The Lunacy of Earthquake Satire
by Lyndon Hood
Am I the only one with this frame of mind? The one that treats a statement like “there’s nothing funny about the earthquake” as a challenge to my capcity for irreverence?
It’s partly a matter of personality. I think my habit of irony started as a way of avoiding emotional involvement. So my prose might be okay but I’m not much fun at parties.
It’s also principle. I tend to think ‘it was a joke’ isn’t really a defence for saying something horrible, but on the other hand I don’t believe there are things you shouldn’t joke about. It’s just that, when anger is so near the surface and confusion is so easy, it better be a bloody good joke.
So here’s me starting into a column about how I’m not writing a column, except this time I’m not even being properly ironic.
Except possibly ‘cosmic irony’. Sucks being human, eh.
[ New Zealand’s 9/11: John Key Declares ‘War on Geology’]
After September 11 2001, amid speculation about the death of irony, satirical website The Onion took one week off before producing their most memorable single issue ever [ Comments from a writer here].
[ What? Oh, those Eastern suburbs.]
Natural disasters don’t offer quite as many moving targets, but I think I appreciate “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” more now. It recognises a certain helpless ridiculousness, without mocking it.
I mention this because of one thought I had on September 12. In 1999 The Onion produced Our Dumb Century, a book inventing one satire (or parody) newpaper front page for every year of the 20th century. What if they did it now?
[ 1973: At today’s official opening of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, the chairman of the Port Authority expressed the hope the mighty skyscrapers would be a symbol USA’s strength and a metaphor for her presence throughout the world, their towering height a beacon to all who see them. “I like to imagine someone flying past in an aeroplane – even two or three decades from now surely they will immediately recognise these twin towers as the beating heart of international American capitalism. They embody the American spirit and the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution, and they will endure as a long.”]
Probably, they’d write something not like that. Welcome to my world. I guess it’s just a matter of “you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry”, except that I have a unnecessarily complicated sense of humour.
[ Just When It’s Kind Of Not ‘Too Soon’ About Christchurch,
Devastating Wave In Japan Frustrates Satirist’s Urge To Quip About Natural Distasters]
I’ll accept there’s nothing funny when the earth breaks, destroying cities and snatching away lives. I was taught a joke can be as simple as an unexpected change in rhythmn, but I don’t think that’s what he meant. Although if the disaster were sped up and played, à la Benny Hill, to the tune of ‘Yakety Sax’, it might just work. .
[ Knock knock
Knock Bang BangCRASHCRASHCRASHCRASHThudSMASHRumbleRumble
Anyway: beyond that point, humanity gets involved. And people, as has been widely noted, are funny.
Thoughtful preachers will say God was not in the earthquake, but between the people in the seconds, hours and day that came afterwards. The thought applies to the ridiculous as much as the sublime.
[ Portaloo – Knowing my fate is to be with you
Portaloo – They’re finally placing my portaloo]
I mean, no matter what you think about Ken Ring – for example, that he’s a literal charlatan and a literal lunatic who’s too busy preying on the insecurities of a devastated population and concealing how badly his methods work to actually accept the conclusions of the scientific research he likes to cite – but Sunday’s 5.1 earthquake in Christchurch display immaculate comic timing.
I mean, the ground was all like, “Oh well: round about bedtime, I guess there’s not going to be any kind of earthquake OH WAIT THERE’S ONE! Guess you don’t get to tar and feather Ole Ken after all.”
There was also a 5.0 in Tauranga. Nobody cares.
[ I mean, I predicted something dramatic would happen to get the Welfare Working Group off the front pages.
But nobody puts me on the television.]
Perhaps a more venerable version of “Woman Bakes Cakes” is the story Rabelias tells (by way of excusing his own frivolous writing) of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope in Gargantua and Pantagreul. The passage also demonstrates Rabelias’ affection – or compulsion – for mesmerizingly long lists, which I’ve shortened because there is only so much room on the Internet.
When Philip, King of Macedon, enterprised the siege and ruin of Corinth, the Corinthians having received certain intelligence by their spies that he with a numerous army in battle-rank was coming against them, were all of them, not without cause, most terribly afraid; and therefore were not neglective of their duty in doing their best endeavours to put themselves in a fit posture to resist his hostile approach and defend their own city.
Some from the fields brought into the fortified places their movables, bestial, corn, wine, fruit, victuals, and other necessary provision.
