Prudence is at the heart of the conservative disposition toward the world, and prudence calls us to laugh with conscience, recognizing that laughter can just as easily undermine goodness as it can affirm and celebrate that goodness. And lest this sound like a mood-dampening admonishment, let us also remember that the only true festival is the one that emerges out of love, joy, and the affirmation that we and this world we live in are essentially good and worth celebrating.
In Mark Twain’s harrowing short story The Mysterious Stranger, Satan visits the mythical Austrian town of Eseldorf and slowly corrupts two young boys. At first, the boys are enamored with the lightness of being that Satan appears to have, the sense of joviality that allows him to laugh almost without ceasing. Over time, the boys grow more uncomfortable with Satan’s sense of humor, recognizing it as demeaning the weight of human suffering and indeed undermining all perception of the dignity of human life. In one crucial scene, Satan tells the boys that humanity has only one effective weapon, namely laughter. He says, “power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” Twain, himself an accomplished satirist, was no stranger to the ability of comedy to challenge society’s norms, cultures, and institutions, and one wonders if he meant his story to be a warning that unrestrained laughter can lead to the utter obliteration of social order. But regardless of authorial intent, the text certainly reveals a dark side to laughter, a theme that has recently been explored by essayists Peter Leithart (First Things) and David Brooks (New York Times). This essay will explore the insights of these two commentators in conversation with the philosophies of Charles Taylor and Josef Pieper to argue for the need for prudence when including comedy in our contemporary political discourse.
There are a lot of overlapping ideas in Peter Leithart’s essay “Laughing Into Modernity” and David Brooks’ essay “The Lord of Misrule.” Both writers point out that when it came to laughter, the Church Fathers were not, shall we say, enthusiastic. Dr. Leithart quotes Gregory of Nyssa who saw laughter as “an unseemly bodily loosening, agitated breathing, a shaking of the whole body, dilation of the cheeks, baring of teeth, gums and palate, stretching of the neck, and an abnormal breaking up of the voice as it is cut into by the fragmentation of the breath.” Likewise, Mr. Brooks quotes Gregory of Nazianzus who urged believers to “sing hymns instead of striking drums, have psalms instead of frivolous music and song, … modesty instead of laughter, wise contemplation instead of intoxication, seriousness instead of delirium.” Similarity, both writers recognize evidence of a cultural shift away from the patristics such that within medieval culture, comedy met with the approval and even the encouragement of the scholastics, albeit in qualified ways contingent on theme and context. Finally, both writers identify the medieval carnivals as an expression of this encouraged comedy, a chance to release pent up energy, to crown the fool as king in playful mimicry, and to engage in excessive feasting and drinking that pushed past the normal boundaries of what was permitted in medieval culture.
From this point, the essays diverge, though in ways that need not signal disagreement. Dr. Leithart traces the history of laughter through the Renaissance where writers like Erasmus used laughter to critique the Church, to the Reformation, where reformers used comedic pamphlets and cartoons to attack the Church, and to the Enlightenment wherein comedy began to be used against Christianity itself. This history is significant, as will be shown momentarily. Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks uses this groundwork regarding carnivals to critique President Trump. Mr. Brooks writes that we are living within “carnival culture” and that we have “crowned a fool king.” This is not a reckless charge by Mr. Brooks, for he goes on to explain his precise meaning, writing that President Trump’s tweets are “classic fool behavior…raw, ridiculous and frequently self-destructive. He takes on an icon of the official culture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the message of the tweet. It’s to symbolically upend hierarchy, to be oppositional.” Mr. Brooks goes on to identify two problems with this Trumpian carnival: “the first problem with today’s carnival culture is that there’s an ocean of sadism lurking just below the surface. The second is that it’s not real. It doesn’t really address the inequalities that give rise to it. It’s just combative display.” In light of these two problems, Mr. Brooks nobly resolves to “to write about Trump only on the presidential level, not on the carnival level” and to “respond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets.” As intriguing as Mr. Brooks’ argument is, he may fundamentally misunderstand the medieval carnival and consequently where he sees the Trump phenomenon as a carnival. The phenomenon is actually symptomatic of something far worse than a carnival, and something that encompasses large swaths of both the political Right and the political Left.
