Current Genres of Fate: Just Deserts

by Paul North

373212-the-three-stoogesIn the tale about the princess and the pea, the pea is more than a tiny little irritant, it is more than an interrupter of a good night's sleep. The pea is the enemy of desert. The princess doesn't deserve such bedding. She is someone who's deservingness is so thorough and so refined that it is an insult to her very being, this one tiny pea. We accept some things without question as what we deserve—shelter, food, human relationships. Some things we struggle to claim that we deserve—a voice in politics, hope for the future, freedom for self-determination. All this is trivial to this girl. The princess deserves all that of course, but as a princess she deserves even more: she deserves every single thing to her liking, down to the smallest pea.

This is obviously a comic situation. So let's talk about comedy for a minute. At first look ‘deservingness' doesn't seem like a fateful word and comedy has little to do with huge, sinister forces. Tragedy is the place for those. The tragic hero stands up against the gods and gets crushed. This is how ancient audiences learned the workings of fate. No matter how good or how noble the hero, forces beyond her were stronger than her will. Antigone wanted to bury her brother. She was caught in a clash of principles much bigger than she was, bigger even than the cause of her unburied brother. Her death was inescapable, and in a sense trivial. Mortals were not supposed to cry for Antigone so much as learn that the gods' law was the highest and had to be respected.

By mortal standards, Antigone doesn't deserve her fate—from this springs its tragic character. Still, we don't usually talk about tragic fate as a matter of desert. Fate is neutral. It is the way it is, the way it must be, irrespective of the worth of the participants. Mortals have a kind of horrible freedom to stumble into fate regardless of what they personally deserve. Aristotle does say that a tragic hero should be noble. Even this is not a matter of ‘desert,' however. It is only so that the hero looks like they have something to lose.

We're used to the idea that the core of tragedy is fate. We're less used to the form of fate in comedy. There is a neat inversion to see here. By any worldly logic, the fate of the tragic hero is undeserved, though by some higher logic it is unavoidable. In comedy, there is no higher logic at work. The comic hero gets just what she deserves, her just deserts. Good or bad, things come around again. She slips, she falls, the joke is on her, she wins the pot of gold or makes a home in the little house on the edge of the swamp, or gets carted off to jail. Or, the pea selects the princess and she gets soft bedding, not to mention the prince, for the rest of her days.

Whether the thing deserved is a happy life or a neat comeuppance, the fate idea is very strong in 20th century comedy. Look at the Three Stooges. Moe distributes justice equally among his fellow stooges. The others don't stint on reprisals either. The smallest goof, slight, rudeness, or incongruity merits a slap. Slap, slap—all deserved—slap: desert fills every corner of every room across 25 years of film shorts. And it goes beyond these films. This is what “stooge” means. A stooge is merely one who gets what they deserve and deserves what they get, butt of a joke, but also, in social terms, a minion or a lackey. We think of a stooge just like we sometimes think of the lower classes, the poor, those somehow indentured, the disadvantaged. There is always a moment in which we consider them undeserving of anything better, and deserving what they get.

Classical tragedy may be the sphere of the high born, and comedy is pretty consistently the sphere of the low, the downtrodden, those with fewer chances or choices, without a whole lot of the freedom that makes tragedy make sense. Where we are stooges, there we have comedy with its tit for tat type of fate. This place is full of poetic justice, an eye for an eye, a slap for a slap. Take our very own Louis C. K. For all the small injustices of parenthood, he hands out the just deserts. He slaps his children, verbally only, but in public, slaps his friends, always with liberal and unapologetic slaps for himself. He is the epitome of comic justice. Every slap he deals to another means an extra slap for himself in recompense.

Some slaps his kids deserve. “Kids are like buckets of disease that live in your house.” “That's what being a parent is like. It's like Platoon.” Some slaps everyone deserves. “Now we live in an amazing, amazing world and it's wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.” Some slaps only he himself deserves. “I— finally, I have the body that I want, and that's a thing people really covet. It's a hard thing to achieve, and I did. And I'm going to tell you how to have exactly the body that you want. You just have to want a shitty body. That's all it is. You have to want your own shitty, ugly, disgusting body.” (Wikiquote)

The principle of deservingness is spelled out in another joke. “It seems like the better it gets, the more miserable people become. There's never a technological advancement where people think, “Wow, we can finally do this!” … And I think a lot of it has to do with advertising. Americans have it constantly drilled into our heads, every fucking day, that we deserve everything to be perfect all the time.” (Vanity Fair 2009). For thinking we deserve perfection, we actually deserve all of the shitty imperfections we have.

Louis C. K. and his comedy tap into the same view of the cosmos that Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp draw on. It is the view held by Hollywood in general, where every girl gets her boy, every starlet gets her oscar, and every villain his just deserts. These narrative platitudes draw on an old view of the cosmos—as old as tragedy and probably much older. The natural philosopher Empedocles proposed in the 5th century BCE that the cosmos was made up of two opposing forces that cycled in and out, pushed and pulled by one another. Strife pushed things apart, love pulled things together. Together they made up a sphere. Strife might be more prominent now, but love always comes back to have its day.

“And these things never cease continually changing places, at one time all uniting in one through Love, at another each borne in different directions by the repulsion of Strife.”

“But, inasmuch as they never cease changing their places continually, so far they are ever immovable as they go round the circle of existence.” (Burnett's translation of Empedocles fragment 17)

The idea of an unchangeable give and take in the universe allows us to hope—no, to expect that injustices will be righted, but it also explains that benefits are also fated to be taken away. Our bedding will be made soft, but there will always be another pea to complain about. The real difference in 20th century comedy is the idea of desert. The strict equality of good for bad and bad for good is inside us now. Something within Moe makes him deserve to be slapped back. Something within Louis C. K. makes it right for his sick daughter to cough in his face. He deserves it after what he says about her on television!

One difference between Empedocles and Louis C. K. is that the latter is funny. I mean to say that in contemporary comedy, comedy for the last hundred years or so, the comeuppance of comic fate is thought to be deserved, not just an automatic process of the universe, and so we don't cry and talk about our fate. We laugh and talk about what we deserve. There is something in the human being, essentially comic, something also essentially economical—an economedy—that makes us essentially deserving of what we get, good and bad. This undoubtedly draws on the same view of the cosmos, but it adds an important element. This pea is meant for the princess. The princess intrinsically merits her pea.

When we say: she finally got what she deserved, or when we wish for political change so that the deserving finally get their due—be it good jobs for the working class or low taxes for the filthy rich—we act on the same belief. We believe in comic fate. There is something in the universe that pays recompense, and there is a quantity of deservingness in us that lines up with the universal economy.

No doubt, this belief can be used to justify action as well as some serious inaction. What we could ask is whether this whole complex of belief in an intrinsic worth, in cosmic forces that interact with it, and in the comic relief that identifies it, is not in reality a defense against a new fact. For several years now, theoretical physicists have conceded that the universe is expanding and will not contract again. That is, the old economic movement of the universe, where strife and love eventually balance out, no longer holds. The alternative is indeed terrifying. General and endless entropy implies that the only fate is to have no set fate.