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Comedy and Creation
By Conrad Hyers
"Comedies seem, naturally, to take a humble, if not humbling view of human existence, and at the same time to celebrate creatureliness in a way that more heroic dramas do not . The comic vision and the biblical vision, therefore, have considerably more in common than appears at first sight . The comedian is also a 'creationist.'"
WHEN Dante entitled his fourteenth century classic, Commedia, he meant that it was written in the vernacular ("lax and humble" rather than lofty and stately language), and that it moved from "misery to felicity" (Hell to Paradise). It was not even a "divine" comedy, the divine part being added by later divines. Biblical materials do, however, form a commedia in both of Dante's senses. But perhaps the most peculiar characteristic of nearly all biblical narratives is that they are extremely "vernacular." They belong to commonness and the common people. And they share, without awkwardness or embarrassment, in the commonplaces of everyday life. As Paul Ricoeur notes of the teachings of Jesus: "The Parables are radically profane stories. There are no gods, no demons, no angels, no miracles, no time before time but precisely people like us: Palestinian landlords traveling and renting their fields, stewards and workers, sowers and fishers, fathers and sons."1
In the Bible as a whole, in fact, the amount of lofty spiritual instruction or devotional liturgy and edifying discourse is proportionately sparse. Instead, one is often deluged with tedious genealogies, military roll calls, "nuts and bolts" inventories of tabernacles and temples, meticulous ceremonial codes, lists of petty kings, and an array of trifling events and sundry tales. Unlike the more "spiritual" and heroic and often highly mythological literatures of the world, the Bible pays attention to a host of very ordinary people, doing a great many very ordinary things.
Conrad Hyers is Professor of Religion at
Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota. He is the author of Holy
Laughter (1969), Zen and the Comic Spirit (1973), and The
Chickadees: A Contemporary Fable (1974). Dr. Hyers' article, "Prometheus and
the Problem of Progress," appeared in THEOLOGY TODAY, Oct. 1980. Portions of
this present essay are excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Comic Vision
and the Christian Faith (1982).
1 Paul Ricoeur, "The Parables," Criterion (Spring, 1974), p. 19.
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What we sometimes fail to appreciate is the extent to which this commonplaceness is indebted to the biblical view of creation. Creation is the creation of the mundus, the mundane. And in that creative act even the most mundane particulars of everyday life-profane and inconsequential though they may be by more sublime standards-are sanctified. Creation, therefore-as much as Incarnation, Redemption, and Resurrection- is an important part of this Divine Comedy. It is Scene I of a movement which begins, not in Dante's misery, but in mundanity. Though we have often read our mundanity as misery, and our creatureliness as fallenness, this is the Adamic ground (adamah) of our creation. Thus, "to recall," as William Lynch expressed it, "this incredible relation between mud and God is, in its own distant, adumbrating way, the function of comedy."2
In secular literature and theater this perception is, in fact, best evidenced in comedies. Comedies seem, naturally, to take a humble, if not humbling view of human existence, and at the same time to celebrate creatureliness in a way that more heroic dramas do not. For heroic visions are far too busy exalting the species and ascending out of the mud in hot air balloons. The comic vision and the biblical vision, therefore, have considerably more in common than appears at first sight. Many biblical stories and teachings-in both structure and theme-are more fully appreciated in terms of the genre of comedy. This is best illustrated by the problem of tragic heroism, relative to which comedies as we know them arose in the first place.
One of the problems generated by tragedy, as with "high" drama and literature generally, is the omission of a considerable amount of relevant detail concerning the total human condition. Such an omission comedy sets out to correct, almost with a vengeance. Tragedy is extremely selective, not only in its representation of human types, but in the information it admits about even those lives and actions it chooses to dramatize. Comedy introduces whole sets of characters and circumstances, attitudes, and forms of behavior. As George Steiner has put it: "There are no lavatories in tragic palaces; but from its very dawn comedy had use for chamber pots."
In comedy, devoted attention is willingly given to the many particulars of everyday life which a more heroic sophistication seems determined to dress up, cover up, forget, ignore, or otherwise treat as polite unmentionables. The archaic staples of comedy are thus the earthen trinity of sex, food, and body wastes. Added to this are the requirements of clothing, shelter, and sleep-the first two as reminders of our nakedness, and the third of our nightly helplessness and unconsciousness. Mixed in are all those troublesome (but natural and necessary) inevitabilities of burping, itching, scratching, sniffling, twitching, yawn-
2 William Lynch, S. J., Christ and Apollo (Sheed and Ward, 1960), p. 109.
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ing, dozing, stretching, hiccupping, nose-wiping, ear-picking, sneezing, snorting, coughing, choking, spitting, belching-ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The irony of human pride and pretension, relative to so many evidences of mortality and muddiness, is thus set in bold comic relief.
