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For C. S. Lewis, merriment was serious business, and like no book before it, Surprised by Laughter explains why. Author Terry Lindvall takes readers on a highly amusing and deeply meaningful journey through the life and letters of one of the most beloved Christian thinkers and writers. As Lindvall shows, the unique magic of Lewis's approach was his belief that explosive and infectious joy dwells deep in the heart of Christian faith. Readers can never fully understand Lewis, his life or his legacy until they learn...
For C. S. Lewis, merriment was serious business, and like no book before it, Surprised by Laughter explains why. Author Terry Lindvall takes readers on a highly amusing and deeply meaningful journey through the life and letters of one of the most beloved Christian thinkers and writers. As Lindvall shows, the unique magic of Lewis's approach was his belief that explosive and infectious joy dwells deep in the heart of Christian faith. Readers can never fully understand Lewis, his life or his legacy until they learn to laugh with him.
The essence of all comedy is would you hit a lady with a baby? No, I'd hit her with a brick. —E. E. CUMMINGS
The problem of defining what produces laughter involves a degree of wrestling with language. "A Hottentot and a Dane might hammer out an agreed definition of beauty," Lewis wrote,
and in that sense, lexically, "mean" the same by it. Yet the one might continue, in a different sense, to "mean" blubber lips, woolly hair, and fat paunch while the other "meant" a small mouth, silky hair, "white and red," and a slender waist. And two men who agree about the [lexical] "meaning" of comic would not necessarily find the same things funny.
Comedy, as the great eighteenth-century lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked, "has been particularly unpropitious to definers." One reason for humankind's failure to surround and capture the elusive concept can be attributed to Aristotle's observation in The Poetics: "Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously." Chad Walsh echoed Aristotle when he described the "awkward double predicament of trying to take the comic seriously and the serious comically.... To write seriously about the comic is to fail to practice what one preaches; and yet to practice what one preaches is to fail to be taken seriously."
Another problem is what Lewis called the human dilemma of knowing:
Either to taste and not to know or to know and not to taste—or, more strictly, to lack one kind of knowledge because we are in an experience or to lack another kind because we are outside it. As thinkers we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand.... You cannot study pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humor while roaring with laughter.
Lewis defined the two experiences or ways of knowing with two French verbs: savoir and connaitre. Savoir is to know about something—to examine it, study it, analyze it. Lewis wrote: "But I have an idea that the true analysis of a thing ought not to be so like the thing itself. I should not expect a true theory of the comic to be itself funny."
Yet the contemplation of an object, its savoir, is only one epistemological way. The other method of knowing—connaitre—is to enjoy an object, to become acquainted with it intimately, to experience and taste it. In "Meditation in a Toolshed," Lewis called this, in essence, looking along an experience, being immersed in it. For example, the spontaneous humor and banter of friends gathered on the eve of a holiday offer one the taste—and not merely the outward knowledge—of humor.
A related problem in catching and defining such a slippery notion as humor is that one can never get a firm grip on it. Like an elf in a forest, it is gone as soon as one turns to see it. Indeed, there is a curious and frustrating psychological law that says our postures or attitudes toward something often inhibit the very thing they are meant to facilitate. Lewis noted: "You can't, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately. 'Now! Let's have a real good talk' reduces everyone to silence, 'I must get a good sleep tonight' ushers in hours of wakefulness."
This happens, too, with laughter. The king's command to the jester to be funny ultimately may be disastrous if he does not seriously fulfill his duty. Similarly, the comic writer or actor is dared by his or her audience to be funny. Yet the quest to lasso wild and bucking laughter and keep it frisky in its stall is a futile one. As soon as one ropes and trains laughter, it becomes a manageable, wooden hobbyhorse. Nevertheless, as we in the enterprise of this book attempt to corral and tame Lewis's laughter, observe and study it, we can still hope for the animal to surprise us with a snort or kick.
Yet even with all these caveats in place, categorization for an academic is irresistible—and I have not resisted (nor did Lewis, as shall be shown) putting Lewis's types of laughter into categories. Comedy can be classified in a variety of ways. It can be divided, for example, according to whether it is funny or not. But such a distinction depends upon the audience. Shakespeare noted that "a jest's prosperity lies in the ear of him that hears it, never in the tongue of him that makes it." This may be why most of us laugh at our own jokes so enthusiastically; we know our audience. We've spent years fine-tuning our humor to our crowd of one.
