June 30th 2018

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LITERATURE AND CULTURE Christian humour through the ages: Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes

ECONOMICS Trump, China, the WTO and world trade

WHY BREXIT? A tight little island


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Christian humour through the ages: Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes

by Dr Stephen McInerney

News Weekly, June 30, 2018

In one of those statements of Chesterton’s that sound so over the top we can only assume it to be true, the great generalist claims that “the history of humour is simply the history of literature”, which is another way of saying (contrary to Tolstoy, who said “the happy man has no history”) that the history of humour is simply the history of Western man, since all of Chesterton’s examples are from European authors.

In the essay on humour from which the above line is taken – it first appeared as Chesterton’s entry on humour in the 1929 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica), he defines humour as “the sane sense of the incongruous”, which he calls “one of the highest qualities balancing the European spirit”. He illustrates his thesis with examples from Homer, Chaucer, Cervantes and Dickens, among others.

In this paper I want to take Chesterton’s thesis as read and explore how humour balances the European literary spirit, starting with Socrates and considering in turn the Bible, Dante, Chaucer and Cervantes, reflecting along the way on some apparently tangential issues, including Divine impassibility and the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of idioms in Christological language), in an attempt to discern the purposes of humour, both for literature and for the good life itself.

Socrates actually poses a challenge to Chesterton’s view of humour, just as he poses the most serious challenge thus far – centuries in advance of the fact – to Chesterton’s view of the value of fairytales, poetry and myths. His attitude to humour precisely reflects and flows from his attitude to poetry and myth.

Although Socrates acknowledges in The Laws that education begins with the muses – that is, with music, myth, poetry and song – and with gymnastics, which must precede any higher liberal arts and sciences, he notoriously banishes the poets from his ideal republic, no doubt in a moment of deliberate exaggeration to convince dullards of a truth we might otherwise miss: that the power of literature is real and is not to be trifled with. Socrates loves the poetry of Homer, knows much of it by heart and delights in quoting it throughout The Republic, so much so that he fears that Homer’s influence over his feelings will overwhelm his reason. His rejection of the poets reveals his profound attraction to the very thing he rejects. In Shakespeare’s saying, he doth protest too much.

Socrates acknowledges as much when he compares his passion for poetry to that of a lover who has fallen for someone he believes will ultimately harm him. In such a scenario, he says, the wise man tears himself away from his lover, and so it is that a young man seeking wisdom must tear himself away from all poets except those who compose hymns to the gods and the praises of noble men.

One of his main objections to poetry is that it frequently represents supposedly noble characters and gods doing very ignoble things. Achilles tears his hair out, pours ashes on his head and walks sulking along the beach instead of carrying out his duty as a warrior. Zeus gives in to his lustful desires for his sister-wife Hera and consequently loses control for a time over the events of the Trojan War, and supposedly reputable people elsewhere in the Greek canon are depicted “overcome with laughter”.

The only thing worse than seeing noble men overcome with laughter is seeing the gods themselves overcome with laughter, a phenomenon not unknown even in tragic poems like The Iliad, where the cripple-footed artificer god, Hephaestus, laments being made a figure of fun after being hauled off Mount Olympus to the drunken amusement of his fellow deities.

For Socrates, laughter is nevertheless an important psychological tool, if properly used. When we hear in The Iliad the account of Zeus lamenting the fate of Hector, or crying over the prospect of his own mortal son Sarpedon dying, the appropriate response is laughter not tears. God does not suffer the pangs of human emotions and so, for Socrates, the idea that God grieves ought to strike the ordered soul as ridiculous: it should be a cause of mirth instead of grief.

If, instead of weeping with Zeus, we laugh at the very idea of his weeping, such laughter would represent the triumph of our reason over our emotions and indicate that we have a rational view of the divine nature.

It might seem then that Socrates and Chesterton meet after all, because for Chesterton humour is simply a sane sense of the incongruous – and what could be more incongruous than seeing the divine nature compromised by human feelings and passions?

When Socrates rejects the idea of passions within the divine nature itself, he correctly anticipates the Fathers’ and St Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of divine impassibility. And yet … did not a God weep with Martha and Mary over the death of his friend Lazarus? And worse. Did not a God die on the Cross? St Paul says that preaching Christ crucified is not only a scandal to the Jews but also foolishness to the Greeks.

Socrates’ laughter at such folly could be heard centuries before the event; but he would, I think, have delighted to discover centuries after his own death that he had been both right and wrong about God (right when it comes to divine impassibility, and wrong in his belief that a God could not weep), and had a healthy laugh at himself in the process, at how little even he – the wisest of Greeks – knew about God.