Already we have much of the basic fare of comic episodes. What, in short, is turned by comedy into a matter of great dramatic consequence, is a considerable inconvenience and embarrassment to tragedy. So much is this the case that all the plethora of mundane attributes is almost completely by-passed and suppressed as if such did not, or at least should not, exist.
If tragedy deals with more negative and troublesome matters, as it must, it prefers to do so in a grand manner and for some grand purpose. For all its idealism and exalted opinion of the species, tragedy can admit a considerable array of evil and degeneration. Yet it cannot even begin to handle a simple affair like hiccups. When Charlie Chaplin in City Lights (1931) inadvertently swallows a whistle, just as a pompous soloist is beginning to sing, and starts "tweeting" with every hiccup, we know that we are in the world of comedy. Tragic heroes simply don't go around swallowing whistles and "tweeting."
Tragedy will take on any number of bloody battles and fallen houses. But it would be greatly offended at the proposal to pause over a pesky mosquito. It will grant the existence of certain more "noble" weaknesses of the flesh, such as a craving for power, or the love of a beautiful body. But it will not touch an inordinate desire for pickles. Tragedy wants to play only with the fine china and silverware, even if it gets stolen or broken in the process. Comedy gets along well with kitchen spoons, lunch buckets, and eating with impatient fingers. The comic perception in this is the protagonist of all that which is natural, however ordinary or lowly; while it is the antagonist of all that which is unnatural, artifical, affected, pretentious.
Kierkegaard had the audacity to note that Hegel, for all his world-historical categories, world-encompassing genius, and the grandeur of his philosophical system, went like everyone else to pick up his paycheck on Fridays. The list of such comic reminders is unending. In ancient Greece, while the tragedians were representing humanity in terms of gods, kings, and nobility (Prometheus, Oedipus, Antigone), the comedians countered by using animals (Aristophanes' Birds, Wasps, and Frogs).
This is not just a matter of debunking. There is in comedy a kind of rock bottom faith in the essential goodness of what is natural to humankind. What is natural is that we should think. And it is equally natural that we should think about eating, sleeping, and sex. What is natural is that we should dream. And what is equally natural is that we must wake up from our dreams, or that if we refuse we shall surely wet the bed. If we bask too long in the sunshine of our createdness in "the image and likeness of God," we will sooner or later be returned to the dust, or splattered with mud.
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The reasons for tragic delimitations are not hard to come by. Tragedy is not only inclined toward abstracting the more glorious, heroic, and grandly dramatic aspects of human existence, but also toward abstracting spirit from body. The totality of the human condition is avoided as something confusing a singleness of purpose, and preventing the exercise and pure nobility of the spirit within. The body gravitates to earth like a great weight, anchoring and restraining a ballooning spirit, eager to make its ascent. The mind soars upward to infinity, the imagination imagines its creative marvels, the spirit floats off toward some limitless bliss, and all the while the body just sits there, finite, lumpy, leaden, and tugging away at the windingsheet of the ghost within. In the midst of thinking a great thought, or dreaming a great dream, we are interrupted by any one of a myriad of petty demands, like a little child insisting on going to the bathroom in the middle of an oratorio.
Such a body easily presents itself as a kind of "tragedy" befallen the spirit, a wart attaching itself to the soul and growing until it encases the "true self " in a ponderous mass. Such a body, so conceived, so tolerated, so used or abused, becomes in Socrates' unfortunate but revealing metaphor "the prisonhouse of the soul." Such a body is worthy of representation if at all only in its most ideal, virile, and heroic forms: clothed in great deeds and high drama, or frozen in incorruptible marble. Otherwise at best it is a considerable nuisance.
The Greeks are often credited with introducing this view to Western culture, yet the ethereal view of spirit and the gross view of the body very early become comic fare for the Greek comedians, such as Aristophanes, whose Clouds (423 B.C.) puts Socrates in a basket suspended from a cloud balloon, riding majestically, if precariously, in the sky, like a god. When asked what he is doing up there in that curious conveyance, he replies that it is necessary for him to suspend his brain in the sky and mix the essence of mind with that of air, "which is of like nature," in order to contemplate the sun and understand the things of heaven. "I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself, as in the case of watercress."
