July 8, 2022
I ended The Productions of Time with laughter. Laughter is release of energy, the eruption skyward of what Shelley in Adonais called the burning fountain, of the energy that Blake called “eternal delight.” Laughter is the Resurrection and the apocalypse in their deep meaning, which is that something in us cannot die but insists on rising up again. James Joyce spent 17 years writing Finnegans Wake, one of the funniest books in the world even though it is one of the most difficult. He took its title from an Irish drinking song about a hod carrier, or construction worker, Tim Finnegan, who falls off a ladder and lies unconscious, taken for dead. But at his wake, a melee breaks out, and in the mayhem Tim is splashed with a wayward glass of whiskey—the substance of life, as the Clancy brothers say in introducing their version of the song. Tim promptly rises back up again to the repeated refrain "Lots of fun at Finnegan’s wake.”
Scientists and philosophers find laughter no laughing matter: no neurological or rational explanation for it is quite convincing. The Romantic essayist William Hazlitt defined man as the animal who laughs: no other animal does, unless, as I sometimes suspect, they do it when we’re not around. For a literary critic, laughter is an aspect of the theory of comedy. Criticism has been handicapped by fact that Aristotle’s theory of comedy, the counterpart of his hugely influential theory of tragedy in the Poetics, has been lost, although the plot of Umberto Eco’s medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose is that it has been rediscovered and somebody with no sense of humor is murdering people to get their hands on it. It seems clear, however, that laughter is the comic counterpart of tragic catharsis. Aristotle is supposed to be a structural critic, but in fact many of his central terms describe the effect of literary structures on the psyche, and catharsis is one of them, borrowed in fact from Greek medicine. A cathartic causes people to expel something, and tragedy, Aristotle says, raises, in order to dispel, the negative emotions of pity and terror. Catharsis is not confined to literature: we feel better after a good cry, when we have gotten the grief and mental poison out. Comedy also dispels negative emotions, but with a difference. Tragedy dispels them so that we may come to an acceptance of the laws of the universe and the limits of the human condition, a resignation to what has to be: “calm of mind, all passion spent,” in Milton’s famous phrase. Comedy is more radical and subversive. It dispels not only the negative feelings but the laws and limits themselves, or at least it revises and transvalues them. It is potentially revolutionary, which is why it is often distrusted.
We think of the imagination in terms of creation or recreation, but it has an equally important function that I call decreation. A lot of what passes for real is just passively accepted illusion or deliberate deception, much of it self-deception. The imagination needs to see through the lies, expose the con jobs, and sometimes drive the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip—one of my favorite stories about Jesus. Often, the housecleaning is internal. “Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth, a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual,” Blake said. Laughter is a cleansing agent, less violent than a whip, but ultimately more effective. The imagination decreates both the glamor and the fear of evil, the illusions that make it seem tempting, the appearances that make it seem too powerful to oppose, exposing it as ridiculous—as laughable. The dictators and the bullies love to make you feel angry or afraid: they love to trigger the libs because it increases their sense of power. What they cannot stand is to be laughed at—think of Donald Trump. That is why it is ultimate poetic justice that the utterly humorless Vladimir Putin—it is impossible to imagine Putin smiling, let alone laughing—is opposed by Zelensky the former comedian.
Yes, the dictators and the bullies have their armies and their guns—but why do they clutch their guns so desperately, so afraid that they will be taken away? Sometimes the feeling of power goes to their heads and convinces them that they are invincible, and then they go rogue: this clearly happened to Putin, and he, along with those who would be inspired to emulate him, needs to be taught otherwise, no matter what it takes. But the gun rights crowd in the United States, and the would-be fascists thugs like Ron Disantis and Greg Abbott, are largely relying on demoralizing their opponents into passivity and inaction. They won’t need to use those guns if the liberals and progressives just sit around moaning in helpless despair or squabbling with one another or trying to ignore it all and “get on with their lives,” hoping it will all go away, or at least leave them alone. I’m all for plans of action, but the first step is to beware of awfulizing, which simply paralyzes. Well intended as they are, I refuse to read one more article about “the end of democracy,” for fear of neurotically self-fulfilling prophecies. I would rather we replaced that slogan with another one: “My ass it is.” Or words to that effect. And then laugh.