Lewis partially adopted this approach in reminding his brother, Warnie, "you know how one classifies jokes according to the people one wants to tell them to." Lewis shared with his brother a certain dry wit. Having endured a wild collection of absurdities of life with their father, the brothers possessed a sympathetic humor; they knew what each other would find amusing and funny. In a letter to his brother, Lewis told a funny, true story that embodied this shared perspective: At a college dinner, a certain undergraduate, presumably drunk, "covered the face of his neighbor with potatoes, his neighbor being a total stranger." Being hauled before the proctors (the disciplinary body in British universities), the culprit's only excuse was: "I couldn't think of anything else to do." Lewis appealed to Warnie's sense of ironic delight in imagining this
transference of the outrage from the class of positive to that of negative faults; as though it proceeds entirely from a failure of the inventive faculty or a mere poverty of the imagination. One ought to be careful of sitting near one of these unimaginative men ... one thinks of the Mohawk bashing your hat over your eyes with the words, "Sorry old chap, I know it's a bit hackneyed, but I can't think of anything better"—or of some elderly gentleman exclaiming testily, "Ah what all these young men lack now-a-days is initiative" as he springs into the air from the hindward pressure of a pin.
Lewis also likened his division of comedy to his categories of religions and soups: the thick and the clear. The thick includes all humor that deals with the animal side of human nature—that which grows out of the earth and blood and sex of men and women. The clear, on the other hand, encompasses wit, the philosophical and the intellectual, the rational realm of human nature. True comedy, ideally, brings together both—child and man, savage and citizen, head and belly. Yet this system of categorizing comedy can't seem to avoid pigeonholing humor. How can one tell when laughter strikes predominantly the child or the adult? Aren't the two worlds neatly and precisely distinguishable? Is there a level of intelligence and sophistication that separates the two? It is better to ask: Must farce and slapstick remain strictly in the province of the juvenile? Do not many ribald jokes depend on an incongruous intellectual twist? Consider the evangelist's unwitting play on words in invoking the parable of the ten virgins before his audience of male, celibate seminarians: "Tell me, would you rather be with the wise virgins at the wedding feast or with the foolish virgins in the dark?"
As we grow in knowledge and understanding (though our minds ultimately operate in reverse, bringing on a jolly senility and forgetfulness), we do not simply add clear wit to thick humor. Indeed, as adults we may joyfully discover subtle ironies and paradoxes, but even a young child can delightedly recognize incongruity.
Lewis's recommendation of the two ways of thinking might be profitably applied as well to laughing. As he pointed out, "One can't think straight unless you are cool. But then neither can you think deep if you are. I suppose one must try every problem in both states. You remember that the ancient Persians debated everything twice: once when they were drunk and once when they were sober." He might easily have been speaking of clear and sober wit and intoxicating and thick comedy.
Ultimately, however, the categories that will govern this study are those defined and described in Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. In the eleventh letter to a junior devil, Lewis tinkered with four origins of laughter, which he labeled joy, fun, the joke proper, and flippancy. It is my purpose in this book to survey these categories, to see what Lewis had to say about them, and to examine how he used them in his own writings. A sketchy preview will draw, in broad brush strokes, the laughter of joy as a positive, spiritual experience; the laughter of fun or play as a buoyant physical expression; the laughter of the joke proper as a cognitive exercise; and the laughter of satire and flippancy as social and antisocial exchanges, respectively. A postscript on the place of love and laughter will end our study with a nice, warm glow.
This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel. —Horace Walpole
Our perspectives on the species of laughter are, like all perspectives, governed primarily by training and habit. A convict looking through prison bars can gaze upon the gutters or study the stars. And looking at life, one can choose to see the tragedy or the comedy. Once, while grading a batch of papers on Chanticleer in the "Nun's Priest's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Lewis noted dryly that the answers came from "boys whose form master was apparently a breeder of poultry. Everything was related to bird breeding."
