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Author Ligda, Kenneth Scott
Title Serious Comedy: British Modernist Humor and Political Crisis
book jacket
Descript 418 p
Note Source: Dissertation Abstracts International, Volume: 73-05, Section: A, page: 1789
Adviser: Alex Woloch
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2012
Aristotle described the human being as a political animal and a laughing animal. This dissertation examines literature's key role in the mediation of these terms. Specifically, I argue for the centrality of humor to the social role of British literary works of the early to mid-twentieth century
"If only," Joyce lamented "someone would say the book was so damn funny." It is no coincidence that the critics most responsible for establishing the reputation of Ulysses (1922) as a record of "futility and anarchy" were political reactionaries. To read Ulysses as a comic novel demanded the acceptance of an undistinguished citizen of a modern civil society (and a Jew, at that) as a hero. Joyce, unlike most modernists, was eager to celebrate the worth of such people. That he achieved this through comedy remains an astounding feat, and a provocative model for the ennoblement of marginalized types. This chapter begins by demonstrating how Joyce drew Leopold and Molly Bloom from the comic periphery of characterization into the roles of central protagonists, thus mounting the prime literary defense of non-totalitarian citizenry in the high modernist period. The second half of the chapter plots this character transformation within its curious narrative form: a modern hybrid of epic and picaresque termed "anabasis." Long forgotten by criticism, anabasis is a military/literary trope revived during World War One that provided Joyce---and all the subsequent writers in this dissertation---with a comic outline for representing social chaos
Anabasis was particularly needful to those itinerant English writers of the 1930s who sought to convey the Continent's unwelcome political realities to a complacent British readership. Foremost among these were the novelist Christopher Isherwood and the poet W.H. Auden, widely held to be the finest British writers of their generation. The second and third chapters of this study illuminate their use of comedy in the negotiation of the two poles of literary function staked out by the late modernist neologisms "documentary" and "escapism."
Isherwood's major contribution to this endeavor is Goodbye to Berlin (1939), our most culturally influential literary account of Nazification, and a strange blend of delight and realism. By delving into a previously unexplored provenance for Isherwood's documentary aphorism, "I am a camera," this chapter exposes the intricacy of an apparently direct approach. Tracing Isherwood's connections to the documentary movement, Malinowskian anthropology, Bloomsbury aesthetics, and popular entertainment, I chart out the interplay of comedy and trauma that Isherwood developed into a systematic narrative strategy
In the mid to late 1930s, Auden worked for the leftist documentary film movement, married Thomas Mann's daughter to extricate her from Nazi Germany, and travelled to wartime Spain and China---all of which accords with the common understanding of this as the period of his greatest politically-minded poetry. What is rarely acknowledged (and never sufficiently explained) is that this period overlaps with his turning away from partisan poetry, his interest in "escape-art," and his editorship, theorization, and emulation of "light verse." I examine the substantial weight of lightness in his editorship of the first Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938) and his Auden's most-canonized book, Another Time (1940), emphasizing the extraordinary modulations of tone designed to convey imminent political crisis to a comfortable, entertainment-oriented society
This dissertation turns, finally, to George Orwell, whose persona as the "wintry conscience of a generation" has long obscured his fascination with humor as both an authorial technique and an object of study. Orwell, like Auden and Isherwood, discovered in comedy an intricate means for "facing unpleasant facts." Orwell, like his idol Joyce, affirmed the best in civil democratic life through humor. I explore the former in his non-fiction, focusing on Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and the latter in his non-funny (but humor-obsessed) Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)---postwar novels that offer a reflection on the significance of humor in society. By discovering a hitherto unnoticed (and distinctly comic) origin for the Animal Farm allegory, I am able to analyze the function of imaginative play in this somber work. Nineteen Eighty-Four is book-ended and strangely infiltrated by scenes that render laughter an index of this novel's major themes. Comedy emerges as a critical measure of all that the world stands to lose. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)
School code: 0212
Host Item Dissertation Abstracts International 73-05A
Subject Literature, English
Alt Author Stanford University
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