Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"The Gods Too Are Fond of a Joke"?

"Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."

I have been remiss in writing for this blog lately, though not, I hasten to add, remiss in writing in general. Indeed, my general excess of activity in that area probably has something to do with my slacking here. Why spend the (little and it seems eternally shrinking) time I have to write in writing essays when song lyrics and snappy bits of dialogue are popping in and out the rabbit holes of the head? Why worry about the nature and destiny of man when the obvious problem at the moment is finding the right rhyme for "changes"?

It would be nice to be able to say that it was Easter which introduced this frivolous mood. Then at least I would have something powerful to blame it on. Unfortunately and inappropriately, it kicked in sometime during Lent; and with the exception of a few relapses I have been living with the effects ever since. After considerable shillyshallying, however, I recalled that my intention before Easter had been to write on the levity of God—hardly a topic on a par with those tricky feminine blended rhymes, but at the same time not one of the headache-inducing forays into natural law, good taste, bad manners, or low politics to which I have an ineradicable addiction.

That's a funny thing, come to think of it. What could be more serious than the nature of God? If you believe in a transcendent God, who has a distinct "personality" (or three)—if you are not a pantheist—and you grasp even the basics about him (almighty, eternal, creator), then the two natural and immediate reactions are awe and curiosity. What could be more terrifying than the idea that you are entirely dependent upon this Thing of which you know very little? And what could be more important to you than getting to know It better?

But while theology and philosophy may propose and adopt in an awestruck humility in investigating those questions which are after all the greatest ever asked, I suspect theologians and philosophers don't personally feel the need to walk on tiptoe about the divine. No less a person than St. Thomas Aquinas has been known to crack a joke, and about that most serious of all questions, the existence of God itself. Aquinas begins the article on God's existence by posing two possible objections to it. (For the record, the objections Aquinas offers are remarkably modern ones: the problem of evil/pain, and the problem of superfluity—i.e., that scientific descriptions of the natural world sufficiently explain its existence. Evolution, anyone?) Then for his Sed Contra he offers the following:

On the contrary, it is said in the person of God: "I am Who am." (Exodus 3:14)

Pertinence uttered with impertinent forthrightness—that's the essence of wit.

Sometimes people see this tendency to laugh about the things one holds most dear as a form of contempt. I cannot think they are right. They are confusing laughing at something, which can indeed be an act of contempt, with laughing about something—laughter, as it were, in the neighborhood of a subject. As with laughter in the neighborhood of a person, we are most apt to indulge when we are near what we love best and trust most. Once, in the midst of her suffering, St. Theresa of Avila is supposed to have told Our Lord that "If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!" Only a very affectionate person talks to her friends like that.

Obviously I do not subscribe to the superiority theory of humor; it may apply to a few sad souls, but I cannot imagine that even most of those few who indulge in it find it really pleasurable. Jane Austen's Mr. Bennet may make us laugh—but don't tell me that he's happy in his domestic derangements.

What, then, makes humor so funny? makes humor—well, humor? Aristotle implies in his Rhetoric that a key ingredient to humor is surprise, or an incongruity that fits the facts; it is a theory that still has a great many followers today. Less pleasantly, in his Poetics, Aristotle calls humor (also translated as "the ludicrous" or "the ridiculous") "a species of the ugly" (also translated as "disproportionate"). There are many ways to read this comment—many ways in part because the word species has multiple senses. We tend to read Aristotle's remark in a negative way—he's calling humor ugly—but this is like calling man an animal because man is a kind of animal. Undeniable enough, but hardly the whole story.

Men are certainly animals; but the unique form that makes them identifiable as men has so transformed them that to call a man an animal in casual conversation is usually an insult. To call him an animal in philosophical conversation is usually a mistake. One is sure of the insult and the mistake whenever the speaker (usually foaming at the mouth, for some reason) appends the phrase "nothing but" before the noun in question.

When we merely repeat that humor is ugly, we run the risk of coming to think it is nothing but ugliness. We come to regard laughter as nothing but a misanthropic exercise of power over our fellow human beings, some of whom are after all rather ugly sorts. But the form of Humor transforms the ugly matter just as truly and as hugely as the form of Man transforms the animal matter. It makes something low delightful—makes it not only happen to be delightful, but makes it so that it should be delightful. We should honor men because they have souls; we should laugh and love to laugh when something ugly becomes humorous—that is, when we are surprised by the truth inside it. Truth, like the work of a painter with a lifelike hand, is always beautiful, whatever it has to portray.

This joy that comes from grasping the truth inside the ugly depends partly on that element of surprise mentioned before. Humor is possible because of a double disproportion: a disproportion within the object of our laughter, and a disproportion between reality and our knowledge of it.

