The comedy of survival
Yesterday, I was browsing at a local used bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of The Comedy of Survival by Joseph W. Meeker. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, ever since encountering an extended treatment it in the ecological classic Muddling Toward Frugality, and I’ve even shared an excerpt from it here before. This is the quote that I posted more than four years ago:
Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for his ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of the tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible…Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm man’s capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair…Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.
And although I wasn’t deliberately looking for Meeker’s book, it seemed like a sign that it happened to fall into my hands when it did. As I read the chapter “The Comic Mode” in its entirety for the first time, it struck me that its message is one that both liberals and conservatives ought to take to heart. Meeker points out that tragedy, as a literary genre, is based on a grandiose view of mankind: it assumes that humanity occupies an exalted place in the scheme of nature, that life comes down to a choice between moral absolutes, and that the perfect hero would destroy himself, his loved ones, and plenty of innocent bystanders rather than stoop to a compromise. Comedy, by contrast, is more concerned with keeping as many people alive as possible, even if we often look ridiculous in the process. The comic hero’s willingness to accommodate himself to the world has affinities to natural selection, which will try anything that works. Yet despite the fact that the tragic mode invariably ends badly for all concerned, there’s something weirdly attractive about heroes like Hamlet or Oedipus, who drag everyone around them down to a universal catastrophe. As Meeker shrewdly observes:
If there were moral philosophers among the lungfishes and peppered moths, [their] innovations would very likely have been condemned as threats to the continuity of tradition, or perhaps as shameful immorality. All admiration would no doubt have been reserved for the heroic fish who would rather die than give up his gills and for the moth who faced his end wearing customary gray.
And this sheds a surprising amount of light on the dynamics of the presidential race. Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is no Hamlet, despite his recent attempt at his own version of the Yorick scene. But he obviously sees himself and his campaign in tragic terms, even as he endlessly predicts his own victory. He claims that he alone can save us, that our salvation lies in the destruction of the old order, and that America needs to be made great again—in a return to the idealized past. And if the result has often been more grotesque than inspiring, Meeker helpfully explains why:
If people generally see themselves in the tragic mode, it is perhaps because it satisfies their vanity and makes their actions seem important. It is gratifying to see oneself as a hero, a great sufferer, a martyr, or an oppressed idealist…But unfortunately, the tragic heroes preserved in literature are the products of metaphysical presuppositions which most people can no longer honestly share…Moderns can only pretend to tragic heroism, and that pretense is painfully hollow and melodramatic in the absence of the beliefs that tragedy depends upon.
This is a perfect description of Trump, a moral pygmy whose attempt to model himself after the great leaders of the past is both farcical and profoundly frightening. He’s laughable, but he isn’t a comic figure. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he’s a spectacularly humorless man when he’s the butt of the joke. And as his story nears its end, he seems more than willing to invite the kind of catastrophe that accompanies the fall of a hero.
Which doesn’t mean that he’ll get it. If we’re going to find a way forward, regardless of the outcome of this election, we need to take a page from Meeker, who rejects the tragic or apocalyptic in favor of the comic:
Evolution is…a shameful, unscrupulous, opportunistic comedy, the object of which appears to be the proliferation and preservation of as many life forms as possible without regard for anyone’s moral ideas. Successful participants in it are those who remain alive when circumstances change, not those who are best able to destroy competitors and enemies. Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war—though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him. The events depicted in tragic literature cannot occur if these principles are observed. Comic action follows naturally from them.
Frankly, this sounds a lot like politics—which implies that it requires an actual politician. Luckily, there’s a good one available. And even if her opponent is a tragic hero only in his own imagination, we can still give him the ending that he so richly deserves.