I keep an eye on the search terms that bring people to my page, mostly because they sometimes inspire me to write something. Two particular searches caught my eye concerning the events in Norway.
The first I noticed was:
“anders breivik funny”
It interested me as to why someone would be searching for something funny concerning the incident, particularly so soon afterwards, I confess I concluded that it was just an example of someone with a black, and possibly inappropriate sense of humour. However yesterday I noticed the following search
“is anders behring breivik another pasty setup?”
I can’t find one that spells Patsy right, but there were two of the above
Which if I am absolutely honest not only made me smile, but also prompted a whole scenario involving Breivik, being manouvered into a butchers by Hannibal Lecter, and set in Cornwall, to play itself out in my head. I wondered if Fava Beans go with Norwegian Cornish pasty, and if it might be appropriate to replace the Chianti with ‘Cornish Mutiny’ or ‘Tribute’ beers perhaps. I also found myself wondering if the Norwegian should replace the beef or the swede.
So I can’t escape the idea that I am one of those with a black sense of humour.
Lets face it I think Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett’s collaboration ‘Good Omens’ is funny, and there is perhaps nothing quite so dark in the humour stakes as comedy based on Armageddon, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, ie death famine war and polution, (Pestilence having retired) Nuclear war the Antichrist, witchcraft, and a hell hound with a curious desire to chase sticks bury bones and wag his tail excitedly when hearing the word ’walkies’.
Now there will be those that think humour of any kind associated with such an event is the height of bad taste. However I am reminded of something I was once told Primo Levi had said, though I have never found the quote myself, “In Auschwitz people cried they felt despair and fear and hate, but they also loved, laughed and told Jokes, even in the shadow of the chimney as ash fell, they told jokes”
This makes it very clear that humour, can sometimes just be insensitive, but mostly it is a defence, a way of protecting the self from the true horror of the world, a way of surviving feelings that would otherwise overwhelm us.
Chaya Ostrower wrote a PHd Thesis on this subject, at Tel Aviv University ‘Humor as a defense mechanism in the Holocaust’ that explores this more ably than I would be able to do here.
The following are quotes from the above page.
This whole situation, they shoved us into those trains. It was like cattle, it was something awful inside the train. When we have just arrived in Auschwitz everybody ran to the window, to see something, but you couldn’t. The window had shutters, a small window. I also wanted to see where we were. Then a girl friend asked ‘what do you want to see so badly?’. I said: ‘I simply want to see the conductor, ’cause I don’t have a ticket, I want to see when he comes in…’
Two Jews meet in Warsaw and one of them is eating perfumed soap, the other asks: ‘Moyshe, why are you eating soap with such a scent’? He answers: ‘If they turn me into soap, I might as well smell nice’.
Food was not enough, we were very sad, so I said: ‘there is a way, if we could get hold of a magnifying glass it would right away magnify our portions, how can we get one’?
I find these hard to even smile at, but I can see their purpose, and that to the right person in the right situation, that they were probably funnier than I will ever apreciate.
My most direct experience of black humour as a defence against the feelings provoked by a difficult situation, event or experience, was meeting a middle aged Russian in about 1980 who had escaped the Soviet Union only a few months before, because he had experienced persecution for being Christian. I remember he seemed strange to me, sitting very close and speaking habitually in hushed tones, and looking about as if he feared being overheard, I understood why, but at the time it seemed odd that it was so habitual that even in freedom he could not help himself. Now older I understand it takes time to lose those kinds of habits.
He told me the following Joke saying that it had probably been heard by every person in the Soviet Union at that time. He began by telling me that it was well known that the Guards in the Siberian Gulags were often there for infractions against the party or military discipline, so in some ways were as ‘guilty’ as the prisoners they were guarding.
The Story goes that as one guard begins his first patrol of the Gulag perimeter, he sees a prisoner on the other side of the wire, walking the other way, they nod and pass, on the other side of the camp they see each other and again they nod and pass. For a year this happens again and again, until one day the guard is on his patrol and he sees the man he now thinks of as his friend, but today he is walking in the same direction as the Guard.
As he comes up along side the prisoner the guard says ‘hello’ the prisoner stops and says ‘hello’ not knowing what to say next, the guard offers the prisoner a cigarette, which the prisoner gladly takes, the guard strikes a match and guards it against the cold Siberian wind holding it up to the fence, as the Prisoner lights the cigarette. The prisoner takes a long draw on the cigarette, with a blissful smile on his face, and says, “that’s the first cigarette I have smoked in two years.
The prisoner looks at the guard and says, “How long are you stationed here?”
“Another four years.” Says the guard.
“That seems a long time,” says the Prisoner, “what did you do?”
“Well I was off duty, in the village, near to the camp I was based on, there was this pretty girl, there was vodka, one thing led to another, only problem was she turned out to be the Colonels daughter. The next day I was on a train here”
The Guard looks at the prisoner as he pinches out the last of the cigarette and puts it in his pocket, and the guard feeling sympathetic towards him offers him two more. One of which the guard lights for the Prisoner.
“What about you?” asks the guard, “How long are you here for?”
“Thirty Years.” Says the Prisoner.
The Guard is shocked, the man seems so nice, “That’s an awfully long time.” Says the guard, adding, “What did you do?”
“Oh,” says the prisoner, drawing appreciatively on the cigarette, “I stole a loaf of bread.”
The guard is by this time wide eyed in amazement, “thirty years for stealing a loaf of bread, that can’t be right?” he says.
“Well,” says the prisoner, I was going to be sentenced to two weeks cleaning up the streets in the village back home, but I was really angry, because my wife had been nagging, and the children were hungry, I needed that loaf, so I called the Judge a stupid drunken idiot, and he sentenced me to Thirty years here.”
Realisation creeps over the guards face, “Ah,” he says, “I see, revealing state secrets, very serious.” and the two of them continue their walk around the perimeter in silence through the Siberian Snow.
And I think I learned more about what it was like to live in the soviet Union from that one Joke than most of the other things I have ever heard or read.
To me all of these stories and narratives help explain that the humour is not making light of a terrible incident, nor is it ridiculing suffering, it is protecting us from being overwhelmed, and in some ways it is a way of getting even, sometimes even perhaps just a way of passing the time.
One thing I would suspect about Anders Behring Breivik, the one thing that he would probably find unbearable, would be to become a figure of fun, a joke, to be ridiculed.
So perhaps jokes about him might be a good way of getting even.