The function of comedy

From Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature,” in Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective:

Aristotle made a provocative comment about the common subject matter of tragedy and comedy when he said that they both deal with “some defect or ugliness.” The Greek word that Aristotle uses is hamartia—literally a missing of the mark in archery and and the famous “character flaw” of tragedy. In comedy this defect “is not painful or destructive,” while in tragedy it is. Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it. Paradoxically, notes Bernard Schilling, “in tragedy man seems great after all, in comedy he seems small after all.”

It is not easy to say why the spectacle of human defect strikes us as funny in comedy. The same experiences in real life are painful. It is obvious that the angle of vision is part of the explanation. In comedy we ourselves must feel superior to the comic victim before we laugh at his or her misfortune. 

Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good. A book on the comic entitled A Divine Average argues that comedy not only endorses the average but idealizes it. Comedy levels us all into a community of ordinary people. In comedy we judge the human condition as limited and flawed, but we are reconciled to it and accept our place in it.

A book entitled Why Literature Is Bad For You observes that “the most renowned stories of the Western World are frequently built around a central bungler whose incompetence has the effect of injuring a good many around him” and then draws the conclusion that literature makes us tolerant of competence. I would suggest an alternative conclusion: reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a “given” of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure

Are all texts equal?

In Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, Louis Markos writes about how our age has “lost its faith in the ability of language to embody truth.” One of his examples is relevant to my academic discipline:

Nearly all students who come out of academia these days have been brainwashed into using the word “text” to refer to all written forms of expression (and often non-written ones as well). The reason behind this academic brainwashing (carefully obscured by those promoting the postmodern agenda) is to nudge students away from traditional ranking of genres into a radically egalitarian view that treats all forms of expression as possessing equal value. No text is to be privileged over (or granted more inherent, lasting worth than) any other text. A novel by Dickens, an issue of the New York Times, a piece of pornography from the Internet, the lyrics of a rap song, the Illiad of Homer, a TV sitcom – all are to be accorded the same worth (which means, in the end, that all are equally worthless). None of the works listed in the preceding sentence lies closer to “Truth” or “Beauty”; none is to be criticized for violating standards of decency or morality. They are all just . . . well . . . texts.  

John Updike’s “Scarlet Letter” trilogy

For a long time I held off on naming my favorite novel. But after returning to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), which I have not read since high school, I am now prepared to declare it as my favorite, both for its elevated style and gravitational substance. I was fascinated to learn that Hawthorne inspired acclaimed American writer John Updike to rewrite The Scarlet Letter by examining life in mid-to-late 20th century America through the lead characters of Hawthorne’s novel. Below are publisher descriptions of Updike’s trilogy.

From Arthur Dimmesdale’s point of view: A Month of Sundays (1975)

9780449912201.jpegIn this antic riff on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the Reverend Tom Marshfield, a latter-day Arthur Dimmesdale, is sent west from his Midwestern parish in sexual disgrace. At a desert retreat dedicated to rest, recreation, and spiritual renewal, this fortyish serial fornicator is required to keep a journal whose thirty-one weekly entries constitute the book you now hold in your hand. In his wonderfully overwrought style he lays bare his soul and his past—his marriage to the daughter of his ethics professor, his affair with his organist, his antipathetic conversations with his senile father and his bisexual curate, his golf scores, his poker hands, his Biblical exegeses, and his smoldering desire for the directress of the retreat, the impregnable Ms. Prynne. A testament for our times.

From Roger Chillingworth’s point of view: Roger’s Version (1986)  

9780449912188.jpegAs Roger Lambert tells it, he, a middle-aged professor of divinity, is buttonholed in his office by Dale Kohler, an earnest young computer scientist who believes that quantifiable evidence of God’s existence is irresistibly accumulating. The theological-scientific debate that ensues, and the wicked strategies that Roger employs to disembarrass Dale of his faith, form the substance of this novel—these and the current of erotic attraction that pulls Esther, Roger’s much younger wife, away from him and into Dale’s bed. The novel, a majestic allegory of faith and reason, ends also as a black comedy of revenge, for this is Roger’s version—Roger Chillingworth’s side of the triangle described by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—made new for a disbelieving age.