According to St Thomas, the communicatio idiomatum made possible by the Incarnation of the Divine Logos means that whatever we say of Christ we can justly say of God, in the context of Christology anyway – and so we can speak of God’s blood and God’s mother without doing violence to the truth that God is pure spirit, and we can correctly say that God was born, wept, suffered and died. “What a thing were it then to see God die”, John Donne wonders – and, we might add, what a thing to say that God died.

But can we say that the Divine Logos laughed? St John Chrysostom doubted it, but Mel Gibson, in one of the more touching interludes in his movie masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ (2004), depicts Our Lord sharing a joke with Our Lady when he splashes her with water after a day of carpentry. The Scriptures, though, are silent on the matter.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge, who disputes the question with William of Baskerville, argues that laughter is sinful and calls attention to the fact that Our Lord is never depicted laughing in the New Testament. William, countering this argument, suggests that the Scriptures’ silence on the question cannot be taken as proof that Our Lord did not laugh. He asserts, moreover, that laughter is consistent with our reason, and since our reason comes from God, laughter is consistent with the will of God when it reflects our reason, for when “the false authority of an absurd proposition … offends reason, laughter can sometimes also be a suitable instrument” – an idea which, as we’ve seen, is already present in Plato’s Republic.

While the New Testament is silent on whether or not Our Lord laughed, the Old Testament is full of references to laugher. King David recalls the time when his people’s mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with joy. The suffering Job prays that God will fill his mouth with laughter, while Proverbs asserts more circumspectly: “Even in laughter the heart may ache”.

In the Christian era, St Benedict in his Rule cautions his monks against foolish words that lead to immoderate laughter (his words against foolishness echoing Socrates’ fear), yet Chesterton argues that humour is the great antidote to pride, and I suspect St Benedict would agree with this assessment.

Medieval Christian civilisation, according to Chesterton, had a strong sense of the humorously grotesque. He does not mention Dante in this connection, but Dante certainly saw the funny side of the grotesque, as well as the moral side. As the pilgrim Dante’s moral vision is gradually adjusted and purified by his experiences in Inferno, his responses to the sinners he encounters there radically shift. Whereas early in the work he weeps in the second circle of hell over Paolo and Francesca – those adulterous lovers whose story causes him to faint – later he takes a real delight in literally kicking heads and verbally abusing the damned.

Count Ugolino makes a meal of the skull
of Archbishop Ruggieri in hell.

One of the funniest moments in Inferno occurs in close proximity to the very nadir of hell, in the midst of heart-wrenching sorrow. In Canto 33 we hear the tale of Archbishop Ruggieri and Count Ugolino – how Ruggieri imprisoned his former partner in treachery and starved him to death along with his own sons; traitor turning on traitor. The canto begins with the grotesquely comical sight of Ugolino – who, Dante hints, may have eaten his own children to ward off starvation – feeding on the skull of his jailer, on the brains of the man who had deprived him of liberty, food, and life, in a supreme example of comic revenge.

The feeding Ugolino then looks up from his grim repast, mouth bloodied with gore, to talk to Dante, to whom he unfolds his grisly tale. The further into hell we descend, the more we are supposed to laugh at these sinners rather than pity them, for as the psalmist says, the Lord Himself laughs at the wicked. And as Virgil says to Dante elsewhere in the poem, such reactions are both good and proper.

Like Virgil, Socrates would have approved of Dante’s response, as he would of the sight of the worst of sinners – Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Caesar, and Judas, the betrayer of Christ – on whom Satan is chewing as their legs kick furiously like hanged men, in the cold bottom of hell.

But Dante doesn’t reserve his laughter for hardened sinners. He also laughs at himself through Beatrice, his guide through Paradiso. In the last stages of Purgatorio, where the two meet, Beatrice’s tone with Dante is severe as she rebukes him for having followed images of failing, earthly goods. In Paradiso, by contrast, her tone is more playful and mocking. She laughs at him in Canto 2, calling him a baby for his incomprehension, which is both mockery and compliment, illustrating that Dante has become as a little child in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And when in Canto 10 she is eclipsed by the Sun – where reside the souls of the wise – she smiles at the justness of her eclipse.

As the Kirkpatrick translation presents it: “brightness from the laughter in her eyes/shared out to many things [the] one whole mind” of the pilgrim-poet.

I realise I have shifted slightly from humour to laughter here, but laughter is an effect of humour, and clearly for Dante heaven induces a joy that comprehends humour, and therefore laughter. How does it differ from the laughter the reader experiences in Inferno? To use a colloquialism, it is the difference that spans the poles between laughing at someone, where the person being laughed at doesn’t see the funny side, and laughing with someone, even apparently at their expense, as when Beatrice playfully mocks the poet for his incomprehension.