Indeed, humor is dependent upon one's perspective. Aristotle held that if the appearance of pain was actually perceived or experienced as pain, one's situation no longer was comic. If, for example, a man falling down on his hat actually broke his neck, we would not be tempted to laugh. Yet when we see a sophisticated dignitary fall on her behind, it becomes not only proper for us to laugh but sane as well. When suffering is real, one sympathizes; but when it is the superficial suffering of embarrassment, one laughs.
In reality, tragedy and comedy are so closely aligned as to be mates in a healthy marriage. "There are," wrote Chesterton,
two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this again is an equally sublime spiritual certainty that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat and has to run after it.
Lewis thought the view that "tragedy is essentially 'truer to life' than comedy to be unfounded." The world of farce, he believed, is a "paradise of jokes where the wildest coincidences are accepted and where all things work together to produce laughter. Real life seldom succeeds in being, and never remains for more than a few minutes, nearly as funny as a well-invented farce."
Yet Lewis recognized that not all the world is a comedy. This brighter and lighter view of life ignores in the comedy of the wedding the tragedy of the divorce. Even farce denies pity or compassion for its butts and fools "in situations where, if they were real, they would deserve it." But neither is life the all-consuming tragedy a tragedian would like to make it. There is roaring laughter at the wake even as there are jokes on the scaffold, as was true with Thomas More.
Lewis saw gaiety and levity among even the properly serious company of King Arthur and his men when they were expecting an enemy attack. As the king and his council ascend the "spiral stairs of the Giant's Tower, Cador, who was a man of jokes, calls out merrily to Arthur who happens to be in front of him. This threat from Rome, he says, is welcome. We have had far too much peace lately. It softens a man. It encourages the young bachelors to spend too much time dressing, with an eye to the ladies.... Thus they jested."
Similarly, Lewis recalled how his colleagues in the trenches during the First World War lived and joked as freely as their civilian counterparts. Often books about real lives that bleed with tragic events and suffering ironically can give the reader the broader impression of joy and happiness.
What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb's or Cowper's lives? But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them. Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?
One finds this borne out in the life of stuttering Charles Lamb. To learn that Lamb became a cheerful and beloved bachelor of letters even after his sister, in a tragic fit of bloody madness, had gruesomely slain their mother, is to find a heart of golden beauty emerging from a fiery crucible. Here was a man who playfully called his sister and himself "shorn Lambs" under the blood of the mother Lamb. Yet the humor was not so morbid as it was triumphant, coming from a gentle man whose jests, critic William Hazlitt wrote, scalded like tears.
Lewis once observed that modern youth seemed to expect a right to happiness, a life of comedy without consequences. The don quipped that one might as well ask for a right to be six feet tall. Charles Williams merrily agreed. He told Lewis that
when young people came to us with their troubles and discontents, the worst thing we could do was to tell them they were not so unhappy as they thought. Our reply ought rather to begin, "But of course...." For young people usually are unhappy, and the plain truth is often the greatest relief we can give them. The world is painful in any case: but it is quite unbearable if everyone gives us the idea that we are meant to be liking it.... What is unforgivable if judged as an hotel may be very tolerable as a reformatory.
Williams was a brightly animated man, who had a face between an angel's or monkey's that, Lewis remembered, often "distorted into helpless laughter at some innocently broad buffoonery." Williams wrote of dark and heavy things that menace and poison our lives—maiming, madness, economic insecurity, grief, torture—and yet he paradoxically spoke with high spirits, mirth, and marvelous zest. His belief in the sovereignty and grace of God mocked the perceived gloom and sufferings of the age; his head was full of comedy even as his heart held the tragic. Like Job, he was a clown in an absurd, tragic farce. He felt that God would permit him to carry his "hot complaints to the very Throne," where he would be answered, like Job, with the crocodile and hippopotamus.
"The weight of divine displeasure had been reserved for the 'comforters,' the self-appointed advocates on God's side, the people who tried to show that all was well—the sort of people," he said [to Lewis], immeasurably dropping his lower jaw and fixing me with his eyes, "the sort of people who wrote books on the Problem of Pain."
Excerpted from Surprised By Laughter by Terry Lindvall Copyright © 1996 by Terry Lindvall. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 20, 2012
I was a little surprised when I received this book; how on earth could someone discuss Lewis's comedy for 450 pages?
