I’ve been writing something about Nathanael West, and I had occasion to go back and look at a conference paper I presented on The Day of the Locust from about six years ago. It’s not very good! But I did find some paragraphs I kind of like.
“It was another joke. Calvin and Hink slapped their thighs and laughed, but Tod could see that they were waiting for something else. Earle, suddenly, without even shifting his weight, shot his foot out and kicked Calvin solidly in the rump. This was the real point of the joke. They were delighted by Earle’s fury. Tod also laughed. The way Earle had gone from apathy to action without the usual transition was funny. The seriousness of his violence was even funnier” (111).
Tod, and therefore the reader, has no access to the motivations behind Calvin and Hink’s provocation of Earle. But “the real point of the joke” is not the joke itself – it’s the violence the joke induces. The violence and the transition-less passage from joke to violence is the source of the laughter. Moreover, because “the seriousness of the violence” paradoxically amplifies its humor, the line between humor and violence is, for all intents and purposes, erased. Violence is only funny when it is real violence, as opposed to slapstick or comedic violence. For Calvin and Hink, the humor is funny and meant to be funny. But as readers, we’re left with a comedic moment that isn’t meant to be funny. The staging of comedy is pretty grim in itself.
This performative contradiction is the engine of West’s book, both in its status as a black comedy and as a critique of what West sees as a particularly American mode of violence. In an oft-quoted letter to Malcolm Cowley, West notes that humor is bound inextricably to every facet of his writing. “I’m a comic writer,” writes West, “and it seems impossible for me to handle any of the ‘big things’ without seeming to laugh or at least smile … I tried to describe a meeting of the Anti-Nazi League, but it didn’t fit and I had to substitute a whorehouse and a dirty film. The terrible sincere struggle of the league came out comic when I touched it and even libelous” (Veitch ii). In the Shoop episode, then, the collapse of the violent and the comic represents a serious issue for West’s practice as a writer. For him, this issue is cultural.
I guess I’ve been thinking about The Day of the Locust and laughter not just because I’m writing about it again, but because, in the time between when I originally wrote the conference paper (early 2009) and now, comedy’s become, I don’t know, more “important feeling.” West’s sense of the comic and the violent are nearly indistinguishable from each other — he thought that Americans required ever-more extreme forms of entertainment in order to satisfy the desires that mass culture imbued in us. And eventually, the only thing that satisfies the need is not just comic representations of violence, but actual violence.
You could make the argument that he was right, and that the real and figurative violence on reality shows just fulfills his fictional vision. But we’re also in the middle, I think, of a kind of comic elevation. I’m hardly the first person to say this. Certain stand-up comics (Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Maria Bamford, Marc Maron I guess) are looked at more as artists than entertainers, things like “Too Many Cooks” exist and rack up millions of YouTube views, people seem more generally willing to extend aesthetic leeway to comedians, comedies, comics, etc. So if West was right about the way that, under the conditions of mass culture, violence and comedy have become indistinguishable from each other, he didn’t predict (couldn’t have been expected to predict) the way that the comic has, in some ways, elevated itself above the expectations people have of mass culture.