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  • Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism
  • Will Slocombe
Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, by John Marmysz . 209 pp. Albany: SUNY Press, 2003; $54.50 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Nihilism has become a (relatively) more popular theme in academia in recent years. Aside from the revival of standby texts such as Goudsblom's Nihilism and Culture and Rosen's Nihilism, there has been a glut of books in areas as diverse as economics (Ritzer's The Globalization of Nothing), theology (Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism), and theory (Clemen's The Romanticism of Contemporary Theory). John Marmysz's contribution, Laughing at Nothing, is a refreshing change inasmuch as he invites us to laugh at nihilism and, in effect, to laugh with him at much of the scholarly work on nihilism. Primarily philosophical in tone, Laughing at Nothing is an academic treatise on nihilism and humor, an exploration of contemporary American culture, and a plea for understanding in a hostile environment.

Marmysz is determined, as few others are, to see a positive potential in nihilism. Although he never uncovers a "positive" nihilism, he is willing to accept the idea that nihilism may be a valuable cultural concept. In his introduction, he stresses the fact that most critics of nihilism "underplay the constructive and positive role of nihilism in both individual and collective human history" (p. 10). This book attempts to undermine such trite interpretations of nihilism; evident from his observation that, "too often scholars proceed to draw conclusions about nihilism itself on the basis of philosophies that are, in fact, very poor models" (p. 11). This is an important point, and one to which I will return.

All exegeses on nihilism must include a history of the concept to orient the reader within the given intellectual milieu, and Marmysz's is no exception. Moving comfortably from late eighteenth-century debates between Friedrich Jacobi and Johann Fichte to contemporary theories by Michael Gillespie, Cornel West, Yukio Mishima, and Karen Carr, Laughing at Nothing guides the reader through the intricacies of the arguments in three brisk chapters without [End Page 449] ever sacrificing clarity. This is no mean feat given the task that Marmysz has taken upon himself: to summarize more than 200 years of history and avoid the pitfalls of saying that nihilism is an aspect of modernity is a significant achievement (and one for which I am grateful).

For most readers, however, the most important part of Laughing at Nothing will be Marmysz's own definition of nihilism, which is essentially thwarted idealism: "The full impact of the problem of nihilism strikes only when an individual passionately desires ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, but believes those things to be out of reach" (pp. 84-85). There are thus two elements to a nihilistic worldview: an idealized desire for a better world coupled with a belief that this can never be realized—"the real world is denigrated in comparison to the ideal, and the ideal is believed to be hopelessly out of reach" (p. 85). This, for Marmysz, is the basis of a "nihilistic incongruity," upon which the solution—humor—is founded.

After Marmysz's treatment of a history of nihilism, it is unsurprising that his discussion of humor is as accomplished, skilfully navigating theories of Kant, Freud, Bergson, and Morreall. Marmysz's treatment of "incongruous" humor is impressive, basing itself on the idea that "humor allows us to confront incongruities and, instead of being overwhelmed by them, to understand them in an unusual and original fashion" (p. 152). For this reason, humor creates "the capacity to make incongruities unthreatening and to interpret them in a manner that produces amusement" (p. 153). This is, of course, critical to avoid the potential problems of nihilistic incongruity. Through an analysis of jokes, and the application of different theories about humor, Marmysz demonstrates that the "solution" to nihilism is disarmingly simple: we must learn to laugh at ourselves. Marmysz writes: "Nihilism reminds us that humans are not gods, and that despite all our accomplishments and wonders of civilization, humans cannot alter the fact that they only possess a finite amount of mastery and control over their own destinies...


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