A 2001 Bosnian film, “No Man’s Land,” directed by Danis Tanović, opens in a fog. We see a few men emerging through the fog, their faces and bodies becoming more recognizable. It isn’t immediately clear what they’re doing and where they’re going, but as the film unfolds, we realize that these men are in the middle of the Bosnian war of the 1990s. The fog that enshrouds them is yet another obstacle in their effort to avoid the Serb enemy territory.
As they are in perpetual danger of being captured and killed, it would have been easy to lose the hope of surviving. To pass the time and to minimize the fear of uncertainty, one of the men starts to tell a joke.
“Do you know what the difference is between a pessimist and an optimist?”
“What?” says another man, clearly unamused with the direction this joke may be going.
“A pessimist says, ‘It couldn’t have been worse.’ An optimist says, ‘It could, it could.’”
“No Man’s Land” is filled with moments like these that create a juxtaposition between comedy and tragedy. To be sure, evil exists and is recognized, as is the genocide that happened in the middle of Europe, but Tanović brilliantly straddles the line between optimism and pessimism. What reigns supreme is the sheer absurdity of the situation, and the humor that is often the companion of tragedy. (There are many more examples of this, not only in Bosnian cinema and literature, but also in Czech and Polish culture, as well as Hungarian).
Today’s uncertainties brought on by COVID ideology and authoritarianism hardly qualify as war but the anxiety, fear, and alienation that have become part of our daily reality have created a sense of hopelessness for too many people. The stage of this “Theater of the Absurd” is always filled with the same actors who play the same characters. Just as we think that the curtain will close, and the show will end, the theater director shouts, “The show must go on!” We’re held prisoners in a run-down theater, with a leaky roof, and torn, red velvet seats, wearing masks and “waiting for Godot,” or God knows what.
Without a doubt, serious political issues are playing out at the moment. Vaccine mandates, lockdowns and protests (especially in Australia), “vaccine passports” that are clearly creating a social caste system, in which freedom is only for those who “deserve” it, job loss, and the general downward-trending economy. None of this should be denied—in fact, we should do our best to fight this chaos.
But not all fights need to be only political. We have to ask ourselves what our outlook toward life is during such times of absurdity. Nihilism should never be an option because it essentially represents a “culture of death.” The same applies to despair because it extinguishes the last speck of hope, and proves to be the purveyor of passivity and neutrality. Yet optimism in these conditions can feel false or hollow; even naïve and self-deceptive. The answer, then, may lie in honest optimism.
Suffering is something none of us can avoid and some of us have had to endure more than others. I’ve had my frustrations and complaints about my life, especially during the war, living in a refugee camp for almost four years, and the first few years in America (which were, in many ways, harder than the war and being a refugee combined). But somehow, it never occurred to me to despair. I had many moments of sorrow and even emptiness, where I’ve only seen the bleakness of existence, but I never felt that there was no exit, or that the only option would be the final exit from life. What accounts for this? I think it is this honest optimism, or something I call “Slavic joy.”
This concept of honest optimism and comedic absurdity may not be so foreign to Americans as we think. We see it especially in examples of American Southern literature, which deal with the heavy burdens of personal and collective history. Writing about her 1952 novel, Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor remarked that “ . . . all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.” O’Connor’s fiction is most certainly imbued with the spirit of absurdity. In Wise Blood alone, the main protagonist, Hazel Motes, decides to preach “the Church without Christ.”
Novelist Walker Percy, who had an affinity for Russian existentialism, also knew a thing or two about the dangers of despair. Suicide was part of his family history, and Percy always saw that darkness on the horizon. And yet, he too understood the importance of dark comedy in his life and work. In a 1977 piece in Esquire, Percy implied that at the center of life is humility. With humility comes humor in the midst of darkness. He said that once you realize there is
nothing dumber than a grown man sitting down and making up a story . . . that all is vanity sure enough, there are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide. . . . If one opts for the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time. One is not dead! One is alive! One is free! . . . One feels, What the hell, here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. . .
then the possibilities open to one are infinite.
President Abraham Lincoln was known for his humor, especially during the difficult times of the Civil War. When asked by many how he could be funny during such a dark period in American history, Lincoln replied, “I laugh because I must not cry.” He was possessed of an inherent understanding that laughter was not only good for the soul but that the life of the soul depended on it.
On one occasion, Lincoln was visited by the temperance committee, who asked him to fire general Grant because of his excessive drinking. To this Lincoln said, “Well, I wish some of you would tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to every one of my other generals.” We certainly see from Lincoln’s character that there is an element of great wisdom in humor. He understood there is a difference between an ethical man and a moralist.
It is true that very often things don’t get resolved neatly or, even, at all, and at times it may seem there are not even lessons to be learned (I know of many cases in which people survived the Bosnian war only to later die in a car accident). But as we go through this thing called life, often marked by ridiculous existential landmarks, seeing humor in serious situations is one of its most significant and fully human aspects. If we don’t laugh, we can’t see beauty, either. If we can’t see beauty, then we can’t recognize the dignity of human life. Laughter and comedy represent the inner freedom that we all have, and that no totalitarian regime can touch and stain.