the distinction between conservative and subversive comedy

In 1983 Umberto Eco’s novel Il nome della rosa or The Name of the Rose was published. There was also a movie version with Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater. While the movie received mixed reviews, the novel was generally considered very good. It was more ambitious than the average novel, especially a first novel. While it could be read

as an intriguing historical mystery novel, it is a page turner, the themes and subtext were a complex commentary. Eco also included some biblical analysis, required to understand the motivations of the killer and the inquisitors. In addition were some of Eco’s own thoughts on literary theory, religious and cultural symbolism, metaphors as part of culture and the history of Medieval Europe. Comedy also plays a large role in the theme. Comedy can be very subversive. That is a fundamental reason that authoritarians of any stripe are not generally very funny or tolerate of humor. Fox News has tried several shows that have tried to emulate Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. All have failed in achieving the same popular success. When your side represents the powerful elite and the working class eliminationists who fed on ethnocentrism, it is difficult to be subversive. papers like this, serious papers, that reference other serious papers on the nature of comedy and psychoanalysis, are themselves ripe for comedy. These people are being awfully serious about having some rhetorical fun. Beneath that are some interesting questions about how people and societies change. Freud had huge hopes for “talk therapy” not just as an agent of personal epiphany that would cause people to change after their new insights, but that these insights would spread across culture and politics. In turn we would have a more tolerant enlightened society. While there has been progress, things have not worked out in the revolutionary way that Freud had hoped, Psychoanalysis and Comedy: The (Im)Possibility of Changing the


Socio-Symbolic Order

To examine the problem of the (im)possibility of change in the above sense, and more specifically of the disappointing therapeutic effects of knowledge, we shall turn to the latest book by Alenka Zupancic, The Odd One In, which approaches the problem from the angle of comedy.[6] By choosing comedy as a framework for discussing the impasses of psychoanalytic treatment, Zupancic goes against the grain of established theory that conceives such impasses on the model of tragedy. Ever since Aristotle, whose theory of tragedy Freud did much to revive (as well as to return to its medical roots),[7] there has been a clear conceptual bias towards tragedy as a paradigm for understanding the predicaments of human existence. Yet Freud was not as insensitive to the hermeneutic potential of comedy as the one-sided development of subsequent psychoanalytic theory would seem to suggest. He might have agreed with Socrates that the dramatists of the psyche have to combine tragedy and comedy to capture the elusive workings of the soul.[8] Zupancic’s study makes an even bolder claim, arguing that comedy offers a more adequate and fundamentally different perspective on the fundamental questions of psychoanalysis.[9] The problem of genuine psychological, and by implication social, change are not to be understood from the

tragic (Oedipal) paradigm but from comedy.

According to Zupancic, comedy and psychoanalysis are closely related practices because they are both engaged in subverting our customary (imaginary/neurotic) beliefs and behavior. As such, they share a number of structural similarities on account of which they are capable of elucidating each other.[10] As Freud already observed in his study on jokes, the joke represents an act of “rebellion against authority, a liberation from its pressure”.[11] Similarly to psychoanalysis, and by means of common strategies, such as puns, omissions, condensation, etc., the joke provides a space in which it is possible to express all sorts of socially (or psychologically) unacceptable ideas without the usual constraint of authority.

They do not get much into comedy or jokes and laughing as just a way people relieve nervous tension, though that has sociological implications as well. The situation in which one should not laugh – being lectured by the school principal about one’s clearly bad behavior, making fun of others at a funeral, snickering at a neighbor’s property damage – are all situations which society has declared are very serious. Sometimes so serious they’re funny.

illustration from Hatyakari Ke by Panchkori Dey


illustration from Hatyakari Ke or Who is the Murderer? by Panchkori Dey. Panchkori Dey (1873–1945) was a Bengali writer of detective fiction. As Agatha Christie had her Hercule Poirot, Dey had Arindam Bosu, a dhoti-wearing detective working in India and Europe, and Jumelia, a nefarious criminal. I’m not sure who did the illustration. This one is from the Urdu translation sometime after 1903. The plot of Who is the Murderer? revolves around an arranged marriage by a father who wants his daughter to marry a sleazy young man. The arrangement was made to the father’s prime goal, financial considerations. The novel highlights the social evil of such marriages, focusing on the suffering of the young women involved.