Mr. Brooks reads the medieval carnival as something “the people created” as a way to “take a whack at the status quo.” In this reading, the medieval hierarchical Church held all the power, but the carnivals were a way for the people to safely contest that power for a time, to assert themselves over and against the mandates of the Church. Mr. Brooks also claims that “in hard times” the carnivals “served as occasions for genuine populist revolts,” such as in 1511 when “a carnival in Udine, Italy, turned into a riot that led to the murder of 50 nobles and the sacking of more than 20 palaces.” Charles Taylor, in his monumental tome A Secular Age, posits a very different understanding of the function of the carnival. He writes that they were not “putting forward an alternative to the established order, in anything like the sense we understand in modern politics, that is, presenting an antithetical order of things which might replace the prevailing dispensation.” Instead, the comedy of the carnivals were “enframed by an understanding that betters, superiors, virtue, ecclesial charisma, etc., ought to rule: the humor was in that sense not ultimately serious” (46). In other words, carnivals suspended the social order, perhaps to meet the needs of the psyche or perhaps to heighten the experience of the next religious season (as Mardi Gras prepares us for Lent which prepares us for Easter), but those carnivals were never an attack on the social order or an attempt to replace it. Dr. Taylor would say that Mr. Brooks’ error is symptomatic of our modernist thinking and our diminished ability to understand the carnival, not being part of a culture that actually has carnivals in any proper form. Indeed, Dr. Taylor identifies as one consequence of the eclipse of the carnival a suspension of social order (he calls this suspension “anti-structure”), a modern “propensity to believe that the perfect code wouldn’t need to be limited, that one could and should enforce it without restriction.” Dr. Taylor notes that this propensity is the driving idea behind both the totalitarian regimes of our day and perhaps less obvious campus “speech codes” and other expressions of enforced “political correctness” (51).
If Dr. Taylor is right that carnivals are not assaults on social order or an attempt to replace them, then what exactly is the Trump phenomenon that Mr. Brooks so insightfully critiques? Perhaps Dr. Taylor would use the word “revolution” to describe this phenomenon. He writes, “Carnival and Revolution can never coincide, no matter how close playful revolutionaries try to bring them. The aim of revolution is to replace the present order. It mines previous anti-structures to design a new code of freedom, community, radical fraternity” (53). Fundamentally, the difference between the carnival and the revolution is that while the former looks at the social order and ultimately affirms its goodness, the latter says “it is not good” and attempts to set something in its place. This insight leads us to the brilliant German philosopher, Josef Pieper and his insights on festivals and antifestivals. Pieper, it should be briefly noted, was a neo-Thomistic of the 20th century who lived during the rise of the Nazi regime and whose writings were often a subtle deconstruction of the Nazi project.
In Pieper’s understanding, a festival, of which the carnival is a particular kind, is “essentially a phenomenon of wealth; not to be sure, the wealth of money, but of existential richness” (19). He writes that “…a real festival cannot be conceived without joy” and that “first there must be a substantial reason for joy, which might also be called the festive occasion.” Notably, Pieper does not think it is enough for the festive occasion to exist objectively but remain unknown to man; instead, for there to be festival, “men must also accept and acknowledge it as a reason for joy; they must experience it themselves as a receiving of something they love” (23). He quotes Chrysostom: “Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas, ‘where love rejoices, there is festivity’” (23). Crucially, it is this love of goodness, not merely the presence of pleasure, that makes one festive and capable of participating in festival. Thus, he writes that though “for a festival to develop a broad and rich appeal, jesting, gaiety, and laughter cannot be excluded from it, nor even some riotousness and carnival” it also true that “a festival becomes true festivity only when it affirms the goodness” of man’s existence and calls forth in him “the response of joy” (29). In contrast to the real festival is the caricature. He writes that “…in an existence founded on negation, festivity becomes a caricature of itself” (56) wherein the true festive affirmation of the goodness of the world is “falsified into a smug yea-saying, whose basic element is a desire to fend off reality, so as not to be disturbed” (58). This caricature leads to an existential poverty in which man greedily consumes the entertaining pleasures of the Sophists or the Epicureans, without even realizing that he has lost both sight of true festivity and, more pitiably, the ability to be truly festive.