Laughter has always been used to expose the pretensions of evil, to lift the mask from hypocrisy, and insofar as comedy uses laughter as a weapon it moves closer to satire. Satire cannot directly eliminate evil, but it demystifies it, and that in itself can be a game-changer. The prophets of the Old Testament for the most part went in for awfulizing, which is why much of their doom-saying is unreadable now, but Elijah, the greatest of them all, was something else: a wily old Trickster who called for a rain-making contest with the priests of Baal and used it to publicly humiliate his opponents (I Kings 18). As the priests desperately tried to make it rain, and failed, Elijah mocked them. Maybe Baal is asleep, or on extended vacation and not checking his messages, or maybe he is “making water,” in other words taking a bathroom break. Yahweh applauded the performance by sending a powerful rainstorm, which you can’t always count on, but it’s the upstart attitude that is important. In Greece, Old Comedy went in for direct attacks in the manner of Saturday Night Live: Aristophanes made fun of Cleon, the leader of the imperialistic war party, while Cleon was actually sitting in the audience. Satire was not limited to politics. Ben Jonson and Molière exposed con artists of various sorts in plays like Volpone, The Alchemist, and Tartuffe. They also exposed the absurdity of various neurotic obsessions supposed to be caused by “humors,” liquids in the human body that influenced temperament. A humor character is trapped in some kind of fixation, and has to be either de-programmed or removed as an obstacle to comedy’s happy ending. Jonson, Molière, Shakespeare, and Dickens all employ the “humor” technique of characterization: in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, for example, the main character is what we would call a hypochondriac. Some humor characters are traditional types, such as the sadistic schoolteacher, who appears in Dickens but also as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter. Humor types are long-enduring because human neuroses are long-enduring: I suspect J.K. Rowling is influenced by Dickens, but she also has said that she modeled Dolores Umbridge on someone she actually, unfortunately, knew.
Satire can be related to or even a form of social activism, but it is also a kind of therapy: whatever happens with the characters, the comic catharsis releases the audience from illusions and obsessions through decreative insight, and, at the point of liberation, we laugh. McMurphy, a red-haired Trickster, does therapy on the inmates of a mental hospital in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, getting them to see that the conviction that they are “sick” is a lie being fed to them by Big Nurse so that she can control them. Laughter can attack, but laughter can heal, and is the best possible medicine for real grief, not just neuroses. When Demeter loses her daughter Persephone, abducted by the lord of the underworld, she is inconsolable until she is treated by Baubo, the goddess of mirth. What is the treatment? Baubo flashes her—lifts her skirt and shows her parts. Demeter can’t help but laugh. At the end of one of my favorite novels in the whole world, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, the main character, Kevin, goes down to “pacific edge,” the place where the land meets the unknown ocean, and, in the novel’s final lines, thinks, “If only Ramona, if only Tom, if only the world, all in him at once, with the sharp stab of our unavoidable grief; and it seemed to him then that he was without a doubt the unhappiest person in the whole world. | And at that thought (thinking about it) he began to laugh.” Ramona is a lost love; Tom is a beloved grandfather killed in a freak accident—our unavoidable grief. And we laugh.
Unfortunately, evil can also use laughter as a weapon, which is what happens in bullying. We realize what a powerful weapon laughter is when it is directed against us: nothing hurts more than to be laughed at. The ridicule of certain marginalized groups of people by turning them into comic stereotypes turns humor into a mode of oppression. It is not that marginalized groups are off limits: in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel spent 25 years making us laugh about the foibles of members of the lesbian community. In fact, the laughter worked in the opposite direction, conveying the message, “They’re people, just like us” in an era when that was not universally recognized to say the least. Laughter can be inclusive: “Yeah, we’re all pretty silly, aren’t we?” That is not the same as humor that reduces members of that group or any other to demeaning stereotypes in what is really a covert form of hate language. The distinction does shade into ambiguity, however. It is easy enough to understand, for those who do not insist upon willfully misunderstanding, the difference between laughing at, say, the comic failures of an African-American person in love, because that is human—we have all made fools of ourselves that way—and reducing that person to a racist stereotype. There is no one who can claim not to know the vicious caricatures that were used to laugh callously at African-Americans, Jews, gay and lesbian people, handicapped people (“cripples”), and so on. But how far does sensitivity go? Possibly Shakespeare’s greatest comic character is Falstaff. But what do we laugh at when we laugh at Falstaff? The fact that he is fat, that he is a drunk, that he is a lecher. To make it worse, Falstaff himself invites the ridicule on all those counts, and makes himself the butt of countless jokes.
