The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that a joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling. The poet William Blake opined that laughter is caused by an excess of sorrow.
I was reminded of the profound truth of those remarks after reading Andrew Hudgins memoir, The Joker.
Hudgins offers an autobiographical guided tour of the sick and twisted humor he learned in the Deep South in the 1960s.
A professional poet and literature professor at Ohio State University, Hudgins weaned his love of language on crude and corny humor. He relied on jokes to get through adolescence, elevate his cool factor in high school and break the ice with women.
This was, after all, the golden age of off-color humor, and many of the people who spread blood-curdling jokes about mangled babies, sodomized farm animals and murdered African-Americans were Hudgins dear friends and beloved relatives not to mention the biggest joker of them all: Hudgins himself.
Its a touching life story about coming of age as a bookish kid in a strict, religious military family during the civil rights era.
The reason the rusty, old jokes need explaining is simple: Theyre just not funny anymore. Indeed, lot of this blackguard humor sounds like a bad warm-up act to a KKK rally.
Still, Im not about to get worked up over the funnymans frequent reliance on the N-word. Surely any white guy who pushes that thermonuclear button with such perverse insistence is either flirting with lifetime unemployment, or trying to make a very important point.
One thing The Joker makes painfully clear is how constant exposure to degrading language desensitized Americans to everyday cruelty. Sociopathic jokes deadened guffawing generations to violence and bullying, and helped establish a baseline level of brutality that appalls the modern conscience.
And yet theres more to some of these jokes than is evident on the surface. Some are sophisticated, if you can get past the vulgarity and violence.
Hudgins shows that the most vicious racist jokes can be subversively double-edged, exhibiting a lenticular quality reflected in the best poetry. They mock the white supremacist even as they purport to keep down hapless minorities. This Shakespearian mutability of language is evident in several jokes Hudgins cites that circulate in the African-American community.
For white supremacists, the joke expresses the only conceivable reality they know: the everlasting worthlessness of blacks. But for blacks, the joke reveals a different reality: the incomprehensible inhumanity of white racism. Same joke, totally different meaning, depending on who tells it. Context is everything.
When Hudgins was a grad student at Stanford University, he recalls regaling friends with crude jokes at a campus house party. Who walks in but a fast-rising academic superstar and future Stanford provost, Condoleezza Rice, who would later become President George W. Bushs secretary of state.
The arrival of Superwoman doesnt stop Hudgins, who proceeds to tell an AIDS joke. And then a nun joke. And then: Condi herself steps up and offers a few cracks of her own, as if this were open mic night.
Her jokes come across as ghetto humor wrapped in a punch line inside a coded message. This leaves Hudgins to puzzle out what this upwardly mobile African-American woman was up to.
It all comes together many years later, when Rice fulfilled her professional destiny in the Bush administration.
I was seeing the future diplomat at work, Hudgins concludes. She entered the room, deftly sized up the group of men she found herself in, and redirected the joking toward a place where she was completely in charge.
Now, thats pretty darn funny.