I Started a Joke Which Started the Whole World Crying, and Other News


On the Shelf

An illustration of Rabelais’s grotesque Pantagruel by Gustave Doré.


  • Oh, it feels good to laugh! Hot tip: try doing it when there’s nothing to laugh about. Try it in a crowd of stone-faced strangers—just toss your head back and grab your belly, spinning in circles as if you’re dancing to the weary tune of some wheezing carnival organ. It’s the key to fixing our broken society. In a new essay, Robert D. Zaretsky argues that we’ve lost sight of the grotesque—and of the immense floodgates of laughter that it alone can open. Laughter that upends hierarchies and undoes centuries of moral self-seriousness, leaving no one unscathed as it washes over the masses. Looking at Rabelais—whose novel Gargantua and Pantagruel loosed wave upon wave of grotesque laughter in sixteenth-century France—and Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous concept of the carnivalesque, Zaretsky wonders how we lost our way—and why we can no longer mock ourselves along with those in power: “Grotesqueness was not an insult, but instead an insight into the human condition. More than half a millennium later, in a world dominated by indignation and outrage, and largely abandoned by laughter, a dose of the grotesque might help to better digest events, if only by having a good—and right kind of—laugh … Laughter is no different than political systems, commercial relations or artistic practices: it evolves over time, the result and cause of material and social transformations. For medieval man, laughter was the great leveler. Preceding Martin Luther’s priesthood of all believers was Rabelais’s priesthood of all belly-laughers. Inclusive and communal, laughter left no one untouched; no less universal than faith, it was a bit more subversive. In fact, as Bakhtin notes, late-medieval laughter marked a victory, albeit temporary, not just over the sacred and even over death; it also signaled ‘the defeat of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that represses and restricts’. For medieval man, laugh and the whole world laughs with you—or else.”
  • Share a grotesque chuckle with your barista this morning. Lean in close and whisper, You and I and this single-origin cold brew are helping to extinguish the last dying embers of a whole culture of diners and greasy spoons—what a gas! As Adam Platt notes, diners are in decline, but those who mourn their demise are unlikely to support them: “Like most mass-extinction events, the Massive Diner, Coffee Shop, and Greasy Spoon Die-Off has been unfolding slowly around us for decades, in plain sight. According to a much-fretted-over Crain’s report from a couple of years back, the city’s Department of Health lists around 400 restaurants with the words diner and coffee in their name, a number that experts say is down from a thousand restaurants a generation ago. (Many nouveau coffee shops don’t have coffee in the name.) Like the old Automats and cafeterias of the fifties and sixties, and a generation of classic Jewish delis before that, diners are in decline for many reasons: skyrocketing rents and land values; ever-rising food prices; the spread of a more expedient, highbrow and lowbrow coffee culture; the gentle, inexorable aging of a whole generation of neighborhood ‘regulars’; the difficulty of keeping an ancient, sprawling, ten-page menu in tune with the changing tastes of the times; and the challenges of passing on a family business to a new generation of proprietors, many of whom have the benefit of a college education, and might prefer frittering their days away in barista bars to breaking eggs over a hot stove.”

  • John le Carré believes you ought to learn German, and he’s prepared to make a strong case for it: “The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation … The very business of reconciling these two souls at any serious level requires considerable mental agility. It compels us to be precise, to confront meaning, to think rationally and creatively and never to be satisfied until we’ve hit the equivalent word, or—which also happens—until we’ve recognized that there isn’t one, so hunt for a phrase or circumlocution that does the job. No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy—of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.”
  • Dwight Garner is reading Harry Crews’s 1978 memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, which includes, among other horrors, an episode in which the young Crews is hurled into a boiler of water meant to scald pigs during their slaughter. The book is full of insights about the themes and motifs that animate Crews’s novels: “Crews sought solace in an unusual place: the pages of the Sears, Roebuck catalog. It was the only reading material in his house other than the Bible. He gravitated toward it because the faces in it were perfect, without the scars and blemishes of everyone he knew. ‘The people in the catalog had no such hurts,’ he writes. ‘They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and toes and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much of in the faces of the people around me.’ He became a writer in part, he suggests, because of the pleasure he found in making up stories about the people in the catalog.”
  • Famous, beautiful white women—they’re so bankable! At least, they used to be. Anne-Helen Petersen wonders if celebrity culture has tired of white women, growing leery of the politics behind their once boundless sex appeal: “Within the industry of celebrity, white women have long been the primary currency. But in our current political and cultural climate, investing in them feels increasingly ill-advised … Image rebrands from Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry have flopped. Scarlett Johansson’s last two movies have either flopped (Ghost in the Shell) or underperformed (Rough Night). After the disappointment of Passengers, Jennifer Lawrence has also gone MIA. Angelina Jolie hasn’t starred in a movie since 2015, when By the Sea failed to break $500,000 at the box office—and, apart from the announcement of her separation from Brad Pitt, she has kept out of the press … It’s increasingly hard for many women—women of color, but also white women—to trust or idealize white women. White women in our everyday lives, white women as voters, white women on juries, and, by extension, white female celebrities, who have repeatedly fumbled or ignored the conversations of race, class, and gender that, in this hyperpoliticized moment, seem most vital and urgent.”