Worse than the cotton-candy of the Sophists is the sugary poison of the propagandists who fabricate artificial festivals out of thin air as part of the civil function of the State. Pieper writes that “contemporary accounts of the festivals of the French Revolution reek of boredom, the infinite boredom of utter unreality…” (65). He writes that “the fundamental vapidness of these artificial festivals is clearly exposed when we try to find out what they are actually celebrating. What is the object, the reason, the occasion?” (65). Similarly to Pieper, Dr. Taylor also notes that the French Revolution is a perfect example of this attempt to new social order through fabricated festivals. He writes that “the anti-structural elements of Carnival were sometimes borrowed” in service to the Revolution but that we ought to distinguish them from Carnivals proper (51). As with Dr. Leithart, Dr. Taylor also makes the point that this Revolution was fueled by a “destructive mockery” that was “directed against the old religion and the ancien regime in general. It aimed to complete the destruction of the reigning code’s [social order] enemies, not to suspend the code itself” (51).
Revolution is bad, but Pieper goes on to show us that there is something worse, something which I think the Trump phenomenon is ushering us toward: namely, the artificial festival of the propagandists becomes the anti-festival of the nihilists. The revolutionaries at least desire to create something to replace what they are tearing down and are thus motivated by their ideologies, but it not so with the nihilists. The nihilists find pleasure in the destructive action itself, and thus, says Pieper, “destruction becomes ‘antifestival,’ one of those ‘great uprisings’ which Eisner has described as borrowing “the means from war and the mood from festivals” (83). This leads us back to a particularly chilling warning from Dr. Taylor who observes that we are in danger of losing sight of the wisdom that though it is true that “all structures need to be limited, if not suspended [for brief intervals of time, we might add]” it is also true that “we can’t do without structure altogether” (54). Most us, to the extent that we are, in truth, neither fully nihilists nor anarchists, would affirm this latter point, so why are we so tempted to destroy this structure, half-conscious as we generally are that to do so entails great risk? Dr. Taylor answers this question when he writes, “…the pains of structure, its rigidities, injustices, insensitivity to human aspiration and suffering, having lost their earlier social outlet [the carnival], drive us back to this dream” (54). In other words, when the social order, while being good, fails to be good enough, the temptation is to try and replace it. The greater concern, however, is that while the infamous “white working class voter” may, in this sense, be justified in seeking to bash in the reigning “establishment”, it is just as likely that there is a sizeable and powerful demographic behind the scenes that is far less revolutionary in the ideological sense, and far more banal, consisting in the desire to “watch the world burn,” whether through the sophisms like nationalism (e.g., Richard Spencer, and to a lesser extent, Stephen Bannon) or the Epicurean meme-based antics of the so-called “Alt Right.” But lest we think that the problem lies only on the Right, we might also consider the Leftist contempt that leads to mockery of “the deplorables” or the staunchly cynical commentary-through-comedy given by the likes of Jon Stewart and John Oliver. Dr. Taylor, writing in 2007, ominously notes at the end of his discussion on how suffering can propel us to the dangerous assault on social order that this is not simply a historical phenomenon and that “we have probably not seen the last of it.” Indeed, we have not seen the last of this, and those who naively hope that President Trump’s ascent is merely a fluke of history, an unrepeatable anomaly, would do well to reconsider that assumption in light of the insights from Dr. Taylor and Pieper.
Peter Leithart concludes his essay by claiming that “the West laughed its way into modernity,” by which he largely means “Christians laughing without qualms of conscience.” We also know that Modernity as such is not the end of the road. We laughed ourselves into Modernity and thereby disenchanted our view of the world, and then we laughed ourselves into Postmodernity wherein all news is fake news; memes are the substanceless substance of our discourse; and the only commentary on reality that we can stomach is either the Sophist’s entertainment (such as SNL skits) or the Epicurean’s witticisms (such as Jon Stewart and the “god emperor Trump” memes). We have joined Twain’s laughing Satan in demolishing order and have left in its place a vacuum waiting to be filled with a fool or a tyrant or our own meaningless will-to-power. Perhaps those of us who truly care about social order and the well-being (well-being meant in its full ontological weight) that it secures for all of us ought to stop laughing unreservedly. Prudence is at the heart of the conservative disposition toward the world, and prudence calls us to laugh with conscience, recognizing that laughter can just as easily undermine goodness as it can affirm and celebrate that goodness. And lest this sound like a mood-dampening admonishment, let us also remember Pieper’s insights that the only true festival is the one that emerges out of love, joy, and the affirmation that we and this world we live in are essentially good and worth celebrating.
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“Laughing Into Modernity” by Peter Leithart
“The Lord of Misrule” by David Brooks
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
In Tune With The World by Josef Pieper
The featured image, uploaded by anja_johnson, is a photo taken by Edward N. Johnson of the Venice Carnival on February 13, 2010. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.