We human beings are fascinated by doubling, by the way. Look at any piece of art—music ("Twice is genius"), architecture (why are most buildings' right and left sides mirrored?), literature (couples and pairs of couples abound—particularly when it comes to romance—look at War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, Le Nozze di Figaro, and almost any of Shakespeare's comedies, to name just a few).

This great appetite for doubling accounts in part, I think, for the beauty of self-referential—which is almost by definition self-deprecating—humor. If I say, paraphrasing GKC, that the devils fell because they took themselves with too much gravity, it may be amusing. If I say so in a context that suggests that I am applying the reference to myself—then it becomes hilarious. The doubling comes closer to home; the application of the humor is right here, in the one telling the joke; the abstract is made particular. This is the gist and the glory of creation itself: that in particulars the Universal is manifest. The reflection of the abstract truth in me is itself a sign and a reflection of the general truth that God is reflected in all things. Self-deprecating humor is that form of sub-creation which most directly acknowledges the sub- of sub-creativity.

Which brings us to the problem of the humor of God. Chesterton said of Jesus that he had

[a] pathos [that] was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

Splendid rhetoric, as ever, Mr. Chesterton; and I would like very much to believe it—but can this be? For if mirth, humor, laughter depend on suspense, on surprise, on coming to see some hidden truth that had escaped the laugher before, then it seems that an all-knowing God could never be mirthful. Even the divine atmosphere, so to speak, seems wrong for laughter: laughter is an expression of the exaltavit humiles and as such feels inappropriate coming from God.

One possible way to address this would be to take up the stick of the hypostatic union and to say that just as Jesus could somehow learn as a man while He knew everything as God, so he could be surprised by a pun or a punchline. Laughter would be possible—for the Second Person of the Trinity, at any rate—just as, for Him, the Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani was possible.

But this strikes me as justifying the obscure by means of the even more so; and there is another way out. In the Metaphysics (Book II) Aristotle says that "a thing has a quality in a higher degree than other things if in virtue of it the similar quality belongs to the other things as well (e.g. fire is the hottest of things; for it is the cause of the heat of all other things)." It is this very principle that St. Thomas takes up in his fourth way of proving the existence of God; the God of the fourth way is the God who epitomizes all the desirable things and qualities of in creation—the best of all good things, the wisest of all wise things, and—the funniest of all funny things? Not "mirthful", or filled with mirth, but the fountain of mirth?

Chesterton loved to make distinctions between men who could write poetry and men who were poems; in the same vein, everyone understands the difference between a man who tells good jokes and a man who is a good joke. The later state may be one of deficiency—it is also far more common than the former—I venture to say, almost universal. All human beings are jokes on some level. But the former state—the state of being a man who tells good jokes—is that really a deficiency? It depends on a deficiency in another; but is it a deficiency in itself? Doesn't the person who knows what it takes to make a good joke really have the best sense of humor? When we tell a joke—no matter how many times we may have told it before, no matter how many certain we may be of the punchline and the reaction the punchline will provoke—don't we often laugh? Our laughter is different, perhaps, than the laughter of the person who hears the joke—it's like the difference between discovering a treasure, or receiving a gift, and seeing one's treasure or gift being found. It's like the difference, one might even say, between being a man and being God.

I once told a friend that my idea of heaven was that we would be constantly finding out more and more about all the things we really wanted to know on earth, and how they relate to divine goodness. It would be a rest and a travel at once ("they have ever rest upon their round"?): a rest, because we would spend all eternity with the same Persons, in perfect security—what Augustine calls "peace"—but a travel because we would never know them fully. We would be filled, and overflowing, and constantly replenished with the knowledge for which we had thirsted and suffered for here; and we would know no fears of coming to the end of the knowledge—of being, God help us, "bored"—because we had found at last, not all the answers (heaven forbid!), but the Answer itself, the Cause which concludes the "Because . . ." which is the response to our "Why?"

At least, I tried to say something like that to my friend. I'm afraid it was even less coherent than the above.

But I have another idea of heaven now—not one that replaces the picture above, but one that builds on it. Any particularization of a general description, of course, automatically stands the risk of including still more inaccuracies than the generalization did. When heaven is the subject, those inaccuracies will border the ridiculous and beyond. Bear with me with that caveat in mind. My idea is that, after the initial terrifying ceremonies of purification and induction are over, when God sits me trembling down for that first conversation, He won't be serious. He'll probably start with something like "Did you hear the one about the Rabbi, the Imam, and the minister who . . . ?"

And the enlightening conversation will proceed on into the depths of the most serious and knotty problems of ethics and philosophy . . . laughing all the way.

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