Should we say, “You should not make fun of people with weight problems, and alcoholics deserve sympathy and rehabilitation, not ridicule; lechery is no joke after #MeToo”? How far does sensitivity go? Decades ago, Randy Newman’s song “Short People” inspired a certain amount of controversy, notwithstanding that the opinions expressed were obviously not Newman’s but those of an idiot persona, because it expressed mock prejudice against short people—“Gotta pick ‘em up just to say hello.” I’m not sure whether Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” is still taught in literature classes: it used to be a staple of anthologies. In its future world, athletes are handicapped with weights so that they cannot humiliate average people by outperforming them. Brilliant people have to wear earbuds that blast a loud noise every few minutes to break their concentration so that they cannot humiliate the average plodders, and so on. So we don’t even have to say something insensitive about another person’s limitations: just being different from that person is an accusation. Too ridiculous to be plausible? Would that it were, but teachers are well aware that they have to work against the tendency of a class to resent high-performing students, accusing them of “showing off.” Where this line of thought ends is in a reductio ad absurdam: we should never laugh at anyone about anything because laughing at someone is a form of sadism, or, as we say these days, a microaggression.
When our line of reasoning has reached such an obvious dead end, all we can do is, well, laugh. Something has gone wrong. I cannot claim to have a way out of this impasse, but we might live with its complexities more humanely if we identify the root of the problem, which is an age-old distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law, which still applies even when the laws are unwritten social customs.
Here, as everywhere, the letter of the law killeth, the spirit of the law giveth life. When, for example, is someone’s clinical depression funny, as in Pixar’s Inside Out, and when is laughing at it cruel? There is no hard and fast line—hard and fast lines are what legalists want. There is only a rule of thumb, which is that something is kind or cruel according to the attitude with which it was intended. This is no perfect solution, because we may hurt someone unintentionally out of ignorance, but ignorance is better than malice, and can possibly be corrected.
The word “perfect” is exactly the point. We laugh at the imperfections of others and ourselves, which means we are laughing at the human condition. What matters is whether we laugh cruelly or sympathetically. And when we laugh compassionately at human imperfection, what the comic catharsis releases us from is the false ideal of perfection itself, which is not for the likes of us. As Polly Garter says in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, “Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?”—which sums up the theme of the entire play for voices. Polly should know: she is not “respectable,” and has a habit of getting pregnant, about which she is quite unapologetic. The decreative imagination that shines a light on our blunders and shortcomings may do so with a kind of fierce compassion, an oxymoronic state that Thomas Mann called erotic irony, and others maybe just tough love. Like Polly Garter, Falstaff is the embodiment—and I do mean embodiment—of unresisted impulse. Fat, drunk, and horny, he is the pleasure principle unbound. Prince Hal will have to exile him when he becomes Henry V, because Falstaff is a danger to the state, which depends on obedient repression and cannot afford to have Falstaff’s carpe diem attitude catch on. But Falstaff is the very spirit of comedy, whose motto is Blake’s “Enough! Or, too much!” Falstaff’s lack of impulse control is accurately recorded, along with the fact that it does not end well. The same is true of Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s tragedy about them: there is no place for the pleasure principle in the humorless world of power politics portrayed in the history plays and tragedies.
But in the comedies and romances, it goes differently. There, the decreative imagination passes over into its recreative other side. For, after all, isn’t laughter supposed to have something to do with happiness and high spirits? Comedies have happy endings, and the happiness is inclusive and welcoming. Shakespeare’s comic endings include all of the characters except the villains, who are decreated off the stage by exposure and ridicule, and what Frye calls the “refusers of festivities,” such as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, whose name means “ill will” and who storms off swearing revenge on the characters who have made fun of his humorless “puritanism.” Central to the inclusiveness is the power of love, and Shakespeare’s comedies and romances typically marry off half the cast in the fifth act, but when Mann speaks of “erotic irony,” he means more than just romantic love. Eros is the power of connection in all its forms, and Shakespeare’s later plays lay increasing emphasis on the mutual forgiveness that alone makes human connection possible. That could easily lead to a kind of mushy sentimentality, as it occasionally does in Dickens, so laughter works to keep the two sides of human life, the absurd and the ideal, in their proper roles as Blakean Contraries. Blake said, “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” and we need the trick of doing both at the same time.