From Hester Prynne’s point of view: S. (1988)

9780449912126.jpegS. is the story of Sarah P. Worth, a thoroughly modern spiritual seeker who has become enamored of a Hindu mystic called the Arhat. A native New Englander, she goes west to join his ashram in Arizona, and there struggles alongside fellow sannyasins (pilgrims) in the difficult attempt to subdue ego and achieve moksha (salvation, release from illusion). “S.” details her adventures in letters and tapes dispatched to her husband, her daughter, her brother, her dentist, her hairdresser, and her psychiatrist—messages cleverly designed to keep her old world in order while she is creating for herself a new one. This is Hester Prynne’s side of the triangle described by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter; it is also a burlesque of the quest for enlightenment, and an affectionate meditation on American womanhood.

Literary Criticism: James A. Schiff, Updike’s Version: Rewriting the Scarlet Letter (1992)

ProductImageHandler.ashx.pngAlthough many readers are aware of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, fewer have paid close attention to his other multivolume work, “The Scarlet Letter trilogy.”  In Updike’s Version, James Schiff provides the first full-length critical analysis of Updike’s trilogy since the publication of its final volume in 1988.  He demonstrates how Hawthorne’s classic novel of adulterous love and divided selves has become an American myth, and how Updike, in his trilogy, has sought to expand, update, and satirize that myth.  The three volumes that make up the trilogy, A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger’s Version (1986), and S. (1988), engage in a dialogue with Hawthorne’s novel, commenting upon and altering the original story.  To understand the nature of this dialogue, Schiff employs a methodolgy specifically suited to Updike’s mythical method, in which special attention is given to reader expectation, parody, point of view, and principles of fragmentation and condensation.

Updike’s Version covers new ground in Updike’s studies, revealing how the intertextual dialogue between Updike and Hawthorne is far more complex and extensive than has yet been acknowledged.  Providing close and detailed readings of the novels, Updike’s Version will be of major importance to students and scholars of John Updike, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s canonical American text, and American literature in general.

How to identify a worldview in literature

In Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken, a Professor of English at Wheaton College, helpfully writes:

The simplest way to conceive of world view in literature is to identify what value is elevated to a position of supremacy. This value also becomes an integrating force, so that all aspects of life are defined in terms of it. This central value is what Nathan Scott calls the work’s “ultimate concern” – some “fundamental hypothesis about the nature of existence which . . . introduces structure and coherence . . . into the formless stuff of life.”

In addition to a central integrating value, a world view consists of basic premises about God, people, and the universe. The imagined world that a piece of literature presents is offered to us as the author’s picture of reality – of what is and what ought to be. To identify a world view in literature, therefore, we can ask such questions as these: According to this picture, what really exists? What is the exact nature of these things? What constitutes good and evil behavior? What is valuable and worthless? What is the good life?

An additional useful tool of analysis is to regard the major characters in a story (especially the protagonist) as undertaking an experiment in living. A character’s experiment in living is tested during the course of a story, and its successful or unsuccessful outcome is an implied comment on its adequacy or inadequacy.

The Christian allegiance of a work is seen chiefly in its world view. A Christian novel, claimed Flannery O’Connor, is not identified by its subject matter but is instead a story “in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.” It is Christian by virtue of “what it assumes about human and divine reality.”

What is literary criticism?

Gordon Teskey, a Professor of English at Harvard University, opens his new book, The Poetry of John Milton, with a lovely apologia for literary criticism:

The present book is an exercise in the art of literary criticism, which I take to be the appreciation of quality, of excellence, in art made with words. Literary criticism is not science; it does not prove and discover; it persuades and reveals. But the chances of a work of literary criticism being worth reading outside expert scholarly circles are much increased if it first meets their standards, which often do involve proof and discovery. Philology, in the broad sense of the word, is where criticism starts from, but not where it ends. 

