Monday, February 13, 2017

Humor and Criticism

            Voltaire’s Candide provides a form of comedy and commentary that is different than the forms that we have discussed in class so far.  Voltaire offers a biting satire of the world he lives in; he uses the unique perspective of Candide, a young man who has led a charmed life up until the story begins.  Voltaire constructs a fairy tale-like reflection of the real world to tell the story of young Candide, and he works to build this world through exaggeration.  In the opening lines, Voltaire writes, “His countenance is a true picture of his soul” (1).  I may have a somewhat pessimistic view of the world, but I do not believe that anyone’s face can truly reflect who they are on the inside. This description is unrealistic, but serves the purpose of showing the true purity of Candide before his life is changed forever.  Through the character of Candide, Voltaire offers an extensive critique of the way that staunch optimists view their world.  This is similar to Hau’ofa’s use of Manu to help illustrate the corruption of the Tikongs.  However, Voltaire’s commentary is much bolder.  He does not write with a fictional world that separates his work from reality; he blends reality with exaggeration and a bit of fiction.  This revised formula for humor works to very direct critical ends.  There is no question on which groups Voltaire is targeting because he clearly names them all.  For example, he directly comments on the practices of the people of Portugal, stating, “After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the  people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking” (13).  This opening to the chapter directly criticizes the practices of the Portuguese, and the superstition that is attached to them.  Voltaire greatly valued reason and logic; public executions were often neither reasonable nor logical, especially when they were being done for mystical purposes.  Voltaire makes the absurdity of the ceremony clear using exaggeration and intense detail.  He includes the detail about the practice being approved through university research because it points out the pseudo-science that must have been used to reach that approval.  This is comical because it claims reason was used to reach an unreasonable result.  It is an inversion of the values held by a reasonable reader, and the resulting absurdity causes laughter.
            John Kasaipwalova, like Voltaire, uses humor and examples based in reality to criticize some form of injustice that he sees in the world.  His criticism is not as broad as Voltaire’s because it only focuses on one instance of injustice and one group of people.  In this way, it functions like a single story from Tales of the Tikongs.   However, Kasaipwalova does not veil his criticism in a fictional world; he directly addresses the Australian officers that are oppressing the people of Papua New Guinea.  Like Voltaire, Kasaipwalova’s descriptions and dialogue are essential to both the comedy and the criticism.  The law is a recurring idea in the short story, driving the dialogue.  For example, when the Australian papa approaches the narrator, he says, “Listen boy, who gave you permission to chew betel nut here? You are breaking the law, the legal laws of this land” (Kasaipwalova 434).  The term “legal laws” is comical because it is a redundant phrase that does not provide any clarification of the specific law that is being broken by chewing the betel nut.  This instance shows how unreasonable the Australians could be in their treatment of the people of Papua New Guinea. 

            Both Voltaire and Kasaipwalova use humor to make a point about the injustices they see in their society.  In this way, they are utilizing a similar humor model to that of Hau’ofa in Tales of the Tikongs; all three men take examples of what upsets them in the world, combine it with exaggeration and sarcasm, and create witty stories criticizing social ills.  In all cases, the men are criticizing people who do not respect other people in some way.  Hau’ofa and Kasaipwalova particularly criticize colonizing powers (specifically the British and Australian people), while Voltaire leaves no group without criticism.  In a way, humor can be used as a method of coping with the injustices that one sees but struggles to change on their own.  However, it can also serve as a method of highlighting injustices for a larger audience because humor is able to transcend racial/ethnic backgrounds.  

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