Mudcat Café message #2587908 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #118593   Message #2587908
Posted By: Will Fly
13-Mar-09 - 08:47 AM
Thread Name: Folklore: Gallows Humour-laughing at death/disease
Subject: RE: Folklore: Gallows Humor-laughing at death/dise
Joe - I think you were right to re-open the thread, under its altered title. We should be able to discuss the phenomenon of humour - black, sick, gallows, call it what you will - humour which is sparked by misfortune, in a rational way. This type of folk humour has always arisen spontaneously after tragedy, and the existence of the internet has made the spread of jokes arising from tragedy even greater. It's impossible to stop it and, though we might deprecate it and disapprove of it, the phenomenon itself is worthy of discussion.

Our attitude to death and our ways of coping with death and tragedy are still very Victorian in some respects. In medieval belief, for example, the whole of life was seen as a preparation for death, and the ambition was to die in the full knowledge of one's death and what - as they thought - was to come after it.The "memento mori" in paintings, for example, was a statement, a reminder, that death was ever-present, impossible to avoid, inevitable and timely. So, in many ways, people in those times had a much plainer and healthier (no pun intended) outlook on, and attitude to death. Furthermore, mortality rates were higher, and life was shorter.

I believe we're less able to cope with death by comparison. Modern medicine is dedicated to keeping us alive as long as possible, and our life expectation is longer. We seem to be unable to discuss death and the inevitability of death in all its forms and in all its aspects openly. Tragedy, death and loss need catharsis. That's why a wake after a funeral is often a joyous and life-reinforcing affair. That's why some of the most macabre humour of all comes from the medical profession. And - to take it one step further - that's why gallows humour arises spontaneously.

The question, for many of us, is where is the line of taboo drawn? Whether we like it or not, there is nothing in this world that can't be laughed at, or made the subject of a joke and, of course, whether we choose to do so, depends entirely on us as individuals. I choose not to, personally, but I hope I'm perfectly capable of discussing the subject in a reasonable way if asked to. There are 65 pages of Jade Goody jokes on the Sickipedia web site and, whether you approve of that kind of behaviour or not, the phenomenon, as a social phenomenon, exists and will always continue to do so. And therefore can be discussed, surely, by the sane and sensible in a sane and sensible way.

We often have a complex reaction to sick humour that we can't always hide. One side of us may overtly be shocked or embarrassed by black jokes - while the other side, if we care to admit it, is covertly sniggering. We're simultaneously shocked and titillated as only complex human beings can be. My parents live on the Morecambe Bay coast in the north-west of England - the scene, some years ago, of Chinese immigrant workers being drowned by the treacherous tides while collecting cockles (cockling) at night. The very next day, the joke going the rounds was in the order of:

First shark: "Fancy some fish and chips?" Second shark: "No, let's have a Chinese" (takeaway).

Yes - the very sickest of humour and, knowing the environment in which they had died very well indeed, not one that made me laugh. But the humour existed - it had arisen - and I believe, underneath the sickness was saying, perhaps, "there but for the grace of...". Why shouldn't we discuss that phenomenon?