Absurdity, Humor, and Faking It

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August 10, 2020 by libroshombre

Absurdism, according to Webster’s, is “a philosophy based on the belief that the universe is irrational and meaningless and that the search for order brings the individual into conflict with the universe.”  Early twentieth century guys like Kierkegaard and Camus enjoyed dwelling on the topic, but I prefer my absurdism in cartoon form from other great twentieth century figures like James Thurber and Gary Larson.  “Absurdist humor,” Wikipedia tells us, “is a form of humor predicated on deliberate violations of causal reasoning, producing events and behaviors that are obviously illogical” and “tend to involve bizarre juxtapositions, incongruity, n on-sequiturs, irrational or absurd situations. and expressions of nonsense.”

Sounds like life in 2020.   Larson’s Far Side cartoons are rife with amusing absurdities.  He drew an extremely nervous man sitting at a desk with a large window behind him, and large buildings across the street.  The caption read: “Anatidaephobia: the fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you,” and only then do you notice the tiny outline of a duck in one of the windows behind the man.

Wikipedia says, “absurd humor is concerned with building expectations and proceeding to knock them down,” which is hard to achieve in one-panel cartoons.  James Thurber was an early master of absurd cartoonery.  The Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB) described him as a “compulsive doodler” whose scribblings were noticed and appreciated by E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and New Yorker Magazine editor, for whom Thurber wrote.  In 1929 White’s tireless promotion of Thurber’s strange cartoons led to illustrating “Is Sex Necessary,” White’s first best-selling book.  The DLB notes that Thurber, who created daydreaming, henpecked “Walter Mitty,” specialized in “the so-called little man character,” or “Thurber Man” and his domineering “Thurber woman.”  White wrote that Thurber men “are frustrated, fugitive beings; at times they seem vaguely striving to get out of something without being seen, at others they are merely perplexed and too humble, or weak, to move.”

Thurber’s Walter Mittyishness came naturally.  His powerful mother, “Mame,” was a typical Thurber woman: “a natural actress, a practical joker, a believer in the occult, a strong Methodist, a great cook, and a woman with a memory that rivaled or surpassed Thurber’s own much-vaunted ‘total recall’ … no one can wonder where the original model of the Thurber woman came from.”   Then he married Althea Adams, an actress who was “aloof, attractive, ambitious, worldly and very social – all the things Jim wasn’t … The family never warmed to her, especially Thurber’s mother … they were too much alike for comfort – domineering, aggressive, essential females … an amalgam of the two became what was later known to the world as the Thurber Woman.”

My dad used to take me visiting a poet friend who owned many books, including collections of Thurber’s New Yorker cartoons.   The Thurber women were intimidating, but I chalked them up as another aspect of unrevealed adulthood.  One particular cartoon has stuck with me: a married couple with a tall bookcase behind them greet a startled man staring at another woman crouching and glowering atop the bookcase.  Thurber’s caption read, “That’s my first wife up there, and this is the ‘present’ Mrs. Harris.”

For contemporary absurdism look no further than Fox News who’s ramped up their dispersal of intentionally falsified images and misleading stories.  For example “Don’t Listen to Fox: Here’s What’s Really Going on in Seattle’s Protest Zone” from the centrist Politico.com cited the Seattle Times’ revelation that Fox used photos from the Minneapolis protests to misrepresent the relatively peaceful Seattle, they cut and pasted images of armed men into places they weren’t, etc., etc..  “Fox is also slippery in its verbal attributions.”

In another Politico.com article, “Experts Knew a Pandemic Was Coming: Here’s What They’re Worried About Next,”, a leading concern is “Attacks on Truth and Truth: Deepfakes.”  A deepfake is “digital manipulation of sound, images, or video to impersonate someone or make it appear that a person did something – and to do so in a manner that is increasingly realistic, to the point that the unaided observer cannot detect the fake … Deepfakes also have the potential to cause harm on a much broader scale – including harms that will impact national security and the very fabric of our democracy.”

Find stability in this absurd old world by utilizing your library’s reliable and verifiable information.   Visit Larson’s TheFarSide.com website to see his new cartoons for some healthy absurdity.   For as Albert Einstein said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”


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