a route to rescue.
Since we are currently so well-supplied with episodes of crossed wires and scrambled messages, we are equally well-supplied with opportunities to turn misunderstanding into merriment and, from there, into reconciliation.
How Humor Came to Occupy the Center of the Center of the American West
The Center of the American West includes a commitment to humor in its mission statement.
This is not entirely normal among think-tanks and university-based centers that address issues of policy and seek alternatives to conflict. But it seems reasonable to expect that other organizations may align themselves with our, for the time being, eccentric choice. In any number of episodes, the embrace of humor has been the key to the Center’s success. In truth, I would not want to go anywhere near disputed and contested issues if we did not have humor prominently placed in our toolkit.
How did that commitment get embedded in the Center’s mission?
I blame Mark Twain.
Center of the American West Mission Statement
The Center of the American West takes as its mission the creation of forums for the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of solutions to the region’s difficulties. We at the Center believe that an understanding of the historical origins of the West’s problems, an emphasis on the common interests of all parties, and a dose of good humor are essential to constructive public discussion.
Samuel Clemens died in 1910.
Mark Twain lives on.
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