And it goes hand in hand with self-righteousness, poverty of imagination, militant meddlesomeness and what A.J. Liebling called “the blarneying capacity” (aka bullshit). It’s also a handy litmus test of mental health. Humorlessness is an equal-opportunity scourge, no respecter of age, sex, race or education. Outside of my family, the first pathologically humorless person I knew was a junior-high classmate obsessed with Bela Lugosi who once bit my brother on the neck, knew all the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof and wasn’t shy about launching into “If I Were a Rich Man.” Some years ago he lost his license to practice psychology in the State of Ohio.
The sentence at the top is Terry Teachout’s, from “Clubbabilty,” a 2004 post he reposted this week. When I hit the phrase “belief-related monomania,” I thought first of a female communist of my acquaintance, and then of another woman, a dedicated Green, who scolded me for using a paper plate at a picnic and then for throwing it, smeared with potato salad, into a trash can. Both inhabit a dichromatic universe, neither recognizes ambiguity or nuance, and each is a psychic vampire feeding off the humanity of others. Terry concludes:
“All I can say for sure is that I've never been intimate with anyone lacking a sense of humor, or truly loved a work of art by a humorless artist. That might just be the most revealing thing about me.”
Think of the relentlessly humorless American writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, Dreiser, Pound, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Mailer, James and Faith Baldwin, and almost every recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction or poetry. Then think of L.E. Sissman, whose best poems, about the cancer that finally killed him, possess the fizziness and wit of Mozart. And think of Liebling, seated in his office at The New Yorker, laughing as he typed.