The ruling elites of ancient and medieval Europe had no great appreciation for humor. Laughter, from the earliest times, seems to have always been a matter of class: there is a clear distinction between civilized amusement and vulgar laughter. Aristotle insists on the difference between the humor of educated and rude people in his Nicomachean Ethics. He assigns a distinguished place to wit, placing it next to friendship and sincerity as one of the three social virtues, but the kind of wit of which he speaks requires refinement and education, as when using irony. Plato, in his RepublicHe frowns severely at the Athenian citizens’ custom of laughing in public and has no problem leaving comedy for slaves and foreigners. Teasing can be socially disruptive, and insult can cause dangerous divisions. Plato strictly recommends that laughter should not be cultivated among the guardian class, just as he condemns images of laughing gods or heroes. Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, forbids jokes, or what he calls eutrapelia. It is probable, in any case, that St. Paul was thinking of crude antics, and not of the kind of sophisticated wit that Aristotle would have approved of.
[El lingüista] Mikhail Bakhtin points out that “laughter, in the Middle Ages, remained outside all official ideological spheres and outside all strict official forms of establishing social relations. Laughter was eliminated from religious worship, from feudal and state ceremonies, from etiquette and from all genres of high thought. The oldest monastic rule that we know of prohibited jokes, and the rule of Saint Benedict warns against the provocation of laughter, an impertinence for which Saint Columban imposed the punishment of fasting. The fear of the comic that the medieval Church felt leads to murder and chaos in The name of the rose, the novel by Umberto Eco. Tomás de Aquino, as is characteristic of him, is more permissive with this question in his Theological sum, and recommends humor for its therapeutic qualities, valuing puns and acts whose sole objective is to provide pleasure to the soul. Humor is necessary, according to him, for the comfort of the spirit. In fact, the rejection of humor seems to him a vice. For Christian theology, the purposeless pleasure of a joke reflects the divine act of creation, which, as the original “gratuitous act,” was carried out as an end in itself, not driven by necessity and without ascribing functionality. some. The world was made for its own sake. It looks more like a work of art than an industrial product.
This impolite view of humor as something suspicious does not arise from a mere fear of frivolity. Much more important is that it reflects the terror at the prospect of losing control, also on a collective scale, which is no small matter. This is what, from Plato’s point of view, can be the result of excess laughter, a natural bodily function that ranks alongside other disgusting discharges such as vomiting and excreting. Cicero establishes elaborate rules for joking and is wary of any kind of spontaneous comic outburst. The dissolution of the individual body in laughter could herald a popular revolt, and the medieval carnival — a kind of social revolution in a fictionalized, fantastic, and strictly sporadic form — approached humorous chaos enough to justify these concerns. The commoner body is in constant danger of crumbling, unlike the hygienic patrician body, disciplined, charmingly groomed, and efficiently regulated. In addition, laughter has a democratic element that makes it dangerous, since, unlike activities such as playing the tuba or neurosurgery, it is available to anyone. Laughter does not require you to have any special abilities, or to belong to a privileged lineage or to have scrupulously developed certain abilities. The comic poses a threat to sovereign power not only because of its propensity for anarchy, but also because it downplays momentous issues such as suffering or death, thus diminishing the force of some judicial sanctions that ruling classes tend to pull up their sleeves. . Humor can foster a reckless nonchalance that undermines authority’s ability to control. In its carnival mode, it can also generate an illusory sense of immortality, which goes against the feeling of vulnerability that is essential to the maintenance of social order. Even Erasmus, author of the famous Praise of stupidity, wrote a treatise on the education of children that warns of the dangers of laughter. This book advises students to squeeze their buttocks hard when farting to avoid making an excessive noise, or to hide that unseemly sound with a timely fit of coughing. In its Essay on humor in comedy, playwright William Congreve complains about the kind of comedic shows that force him to entertain degrading thoughts about his own nature. He could never stare at a monkey for a long time, he muses, without feeling deeply mortified. Parodies, imitations and aberrations remind us of the alarming fragility of our own norms (…). The 18th century critic John Dennis argues that humor thrives mainly among the lower classes. As it is a matter more of the body than of the mind, it tends to flourish among those who lack education and have not learned to repress their animal instincts (…).
Victorian novelist George Meredith looks to humor for “mental liveliness and not noisy monstrosities”, and tries with great enthusiasm to differentiate refined laughter from the kind of “crude” comedy that “goes about screaming under the divine protection of the Son. Of the bottle”. Many comedies are vulgar and buffoon, while literature is somewhat elevated. Do we therefore incur a contradiction in terms if we speak of “comic literature”? Is comedy theory also an oxymoron? We can establish degrees of refinement, Meredith informs us, by the “ring of laughter,” a statement that brings us to the starting point of this study. The greengrocers break, but the statesmen smile.
For all her squeamishness, Meredith is one of the few pre-20th century humor theorists to venture into the realm of genre. Many manifestations of the comic, he maintains, revolve around the war of the sexes. This author plays a vital role, elevating women from the status of “beautiful idiots” to that of people endowed with admirable wit. She considers that the East lacks humor, and from her point of view, this is a result of the low status of women in that part of the globe. Where women lack freedom, he insists, the comic cannot exist. There can be no true civilization without sexual equality, and “there will never be comedy where civilization is impossible.” In the absence of such a civilization, the comic spirit is “driven to descend into the most repulsive sewers to quench its thirst.” Where women are reduced to domestic slaves, the comic form tends to be primitive; where they are reasonably independent but uneducated, the result is melodrama; but where there is sexual equality, the art of comedy finds the conditions to flourish.
Terry Eagleton is a literary critic and writer, author, among others, of ‘Why Was Marx Right?’ and ‘Ideology’. This excerpt belongs to ‘Humor’ (Taurus), which is published this June 3.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.