There follows a discussion of the source of rainfall, the nature of which Socrates understands because his head is in the clouds. His student responds that he "always thought it was Zeus Urinating into a sieve." That issue clarified, there still remains the problem of the source of thunder, also attributed to Zeus. Socrates resolves the issue by an analogy with the grumbling stomach, which issues in periodic belches. "Consider what a noise is produced by your belly, which is small. Shall not the air, which is boundless, produce these mighty claps of thunder?"
Aristophanes has been much criticized for this "attack" upon such a paragon of humanistic ideals and philosophical acumen. But it is this very mind/body, spirit/flesh dichotomy with which Aristophanes is dealing. Reason, like the best intentions and highest ideals of tragic
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aspiration, is not the pure, infallible, and trustworthy instrument that it often claims to be vis-a-vis the supposed denseness of matter and irrational passions of the flesh. In the hands of a skilled debater or clever defense attorney, and motivated by reward or status or pride or simply the desire to win, reason can be mere sophistry.
By satirizing the "Socratic" training in the sophistic art of "unfair argument," Aristophanes is making the double-point that is so much at the heart of comedy. Faith in a reason and virtue somehow emancipated from the restrictions and temptations of the flesh, and returned to the clear light from which it originally came, is unfounded. Reason is not intrinsically pure any more than the body is intrinsically impure. Reason can confuse, twist, distort, trick, and pervert, just as virtue can become its own downfall. Genius is no more a guarantee of truth than power is a guarantee of justice, or strong will a guarantee of right choice. Thus, as Meredith insisted, not reason or law or moral order, but "comedy is the ultimate civilizer."
On the other hand, the implied derogation of the "impure body" in any attempt at extracting from it "pure" reason and "pure spirit," and dropping it off like a dirty rag or an outgrown shell, is a lack of appreciation for the integrity of the body and its natural functions. There are times, in fact, when the natural inclinations of the body, and the mundane concerns of everyday life, are more to be trusted than those principles and visions to which they are sacrificed. One might well argue that the evils resulting from bodily needs and desires per se are nothing in comparison with the evils brought on by reason and imagination- including moral principles, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. Even greed will preserve that which it has taken by force, whereas ethical, ideological, and religious considerations are often far less merciful.
Comedy goes yet one more step. It not only points to the body, but to bodies of all sorts, from handsome to grotesque. If anything, comedy is focussed somewhere between the plain and the grotesque, with some preference for the grotesque. A parade of comic characters would certainly be a motley sight: giants and midgets, the fat lady and the thin man, the rubber-legged and the lame, cross-eyed and cock-eyed, toothy and toothless, bulbous-nosed and flat-nosed, blind and deaf, bald-pated and bushy-haired, garrulous and tongue-tied-followed by a middling troop of normally unnoticed individuals who are not distinguished in any particular respect. The whole human circus and sideshow is there in comedy, boldly exhibited and trumpeted like some grand human menagerie.
An 1899 Barnum and Bailey Circus poster for "the Greatest Show on Earth" displayed just such an array of assorted persons and attractions, along with the title: "The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena and Great Presentation of Marvelous Living Human Curiosities." One of
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the characteristics that comedy and circus have tended to share is a willingness to encompass the whole human spectrum. The costumed beauty rides on the lumbering beast, or walks hand in hand with the ugly dwarf. The graceful trapeze artist soars high above the stumbling imitations of the clown in the ring below. Nothing and no one seems to stand outside this circumference, this circus.
When Aristotle classified tragedy with the sublime and beautiful, and comedy with the ludicrous and ugly, there was considerable empirical basis for doing so. Comedy does not restrict itself to, or aim toward, the "best specimens." Any body, and any bodily function or malfunction, which tragedy might spurn as beneath its dignity, has been welcomed by comedy with open arms and given a dramatic significance. "Come as you are; come one and come all." That is the comic invitation and the comic capacity. At the more primitive level, this comic sense may be little more than the combined result of fear of that which is not normal and feelings of superiority over others. But the larger result-and at the more sophisticated level, the goal-is that of accepting and admitting this great multitude of human forms, fortunes, and imperfections.
And who would imagine that such delight and camaraderie could be fashioned out of those same abnormalities and subnormalities, or just plain normalities, which otherwise cause such embarrassment, anguish or boredom? Who would suppose that so much drama could be gotten out of such cast-offs as nervous twitches, wobbles, peg-legs, and stutterings and starnmerings; such miseries as headaches, belly-aches, trips and falls; such annoyances as seasickness, a stubbed toe, a dropped hammer, or a sudden gust of wind; such miscellaneous occurrences as a tear in the seat of the pants, a butterfly on the nose, pigeon droppings, or an ant in the soup?
