Historical Laughter

Those who don’t have power tend to make fun of those who do. But what happens when the power shifts?

Lytton Strachey picked his moment to make sport of Thomas Arnold and other Victorians. (Tate Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY)
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Duff Cooper read Eminent Victorians in the trenches in France, while serving as a lieutenant of the Grenadier Guards. He rather liked the book, but at the same time found it a little too gorgeously easy.

"You can't write well about a man unless you have some sympathy or affection for him," Cooper, the future diplomat, author and First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife-to-be, Lady Diana Manners. And Strachey, he wrote, seemed "to make no effort to understand [the Victorians] or to represent what they felt and what was their point of view, but simply to show how very funny their religious worries appear seen from a detached and irreligious standpoint....You feel rather that he is out to sneer, that he is like an agile, quick-witted guttersnipe watching a Jubilee procession."

One age's iconoclast is another's guttersnipe. Colbert and Stewart savagely mocked the administration of George W. Bush as they pioneered an evolving form of subversive pseudo-journalism. Now that the George W. Bush context has vanished into the past and the power belongs to Barack Obama—presumably a more congenial figure to Colbert and Stewart—where do they take their Strachey-esque talent for demolition? They, too, are sorting through lenses to find the appropriate new optic. Contrary to Duff Cooper, it may be hard for them to be funny about a man for whom they have too much sympathy. When mockery dissolves into piety, the viewer's mind wanders, or heads for the door.

What seems different now is that global technologies intensify a historical Doppler effect—the pace of events seems to increase as we move into the future. We are accustomed to thinking of history as a sequence—the Victorian Age, for example, flowing briefly into the Edwardian, and then tumbling into the rapids of the Modern, the periods segmented and distinctive.

But in the early 21st century, an intensely globalized world grows intolerant of sequence. Its dilemmas become urgent and concurrent, and seem to Doppler up to the highest pitch. Hegelian thesis and antithesis talk over one another. Political call and response become simultaneous, which implies an end of dialogue. Think of the global financial crisis as coronary fibrillation: the electrical circuits of the world's financial heart, the intricately sequenced atria and ventricles of exchange, lose their rhythm; the heart goes haywire, it stops pumping.

Millions thought for a few days in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, that the world might end. In the First Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., the radical journalist I. F. Stone told an audience of peace activists: "Six thousand years of human history is about to come to an end. Do not expect to be alive tomorrow." Nikita Khrushchev was thinking along those lines when he said wistfully, "Everything alive wants to live." And yet there may sometimes be a sort of vanity in the "all changed, changed utterly" note that W. B. Yeats sounded after the rebellion of Easter 1916 in Ireland.

Big history cannot get any bigger than the End of the World, which is the most dramatic and, in its way, the least imaginative of narrative lines. In any case, apocalypse in human experience has proven to be a state of mind with urgent but shifting coordinates in reality: what it certainly means is that we have crossed a borderline and headed into strange country. We have been doing that from the start. But history itself—so far—has not been easy to kill.

Lance Morrow is writing a biography of Time magazine co-founder Henry Luce.


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