Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Don't Laugh in Bed

There is a stock device of comedy which juxtaposes the precautions usually taken by, say, householders to protect their property, with the success sometimes wrought by the one who, rather than erect his defences, goes out to meet the intruder with such an unexpected degree of alacrity, with such oddity and force, that the tables are turned and the intruder scampers off with great speed and in high dudgeon at the indignity that his attempt at crime has just suffered. For an offensive enthusiasm can, on some occasions, function better than anything else to vanquish our would-be assailants; and it is, in the main, a funnier prospect than the other option.

And this, it turns out, is the principle behind that quintessentially British humour that seems never to outgrow what, in other cultures, remains a largely teenage phenomenon: delight, almost hysteria, at references to sex. Take Bridget Jones: a "loose" remake of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, both in the sense of bearing an only shadowy resemblance to the earlier work, and in the sense that its greatest departure is probably constituted by the altogether less uptight antics of its characters and the generally indulgent attitude to sexual behaviour of the society it portrays. It is cut through and through with would-be humorous episodes and observations concerning, for the most part, something on the theme of sex: Bridget hasn't had any for a while; Bridget played naked in Darcy's paddling pool when young; Bridget is stared at in a deliberate manner by Mr. "Titspervert"; Bridget indulges in what is still an illegal sexual practice in Britain; Bridget's uncle, who is not her uncle, enjoys placing his hand on her behind; and so on it goes, involving not just Bridget, but all its characters, in what are intended to be funny conversations and situations of a softly sexual nature. And then, we remember Austen's Elizabeth, patently not given to engaging in any such conversations or situations, and thereby, in contrast with her modern-day counterpart, revealed to be altogether repressed.

So we might think. And so we would be very wrong. Austen's characters and their society certainly do seem to have had the most wonderfully complex ways of hiding from sex in all its forms - the fact that Pride and Prejudice's Lydia must, in preparation for her marriage but subequent to having already eloped, remain with her uncle rather than returning to her father's house is one very ordinary example of this - but Bridget and her lot are just the same. For the British association of sex with humour is the contemporary equivalent of what we now identify as the Victorian assocation of sex with sin. Bridget actually laughs in bed, while having sex, which is about as likely (arguably, far less likely) to contribute to the success of the occasion as her quoting from some religious treatise on the evils of what was about to happen (or, in this case, about, embarrassingly, not to happen). Bridget, with so many of her compatriots, is like our besieged but eccentric home owner, holding her fort, not by erecting a set of complex and stalwart defenses but by riding out to meet the enemy with an eager gusto that will dampen his spirits by too concentrated a dose of his own medicine. But wait. This suggests that the practice is a gendered one, the preserve of women when confronted with men. Not at all: it is the strategy of both British men and women, when confronted with sex, that is, with sex as intimacy, sex as skill, sex as complex adult relation, sex as highly-involved exchange, sex as anything other than the enthusiastic-aggressive mania that is sex as joke.

The Victorians tended strictly to conceal their legs (and those of the furniture on and at which they sat) to defend against thoughts of what lies between them (a very good device, we might think, to interestingly generate such thoughts); their descendents tend to demand a constant and almost total revealing of legs (the current fashion for wearing tights as if they constitute the complete clothing of the lower body is the concession made to winter by this demand), and every other body part, if possible all at one time and with great hilarity, which is a very good device, we must concede, to kill stone dead any interesting thought about what might lie between them. Sex may no longer be a sin, but it is more effectively forbidden by having becoming a great laugh.

No comments:

Post a Comment