Monday, June 13, 2011

The Haunting

A recent joke has haunted me, a tiny evil poltergeist rattling the dishes in the cupboards of my mind, creaking across my cerebellum when I'm sure nobody is there.

It is one of Peter Serafinowicz's tweet jokes. You know the ones: he offers up a theme, his tweet-mates tweet him a question hashed with PSQA, he gives the punchline. It's an awesome display of comic virtuosity. One of my favourite twists is when somebody tweets him a familiar one-liner and he responds to it, taking a comic form that is supposed to be self-sustained, where the comedy is based in part on the finality and closure of the line, and then he improves upon it. Someone sent him Steven Wright's "What's another word for the thesaurus?" and Serafinowicz promptly answers: "Anothersaurus." (It has the same deflating quality as the scene in the Simpsons where a Zen monk on a mountaintop asks Bart, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" and Bart says, "This," and then flaps his fingers against his palm - try it, it works; it's the sound of one hand clapping.) Another person offered up the teenage delight of "Is masturbation incest?" to which Serafinowicz responds, "No, masturbation is nicest." A simple switch of letters turns an adolescent joke into a lesson on the pleasure of life.



It's that darned poltergeist again. So, let's bring it into the light. Here's the joke:
RT @AndyD1893: #PSQA What comes after death?? A pervert.
This may be the best joke. Ever. Linger with it for a moment before going on.

Immediately, I see three interpretations, three ways of getting the joke:

1) In the tragic mode of comedy. Some poor self-asphyxiator dies, and then ejaculates.
2) In the sick mode. A person murders somebody and then jacks off.
3) In the metaphysical mode. A death-obsessed pervert stalks the figure of death, quite possibly ejaculating onto the annoyed figure of the Grim Reaper, whose cloak now looks as if a flock of birds has crapped down it.

Obviously, there are different readings of "pervert" here. In the tragic mode, the pervert is not much more perverted than your average Tory backbencher; in the sick mode, the pervert is more perverted than your average Tory backbencher; in the metaphysical mode, the figure of identification is really Death itself, limping along with its scythe, trying to do its business while some creep follows it around wanking on it.

Schadenfreude is the key to the tragic mode here: there is a moment in which you relate to the pervert before the pervert's hubris causes his fall; you take some pleasure in the notion that he cannot enjoy himself as his final pleasure shudders through his corpse, and you stand in judgement, just as you stand in judgement of the morally virtuous politician caught with a noose around his neck, his trousers around his ankles. Alienation is the key to the sick mode: you are alienated from judgement as you countenance the horror, allowing the pervert his pleasure without repudiation, without damnation; your link to the pervert is not one of identification except insofar as through the joke you share a contempt for judgement itself. In the metaphysical mode, you are operating at a much more sympathetic register but switching allegiances: incongruity is the key here, as the incongruity in the conjured image reflects the incongruity of sympathising with death.

So, a non-comic answer to the question "What comes after death?" would be "Judgement", or perhaps a psychospatial proxy for judgement, "Heaven" or "Hell". Serafinowicz pounces on this and puts a figure, the pervert, where we would put an act (of judgment), but that figure is, of course, acting in relation to that act - by ejaculating. It's perverse; but then, judgement is perverse. And that's the point.

By the way, I checked in on Brett Easton Ellis's tweets, which are admirably cross-eyed with petulance and enthusiasm: anyway, it's clear he reads this blog because his recent subjects have included Weiner, 70s movies, and Tracey Morgan. Glad to know he's a fan.


Jeff Strabone said...

Before reading your explanation of the death–pervert joke, I thought you were going to say something else. The petite mort is a metaphor for orgasm. Someone who comes after an orgasm is thus a pervert on the grounds that to pervert something is, according to the OED, 'To turn aside (a text, argument, concept, etc.) from the correct meaning, use, or purpose; to misapply, misconstrue, distort.' Coming after orgasm is thus a perversion. (The teller of the joke would have to be a male because women can, of course, have multiple successive orgasms.)

sw said...

Ah yes, yes, yes.

The petite mort had flickered through my mind at one point, but you are completely right that this poses an alternative reading. It is not just that a pervert turns from the correct reading and miscontrues or distorts, but that a pervert cannot be satisfied with the "normal" itself and requires a rebellious or deviant excess to supplement the "normal", and so in effect can only "come" when the "coming" is over and when he or she experiences the orgasmic ecstasy of whatever supplement has been defiled by the deadly coming. Thank you for pointing that out.

BTW, I added "or she" because I think that this can still apply to a woman (though it is true, as you point out and as countless women can attest from having merely danced with me at nightclubs, that multiple successive orgasms are possible, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.)