Friday, June 11, 2004

The Joke

Recently I read that according to actuarial tables, social security projections, and other such divinations that I might reasonably expect to enjoy perhaps another quarter century in your company. While allowing for my penchant for cigarettes, bacon (as well as all other culinary manifestations of the noble swine), and the occasional pint of Guinness, the odds are pretty good that I will be around to see my 75th birthday or even longer. Most would assume this would be a boon to my spirits, a cause for celebration, or at least, a fleeting moment of happiness. I have not found this to be the case. On the contrary, a certain dread has overtaken me as if some cruel, unspeakable cosmic joke has been played at my expense.

The ground has shifted underneath me. Or, at least, it seems to have. More and more I find myself out of step with what is going on around me. No, this is not some debilitating infirmity such as Alzheimer’s or a catastrophic stroke, but something equally terrifying – I am no longer able to communicate with my fellow denizens in this veil of tears. This is not say that I cannot order my meals, give directions, or handle the oral transactions necessary to insure my material well-being, it is becoming evident that the art of civil conversation is very nearly dead to me.

With alarming frequency, I am seeing the disconcerting arched brow of disapproval, a rolled eye, a sigh that says, “here he goes again” in my conversations, correspondences and writings. More often than not, I am obliged to stop and point out that I was being ‘ironic’ or having a ‘bit of fun’, thereby spoiling (for me, anyway) the tenor of the conversation with a half-hearted apology. After all, what fun is it having wit, if no one gets it?

Giving this considerable thought, one of two things has happened:

1) I have changed. While slipping into senescence I have become a tiresome old crank and have been condemned to be a repeater of stories and a perpetrator of embarrassing and boorish social gaffes;
2) I have not changed. But, like Rip Van Winkle, I have awoken to a world where my satires, parodies, and rakish ripostes more and more frequently miss their mark.

With each passing day I feel a little more like Milan Kundera’s protagonist, Ludvick, in his novel The Joke. For those readers not familiar the classic 1967 tale, the story revolves around Ludvick’s postcard in which he makes flippant remarks to the object of his affections (or more precisely, his lusts), Marketa:
“…it all goes back to my fatal predilection for silly jokes and Marketa’s fatal inability to understand them. Marketa was the type of woman who takes everything seriously (which made her totally at one with the spirit of the era…”

Of course, the censors at the political training camp Marketa is attending do not have a sense of humor either. When the postcard in question, containing the lines that are to haunt Ludvik: “Optimism is the opiate of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvick” falls into their hands the results are nearly catastrophic for our protagonist. He is expelled from the Party and the university and is drafted into a forced labor company in the army where he spends his service in a coalmine.

It seems that I am increasingly meeting more Marketas these days. The corrosive effects of political correctness and multiculturalism have taken their toll. This culture of “sensitivity” is anything but sensitive. If you make an offhand comment about some of the lunacies of the Right, you are immediately deemed “unpatriotic” or “anti-American”, if you have the effrontery to question some of the cherished chestnuts of the Left; only one conclusion can be reached, you are irredeemably racist, sexist or elitist.

Even your state of mental health can mark you as suspect in the eyes of the therapy police. Depression (or what is perceived as depression) is an indicator of guilt. To be sullen, a bit cranky or otherwise displeased with the way things are going, invites admonishments to seek help. The pharmaceutical companies offer a dizzying array of solutions for the recalcitrant and the unhappy – “soma” for the malcontents.

As a fan of dystopian literature, it has become apparent to me that while Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, London, etc., did not get it entirely right they certainly had some prescience.

As for my dilemma, neither prospect bodes well for my well-being and only serves to increase my sense of isolation. Is it any wonder that the idea of being here for another twenty-five years has given me pause?

40 Comments:

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