Take the comic stereotype of slipping on a banana peel. It’s one of those dumb examples that has probably never actually happened in human history: still, people do fall down, if not on banana peels, and why is that potentially funny? When Jennifer Lawrence tripped on her own gown and fell on the stairs at the Academy Awards ceremony, the entire audience gasped with concern. But when President Ford fell descending airline stairs, because everyone knew he had not been hurt
comedian Chevy Chase was later able to turn it into an ongoing schtick on Saturday Night Live by falling down over and over again. It was a topical development of an old technique, for comedy begins on the physical level: I grew up to admire the intellectual wit of George Bernard Shaw, but what I loved as a kid was the silly slapstick of the Three Stooges, a successor to the brilliant slapstick of silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Ross. There is a short film of Chaplin’s tramp doing battle with an escalator, trying repeatedly to go down while the escalator is going up. After a fall, when someone asks, “Are you hurt?”, the stock response is, “Only my dignity.” That’s why falls are funny—the dignified façade of social decorum is suddenly subverted, and we look silly. That takes us back to Finnegan, whose fall is likened in Finnegans Wake to the fall of Humpty Dumpty—and the fall of man. There is an impulse to strike a pose: the noble yet fallen tragic hero. Comedy cuts human narcissism down to size: no, you’re not nobly fallen, you’re just scrambled. Moreover, the bigger they are, the harder they fall—and, influenced by Blake, Joyce identifies Finnegan with a fallen and unconscious God who is dreaming human history, which could certainly explain some things about human history.
So the comic catharsis is a release from dignity, which is a conformist social demand—the respectable people are always highly dignified. But, in the words of W.H. Auden, the blessed do not care what angle they are regarded from. The great slapstick comedians play innocent characters who do not have our self-conscious anxiety about decorum, but have become as little children, whom we envy for a spontaneity that cares nothing for dignity, even when it ends in the occasional face plant. We all fall down, figuratively. What the eiron has is what we might call a technique of relaxation, analogous to the ability of a slapstick comedian to fall without injury, relaxed and not tense, turning pratfalls into a kind of dance, a release of energy.
That is a physical version of what Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics describes as the character type of the eiron, or self-deprecator who does not put on airs. In comedy, as I mentioned in the last newsletter, the eiron is typically in conflict with the alazon, or boaster. The eiron pretends to be less than he is, while the alazon pretends to be more. But in comedy, Aristotle says, it is the eiron who wins the contest. The eiron is typically an underdog whose unprepossessing manner causes an arrogant alazon to underestimate him. That is part of a larger strategy of intelligent cunning rather than force.
But the self-deprecation is more than just disguise: it is a mental habit designed to avoid what depth psychologist C. G. Jung called inflation. Eiron figures deflate themselves rather than waiting to have an enemy do it for them. This is self-protective, but it is also self-therapeutic, like a vaccine inoculating against the inflation that is the great temptation of the will to power. It is like having your own internal court Fool or Jester, someone was licensed to mock the king and thus remind him of his fallibility when all the yes-men of the court are praising him because their jobs depend on it. The greatest of all such figures is King Lear’s Fool, and though Lear is a blustering, tyrannical megalomaniac who makes even Donald Trump look modest, his one redeeming trait is his love for his Fool. Those of us who grew up Catholic, or at least old style Catholic, were taught self-deprecation as a way of life: it was called “examination of conscience.” While it can get neurotically out of hand, it is a useful life skill.
There is a chapter in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, usually referred to as “Shem the Penman,” that is a hilarious version of the eiron/alazon contest in the form of a sibling rivalry between two brothers, modeled on the real-life contrast between James and his brother Stanislaus. It is one of the easiest parts of the Wake, and I recommend listening to it read with the appropriate gusto by the Irish actor Cyril Cusack. Shem and Shaun are Blakean Contraries. Shem is the artist, who writes his incomprehensible works on his own body; Shaun is adventurer and leader, even though most of his exploits are exaggerations or outright lies. Shem is cheerful, but irresponsible; Shaun is responsible but stern: elsewhere, they are likened to Aesop’s ant and grasshopper, becoming the “ondt” and the “gracehoper.”
