In the Face of…
Editorial – Lighthouse Issue 26: The Grief and Humour Issue
by Sam Ruddock
I am 40 years old and have experienced only the standard encounters with death. Two grandmothers and a step grandmother, who each died at a good age, an uncle who died too young, and a few acquaintances. So I’m a tourist in grief, and as I sit down to write this introduction I wonder why I am editing an issue on the odd, often contradictory, relationship between humour and death? Is it not disrespectful to the overwhelming fog of grief to even link the two? Surely that is for others with lived experience to do?
Yes, it is.
But what I find in literature, what I keep finding, is that writers do link the two, continuously, as a way of explaining, understanding, and communicating the enormity of their feelings. Grief is a thing with feathers. But whether it is a source of torture and terror or a comic chicken dancing across the road depends on whose pen is doing the talking.
I first noticed this in Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated which can in some ways be seen as an exploration of how to understand and write about that which is too awful to even look at. The grief there is communal grief, the loss and sadness of centuries of pogroms and persecutions experienced by Jewish people, culminating in the Holocaust. The plot follows an eponymous character named Jonathan Safran Foer and his Ukrainian guide Alex Perchov, as they search for the woman who saved Jonathan’s grandmother during the Holocaust.
Each narrate different sections, and it is through Alex’s comically broken English that we get to see where their thinking about grief and sadness starts. Alex writes,
‘I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them.’Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
But as the plot evolves and together they are swallowed by the emotions of their journey, Jonathan comes to see things differently.
‘I used to think that humour was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is…but now I think it’s the opposite. Humour is a way of shrinking from that wonderful world.’Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
It is this tension, this unanswerable question of how we comprehend ‘how wonderful and terrible the world is’ that I find fascinating. What I love about literature is that it opens up experiences beyond those I have had. And what I learn through literature is that it can be all things and everything, as luminous and diverse as wonderful humans who create it. There are no single truths, but endless shades of experience in this mutable, ever evolving thing we call life.
This breadth is explored in each of the features. Sometimes – such as in Alaric Mark Lewis’s tale of mistaken identity at a funeral, we find that humour offers respite from the unbearable and a sense of community and connection for people. The grief here is retrospective, seen through some distance and the weight of other griefs. It seems to respond directly to the Milan Kundera line from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that inspired the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel:
“…how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”The Unbearable Lighthness of Being, Milan Kundera
On the other hand, JM Burgoyne’s ‘Pyrography’ explores the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of grief, and cannot conceive of humour, nostalgia, or anything else. ‘Pain burns, grief burns’ and the only way to cope with it is to burn that pain into paper through writing it down.
In Hannah Linden’s ‘Being dead’s daughter’, she explores ‘the inarticulateness of grief’ and the way that it taps into a complex web of connections and connotations that is very similar to the experience or writing or reading a poem. For James McDermott, his dad’s death is presented naturalistically as reportage, in the opening line: ‘you turn to ash I turn to nuts’. It’s both comic and yet right there in the pain, shrinking from nothing. It is mindful writing, utterly in the moment and responding to the fragmentary feelings and thoughts with whatever comes to mind.
This is contrasted by Carrie Etter whose grief is years in the writing, considered, and deep. It responds less to the immediacy of feeling, but to the illumination of something slower burning but persistent and eternal: love. ‘The deepest grief’, she writes, ‘arises from great love, and the most powerful elegy is at its heart a love poem. Elegy is not only ‘woe is me’ but also ‘look what I had’, which is also to say ‘look what I’ve had, what plenty, what love.’
Look what we have. Incredible people. Incredible emotions. An incredible artform.
Sam Ruddock is Director of Story Machine. He is Guest editor of Lighthouse 26