One of the other great medieval poets – and the greatest of the English medieval poets – Geoffrey Chaucer, follows Dante’s example in the Canterbury Tales. Chesterton says of Chaucer that he was a humourist who understood “the quality of grandeur in a joke … whose broad outlook embraced the world as a whole, and saw even great humanity against a background of greater things”.

I have mentioned that Dante uses his own work of genius, the Commedia, to put himself down by laughing at himself through his characters. Chaucer follows suit. As Chesterton describes it, on the course of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, the poet himself as a pilgrim is asked to contribute his tale to the series that includes the famous tales of the Miller, the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, and the Knight – but the tale Chaucer the character tells in his own poem is so bad that the innkeeper shuts him down.

The joke is the same as Dante’s essentially. Like Dante, Chaucer has created the world of the poem – all of it springs from his imagination; even the character of the innkeeper who silences him is Chaucer’s creation, just as Beatrice the guide is Dante’s. The pride of genius is here kept in check by – and held in tension with – Christian humility.

Chaucer's Pardoner

As Chesterton says: “Chaucer is mocking not merely bad poets but good poets; the best that he knows”; for what is a mortal poet compared to the Divine poet? What is man compared to God? How can we take ourselves so seriously? And yet we must, because – to adjust a famous dictum of Robert Frost’s – life is played for im-mortal stakes.

Eternity is on the line and, as Chesterton says elsewhere, humour is allied with gravity: “In order to enjoy the lightest and most flying joke a man must be rooted in some basic sense of the good things; and the good of things means, of course, the seriousness of things”.

There is no better example of this than Chaucer’s notorious Pardoner, whom we first meet in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. He, accompanied by the Summoner, is the last of the pilgrims mentioned. He is a detestable and detested figure, a social as well as a moral outcast and reprobate; a hypocrite; a lecherous fiend; also, perhaps paradoxically, a kind of eunuch; sexually abnormal; a charlatan; a seller of indulgences; a fabricator of relics; a drunkard; physically ugly and effeminate.

Yet his tale is one of the most morally piercing and socially acute of all the pilgrims’ – the most honest, in a way, holding nothing back, and therefore the most unsettling.

The most moral of lessons comes from the most immoral of men, called by G.L. Kittredge, “the most abandoned character” (Chaucer and his Poetry, 210) and by G.H. Gerould, “the most sinister yet morally convincing figure in all literature” (Chaucerian Essays, 60).

As Derek Traversi writes: “If there is a sense in which the conception of damnation has a place in Chaucer’s scheme … it is in these tales that we shall find it exemplified” (The Canterbury Tales: A Reading, 161).

The Pardoner, then, for all his humour – and his tone is undoubtedly humorous throughout – has a serious undercurrent: a man who has despaired of his own salvation, who is steeped in corruption, who is able nonetheless to identify the reasons for his sin and those of mankind generally. Able to inspire others to repentance, albeit by dubious means, he feels himself – although this is only subtly hinted at – cut off from God’s mercy.

The Pardoner emerges to tell his tale in the wake of a tale of grief and sorrow. The Host expresses his grief over the details of the Physician’s tale about the death of a girl, the virtuous Virginia, and requests the Pardoner to tell a tale of mirth “or japes right anoon”, to relieve the anguished atmosphere, which indeed he does. But it is far more troubling in its own way than the sad tale the physician has just told – meaning that, in carrying out the Host’s request, the Pardoner is nonetheless not carrying it out to the end the Host desires: namely, to be relieved of his anguish over the fate of the girl in the physician’s tale.

Although the Pardoner is more than willing to let fly with some japes and mirth – as evidenced by his punning on the name of St Ronian (“ronnions” are “testicles”, according to the editors of the Norton Anthology) the other pilgrims will not have it. Their request is also, then, a rebuke: “Nay, lat him telle us of no ribaudye”. The pilgrims get the joke, the play on a saint’s name and the colloquial word for testicles, but they don’t appreciate it. They have the Pardoner’s number.

Perhaps sensing that they are cleverer than his average gullible audience, the Pardoner takes the approach of bringing them in on his secrets, telling them how he rips off less discerning folk with his fake relics and worthless pardons, all of which come at a price. “My theme is always oon, and evere was: / Radix malorum est cupiditas.”

The line could not be more pointedly ironic, nor delivered with more cynicism. The Pardoner preaches on the theme that the root of all evil is the greed for gain, precisely in order to satisfy his own greed for gain. And he offers various remedies for sin, even though conversion of souls is “not [his] principle intent”.

