Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.
If we hear the metaphor “life is a joke,” our usual inference is a negative one: that a joke is a pitiful and sad thing for life to be, that life should be more than a “mere” joke. It seems to be a negative judgment of both life and humor.
Here I will explore the difficulties of living life as a joke, a feat that requires agency, intelligence, creativity, and hard work, and has perhaps been achieved by only a handful of sages throughout history, if at all. I will examine other common metaphors for life, and see how they compare to life-as-joke on moral and aesthetic grounds. A joke is itself a complex cognitive phenomenon; I will review the most promising theory of humor from cognitive science, that of Hurley, Dennett, and Adams, to highlight the technical problems of the phenomenon of life as a joke. I will distinguish mere deception and other phenomena that might first appear to be living life as a joke, but upon closer inspection are lesser things. Finally I will present a few candidates for successful lives-as-jokes: Laozi and Zhuangzi, Socrates, and Andy Kaufman. I will argue that a joke is an excellent thing for a life to be, though of course very few can achieve it.
Metaphors for Life
The cognitive linguist George Lakoff argued that metaphor is central to our cognition, not just a poetic device. Lakoff says (in The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor):
What constitutes the LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor is not any particular word or expression. It is the ontological mapping across conceptual domains, from the source domain of journeys to the target domain of love. The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary….This view of metaphor is thoroughly at odds with the view that metaphors are just linguistic expressions. If metaphors were merely linguistic expressions, we would expect different linguistic expressions to be different metaphors. Thus, “We’ve hit a dead-end street” would constitute one metaphor. “We can’t turn back now” would constitute another, entirely different metaphor. “Their marriage is on the rocks” would involve still a different metaphor. And so on for dozens of examples. Yet we don’t seem to have dozens of different metaphors here. We have one metaphor, in which love is conceptualized as a journey.
Metaphors are not just language games, but underlie our thinking. They are a complex mapping of structures, not just associations between things (as with the less complex metonymy). Lakoff summarizes:
- Metaphor is the main mechanism through which we comprehend abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning.
- Much subject matter, from the most mundane to the most abstruse scientific theories, can only be comprehended via metaphor.
- Metaphor is fundamentally conceptual, not linguistic, in nature.
- Metaphorical language is a surface manifestation of conceptual metaphor.
- Though much of our conceptual system is metaphorical, a significant part of it is nonmetaphorical. Metaphorical understanding is grounded in nonmetaphorical understanding.
- Metaphor allows us to understand a relatively abstract or inherently unstructured subject matter in terms of a more concrete, or at least a more highly structured subject matter.
Metaphor is also conventional, a concept elaborated by both Lakoff and Lakoff’s colleague and collaborator Mark Turner. A few basic metaphors underlie each culture’s understanding of abstract concepts, and are elaborated and built upon in original artistic works. Why is death so often a reaper in English poetry, asks Lakoff, but never an ice cream salesman? The reason is that the conventional metaphors of “people are plants” (that bloom, wither, and die) and “death/time is an agent” are conventional and effortlessly accessible, and artistic metaphors that elaborate, extend, and compose with them will be more accessible to English minds. Turner says (in Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science):
Invention is not originality….We are vigilant for the new and the variable and concentrate upon it. Consequently, our consciousness is habitually blind to the unoriginal, which we take to be merely background.
Of course, the unoriginal is not background, at least not in the sense usually conveyed by that description. The unoriginal is normally the dominant active matrix in any original achievement. Originality is no more than the exploitation of what is unoriginal….Relative to the complexity of the unoriginal conceptual context of invention, it is the original in invention that is simple. The concept of a “room” or a “poem” is immeasurably more complex than the original aspects of any one room or poem.
This concept of creativity is realized in the traditional gardening principle of borrowed scenery, in which natural, pre-existing background features such as mountains are incorporated into the design of a garden. The gardener does not create the mountain, but uses it ingeniously in his composition.
A dominant and easily accessible metaphor for life is as a journey. Christina Flores Moreno breaks down “life is a journey” into several composite geographic metaphors for time: states are locations (e.g. youth), changes are movements (birth toward death), obstacles are impediments to motion.
A major benefit of this metaphoric scheme is that it is easily applicable to almost any life. Any life can be conceived of in this manner. But this is also a problem: if “life as a journey” is so easily applicable to any life, it is no great achievement.