The comic achievement is quite remarkable. With little to work with in the, way of heroes and heroines, fine costuming, labyrinthian plot, profound dialogue, elegant scenery, dramatic action, or casts of thousands, it manages to mesmerize us with life's pots and pans, street scenes, and social rejects. Like so many family and situation comedies, it gets along very well with the kinds of people, petty circumstances, and typical irritations that make up ninety-nine percent of our lives. In fact, the very difficulties and disturbances that in real life may weary us, make us sick, throw us into an outrage, have us shouting or crying or depressed, are transformed by comic ritual into occasions for enjoyment, if not hysterical laughter.
The miracle of comedy is that what is the source of limitation and dismay to tragic inspiration, becomes the source of amusement and celebration. Instead of banging defiantly on the bars of flesh or developing grand schemes of escape, the comedian finds special charm in all the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and touchings within immediate perception. It is as though in some sacred sense this world for all its inequalities and this body for all its frailties and this time for all its inconsequentia is where one ought to be. It is as though life were
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intrinsically holy, and that to fail to savor it, rejoice in it, and be humored by it would be a great sacrilege. It is as though we were created out of this dust, to be divided and united as one flesh, and surrounded by this incredible zoo of creatures, both animal and human (Gen. 2). It is as though in some larger sense "God saw everything he had made, and behold it was very good" (Gen. 1).
The major task of the comic protagonist, as Nathan Scott insists, "is to remind us how deeply rooted we are in all the tangible things of this world; he is not, like Shelley or the author of To the Lighthouse, a poet of 'unbodied joy.' The motions of comedy, to be sure, finally lead to joy, but it is a joy that we win only after we have consented to journey through this familiar actual world of earth which is our home." Such is the peculiar but very real salvation which the comedian stoops to bring. It is the comedian who moves within the dustiness and density of the real world, unafraid to get hands dirty and feet muddy, without anxiety over losing face or tarnishing some polished image. "The comedian is not generally an aviator; he does not journey away from this familiar world of earth; he refuses the experiment of angelism; he will not forget that we are made out of dust."3
Comedy, therefore, does not encourage speaking about food and clothing and sex and material things in a hushed voice of apology for the lowly plight the spirit has gotten itself into. Comedy vents our many embarrassments and tensions, and feelings of shame and guilt, in these areas. But the purpose is the opposite of attempting to "liberate" the spirit by disparaging any of the characteristics of human life, and thus disabusing the spirit of further interest. Comic simplicity has nothing to do with the righteous beating of the body into numbed submission. Rather, it is an opening up of one's total capacity for wonder and delight, and just plain savoring, in the widest manner possible.
One may, of course, survey the transiency of things which, despite their transiency, are so frantically desired, clutched, fought over, and even died for. And one may declare them to be nothing in comparison with eternity, or in their vanity unworthy of the wise person's attention. A considerable amount of fool literature has argued the point. In Brant's Ship of Fools (1494), this common religious sentiment was characteristically developed:
All things have I recognized as vain, foolish, perishable, doomed soon to slip like water into the earth. Nothing is firm, solid, durable. This brief hour snatches away whatever you may for a short time possess. . . [O world] I flee you, I leave you, and abandon you completely. And may the gods, and God himself help me, that I may rather prefer to worship you alone, Holy Father, and to follow you, gracious Christ.4
3 Nathan Scott,
Jr., The Broken Center (Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 101, 103.
4 Barbara Swain, Fools and Folly During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Columbia University Press, 1932), p. 124.
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Yet time is only a sieve or sinking ship or prison if we choose to view it that way. One sees in this choice, in fact, a serious corrosion of the doctrine of creation by mystical understandings of the fall and redemption. For all its apparent piety and sacrifice, it is a failure to celebrate that form of life given to humanity. In Brant's own religious terms, though life is transient, in its very transiency it is holy by virtue of its createdness and givenness. While things may be perishable, it does not follow that they are necessarily vain or foolish. The type of expression represented by Brant has the look of offering creaturely praise and glory to the Creator in preferring "to worship you alone, Holy Father." But it is actually a lament against the Creator and the creation. The world is piously despised as unworthy of human affection. It is as if to suggest that we had been cheated and betrayed by the ephemerality and imperfection of life. It is, in fact, as if we were much too noble for a world so filled with mundane concerns, and in which things are constantly breaking, decaying, dying, and otherwise confounding and disappointing us.
