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Surprised By LaughterThe Comic World of C. S. Lewis
By Terry Lindvall
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1996 Terry Lindvall
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Deadly Dissection
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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