The Awful Truth

Posted: June 11, 2015 in Culture, Ethics, Idle Nonsense, Industrial Collapse, Media, Politics, Taste
Tags: , ,

I have read a number of exhortations by gurus of one sort or another, usually plumbing the depths of self-delusion, to “imagine the absurd” as a means of unlocking one’s latent creativity blocked by hewing too closely to convention and, dare I say it, reality. Invoking absurdity seems to me redundant: we (well, some) already live with absurd comfort and wealth, purchased by the sweat and suffering of many, not least of which is the Earth itself (or herself, if you prefer). Slights and insults absorbed by the biosphere in the last decade may be individually insignificant, but over time and in aggregate, they constitute a proverbial death by a thousand cuts. But you don’t have to take my word for it: investigate for yourself how many plant and animal species have suffered significant die-offs. Other absurdities are piling up, too, especially in the area of politics, which is looking more than ever (how is that even possible?) like a clown circus as, for example, more candidate from both major political parties enter the 2016 presidential race. We haven’t even gotten to loony third-party candidates yet.

These are familiar ideas to readers of this blog, and although they bear repeating, they are not really what I want to discuss. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that in an age of excess and entitlement — call it the Age of Absurdity — the awful truth can only be told through comedy, just like Michael Moore’s short-lived comic documentary TV show of the same name. Sure, there are a growing number of Cassandras like me prophesying doom, but our claim on public dialogue is thus far negligible. Further, serious documentaries exposing absurd levels of corruption, mendacity, idiocy, and cruelty are currently enjoying a golden age. But compare these to any number of TV shows and movies — all offered for comedic entertainment purposes — that are now functioning as de facto news outlets (The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher have been particularly manifest about this), and it’s easy to see that the public prefers its truth sugar-coated, even if it’s given a reverse twist such as with The Colbert Report. (I can’t watch Colbert for the same reason I can’t watch South Park or The Simpsons: they’re too accurate, too on the nose, even as jokey reflections of or on the Age of Absurdity.) The only thing one needs to reveal truth inside a comedy show (not just the fake news shows) is to ignore the laugh track and turn off one’s sense of humor, treating each comedy bit earnestly, the way a child would. That’s how awful, accurate, and absurd things have become.

Take, for instance, this article in The New Yorker, which is satire on its face but quite literally tells the truth when considered soberly. The last line, “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they [denialists of all stripes] will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” is pretty macabre but tells precisely the thing to be expected when supplies falter.

Take, for another instance, the celebrity roasts that Comedy Central has revived. I’ve watched only a few clips, but roasters typically say egregiously insulting things that are quite literally true about the roastee, who laughs and smiles through the humiliation. Insult comedy may perhaps be embellished or exaggerated for effect, but it scarcely needs to be. To call someone a hack or comment on his/her undesired unwarranted overexposure (commonplace now in the era of omnimedia and leaked sex tapes) takes a little comedic shaping, but there is always a sizable kernel of truth behind the jokes. That’s what makes comedy funny, frankly. This might be best exemplified when a joke is made “too soon.” The subject matter will become funny in time, after the shocking truth has worn off some, but when too soon, the insult is just too much to take in good taste and no enjoyment can be had from exposing that particular truth.

Is there a conclusion to be drawn? I dunno. The culture has room for both seriousness and humor, gallows and otherwise. I wonder sometimes if the ability to act with seriousness of purpose to forestall the worst is even possible anymore. Instead, we’re absorbed by distractions and cheap entertainments that divert our attention to trifles. (Why am I aware in even the slightest way of the Kardashians?) A true expression of the Zeitgeist perhaps, we know deep down that the dominoes are tipping over and we’re lined up to take hit after hit until everything has crumbled around us. So why not laugh and party right up to the bitter end?

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Comments
  1. the virgin terry says:

    it seems only artists of various sorts (writers, musicians, comics, in particular) speak certain ‘awful’ truths publically, and then only so long as in doing so, revolution isn’t fomented. if truth telling becomes too threatening to the establishment, the truth teller shall invariably be silenced, one way or another. thus, ‘awful’ truths tend to be silent truths…

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. The thesis can be restated any number of ways; yours is good. I should add that silencing or coopting the awful truth for one purpose or another does nothing, really, to lessen impacts. I’m not sure it even helps to process unpalatable expectations. So maybe the powers that be buy some time, keeping a lid on incipient revolt and revolution. But truth isn’t altered by papering over it with jokes.

      • the virgin terry says:

        as u say, truth is unaltered by denial. it’s impact is enhanced by it, because when problems are denied, they just get bigger, until they can no longer effectively be denied. the situation we doomers now recognize ourselves to be in, to our ultimate horror/fascination, brutus (why’d u choose that name?).

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