The answer lies in the depth delved by Dr. Lindvall into this topic. For every humorous character, witty poem, and amusing opinion Lewis offered, Lindvall gave a history, related writings by other authors, and an expansion all his own.
Sounds dry, doesn't it?
Yet it's really not. Don't get me wrong; it's not the kind of book that you can casually read through in an evening. I've been coming back to this book repeatedly over the past few months, reading a chapter or two at a time, enjoying the insight into both the life of Lewis and the research it must have taken to pen this work of nonfiction. More than anything, I enjoyed the humor uncovered not just in the readings of Lewis, but the essential joy and laughter to be found in the faith of a Christian.
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Posted December 3, 2012
Review of Surprised by Laughter : The Comic World of CS Lewis by Terry Lindvall
Rating : 4/5 stars
I love CS Lewis, so quite naturally when I saw this on the Booksneeze website, I ordered it immediately. It's taken me over four months to read through this book, it's gigantic, but it's quite worth the read.
It's a sometimes funny always informative biography of CS Lewis, I highly recommend it, for anyone whose interested in CS Lewis or just looking for a good book.
Posted April 6, 2012
Terry Lindvall PhD, in his book “Surprised by Laughter - The Comic World of C. S. Lewis” gives an in-depth look at Lewis’ writings, dividing his “dissertation” into six sections which are:
1) The Idea and the Legacy,
4) The Joke Proper,
5) Satire and Flippancy,
6) Conclusion: the Laughter of Love.
Apart from introducing the readers to authors like Chesterton, Milton, and Tolkien, among others Lindvall reveals C.S. Lewis’s ability to find joy and laughter in his surroundings through books, letters, conversations, and shorter works of his.
This book failed to live up to my expectations as I had hoped it to be a humourous one. “Surprised by Laughter” turned out to be more of a biography on C.S. Lewis. Reading through this one was quite a laborious task.
Posted April 1, 2012
As a fan of C.S. Lewis, I planned to laugh heartily and smile often as I read this book (and I did!). However, my first surprise came with the arrival of the book. It was heavy. When Thomas Nelson announced the availability of this book, I was so excited to get a copy that I didn't look at any of the details. When I opened it, I found that it was 454 pages, not including the notes, bibliography and index.
The next surprise was realizing that this was something of an academic book. Was the author really going to dissect the meaning, purpose and various forms of humor? For 454 pages? What was my commitment to Thomas Nelson--did I have to read this? Nevertheless, the introduction encouraged me to keep turning the pages, as the author clarified his purpose in writing the book, and delighted me with his language.
Surprised by Laughter, he said, aims to put the signposts of Lewis’s travels across the landscape of laughter into a map of mirth, left as happy directions for weary travelers. It is not the purpose of the book to argue that Lewis was a comedian, but that this jovial man possessed an angelic mirth that constantly bubbled over out of his jolly reservoir. It is an encyclopedia of the various sources of laughter and wit that irradiated his writings, sources which include his father, Albert Lewis, Geoffrey Chaucer, G.K. Chesterton, Aesop, Beatrix Potter, Disney, Frederick Buechner and Madeleine L’Engle. Who could resist such a cast of characters in the background? This book is a smile-inducing series of anecdotes, and not only is Lewis full of humor, the author himself writes with infectious joy.
It didn't take long before I discovered another surprise. I found myself understanding life better as I read. I won't list everything on my four hand-written pages of notes, quotes and page references, but here I share some of my own signposts and laughs on this reading journey.
As I read, I appreciated the reminders of what actually makes for a happy life. Lewis believed that one finds joy when one finds one's own place in the hierarchy of the universe and obediently fulfills it. "Any patch of sunlight in a dark and deep wood," the author says, "could well be described as a `patch of Godlight'." He says that when God surprises us with laughter, we do well to remember that the gift is to remind us of the Giver of joy.
On the subject of heaven, Terry Lindvall says, “Earthly joys were never meant to satisfy our deepest needs.” Lewis says, “…heaven is [not] a club of good people singing hymns and taking offerings. (That kind of gathering would not appeal to many of us.)…Though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of such things, except perhaps as a joke.”
