»Events»The dead pan: Nathanael West’s unfunny jokes and modernist anti‐sentimentalism
The dead pan: Nathanael West’s unfunny jokes and modernist anti‐sentimentalism
Though Nathanael West’s novels are often read in terms of an ancient and revered
mode of misanthropic humour—satire—in this paper I want to draw on recent work
that seeks to situate his work in relation to distinctly modern comic modes—slapstick,
burlesque, black humour, and especially, dead pan. In Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), we
read of the constantly‐joking newspaper editor Shrike:
Although his gestures were elaborate, his face was blank. He practiced a trick much
used by moving‐picture comedians—the dead pan. No matter how fantastic or
excited his speech, he never changed his expression. Under the shining white globe
of his brow, his features huddled together in a dead, gray triangle.
Drawing on Michael North’s Machine‐Age Comedy, and recent readings of West by
Jonathan Greenberg and Justus Nieland, I want to draw out the inhuman aspects of
West’s anti‐sentimental modernist comedy. In particular, where for other modernists
the mechanical aspects of human behaviour are a source of comedy, and laughter
itself the most mechanical of human behaviours, West’s ‘strange and unfunny jokes’
(as he called them) depict these human mechanisms of collective emotion in
breakdown, pulling out the rug of sensus communis on which satirical humour
traditionally rests. The result is a comedy which may not, in fact, be funny.
Russell Smith is a Lecturer in English in SLLL. This paper will be presented later this
month at the annual conference of the Australasian Modernist Studies Network on the
theme of Modernist Comedy and Humour.