Wednesday, October 12, 2011

`A Subtle and Spiritual Idea'

“Mr. McCabe thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.”

What ought to be obvious sometimes arrives with the force of revelation. This is Chesterton humorously disarming a humorless critic in “On Mr. McCabe and a Divine Frivolity” (Heretics, 1905). Chesterton goes on to ask: “About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?” The McCabe in question is Joseph McCabe, a one-time Roman Catholic priest who left the church and became a champion of “rationalism.” McCabe is a figure, like Soame Jenyns, best remembered for being dismantled by a vastly greater writer – a humorous fate.

I remembered poor laughless McCabe during an exchange of emails with Elberry, when I thanked him for sending me something and added:

“Most days your blog remains a reliable source of laughter, which is becoming for me almost the most important thing in the world.”

I’ve always associated the absence of a sense of humor with dullness, poverty of imagination, a pinched spirit. Chesterton is right: Only the serious is worthy of joking. Joy-killers preoccupy themselves with trivia. Elberry replies in words that unknowingly echo Chesterton:

“Humour is serious, important, but it's impossible to construct a manifesto, school, or philosophy of humour - it really is `the thing itself’, you can't mess about with it or really do anything with it - that makes it tremendously valuable, as an undeniably real thing in a world of bullshit, posturing, lies, and outright insanity. i think if you write something that makes someone smile or laugh, that's a wholly real thing and the more real things people have, the less authoritative bullshit comes to seem. i say it's serious but there's no need to be serious about it, indeed that would be like saying sex is important so we should be very serious and ponderous about it. As Wittgenstein said of logic, humour takes care of itself.”

That’s the Chestertonian spirit. Elberry also writes:

“i once asked a friend who is a mystic of sorts, if god has a sense of humour. He thought about it for a while, then said: `he doesn't make jokes. But i think he has a sense of the general irony of things.’”

In “The Cockneys and Their Jokes” (All Things Considered, 1908), Chesterton writes:

“When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.”


Finn MacCool said...

Elberry writes that a mystic friend said: "But i think he [God] has a sense of the general irony of things." This theme is explored at book length in Anthony Esolen's "Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature."


Chuck Kelly said...

I haven't read the blog in a while, which is my loss. Good stuff - need to catch up.

Frank Luke said...

Jerry Clower, a humorist who was also a devout Christian said, "I believe the only place in the world where there is no laughter is Hell. Praise God! Years ago, I made arrangements to miss Hell. Now I don't ever have to be in a place with no laughter." He likely said it several times, but I think I read it in Life Everlaughter.