Humour that tickles God

Redeeming Laughter
January 1, 1999

One of life's more embarrassing experiences is that of telling a joke or making a witty remark that is greeted with incomprehension. Peter Berger, in this wide-ranging study, ostensibly of comic laughter, tries to leaven his self-appointed task with a jaunty mixture of persiflage, facetiousness and avuncular jocularity. For this reader, the resulting oscillations between the heavily didactic and the jokey simply do not work.

My problem with Berger's unbuttoned and anecdotal procedures is not merely a stylistic one. Playful informality which can work at a level of belles lettres or table talk, creates an ubiquitous uncertainty in what purports to be a scholarly monograph. When we are told that "Thomas Hobbes ... had some nasty things to say about laughter", or that, "of course, Aristophanes had some very nasty things to say about Socrates", it is either assumed that the reader already knows what they are, or that the purpose of such statements is to hint at authorial breadth. Despite an abundance of recondite footnotes, Berger is frequently casual to the point of inaccuracy in his use of quotation. Samuel Johnson did not say that "Second marriages represent a triumph of hope over experience". He was, according to Boswell, speaking of the second marriage of a particular gentleman who had endured an unhappy first marriage. Pius XI did not say "We have all become Jews" but that "we are all spiritually semite". Pius XI was not, as Berger supposes, indicating the modern condition of the "homeless" consciousness, but helpfully reminding a world menaced by Nazism of the common provenance of Western religion. Lesser, but related, quibbles include careless proof-reading (e.g. Hillaire (sic) Belloc and Richard Elman (sic)) and the lack of an index.

All this is a great pity, for Berger has many interesting things to say, is widely read and argues with a cogent passion. This is not so much a book about laughter as about the phenomenon that provokes comic laughter, namely humour. It recapitulates a range of philosophical, psychological and sociological speculation on the subject, hypothesising that humour, in all its manifestations, arises from a recognition of incongruence. More controversially, taking his cue from Kierkegaard's intuition that "irony is a precursor of religious insight", Berger sees in humour's promptings to think in another dimension an intimation of transcendence for, he urges, "Man is in a state of comic discrepancy with respect to the order of the universe", being, as Pascal observed, poised between nothing and the infinite. The thought is strangely compelling, though a Kierkegaardian leap of faith is perhaps required at this point.

Berger is particularly good at using etymologies to establish links between modernity, with its pluralised vision of the world and the aboriginal Dionysian komos . He reminds us that ecstasy ( ek stasis , or standing outside) is a metaphor that is shared by both spiritual and comic "finite provinces of meaning". He explores the virtually universal outbreaks of licensed folly in pre-modern societies, as the transitional link between Dionysian ritual and the relatively modern forms of tragicomedy, irony, satire and wit. He sees in The Praise of Folly the first sustained analysis of humour in a recognisably modern sense. I am not convinced, however, that we can regard Erasmus as "the progenitor of modern humor". One has only to think of the continuing accessibility of Chaucer.

The second section of the book is devoted to "Comic forms of expression", mainly exemplified by literature. I am sorry that these literary instances are so confined by considerations of genre, for it would have been more interesting to explore wider questions relating to humour and literature. Is it possible to be a really great writer while virtually lacking a sense of humour? The obvious answer, thinking of Milton or Wordsworth, is in the affirmative. But even Milton is occasionally, through this incapacity, betrayed into unintended absurdity. Comus , a text obliquely germane to the subject of humour, contains the bathetic: "Was I deceiv'd, or did a sable cloud/Turn forth her silver lining on the night?/ I did not err, there does a sable cloud/ Turn forth her silver lining on the night I" Berger is clearly out of sympathy with satirical writing, which he chooses to exemplify by the idiosyncratic and consistently unfunny work of Karl Kraus. Had he argued from a somewhat wider basis, he would, one feels, be less inclined to repeat Northrop Frye's assertion that "the satirist and his audience must agree on the undesirability of the object of attack". It is abundantly clear that say, Dryden's Absolom and Architophel , does not rely for its effect on the reader's feelings about Shadwell.

Perhaps Berger's theological preoccupations, with which this book concludes, deflect him from giving any significant attention to the darker aspects of humour. Pope's The Dunciad , for example, would have provided a telling 18th-century counterpoint to Erasmus. He even takes Oscar Wilde and H. L. Mencken (his two examples of "wit") to task for their "proudly ... cynical Weltanschauung that I find offensive". His oddly moralistic angle of vision is apt to blind him to the more aggressive areas of comic experience. He is most at ease with the benign humour of Jeeves and Wooster or the light confections of The Merry Widow . He quotes, without apparent irony, Belloc's verdict that Wodehouse was "the best living English author" - presumably without realising that the author of the unbenign Cautionary Tales was in a state of semi-senility when he declared this judgement.

Ronald Warwick is on the editorial board of Wasafiri .

Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience

Author - Peter L. Berger
ISBN - 3 11 015562 1
Publisher - De Gruyter
Price - £13.00
Pages - 215

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