In a seedy hotel in Paris, Oscar Wilde lay on his death bed. His life had been a search for beauty and elegance. He had been a master of wit and adventure; until his life crashed.
On his death bed, two things happened. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church and he made one of his funniest remarks. Known for his wit, his last words were among his sharpest. In a badly decorated room, suffocated by poor taste and what was to him a painful absence of beauty he muttered “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”
And he died.
Laughter, does a number of essential things for us. Satire actsas mental banana skin for the powerful. Totalitarian regimes and bullies hate being laughed at. Satire deflates immoral authority. But slapstick is just as important. With slapstick we regain a degree of control we had lost. Laughing togethermakes us the many rather than the one. It acts as an antidote to social isolation. Laugher overlays despair with optimism. And it’s cathartic. We simply feel better after a good laugh.
Death is after all one of the most powerful (and incomprehensible) aspects of life. It can make us terribly afraid. No wonder this pandemic seems to have produced a tsunami of fear.
It may be that our governments, helped by the media have set out to scare us into hygenic lockdown, and they have succeeded. The daily macabre toll of a body count of people we never knew but have now lost, take a toll on our nerves. We seem to be surrounded by death on a huge scale.
Except that we are not. At least not on an unusually large scale. Some scientists are saying that the virus has been around since December.
In the 56 days from January 11 to March 6, the total number of people who died in England and Wales was 90,940, this was 5,023 lower than the average in the same eight-week period over the previous five years, when it was 95,963.
You wouldn’t know from the news that following these particular statistics fewer people have died so far, than in the same period last year. No doubt because a mild winter this year killed fewer. But still, fewer people so far have died.What about the prospective increase this month?
We don’t what the scale is going to be. We don’t know either which group of scientists we can trust; the ones at Imperial who claim the death rate is as bad as Italy describes, at 4%, or the ones at Oxford who think it will be as little as South Korea has found at 0.6%. (Seasonal flu has a rate of 0.1%)
Every death is a tragedy – of course. And what each government is rightly trying to do is to save our hospitals from being overwhelmed; even the slightest abnormal surge in numbers is a threat.
And there are other reasons to be afraid. We fear a crashed economy that will be unable to fund the health service for the coming decade; we fear the death of family and friends; we fear our own.
If the Government is using fear to make us behave to avoid further infection, it’s a double-edged sword. We will need to develop an immunity to fear in our minds as we need immunity for our bodies to the virus.
Laughter, satire and slapstick offer us just that immunity in case the fear morphs into panic.
When the Queen addressed the nation in a welcome speech, I wondered if she hadn’t flattered us too much.
“And those who come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.”
The trouble is that the snowflakes and the humourless, individual and corporate have tried to undermine the humour and ban the laughter.
A number of organisations and people decided that life was so dire that they cancelled April 1st determined to censor the jokes. Google, Heinz, Kia and Lego for example all cancelled April Fools’ day. (Unsurprisingly the German government banned it too.)
Previous April Fools’ day had seen wonderful spoofs like the BBC’s Spaghetti tree in 1957, or the Flying Penguin documentary in 2008, as well as all the private pranks.(A quick google will make you smile).
So this April has been grimmer than most. A monthsubdued by snowflake-itis, threatening us with a pandemic of mental misery on top of the virus.
There is no vaccine to Covid 19 yet, but there is one to pandemic of fear. Fight back with laughter. With slapstick and satire we can humanise social isolation with social solidarity.
Share the memes that make you laugh. My favourites for today were: “For the first time in history we can save the human race by lying in front of the TV and doing nothing. Let’s not screw this up!” And -“Our grandparents were called to war. We are being asked to practice social distancing and stop hoarding toilet paper.”
Faced with death, and having decided or discovered that there was life beyond death, Oscar Wilde refused to give despair the last word. Instead, he chose to have the lastlaugh. We can too.