James Wood over-explains a joke in this otherwise very interesting excerpt from his book The Irresponsible Self: Humour and the Novel.
One London lunchtime many years ago, the late poet and editor Ian Hamilton was sitting at his usual table in the Soho pub, the Pillars of Hercules. This was where much of the business of Hamilton’s literary journal, The New Review, was conducted. It was sickeningly early – not to be at work, but to be at drink. A haggard poet entered, and Hamilton offered him a chair and a glass of something. “Oh no, I just can’t keep drinking,” said the weakened poet. “I must give it up. It’s doing terrible things to me. It’s not even giving me any pleasure any longer.” But Hamilton, narrowing his eyes, responded to this feebleness in a tone of weary stoicism, and said in a quiet, hard voice: “Well, none of us likes it.”
So why is this funny? There is comedy in the inversion of the usual idea that drinking is fun and voluntary. In Hamilton’s reply, drinking has become unpleasant but unavoidable, one of life’s burdens. The cynical stress on “likes” gives the reply a sense of weary dÃ©jÃ -vu: it sounds as if Hamilton is so obviously citing a truism that it is barely worth saying it aloud. It is always funny when singular novelty is passed off as general wisdom, especially when it is almost the opposite of the truth.
The joke simultaneously plays on the inversion of drinking as good fun while playing off the grim truth of alcoholism, which of course is indeed a state in which drinkers may not much like alcohol but cannot release themselves from it. Against those two worlds – the world of ordinary, pleasant, voluntary drinking, and involuntary alcoholic enslavement – Hamilton’s reply proposes a stoical tragi-comic world, populated by cheerful but stubborn drinkers doing their not very pleasant duty. The joke seems to me to open, in a moment, a picture at once funny and sad.
Link stolen from Rake’s Progress.