Umberto Eco’s masterpiece novel The Name of the Rose has a critical plot point centered around a debate about laughter.
The political Left dominates some of the important institutions of Western society today. Besides controlling mainstream media and higher education, the Left is powerfully entrenched in the world of the arts. To get a grant, a museum showing, a book deal, or a good review from the intelligentsia, it helps to be a leftist.
Tokyo is a quiet city. The low birthrate ensures that obstreperous kids are rare, and strict standards of conduct tend to ensure ensure that people don't bother their neighbors with loud music or wild parties - these needs are satisfied in centralized karaoke emporia.
One Christmas morning, years ago, I woke up and found myself in Malaysian Borneo. After delightedly taking note of the date and location, I decided to celebrate Christmas in the style of the locals. In the Dayak regions of Malaysia where I then resided, all holidays are more or less the same, and are observed by engaging in the serious business of visiting and hosting. You choose some portion of the holiday in which you will serve as a host, feeding and entertaining all of your visiting friends.
I recently flew to San Francisco for a job interview. A friend of mine, who had recently moved to San Francisco herself, was kind enough to pick me up from the airport. As she drove from the airport to my hotel, her phone was plugged in to her car speakers. The volume was so low that I think she didn’t even notice that music from her phone was playing. Whether intentionally or not, the song that played on repeat during the entire trip was “Hotel California” by the Eagles. I didn’t want to complain or distract her from the road, so I just let it play.
God loves average people, and that’s why he made so many of them. That was what I always told myself in the moments, not-infrequent, when my own mediocrity was painfully evident. But of course it never really comforted me. I always secretly wanted to break free from averageness, to achieve some remarkable and awe-inspiring thing, to impress my friends and family and graze on the greener grass at the right end of the bell curve.
There’s an episode of the show 30 Rock in which Tracy Morgan’s character hopes to win a Golden Globe for his new movie Hard to Watch. The title of the fictional movie is poking fun at the lamentable fact that many of the movies that win today’s most prestigious awards are painful experiences for viewers. The difficulty or impossibility of enjoying these hard-to-watch movies seems to be taken as evidence of their artistic merit.
My first motivation to see The Lives of Others was that I heard that William F. Buckley, Jr. said it was the best movie he had ever seen. Presumably, Buckley liked it at least partially because it is a compellingly anti-Communist film, and opposition to Communism was a large part of the 20th century American conservatism he spent his life cherishing and defending. But Buckley was no cretin either – he was educated and thoughtful, and had enough aesthetic sensibility to know a good movie from a bad one.
There are a few possible motives for the common tendency of people to try to impress each other. The first is a desire for gain. If you impress an investor, you might get money from him, and if you impress a beautiful woman, you might get a date from her. But this does not explain all attempts to impress others. People try to impress their friends who are already willing to help them, and they even try to impress strangers who they meet in passing and who they will probably never see again.