The only way I can aptly describe Maira Kalman’s humor in The Principles of Uncertainty is overwhelmingly existentialist. As the paradoxical title may suggest, this is a book about navigating a life and world of inconsistency and incongruity. What I found to be distinctive about this book was that Kalman’s humor needed no target, except perhaps the variable and sometimes unfair nature of life itself. Kalman illustrates (both figuratively and literally) how funny our little daily rituals are in the big picture of things. The stream-of-consciousness that is transcribed here is clearly very intelligent as well as simultaneously naively optimistic and hopelessly jaded.
Within this humor is mixed a sort of dread that I don’t think we’ve seen from any previous authors; Kalman ask rhetorical questions that had me personally reevaluating my entire existence. One passage which really made me pause for a moment was when she asked, “What can I tell you? The realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief—isn’t that the central premise of everything” ? These are thoughts we’ve all had, but not ones we necessarily discuss very often because of their immobilizing gravity. Kalman continues on to say she looks for ‘meaningful distraction’ to occupy her thoughts and time. This concept of ‘meaningful distraction,’ seems to be yet another paradox; if it is something that distracts from the truth of a transient situation, how can it be meaningful? In this response, she suggests that the only way to cope with the eventual futility of life is to amuse oneself in some manner—this diversion could be through art, literature, even just sitting and eating.
In many ways, this book made me recontextualize the functions of humor that we have discussed in class. Although Kalman clearly does utilize humor and a sense of lightheartedness in Principles in order to broach subjects that would otherwise be difficult to discuss, these subjects and circumstances are not ones she desires to change (or even has the ability to change). We have observed a similar sense of defeatism in certain authors (Voltaire comes to mind), but most of their work focuses on social inequities. Kalman, in contrast, takes on the subject of the great and terrible human experience itself. There is an almost philosophical musing in her work that supersedes the iterations of the banes of humanity and instead gets to the heart of the flaws themselves.
I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post, but Kalman’s book reminded me again of my own personal uncertainty about the future. It’s an interesting point to reach in your life when you realize that there isn’t this great defining moment of ‘adulthood,’ when you think your whole existence falls into place. Life isn’t a series of steps (or principles) that should be followed in order to reach some ultimate goal of self-realization, but instead an experimental process. Little activities or distractions may seem meaningless in comparison to large life events, but in reality, they construct much of our experience. Kalman counters the idea that life can ever really be explained in a way that is unthreatening for readers because of the way it is presented to them (both visually and tonally). A specific section that I found especially poignant comes to mind, when she says:
“We could speak about the meaning of life vis-à-vis non-consequential/deontological theories, apodictic transformation schemata, the incoherence of exemplification, metaphysical realism, Cartesian interactive dualism, revised non reductive dualism, postmodernist grammatology and dicey dichotomies. But we would still be left with Nietzsche’s preposterous mustache…” .
I thought this was great and indicative of Kalman’s style in the way that it sweepingly dismissed all the great intellectual theories of our existence with a quip about some facial hair. She seems to challenge our measure or scale of significance by paralleling the lofty ideas with such an amusing concrete image, as her writing also does with the accompanying pictures.