Others did fortify and rampire their walls, set up little fortresses, bastions, squared ravelins, digged trenches, cleansed countermines, fenced themselves with gabions, contrived platforms, emptied casemates, barricaded the false brays, erected the cavaliers, repaired the counterscarps, plastered the curtains, lengthened ravelins, stopped parapets, morticed barbacans… [ etc, etc, etc]
Every man exercised his weapon, every man scoured off the rust from his natural hanger; nor was there a woman amongst them, though never so reserved or old, who made not her harness to be well furbished; as you know the Corinthian women of old were reputed very courageous combatants.
Diogenes seeing them all so warm at work, and himself not employed by the magistrates in any business whatsoever, he did very seriously, for many days together, without speaking one word, consider and contemplate the countenance of his fellow-citizens.
Then on a sudden, as if he had been roused up and inspired by a martial spirit, he girded his cloak scarfwise about his left arm, tucked up his sleeves to the elbow, trussed himself like a clown gathering apples, and, giving to one of his old acquaintance his wallet, books, and opistographs, away went he out of town towards a little hill or promontory of Corinth called (the) Cranie; and there on the strand, a pretty level place, did he roll his jolly tub, which served him for a house to shelter him from the injuries of the weather: there, I say, in a great vehemency of spirit, did he turn it, veer it, wheel it, whirl it, frisk it, jumble it, shuffle it, huddle it, tumble it, hurry it, jolt it… [ etc, etc, etc] and every way so banged it and belaboured it that it was ten thousand to one he had not struck the bottom of it out.
Which when one of his friends had seen, and asked him why he did so toil his body, perplex his spirit, and torment his tub, the philosopher’s answer was that, not being employed in any other charge by the Republic, he thought it expedient to thunder and storm it so tempestuously upon his tub, that amongst a people so fervently busy and earnest at work he alone might not seem a loitering slug and lazy fellow.
[ Week 2: Resumption of politics as usual, but with
“Because of the earthquake we must” stuck in front.]
Unlike classical philopher/vagrants, the modern satirist/comedian may have transferrable skills. Randall Munroe, whose stick-figure geeky-in-a-good way webcomic XKCD has previously included things like a diagram of the heights of things in the observable universe above ground level on a logarithmic scale, produced an infographic on the effects of radiation exposure (and still reflexively adds a couple of jokes).
[ Aren’t we about due to forget about Christchurch? I mean, we forgot about that flood in Pakistan while it was still happening…]
In my own rather smaller league, doing news has been more work than usual. I know: it’s now illegal to complain about stuff if you live outside Canterbury. It’s just that I want to say I haven’t had much energy for chores, and hence to speculate that these natural disasters may mean the death of ironing.
[ Uncovered time capsule reads: “And in closing, O future people: you know there’s a fault line here, right?”]
So I feel I can break from satirical tradition and make a constructive suggestion*: Stories are good.
Not just stories about the earthquake. Though with the telling these will change. Not growing, not becoming untrue, but becoming more perfect stories. Many, no doubt, will become funnier. But on the other hand, recounting your suffering can be a ritual of retraumatisation.
[ “And so farewell, from a city where the television presenters speaking as they always do at these.
The sentences, incomplete. A litter of continuous present form verbs. Talking. Emoting. Hoping.”]
What I mean is: all the stories. Whichever ones you think of when I say that. Comic or tragic – and I have this (forgive me) via Neitzsche – stories are what we use to make reason of an unreasonable world. We live in the age of the internet – we actually can have our jetpack if we really want – but there are still witches in the forest.
[ Might encourage people to return to the city if we did the coverage commercial-radio style:
“A magnitude 5.1 aftershock ROCKED Christchurch. ROCKED!]
Tell stories. Opposable thumbs make it easier to operate a Playstation; stories make us human.
And yes, that includes stories about people who predict earthquakes by the moon. You know the sort of thing: fairy tales.
* I am, of course, unfair to satirical tradition. Another relevant case in point: Voltaire’s Candide is – it’s important as many people as possible know this – just an enormous, rollicking and fairly brief shaggy dog story. Its official target is the ‘optimistic’ position that “everything for the best”, but it has its own answers to this suffering world (Warning: contains an earthquake). So another piece of advice: let us cultive our garden**.
** Metaphorically, that is.***
*** Not that there’s anything wrong with actual gardening, either.