Another benefit, Lakoff says, is that it is a purposeful metaphor: the person going on a journey is an agent responsible for his travel, providing cognitive support for free will. This is also a feature of the metaphor of life as a war against time and death. But how often are journeys chosen, versus imposed on us? How often are those fighting wars the architects of the war? If all lives are trivially journeys, can we choose to live life as a journey?
Another important metaphor, elaborated in Shakespeare and increasingly important in our age of mutual watching and self-observation, is life as a play (a narrative with actors and an audience). This metaphor is also easily applicable to almost any life, and offers even less agency than life-as-journey. If we are actors, we have not written our own narratives.
Life as a joke compares favorably to these metaphors. As we will see, not many lives succeed as jokes; it is a difficult challenge. And creating a joke (as opposed to having one played on us) offers substantial agency. The complex concept of the joke is pre-existing (unoriginal) and available to us; however, succeeding in originality within its confines is a difficult creative task.
The Nature of Jokes and the Absurd
What is a joke? In Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind, cognitive scientists Hurley, Dennett, and Adams present the most comprehensive, plausible theory of humor to date. In their view, the emotion of mirth is an adapted reward mechanism for something that is necessary but would ordinarily cause negative emotions: discovering that we have made an error. Complex minds that use abstractions need error-checking and bug-finding functions, but finding out we were wrong would ordinarily cause us to feel stupid. Nature provides mirth as a reward for this necessary procedure.
Humor and jokes exploit this built-in reward system. The essence of a joke, in Hurley, Dennett, and Adams’ view, is that the teller of the joke surreptitiously introduces a certain epistemic commitment, and then reveals it to have been mistaken. When we experience humor, we are led down a “garden path” of a mistaken assumption, introduced covertly, and then the mistaken assumption is revealed. A joke relies on a: 1. covertly introduced 2. epistemic commitment or assumption 3. that is revealed to be false. (See my previous essay Puzzle Theory for a more detailed explanation of the theory.)
Mere deception is not a joke. A lie is an overtly introduced mistaken assumption; to work as a joke, the assumption must be hidden. This is why Joaquin Phoenix’s long-form prank documented in I’m Still Here ultimately failed: the “mistaken assumption” (he’s not trolling) was introduced much too overtly, and collapsed into simple deception. From the very beginning, it was clear that it was quite possibly a hoax, undermining the possibilities for humor.
How can life be a joke? Jokes and humor are generally rendered in language, pictures, or other communicative media. A life is not naturally a communicative medium. All of my candidates for successful lives-as-jokes are teachers or performers; a communicator and an audience are necessary for the existence of a joke. It may be possible to perform life as a joke purely for oneself, and likely many have succeeded at that, but the cultural usefulness of such projects is limited.
Telling a successful joke, even a long-form joke, is not living life as a joke. A successful joke-life must incorporate the entire life, including death and the cultural memory of the life.
Again, simple deception is not a joke. A serial killer who ostensibly lives life as an upstanding neighbor and citizen is not living a joke, nor is the miser who lives in poverty despite a secret fortune revealed only at death. These are tired stories, not surprising. And simple irony is not a good joke; to live one’s life terrified of skin cancer, only to die of vitamin D deficiency, is not funny, and there is no agency: the liver of life is not the architect of the joke.
It’s difficult to live life as any kind of joke, but especially difficult to live life as a good joke. The phenomenon I’m talking about is distinct from the conception of life as absurd – that there is a fundamental mismatch between the kind of meaning we seek in life and the kind of meaning that’s actually available, a situation created by no apparent agent. Absurdity is a subset of humor, in which the expectation of meaning itself is defeated, as in anti-jokes. This is a relatively unsophisticated and repetitive brand of humor. The challenge posed by Camus (in The Myth of Sisyphus), to live life sneeringly in constant awareness of its absurdity, is a lesser challenge than living life as an actual joke that is funny. The latter may not even be possible; I will examine some candidates.
Laozi and Zhuangzi
Laozi, the legendary author of the Tao Te Ching, is a possible candidate for life lived as a joke, especially when viewed in connection with the other Taoist sage, Zhuangzi. To live an unremarkable life as a bureaucrat and ride out into the wilderness on a donkey leaving only a book of serious nonsense is a moderately decent joke; it’s a better joke if the book of serious nonsense becomes the basis for an entire school of minimally harmful philosophy. To see the Tao as a joke is not disrespectful, but an entirely reasonable Zhuangist interpretation. It is perhaps a better joke if Laozi did not exist at all, but only surreptitiously pretended to exist.