He does not claim that his relics – a piece of old cloth which he calls a sail from St Peter’s ship, an old pillow case which he calls Our Lady’s veil, or the bone of a Holy Jew’s sheep – can cure the soul, but they can help the body and one’s purse. They can multiply livestock and grain, mimicking the magic of the usurer, and although they won’t stop your wife committing adultery with the local parish priest, they will help you (if you mix some fragments into water and drink the draught) not to care about her adultery; which, according to the Pardoner, is as good as getting her to stop committing adultery.

Knowing, though, that there are many people who won’t be taken in by such promised miracles, the Pardoner has another way of ensuring they step forth to pour out their hard-earned monies. He says that those guilty of two specific sins must not come forth to venerate his relics. What are these sins? In the case of a man, it is a “sinne horrible, that he / Dar nat for shame of it yshriven be”. In the case of a woman, the sin is making of your husband a cuckold.

Naturally, since none of the Pardoner’s flock wishes to be identified with sodomy or adultery, everyone steps forward to venerate the relics and pays his or her fee to the Pardoner. In this way the Pardoner makes his living. Since the root of all evil is cupidity, what better way to save people from hell than to relieve them of their material goods!

The Pardoner prefers riches in this world to those in the next, but he sees himself doing a service to those who have the opposite priorities. Everyone wins, except that the Pardoner is darkly aware that he is storing up for himself treasure in this life at the expense of the next.

The joke doubles back on him then, as we see when he attempts to entice the pilgrims to venerate his relics or to pay him to absolve them of their sins without their needing to confess, having just told them that his relics are fake and his pardon dubious. The Host says the Pardoner would try to pass off his stained underwear as a relic and that he, the Host, would as soon cut off the Pardoner’s testicles as kiss his fraudulent stained rags.

The tables have turned: through the Host’s reaction the pilgrims see the truth of the Pardoner, and the reader’s laughter becomes the final judgement on this sad man. God doth indeed laugh at the wicked.

The moral importance we attach to the direction laughter takes in a text – towards a wicked character, who may or may not be aware of it; or towards a self-aware character, even the author himself, as an exercise of Christian humility – is complicated somewhat when we come to Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Don Quixote and his horse Rocinante
take a tilt and a tumble at windmills.

Vladimir Nabokov developed such an attachment to the eponymous hero of Cervantes’ masterpiece, that he famously rebuked the dead author for making such a noble figure the butt of everyone’s jokes: these, he thought, deprived Don Quixote of his human dignity.

Certainly, unlike the pilgrims Dante and Chaucer, who saw the comical side of their serious endeavour, the life of a Knight Errant attempting to restore the Age of Gold in the Age of Iron is a matter of such seriousness that it admits of no comical self-awareness; in fact, the humour of the novel depends on the idea that the hero does not get the joke, and does not realise that he is the cause of our mirth.

Those windmills at which he tilts really are giants; the prostitutes really are fair virgins in the eyes of the Knight; and the debauched inn really is an enchanted castle. Don Quixote does not have a sane sense of the incongruous; he simply sees what the rest of us fail to see: an enchanted world. The glory that hath passed away from the earth by the time Wordsworth recalls the fact in his “Immortality Ode”, is still real for Don Quixote, though not for his contemporaries.

We laugh at the incongruity between Don Quixote’s view of the world and reality, but Don Quixote doesn’t get the joke. Does it follow then that he is not rooted in a basic sense of the goodness of things, the seriousness of things, as Chesterton identified the necessary condition for humour. I don’t think so. I prefer to think that he embodies the beatitude, like the weeping knight in whose lament he joins: “Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh”.

Don Quixote’s laughter is reserved for heaven; Cervantes gives us the gift of laughter by giving his hero the gift of tears – both are sacred, and really two aspects of the one blessed reality. The restraint of his hero is the restraint of the original holy fool, and the model for all others, Our Lord, who, as Chesterton writes in the conclusion of Orthodoxy:

“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.”

Dr Stephen McInerney is a Senior Lecturer in Literature and formerly Associate Dean of Studies at Campion College in Sydney. He is currently serving as Executive Officer (Academic) at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation in Sydney. A published poet, his latest volume, The Wind Outside (2016), was published by Hardie Grant. Dr McInerney delivered this paper at the 2017 conference of the Australian Chesterton Society. Visit the society’s website at chestertonaustralia.com, where you will find both the text and video of the papers from recent society conferences, including the above paper, as well issues of The Defendant, the society’s quarterly newsletter. The Australian Chesterton Society will hold its 2018 conference on October 20 at Campion College. The theme this year is “Chesterton and the child: Fostering the family today”.

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