July 15, 2011

Christian + Classical Approaches to Comedy

Robert Menkoff, 1987, The New Yorker

Do you ever have those nights where you cannot get any rest?  You're up for hours, jaw clenched, unable to relax, mind wide awake. I guess I am lucky; I get them very rarely.  But last night, man, it was awful.  And when I finally did sleep, it was filled with odd, tense dreams.  I clearly need to stop reading mysteries before bed, no matter how charming their protagonist.  (I'm not the only one who didn't sleep.) Maybe it was the full moon.  It always makes me a little nutty.

All this is to say, I am in no frame of mind to pull together another clippings post this week, even though I have a bunch of fun things to share with you.  Instead, I urge you to read this great piece on the Christian and Pagan approach to humor in poetry by dear Anthony Esolen.  It's a longer piece, but well worth the effort.

Now and then, Homer hints that there may be something like the depth of human personality, of longing and memory and love, beneath a few of these fools. Even the Cyclops, groping about the sheep after Odysseus and his men have put out his eye, addresses the ram of the flock with real affection and regret. But we expect no wisdom from Polyphemus. Nor from the suitors. The noblest of them, Amphinomus, when Odysseus appeals to him in the guise of a beggar, can only look down, knowing that he and his fellows are doing wrong. But he says nothing. He cannot repent. He, too, shall die.

In that classical world, there is hardly a chance that the fool will speak wisdom. “Greeks seek wisdom, and the Jews seek signs,” says Paul with rare defiance, “but I preach Christ crucified, a stumbling stone to the Jews and folly to the Greeks!” But the folly of God is wiser than men. Wiser even than Greeks. It slaps the staid old classical world silly. There, a man who loses his reputation loses everything. But Christ made himself of no repute, and took the form of a slave, obedient unto death; and he made all things new.

Behold, then, what a cavalcade of Christian fools storms the world! Don Quixote, Bottom the Weaver, Parson Adams, Cordelia, Mr. Dick, Joe Gargery, Sebastian Flyte, Miss Watson’s Jim, Samwise, the courtly mouse Reepicheep. No mere literary tradition, that, but a reflection of how things really are. Says Jesus, “I praise thee, Father in heaven, and give thee glory, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise of this age, and revealed them unto babes.” For just as only someone who knows he is a wretch begs for grace, so only someone who knows he is a fool is ready to see.

Read the whole article here (it appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Touchstone Magazine). Have a blessed weekend, everyone!

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