Laozi is not funny; Zhuangzi is much funnier. Zhuangzi says:
Making a point to show that a point is not a point is not as good as making a nonpoint to show that a point is not a point.
This is one of Zhuangzi’s most useful teachings, and a central tenet of philanthropic trolling. He goes on to say that “Using a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a nonhorse to show that a horse is not a horse.” Does it not follow, then, that using a life to show that a life is not a life is not as good as using a nonlife to show that a life is not a life?
Mark Berkson (in “Language: The Guest of Reality”) suggests that Zhuangzi uses humor and “apophatic” language as a way to get beyond the futility of debate and declarative language, and even to point his audience toward a kind of knowledge inexpressible in language, that kind of non-book knowledge embodied by Cook Ding skillfully dismantling an ox. Jokes and humor do what serious statements cannot. Even better, perhaps, if the jokes are contained in life itself as a communicative medium, rather than mere language.
And what do we know about Zhuangzi, anyway? Did he exist? The incidents we have of his life are playful stories likely composed by Zhuangzi himself, rather than by well-attested contemporaries. His text about the butterfly dream hints at his own unreality but does not resolve it one way or another.
Surreptitious nonexistence may be the most perfect form of wu wei, but as the Yiddish proverb says, who is so lucky? Not one in a hundred thousand.
We know Socrates as a literary character in the writing of others, not through his own writing. His existence and nature are as much in question as that of the Taoist sages. And it was all so long ago, who knows?
The Socrates we know from Plato’s dialogues is a gleeful troll, playfully refusing to understand the obvious in order to show that the obvious is not obvious. He does not engineer his own death, but accepts it as gleefully as anything else when it comes. From the dialogues we understand that he had the option of allowing his friends to get him exiled, but, condemned to die, he chose death rather than flight.
Is Socrates’ life a joke? I can’t locate a specific surreptitiously introduced assumption that is later shown to be mistaken. But his manner of existing and dying (or perhaps of pretending to exist) suggests a joking life to me. Perhaps there is something to learn from this non-joke.
Like Socrates, Andy Kaufman lived as a gleeful troll. He identified an emerging sacredness (gender equality) and an emerging art form (professional wrestling) and combined them in a wholly original way. He experimented with “nonlife” or pretending to exist (with his Tony Clifton character), and while his death from lung cancer at 35 was not predictable or engineered by him, it can be argued that his decades of preparatory trolling allowed it to be strange, funny, and mysterious. There is the saying, you make your own luck. We could regard it as an example of “borrowed scenery” creativity: using the uncontrollable eventualities of life in order to make a creative composition.
Again, it is difficult to identify a single surreptitiously introduced mistaken epistemic commitment in the life of Andy Kaufman. Maybe it’s “Tony Clifton exists” (always a covert implication, rarely stated as explicitly as in the aforementioned Joaquin Phoenix’s movie title “I’m still here”), or maybe it’s “all this conflict that you see on your television is real,” or maybe it’s “death is not real but a gag.” Perhaps, as in a painting or a dance or a video game, if the “point” can be summarized in a few short words, then the art form (a life) wouldn’t need to exist. But we would expect that a life lived as a joke could be analyzed as a joke, even if, as with jokes, the explanation were not itself funny.
Far from being a pejorative of life and humor, “life as a joke” may be so difficult that no one has successfully done it in a way that is genuinely funny and analyzable within the modern cognitive science model of humor. At best, there have been those who played with existence and death, denying their seriousness.
For life to be a joke, life must be lived as a communicative medium: an audience is required. Living life with an audience may be especially painful, as evidenced by the pathologies of the famous. There must be an epistemic commitment surreptitiously introduced through living life itself, that is later defeated, in sequence. The joke must encompass an entire life, including death and post-mortem cultural existence. And it must be funny.
Anyone can define his life as a journey or narrative. Few, if any, have been able to succeed at life as a joke. This is too bad, because living life as a joke is both morally and aesthetically laudable. Credibly denying the seriousness of life may ease its pain, and a good joke in a novel medium provides aesthetic benefits for the entire audience. Jokes provide a sense of mystery: what appears to be a natural pattern may actually be a creation by an agent for our pleasure (see my diagram of epistemology from Puzzle Theory).
A successful joke suggests that other things may be jokes. Living life as a joke aggressively imposes meaning on the meaningless, instead of complaining that no meaning can be found.