Harvie Krumpet was my introduction to the works of the Australian animator Adam Elliot and since then I have seen everything youtube has to offer and have just had the pleasure of seeing Mary and Max, which recently won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. There is a strangely warming nihilism in Elliot’s works. Bad things happen, good people suffer and we are more often than not lonely souls, but life goes on and we make the best of it while still finding some humour in the absurdity of it all. I’ve been asked a few times what I find so morbidly warming about these narratives.
While nihilism is generally seen as a crippling kind of despair, and indeed certainly can be, there is also a tradition of “merry nihilism”, seen in such classics as Tristram Shandy, and now is almost ubiquitous on television with The Simpsons and its many descendants. As part of this there is also a kind of touching nihilism. In Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist, a human raised by martians, finally understands why we laugh after watching a series of random and unfair acts perpetrated on monkeys by other monkeys in a zoo:
“I grok people. I am people… so now I can say it in people talk. I’ve found out why people laugh. They laugh because it hurts so much… because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”
“I had thought — I had been told — that a ‘funny’ thing is a thing of a goodness. It isn’t. Not ever is it funny to the person it happens to. Like that sheriff without his pants. The goodness is in the laughing itself. I grok it is a bravery . . . and a sharing… against pain and sorrow and defeat.”
Perhaps I have not yet given proper answer to those who think it a morbid fascination, but it certainly looks like the beginning of something more than a mere denial of the world in all its seeming randomness.
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