The following is adapted from a commencement address given for the Seattle Pacific University master of fine arts in creative writing on August 3, 2013.
OUR THEME FOR THIS residency has been comedy. As we’ve discovered, it’s a difficult topic precisely because we think we know all about it already. A number of truisms trip off our tongues: for example, that comedy is hard to write and even harder to act on stage or screen.
But I believe the single greatest obstacle to reflecting seriously on the meaning of comedy in our time is the widespread conviction that we are living in the golden age of comedy. After all, this is the era of the Colbert Report, The Simpsons, The Onion, and 24/7 stand-up routines on cable. Who among us is not eagerly awaiting the release of Jackass 4? I just discovered the show Drunk History on Comedy Central, which I think is going to make my labors for the rest of this summer a great deal easier to bear.
Some of these cultural productions are better than others, of course. I for one think that Stephen Colbert, good Catholic boy that he is, is a future candidate for canonization. I won’t see it in my lifetime, but I earnestly hope that my children will one day be able to pray: “Saint Stephen, by thy blessed irony, deliver us from the blow-hard pomposity of politicians and televangelists; by thy sacred innuendo, save us from our obsession with fatuous celebrities, reality shows, and diet plans; teach us that we shall know the truthiness and the truthiness shall set us free, that we might come to share the sniggers at human folly enjoyed by the saints in heaven, Amen.”
But here’s the thing: not everything that is funny is comic, just as not everything that is sad is tragic. We are awash in humor, but comedy as a genre is rarer these days than you might assume. To speak of comedy as a genre may sound like nothing more than an academic exercise, but that is because we have lost an understanding of the richness behind the concept of genre. To speak of genre is not merely to engage in the taxonomy of literary forms, but to probe the very nature of our way of perceiving the world. Which is why it’s worth recalling the words of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who wrote: “One might say that human consciousness possesses a series of inner genres for seeing and conceptualizing reality.”
The nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt came close to a definition of both the comic and the tragic when he said: “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”
That difference between is and ought—let’s say between the Garden of Eden and the world in exile from it—leads to confusion and conflict, which may be resolved either by the severity of judgment and loss or the mercy of forgiveness and restoration.
Hazlitt’s statement put me in mind of the twentieth-century British journalist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge once discussed comedy on a television show with William F. Buckley Jr.: “Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy—attempting something utterly impossible—to climb up to heaven through a steeple. The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things [are] both built into this building to the glory of God.”
But, Buckley asks, what is the gargoyle laughing at? Muggeridge replies: “He’s laughing at the inadequacy of man, the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap—disparity—between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life. It will be so till the end of time, you see.”
Muggeridge brings together here the two central concerns of this MFA program: art and faith. In the end, Muggeridge would argue, there can be no true comedy without the ability to see human life sub specie aeternitatis—under the aspect of eternity. Comedy can only thrive when we are conscious of both our fallenness and of the grace that redeems us. The truth is that more often than not we’re the ones who drop the banana skins we slip on. And when we cry for help we know that it will take some wild act of mercy for us to be given the hand that hoists us up again.
Having said that, it is necessary to point out that people of faith are often the last to embrace comedy. That’s because at the heart of comedy there is an anarchic energy that subverts all hierarchies, all pretensions to moral authority and rectitude. The quintessence of comedy is the carnival—the feast day that in the middle ages put the bishop’s mitre on the head of a young boy and made masters attend their servants.
Carnival mixes together things that we normally try to keep separate. As Bakhtin puts it: “Carnival…combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the lowly, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid….”
This comic leveling or democratizing action reminds us of our folly—that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Though we act as if some are lofty and some are lowly, the reality is that we are all simultaneously lofty and lowly. When Bottom the weaver, his head turned into that of an ass, shares a romantic moment with Titania, queen of the fairies, there is something both laughably absurd and spiritually resonant about their tryst.
One of the chief characteristics of our falling short is precisely the division we allow to take root in our lives, the way we allow our minds to be separated from our bodies, judgment to be separated from mercy, reason to be sundered from imagination. When we become obsessed by the abstractions derived from either science or religion we attempt to live like angels—impossibly lofty—divorced from the neediness and fragility of flesh. The result is that we end up at the other extreme, living like beasts—as low as you can get—without the leavening of soul that makes us whole and human.
Consider the way this plays out in one of the texts we’ve been reading. The protagonist of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, Dr. Thomas More, thinks of himself—quite rightly—as a bad Catholic, but even if he is subject to the ills of this modern, riven world, he still has access to the healing wisdom of his faith: “Dear God, I can see it now, why can’t I see it at other times, that it is you I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.”
The greatest tool of comedy is irony, which may be defined simply as a literary device that puts us in mind of the disparity between appearance and reality, aspiration and achievement. Like comedy itself, irony has come in for criticism by those who believe they speak for goodness, truth, and beauty. And it is true that in our time irony is often diminished to a habit of sneering at every hope or ideal.
But we must never forget that this form of irony is reductionist, because comic irony points out the gap between divine order and human disorder: it is a subtle sign pointing to what we have lost and what we must regain. It should come as no surprise that two of the most savage, biting satirists of our literary tradition—Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh—successfully yoked their anarchic imaginations and harsh cultural indictments to a Christian understanding of folly and evil.
The great works of literary comedy achieve their poignance because the stories they tell could just as easily end in tragedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with the pronouncement of a death sentence. Much Ado about Nothing contains an evil committed against the reputation of a helpless woman; when Benedick, late in the play, asks Beatrice, his comic sparring partner, what he can do for her, she shoots back: “Kill Claudio.”
And she’s not joking.
Comedy presents us with a story in which the threat of tragedy is averted. More often than not, the lifting of this threat comes not through the virtuous actions of the characters but by their very stumbling through enchanted, disconcerting forests into the absurd places their follies take them. Or, to put it another way, we are saved from absurdity by an even greater absurdity.
You might call this greater absurdity grace. Or mercy. Or forgiveness. The solution to the scrambled irrationality of our divided souls isn’t rationality itself but the supra-rational truth that divine love is greater than worldly logic. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner claimed that the parables of Jesus cannot be rightly understood without seeing them in a comic light. What the parables “are essentially about,” he says, “is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.” Workers who labor for just one hour are paid the same as those who toil for eight. Despised outsiders behave with more compassion than those who make a living out of being holy. Buechner concludes: “Blessed is he who is not offended that no man receives what he deserves but vastly more. Blessed is he who gets that joke, who sees that miracle.”
Comedy dovetails with the subversive topsyturvydom of grace, the theme of Mary’s Magnificat. Stop for a moment and imagine with me the outcome of the Virgin’s prayer: the mighty have been cast down from their thrones: they roll down the hill in all their finery like any Jack and Jill. Naturally, they are stunned and angry at first, their dignity in the dust. But as they look around and brush themselves off perhaps they feel just a little sheepish and relieved; the pretense is over, the burden lifted.
And now consider the lowly: they have suddenly been lifted up, higher than the Sears Tower or Mount Everest. As they catch their breath and steady themselves and gaze out from the heights, seeing for the first time for great distances, and the curvature of the earth in all its finitude and beauty, all they can do is laugh, laugh, laugh.
So I say to you graduates: even if comedy is not your literary forte, find a place for it in your writing and your lives, because comedy itself lurks within other forms and genres—even tragedy, as the drunken porter in Macbeth reminds us. Never hesitate to depict human folly in all its polymorphous buffoonery. Remember, finally, that your writing should never place you above your reader; it must always implicate you in the general foolishness. Then the democracy of our creaturehood, the grandeur and the ridiculousness of the human condition will shine forth, uniting us all in the grace that makes us whole.