18 June 2008


The inevitable sense of loss that accompanies death: let's accept this as our jumping off point, our Ur-story. All of religion is one elaborate fiction that attempts to explain it, however unsatisfactorily, as a fundamental flaw in our being and our circumstance that some distant god is trying either to correct or somehow redeem or, barring that, at least put a hopeful spin on it which we will come to understand someday if we keep the faith, baby. James Wood complains that Bart Ehrman and, for that matter, the Bible fail to put a happy face on it for him to comprehend. Sorry, Jim.

The thousand-faced hero's quest, central to all mythology (per Joseph Campbell) and pre-modern literature, is, if we read the Gilgamesh aright, likewise a reaction to our grief in the face of this loss. Helen (lately of Troy). (Nearly) Penelope. Oedipus's patrimony and, indeed, his identity; his eyes. We could go on. In the classic formulation, the emotions relevant to this Ur-story were pity and fear: we pity the Loser and fear we ourselves might soon become one. So, the thinking went, the fictional protrayals of this Ur-story should follow certain formal, dramatic rules which would work to elicit these very emotions in us, viscerally introducing us to the appropriate coping mechanisms native to our nature. Tragedy as therapy. A sentimental education.

These two strategies, the religious (hope for something better) and the literary (grapple with them and thus get a grip on those bad feelings) did the trick for a number of centuries. Oh, there have been any number of intellectual attempts to justify or, better yet, explain the problem to the denser of us. But that all feels like mental masturbation, nothing really productive comes out all those gymnastic efforts.

Then along came the modern world—more people, more information, seemingly more evil—and a potentially "new" solution: laughter. James Joyce once told his friend Eugene Jolas that he "was interested in a comic version of Leibniz's essay on theodicy." You can judge for yourself whether his Finnegans Wake succeeded at this; Ulysses is pretty funny. Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, implies there was a vast conspiracy by the early Christian fathers to squelch any hint of the comedic in the works of Aristotle (the patron secular saint of patristics), because if the people learned to laugh at the inevitability of loss they would no longer honor the churchly hierarchy. That's not to say there was no comedy prior to the 20th Century. Au contraire: M. Voltaire takes a pretty sure, satiric shot across Freiherr Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds" Theodicy bow in Candide. It's just that comedy, to the 'serious'-minded among us, simply wasn't considered serious enough, especially for such a monumental problem. Besides, Voltaire was French.

[to be continued]

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