I think the basis for my thorough enjoyment of this book is that I feel a camaraderie with joy-lovers C.S. Lewis and the author. I was pleasantly surprised to be trained in the godly habit of joy and fun, and encouraged to continue in my tendency to take childlike delight in life.
[Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.]
Posted March 8, 2012
I’ve always been a fan of C. S. Lewis. He was, simply put, a brilliant mind with a thrillingly whimsical side. Combining in his published arsenal both deep theological works as well as fantastic fantasy, C. S. Lewis was truly a great man. However, as much as I had like his works, I never knew much about the man behind the books. I understood his conversion, and some basic knowledge, but really knowing what the man was about? I had no clue. This book lets you understand more of Lewis’ style in writing, his humour, etc. If you are a fan of C. S. Lewis, I would sincerely recommend this book- but you really have to be a devoted fan. This is a lengthy novel and requires a good chunk of time to actually read the thing. However, I found it well worth the read and I give it a good four out of five stars!
Just so you all know, just to clarify, I received this book for free from the publisher through the Thomas Nelson booksneeze blogger program. I was not required to give this a positive review, this is one hundred percent my own honest opinion. For sure!
Posted February 15, 2012
HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! No, just kidding. (Gotcha’. :-) ) Surprised by Laughter is both enjoyable and accurate as a study of the wit and wisdom of C.S. Lewis. Whom I quote frequently. And may or may not have read several books about. And of whom I may be (for my age and amount of study-into-the-subject done) a veritable scholar. *ahem* I liked it. :-)
One of the things I liked most about this book is it’s abundance of quotes. In fact, I would estimate that the quotes alone, in 10 pt. font, could fill a small book. They are used by Lindvall, who employs them skillfully to prove point after point. Not only does he quote Lewis: G.K. Chesterton, Rabelais, Chaucer, Søren Kierkgaard- and all as if they were having an conversation with him.
And for that content which was written by Lindvall himself. It was good. *cough* No, really. I liked it. It was a wee bit dry, but that was to be expected. (I mean, the guy actually put PH. D on the cover. I sat reading the book with an arched brow, and a dictionary on my knee.) It is very clever writing, if you can keep up with it. And I don’t say that in a mean way, I just mean to say, it’s a bit like reading a history book. Every once in a while I would realize I hadn’t really registered the last couple sentences, and go back and re-read. However, when I did go back, it would usually make me smile.
Surprised by Laughter revealed to me three main truths. First, satire is a sword, capable of cutting, fighting, and at times, surgery. What better tool for argument than a sword? (See chapter 31, “The Sword of Satire.”) And C.S. Lewis was a masterful swordsman. Secondly, Flippancy is the bane of man. It can take him to hell with a laugh, and a scoffing wave of the hand. And finally, Laughter is the ultimate medicine, when paired with God. Laughter alone is not enough; as I noted in my journal well reading, “Laughter needs something more; we need laugh with good reason, shared with God. This puts the wind in the wind-chimes, the breath in the trumpet that produces a ringing note.”
One last note: I did not read chapters 27-29. I did however, enjoy very much the rest of the book. These three chapters you will have to judge for yourself.
4.8 of 5 stars
Posted February 8, 2012
Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall is a thesis on the writing style of C.S. Lewis and his wisdom of wits.
No reader of humor is stranger to the name of C. S. Lewis; his witticism and view of life makes one to think about things in a cerebral way, ponder the general things of day-to-day life along with drowning in the immaculate humor. In this book, author has tried to capture the essence of his work and presented it in a documented form.
Though this book has a dreary start but it improves with every chapter letting the reader engulf in the comical point of view of Lewis. Divided in 6 parts: The Idea and the Legacy, Joy, Fun, The Joke Proper, Satire and Flippancy, and Conclusion; the book is flooded with examples of various types of humor he used in his writing. It won’t be wrong to say this book is just like Lewis would have wanted.
Hypothetically considering, if you are unfamiliar with Lewis, it is advisable to read his work before starting this book to gather a profound idea of what you are dealing with. For people like me who find Lewis as an inspiration, this book will help a lot in teaching more about him and how his faith played an important part in his successful life.