That is because criticism has a higher aim, which may be described as moral and humanizing. Literary criticism is the appreciation of verbal art as a power that elevates our ordinary experience in almost every way. Literature cultivates wisdom, courage, generosity, breadth of outlook, intellectual and moral judgment, a reflective passion for justice, and, not the least of these things, pleasure, civilized pleasure as opposed to brutal or trivial pleasures. But literature also enhances our capacity for sympathizing with others, or at least for understanding them, by allowing us to travel into different moral worlds, such as that of Homer, or the authors of Genesis, or the author of Paradise Lost. Literary criticism strives to show why certain works of literature are good, why they have enduring quality, and, however different their values are from our own, why they are not only civilized but civilizing. I should add that I use the word civilizing and civil, cavils “of the city,” with the intention of including politics, concern with the polis, the polity. For it seems to me – I say this as someone who cares about all the arts – that literature comes first among them because it is made with our political instrument, language. Certainly John Milton put literature – which for him meant poetry – first among the civilizing arts, and I have written this book in agreement with his judgment on the matter. 

Sin is a failure of love

Rod Dreher, a popular blogger for The American Conservative website, writes in his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem:

Sin is not the breaking of moral rules, but a failure of love. We love the wrong things, or we love the right things in the wrong way. All of us do this; it is the human condition. Nevertheless, you are responsible for your own sin. It’s why you are in crisis.

Thinking of sin as law-breaking, as many of us do, disguises the way it works on our hearts and minds, and keeps us from dealing with it effectively. Here’s a better model: Think of love as light, and sin as gravity, a force that bends light. The stronger the gravitational field, the farther love will fall from its mark. Hell is a black hole, where the light of love goes to die. Your goal in life: to put as much distance between your heart and the black hole’s deadly gravity field as you can. Passing too close to it will make even your most sincere acts of love land far from their intended destination.


Three American stories of hope

In The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, literary critic Andrew Delbanco writes:

Human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days—pain, desire, pleasure, fear—into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope. And if such a sustaining narrative establishes itself over time in the minds of a substantial number of people, we call it culture. Without some such symbolic structure by which hope is expressed, one would be, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has put it, “a kind of formless monster with neither sense of direction nor power of self-control, a chaos of spasmodic impulses and vague emotions.” We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the “dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world.” 

When I teach American literature, I owe a significant debt to Delbanco’s perspicacious schema of our national history into three sequential stories of hope:

images.jpegA fundamental question of our literature has always been how to find release from this feeling of living without propulsion and without aim; and every writer drawn to the theme has concluded, with the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, that hope depends on finding some “end to be pursued more extensive than a merely instant desire”

In the first phase of our civilization, hope was chiefly expressed through a Christian story that gave meaning to suffering and pleasure alike and promised deliverance from death. This story held the imagination largely without challenge for nearly two hundred years. In the second phase, as Christianity came under pressure from Enlightenment rationality, the promise of self-realization was transformed into the idea of citizenship in a sacred union. This process, which began before the Revolution and did not run its course until the 1960s, has been efficiently described by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who makes clear that it was by no means unique to the United States: “The Enlightenment removes a personal God . . . delegitimizes kingship, by desacralizing it,” and substitutes “the people—a particular people in a particular land . . . the idea of a deified nation.” Finally, in the third phase—our own—the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology. It continues to be pursued through New Age spirituality, apocalyptic environmentalism, and the “multicultural” search for ancestral roots; but our most conspicuous symbols (to use a word considerably degraded since it appeared at the opening of the Gospel according to John) are the logos of corporate advertising—the golden arches and the Nike swoosh. Though vivid and ubiquitous, such symbols will never deliver the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self.

This is our contemporary dilemma: we live with undiminished need, but without adequate means, for attaining what William James called the feeling of “elation and freedom” that comes only “when the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.”