The eiron’s self-deprecation attacks not only narcissism but self-pity. We admire those figures who can keep joking when the chips are down, perhaps even while they are dying. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio, expiring, says that tomorrow you shall find me a grave man. Mercutio’s name is apt: Mercury, or Hermes, is the
Greek Trickster god. Hamlet’s wit skewers all his slower-witted enemies, and is sometimes directed against himself. We are only uncomfortable when he turns it cruelly against the innocent Ophelia. It is not completely defensible, but Hamlet is angry at Ophelia for being too nice. She is the nice, compliant girl who always obeys her daddy—but she is an adult, and daddy is in league with a murderous king. She in fact goes along with a plot against Hamlet by being an informer, and “just following orders” is no excuse.
In The Productions of Time, following the lead of Northrop Frye in The Double Vision, I made a case for considering God as a Trickster, which is to say a comedian. Trying to justify the ways of the Christian God is simply a lost cause. Job calls out for a go’el, an advocate to defend him from a tormenting deity when he does not even know what the charges are against him. His circumstances were unique, but in fact we do not know the charges against us either. According to the doctrine of predestination, God gives or withholds his grace for inscrutable reasons, redeeming or damning individuals for reasons that the Divine Comedy says even the angels do not understand. Such a God is no defense against Satan, the Accuser, and his rigged system—such a God has set up the system. He is the system. Perhaps what we need is a God who does not play by the house rules, who cheats and may even overturn the board, but who does so in defense of the good people who have been oppressed for all of history by an authoritarian arrangement justified legally by the powers that be, secular and sacred.
We return at this point to our initial distinction between comedy and tragedy. Tragedy is an epiphany of the human condition subject to the laws and limits of the universe. Tragic catharsis dispels our fear and pity at the harshness of human destiny under tragic law, teaching a wise acceptance. It imposes a limit on the infinite energies of human aspiration, of the human imagination. In contrast, comic catharsis acts to release the energies pent up and repressed, sometimes by
the corruption or misapplication of the law, but sometimes by the law, the system, the structures of power themselves. More conservative comedy and satire decreate social injustice and personal neurosis by seeing through them, exposing the illusions they are based upon. But more radical satire decreates what is sometimes called consensus reality, sometimes just “ordinary experience” or “common sense,” showing it as arbitrary and not inevitable. “For,” as Frye says in Anatomy of Criticism, “common sense too has certain implied dogmas, notably that the data of sense experience are reliable and consistent, and that our customary associations with things form a solid basis for interpreting the present and predicting the future. The satirist cannot explore all the possibilities of his form without seeing what happens if he questions these assumptions” (219, 234). That exploration, in the most daring satirists, culminates in the end of the world, an apocalypse, but this time one with a sense of humor instead of the dreary, vindictive paranoia of the Book of Revelation and other apocalyptic scriptures, which could prompt only the nihilistic laughter of Batman’s Joker:
In the riotous chaos of Rabelais, Petronius, and Apuleius satire plunges through to its final victory of common sense. When we have finished with their weirdly logical fantasies of debauch, dream, and delirium we wake up wondering if Paracelsus’ suggestion is right that the things seen in delirium are really there, like stars in daytime, and invisible for the same reason….The Satyricon is a torn fragment from what seems like a history of some monstrous Atlantean race that vanished in the sea, still drunk (219, 235-36).
To that list we can add Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Goethe’s Faust, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and, in our time, the satires of Thomas Pynchon. It is this tradition of visionary laughter to which I feel most akin. The great Renaissance humanist Erasmus wrote a treatise called In Praise of Folly (1509) that amounts to the charter of this tradition. Another great Renaissance visionary, Nicholas of Cusa, wrote Of Learned Ignorance (1440), whose theme is that human knowledge reaches its limit in a paradoxical vision of coincidentia oppositorum. A coinciding of opposites may sound like an abstract philosophical proposition, but the personal motto of a third great Renaissance humanist visionary, Giordano Bruno, who is alluded to by Joyce throughout Finnegans Wake, sums up its implication for the life we lead: In tristitia hilaris, in hilaritate tristis. Which is to say, In sadness, hilarity; in hilarity, sadness. Or: Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God? In a conversation, Nicholas, Bruno, and Polly Garter would have understood one another very well.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Edited by Robert D. Denham. Volume 22 of The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press, 2006. Originally published by Princeton University Press, 1957. Page numbers refer to the Collected Works version and the Princeton version respectively.