In John Fowles’s novel, Daniel Martin (Triad Grafton, 1978), there is a wonderfully revealing passage as far as humourless politicians are concerned – the type that justifiably comprises the butt of comedians’ jokes. Dan and Jane (an old friend and one-time lover who accompanies him on a work-related trip to Egypt) are at a dinner-party given by their Egyptian host, Assad, and a self-taught raconteur called Sabry engages in an impromptu cabaret act, at the cost of Egyptian politicians such as Nasser and Sadat. As Dan listens to Sabry’s scathing, mesmerising humour, it is as if he has a kind of epiphany regarding a certain type of politician (p. 499):

“He suddenly saw the political establishments of the world as a conspiracy of the humourless against laughter, a tyranny of stupidity over intelligence; man as a product of history, not of his true inner, personal nature. He might, if he had browsed further in the book he had picked up in Jane’s drawing-room at Oxford, have seen that Gramsci had once said almost exactly the same thing, though he had derived his proof of it from the failure of mankind to make socialism universal. Dan saw it much more in existential terms, a universal failure of personal authenticity, faith in one’s own inner feelings.

“He wondered if Jane felt the same – probably not, she would regard it as elitist to dismiss the great bulk of mankind, both rulers and ruled, as stupid and brainwashed. But Dan, with his usual fatalism, from his favourite stance of outside observer, saw privilege as something evolutionary and pre-ordained. One was condemned without choice to enjoying such experiences, to having knowledge of the world, to valuing wit and use of language because one was genetically, and by hazard of birth and career, endowed with the faculties to appreciate them. He felt he understood the bitterness and blankness of the Keaton-like masks Sabry kept assuming; they were not merely a part of his act, but a knowledge that it was fundamentally futile, a selling to the already sold. The real clowns of the world, he seemed to be saying, were those in power – and who would remain in power.

“…Actors very rarely impressed Dan, and perhaps comic actors least of all; but this one touched some deep affinity, an angry despair that he rarely admitted was also inside him.”

When I read the last sentence quoted above I suddenly realised that, like the eponymous Dan, I was also subject to “an angry [if mostly unconscious] despair” at the sight, as it were, of the extant world being ruled by ‘clowns’, and perhaps even more because of the knowledge that the vast majority of people incomprehensibly support these ‘clowns’ – if not actively, like those constantly defending Donald Trump against his detractors, or closer to home, those defending Jacob Zuma, who has proved to be probably the biggest liability (morally, politically, financially) this country has had since the advent of democracy, then passively, by saying or doing nothing.

One could go further afield and list the names of the ex-president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who would still have been in that position if he had not been removed, and those of the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, both of whom cling to power with a grotesque clownishness in the face of signs in their own countries that they are not welcome in that position – signs they either ignore, suppress or react to with violent impudence.

If one is at all sensitive to the lessons one learns in life regarding different kinds of personalities, one usually learns quite soon that individuals who do not show any signs of having a sense of humour are best not accepted as friends. This does not mean, of course, that people with an all-too-obvious sense of humour are always to be trusted or revered; some may in fact hide their more nefarious intentions behind a show – sincere or not – of humour; Jacob Zuma’s notorious little ‘heh-heh-heh’ in Parliament comes to mind. But it is more the humourless that should instill distrust, if not dread, in one, particularly when they are in positions of political ‘authority’, as Fowles intimates in the passage quoted above.

Take Donald Trump as an example. When CNN’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed ex-FBI director James Comey on his forthcoming book (A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership), recently (see Chris Cillizza’s analysis), he questioned Comey on his observation concerning the lack of laughter on the part of Trump:

“STEPHANOPOULOS: You notice something else — during that dinner. You say the President didn’t laugh.

“COMEY: Yeah, not at all. And I was struck by it. So struck by it, it stayed with me, that I’ve never seen him laugh. Not in public, not in private. And at a dinner with someone — I mean, I’m not a comedian but I occasionally say something that’s funny that people chuckle with each other.

“But I never saw anything that resembled a laugh. And I could over-interpret that, I could be — also, we’re missing something that — that maybe he’s — he’s breaking up in stitches with other people other than the FBI director, but I also tried — after I got fired, I thought — that stayed with me. And so I went and tried to find examples of videos where he’s laughing and I could only find that really wasn’t a genuine laugh.”

Cillizza then proceeds to look for examples that would refute Comey’s claims, and finds one where Trump actually laughs out loud at a joke about Hillary Clinton from the crowd during a political meeting in New Hampshire in 2016. Despite this instance of Trump laughing, Cillizza – in light of the rest of his research – concludes, however, that Trump is not someone who laughs much himself, although he is constantly joking with audiences, apparently in an effort to make them laugh. He concludes his article like this: “So, a joke about Hillary Clinton as a dog is the one documented time on the web where Trump laughs. Which, I guess, proves Comey wrong. But doesn’t make Trump look good — or particularly jocular.”

One is therefore dealing here with a humourlessness that does seem to allow for the odd exception, while the general humourless tendency prevails. And I, for one, believe that Comey is right in finding something disconcerting, if not downright sinister, about Trump’s predominant inability to laugh, especially at himself; it is telling that the one exception Cillizza could find involved his arch-enemy, Hillary Clinton.

The philosophically interesting question raised by Fowles in the passage quoted from his novel is this (one that Milan Kundera also pursues in various oblique ways in his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting): what is the link between lack of humour, or laughter, on the part of (some) individuals in positions of power, and the fact that they possess power, especially great power? As a tentative answer I would suggest that it has to do with a person’s awareness, and acceptance, of their own finitude and fallibility as human beings.

Those who do not easily accept such ‘human-all-too-human’ limits to their power, I would think, are the ones who do not laugh easily, simply because they desire their power to be as close to absolute as possible. Absolute power is impossible, humanly speaking, of course, and individuals who know this should not find it difficult to laugh at themselves, their foibles and limitations, even if they hold positions that impart to them great power by virtue of what these positions allow them to do.

Was it Spiderman who said “With great power comes great responsibility”? If I’m remembering correctly, then perhaps one should add: “Those in positions of power should cultivate a sense of humour”. In older civilisations, this was probably why kings and queens had ‘court jesters’, who could get away with murder, as it were, cracking satirical jokes at the cost of royalty, that other people – not protected by the position of being the jester – could never utter with impunity in front of monarchs, on pain of being dispatched forthwith.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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