we are the same.
The world is a bed of pain, people suffer terribly, few of us believe in God or bring up our children very well; you’re right about that. It is also true that people who have problems do not, as a rule, think their problems are ‘funny’.
Horace Walpole once said that the world is a comic to those who think & a tragedy to those who feel. I hope you’ll agree with me that Horace Walpole somewhat simplifies the world by saying this. Surely both of us think & feel; in regard to what’s comic and what’s tragic, Mrs. Poole, the world is all mixed up. For this reason I have never understood why ‘serious’ and ‘funny’ are thought to be opposites. It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people’s problems are often funny and that the people are often nonetheless sad.
I am ashamed, however, that you think I am laughing at people, or making fun of them. I take people very seriously. People are all I take seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave – and nothing but laughter to console them with.
Laughter is my religion, Mrs. Poole. In the manner of most religions, I admit that my laughter is pretty desperate. I want to tell you a little story to illustrate what I mean. The story takes place in Bombay, India, where many people starve to death every day; but not all the people in Bombay are starving.
Among the nonstarving population of Bombay, India, there was a wedding, and a party was thrown in honour of the bride and groom. Some of the wedding guests brought elephants to the party. They weren’t really conscious of showing off, they were just using the elephants for transportation. Although that may strike us as a big-shot way to travel around, I don’t think these wedding guests saw themselves that way. Most of them were probably not directly responsible for the vast numbers of their fellow Indians who were starving all around them; most of them were just calling ‘time out’ from their own problems, and the problems of the world, to celebrate the wedding of a friend. But if you were a member of the starving Indians, and you hobbled past that wedding party and saw all those elephants parked outside, you probably would have felt some disgruntlement.
Furthermore, some of the revelers at the wedding got drunk and began feeding beer to their elephant. They emptied an ice bucket and filled it with beer, and they went tittering out to the parking lot and few their hot elephant the whole bucket. The elephant liked it. So the revelers gave him several more buckets of beer.
Who knows how beer while affect an elephant? These people meant no harm, they were just having fun – and chances are fairly good that the rest of their lives weren’t one hundred percent fun. They probably needed this party. But the people were also being stupid and irresponsible.
If one of those many starving Indians has dragged himself through the parking lot and seen these drunken wedding guests filling up an elephant with beer, I’ll bet he would have felt resentful. But I hope you see I am not making fun of anyone.
What happens next is that the drunken revelers are asked to leave the party because their behavious with their elephant is obnoxious to the other wedding guests. No one can blame the other guests for feeling this way; some of them may have actually have thought that they were preventing things from getting ‘out of hand’, although people have never been very successful at preventing this.
Huffy and brave wit beer, the revelers struggled up on their elephant and veered away from the parking lot – a large exhibition of happiness, surely – bumping into a few other elephants and things, because the revelers’ elephant plowed from side to side in a lumbering wooze, bleary and bloated with buckets of beer. His trunk lashed back and forth like a badly fastened artificial limb. The great beast was so unsteady that he struck an electric utility pole, shearing it cleanly and bringing down the live wires on his massive head – which killed him, and the wedding guests who were riding him, instantly.
Mrs.Poole, please believe me: I don’t think that’s ‘funny’. But along comes one of those starving Indians. He sees all the wedding guests mourning the death of their friends, and their friends’ elephant; much wailing, rending of fine clothes, spilling of good food and drink. The first thing he does is to take the opportunity to slip into the wedding while the guests are distracted and steal a little of the good food and drink for his starving family. The second thing he does is start to laugh himself sick about the manner in which the revelers disposed of themselves and their elephant. Alongside death by starvation, this method of enormous dying must seem funny, or at least quick, to the undernourished Indian. But the wedding guests don’t see it that way. It is already a tragedy to them; they are already talking about ‘this tragic event’, and although they could perhaps forgive the presence of a ‘mangy beggar’ at their party – and even have tolerated his stealing their food – they cannot forgive him for laughing at their dead friends and their dead friends’ elephant.
The wedding guests – outraged at the beggar’s behavior (at his laughter, not his thievery and not his rags) – drown him in one of the beer buckets that the late revelers used to water their elephant. They construe this to represent ‘justice’. We see that the story is about the class struggle – and, of course, ‘serious’, after all. But I like to consider it a comedy about a natural disaster: they are just people rather foolishly attempting to ‘take charge’ of a situation whose complexity is beyond them – a situation composed of eternal and trivial parts. After all, with something as large as an elephant, it could have been much worse.
I hope Mrs. Poole, that I have made what I mean clearer to you. In any case I thank you for taking the time to write to me, because I appreciate hearing from my audience – even critically.
‘The World According to Garp’