Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Humor and Religion

While reading Leo Strauss's essay on Plato's republic from his The City and Man, I came across this observation by Thomas Moore, quoted from his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation:
And for to prove that this life is no laughing time, but rather the time of weeping, we find that our savior himself wept twice or thrice, but never find we that he laughed so much as once. I will not swear that he never did, but at the least wise he left us no example of it. But, on the other side, he left us example of weeping.

What to make of this? Is laughter, and therefore humor, somehow essentially wicked and counter the principles of Christ's teachings? What lesson is conveyed by the omission of such a large facet of the human experience?

I don't have any substantive conclusions to offer, but I will hazard a few random observations.

First, it has been argued that humor is, at its core, de-humanizing. That is, the provocation of laughter in some is the result of the ridicule and scorn of others. Ridicule and scorn work by reducing a person to mechanical elements, by brutalizing their humanity in a certain way.

But the above is an unecessarily harsh way of putting it. Admittedly, much humor does rely on the imputing of mechanical, animal or natural traits to a human, or in some other way debasing their humanity. But such is the nature of humor that this very act calls itself into question. The best humor is, at its core, ironic--the best humor ultimately turns on itself with cannibalizing ridicule. When humor consciously sheds its irony and tries to become a form of mastery, it becomes pretentious and mechanical--and loses that by virtue of which it was humor in the first place.

Humor which is used solely as a form of mastery over others ceasing being humor, except to the true believers, those that want to take part in the mastery, not in the humor. Witness the incredible number of "Bush is an idiot" jokes. These are usually so simple, so basic, so obvious as to induce cringes rather than laughter.

Also, the brutalizing, diminishing aspect of humor can sometimes be its practical utility--there are those whose pretensions need to be deflated. I sometimes wonder as to whether Hitler and Stalin ever laughed. Humor is just to subversive, I think, for a totalitarian to risk its presence. In the space of ten words, humor can strip the sacred trappings from the fascist and reveal him as the naked ape he is. Communism, affecting an air of perfect equality, cannot allow the diminishing aspect of humor.

Which is just to say, I guess, that if humor is a weapon, it depends on who wields it, and that if a king is to be deposed by it, the morality lies not in the act of deposing itself, but in the conduct of the king to be deposed.

Which brings me back to Christ. He, no doubt, was greeted with scorn and ridicule. He bore a message not of degredation, but of uplift, of transcendence, of utmost seriousness--and thus vulnerable to the denigrating reductionism of humor. Today, though, when the forces of authority and power in the world have, in many ways, swung in favor of those that would wield occam's razor like a cleaver and slice blindly at any "superfluous" metaphysics, the solemnity is on the other side. A new piety has developed, a piety which desperately needs to be deflated. Enter humor.

Those are some preliminary thoughts, none of which should be taken as my considered opinion, considering my official opinion is that I have none.


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