Though nothing in this life is "firm, solid, durable," it does not follow that its elements are "vain, foolish doomed." This is the world that God has created: this finite, fleeting, perishable, difficult world of space, time, matter, and flesh. And the refusal to accept it and rejoice in it is one of the forms of vanity and foolishness from which the comedian would save us. Comic wisdom finds special contentment in the familiar periodicities of life: the ceaseless round of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, springtime and harvest, the encircling years, the day-by-day repetitions which never get anywhere and in which there is "nothing new under the sun." Comedy has always fit in well with the natural, biological rhythms of life. It moves with unhurried ease among the perennial themes of children, courtship, sex, marriage, food, drink, sleep. It welcomes, without cynicism and without weariness, those successive waves of blossoming trees and nesting birds and young lovers in which the same old process repeats itself for the trillionth time, yet in each instance as if for the very first time.
The comic image of time is not that of a spiral staircase to the stars, or lamented fall from realms eternal. Time is cyclical, liturgical, and centered in the immediacy of the present. Its sense of space is likewise "present," as if one need not build high towers to the heavens, or make a name for oneself, or go on pilgrimage or crusade to some distant Holy City, in order to gain meaning, worth, and importance. One is already there. And relative to this sense of arrival, heroic quests and noble destinies have the appearance of grand detours, romantic distractions, perhaps even impending disasters. The comic vision focusses on all those everyday, taken-for-granted, commonplace graces which belong to the gift and sustenance of life itself-the kind of vision that some, like Kazantzakis' Zorba, the Greek, seem never to have lost.
I felt, as I listened to Zorba, that the world was recovering its pristine freshness. All the dulled daily things regained the brightness they had in the beginning, when we came out of the bands of God. Water, women, the stars,
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bread, returned to their mysterious primitive origin, and the divine whirlwind burst once more upon the air Everything seems miraculous to him, and each morning when be opens his eyes, he sees trees, sea, stones, and birds, and is amazed.5
There has been a tendency in Christian theology to allow the importance of the doctrine of creation to be, overshadowed, if not eclipsed, by doctrines of fall, original sin, and even redemption. Not only is attention often shifted largely to the theme of salvation, but the richness of the theme of creation tends to be lost. Without a strong doctrine of creation, salvation too easily gets read as salvation from the world of creation and creatureliness. Yet the divine Incarnation itself is a reaffirmation of creation: God in carnis, in the flesh. The Word that was "made flesh and dwelt among us" is the same Word that in the beginning made flesh. "All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1:3, 4 RSV).
Now whatever the doctrine of salvation may be taken to mean, it must not be allowed to mean that we have grown so weary or bored or disgusted or disenchanted with life that we reject this world. The world of redemption must not be permitted to negate the world of creation or be separated from it. It is precisely this world of space, time, and matter, this world of sexuality and food and material things, this world of children and daily bread and household duties, this world of countless momentary concerns, that is created and sustained and redeemed by God. It is this world that, in itself, is the gift of God's grace, and therefore in its most inconsequential forms is worthy of attention, marvel, thanksgiving, and delight. Salvation is not a repudiation of or escape from this world, but its redemption and fulfillment. It is life made whole and complete. "I am come that they might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10 RSV).
In this context, comedy can serve to renew our appreciation for the importance and symbolic depth of the biblical affirmation of creation. For there is in comedy a central element of celebration of this common humanity of ours, a fundamental yea-saying to the curious business of being mortal creatures of the earth. Being "all too human" is not seen as a great weight that drags us down, or a curse that has been placed upon us, but something potentially delightful. For the proud and pretentious, this may not be so delightful. Or for those who require abstract perfection, sublime heroism, and clear and distinct ideas, comic revelations may not be so amusing. But for those who are not pretenders to thrones that are not theirs, or to a divinity they have not attained, or even to some superior form of humanity, the comedian enables us to embrace ourselves and each other as the luminous lumps that we are: the image of God imprinted in the clay of earth.
5 Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (Simon and Schuster, 1952), p. 151.
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The comedian is more than an ironist or satirist, with clever wit revealing the faults and follies of others, and the myriad imperfections and injustices and evils of life. The comedian is also a "creationist." In comedy, the message of the vanity of all human enterprise is counterbalanced-as in the book of Ecclesiastes-by the message of the intrinsic worth of the most mundane preoccupations. "[God] has made everything beautiful in its time . It is God's gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil" (Eccl. 3:11, 13 RSV).