There’s Nothing Funny about Comedy

I can’t recall a comedy ever winning an Academy Award.  Maybe one did, but I don’t remember it.  There’s a common understanding that comedy is lowbrow.  Not serious stuff.  And, indeed, calling comedy serious is a paradox.  The whole point of comedy is not to take anything seriously.

I used to be publicly funny.  I made jokes in school, made jokes in my professional life, made jokes in my social life–made jokes all the time, everywhere.  And it didn’t serve me well.  I think that people may have thought me unprofessional.  And maybe I was.  I was passed over for professional positions I wanted.  And I now believe that it was my attitude that was responsible for it.

In ancient Greece, where drama originated in the west, there were two masks which captured the essence of drama.  One mask was for tragedy and one mask was for comedy.  One of Aristotle’s works is on theater, called Poetics.  It lays out the principles of tragedy.  But there’s no comedy in it.  Scholars conjecture that the Poetics was meant to cover both aspects of theater: tragedy and comedy.  But the part on comedy was lost.  They even speculate about what Aristotle said in his missing work on comedy.  And Plato himself has Socrates forcing Aristophanes and Agathon to admit that tragedy and comedy both come from the same causes, and that the same author could write both comedy and tragedy.  He does this at a party where everyone else has passed out drunk.  Perhaps this is why Blake writes, “Excessive sorrow laughs.  Excessive joy weeps.”  Robert De Niro has successfully played tragedy and comedy.

In school I took a course in Comedy and the Christian Imagination.  That’s where I learned that there’s nothing funny about comedy.  It is a serious classical category.  Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso is called the Divine Comedy, and there aren’t many funny parts in it.  Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, and his comedies had funny parts in them.  In fact, even in his darkest tragedy, Hamlet, there a really funny part in a graveyard.  Some people think that I am a serious guy.  My mother doesn’t understand how, after all my many years in graduate school, I can laugh at Super Troopers or Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  I genuinely enjoy stupid comedies.  I want to make the claim for comedy in our lives.  I could produce some serious arguments as to how comedy functions, and what the prupose of comedy is.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  I merely want to say that there’s a place for funny in our lives.  And even serious people can laugh, should laugh, at movies like Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

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Spirit and Matter and Life

Dead matter.  That’s how I saw the material world.  My understanding of Jesus added to this world view, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” (John 6:63).  I understood this statement of Jesus according to the science I was raised with.  The atoms, chemicals, material compounds were all dead matter.  There was the spiritual world which is alive, and there was the physical world made up of dead matter, atoms, chemicals, material compounds.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Even Nature was made up of dead matter.

The cells in our bodies, the leaves on trees, the soil in which plants grow are all made up of atoms, chemicals, and material compounds which are dead matter, I thought.  This world view is called Cartesian dualism.  Renee Descartes tried to come up with a theory to account for the relationship between spirit and matter.  Willing your arm to move is spiritual.  Wanting, or willing, is spiritual.  But your arm is physical.  How can something spiritual like the will affect something physical like your arm?  I’m not sure Descartes ever came up with a satisfactory solution to this problem.  But he described the problem well—movements of the soul are spiritual; movements of the body are material.  “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  Actually, Cartesian dualism actually goes back to Plato.  In Plato, there are two worlds: the world of the unchanging Ideal Forms, or ideas (ideai, eide) and the world of matter (hyle).  For Plato, what is really real, and our eternal home, is in the world of Ideal Forms; we end up on earth through a fall from the realm of Ideal Forms.  So the separation of spirit and matter can be traced way back to Plato.

While early Christians were sympathetic to Plato, notably Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, there is a problem with Plato.  The Bible says that when God created Nature, God called it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Plato’s contempt for the material world is not shared by Christians.  Nature is created by God and is good; we are meant to be born here by God’s creative design.

But is matter dead?  Is the theory of matter that I grew up with true?  I am not a physicist.  But after reflection on Swedenborg’s theology, and after dialogue with a Cree elder, and from what I know about contemporary quantum physics, I think there’s only a thin veil between spirit and matter—not the drastic gulf one finds in Plato and Descartes.

Quantum physics tells us that matter is continually in flux.  Sub-atomic particles are popping into existence and vanishing out of existence all the time.  Atoms and molecules are continually vibrating.  Electrons are more a shell of probability than they are particles that are here or there.  Furthermore, matter is not solid.  Consider atoms.  The electron shell around a nucleus is like a pea in the middle of Shea Stadium.  There is that much space between the electron shell and the protons and neutrons in the nucleus.  But not empty space.  There are electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, and all manner of other forms of energy that make up “dead matter.”  Energy fields such as the electromagnetic field permeates all of the universe.  Our very thoughts are electromagnetic impulses.  Sparks.  Electromagnetic energy.  If our thoughts are electric sparks and if electromagnetic fields permeate everything—even rocks—how different are our thoughts from rocks?  From the matter in our thoughts and the matter in rocks.  Both are made up of sub-atomic particles and energy fields that are always in flux—are alive?

The veil between spirit and matter is very thin, probably porous.  Now, I don’t think matter is dead.  Now, I see God in all God’s creation.  Now I revere Nature as I do Nature’s Creator.

Three Billboards Outside Hamlet

What is it with Hollywood and dark stories?  So I’ll add Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to my list.  That list is highly acclaimed movies that are gratuitously dark.  On the list are Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and even though it isn’t highly acclaimed, Avengers: Infinity War.  What I found so uninteresting about Three Billboards is that it is a study of hate and revenge.  The movie showed us different ways and reasons and expressions of hate and different ways to take revenge.  For two hours.  Then, in the concluding 15 minutes, there was forgiveness and humanity as Mildred and Jason decide not to murder a rapist.  While I was watching, I asked myself, “Do I want to watch two hours of hate and revenge?  To what purpose?”  No.  I don’t.  I’m beginning to think I’ll have to take a vacation from Hollywood, as I did with pop music during the disco period.

Do we like to watch human darkness?  Do we want to pay money to watch hate and revenge?  For two hours?  Is life dark in its essence?  My life isn’t.  And the life of my friends isn’t.  And neither I nor my friends are living in existential bad faith.  We’re just living our lives.  Authentically.  There may be some philosophical currents that claim life is dark.  The Borg in Star Trek were created because viewers wanted a darker story.  Why?  What’s so great about darkness?  I think that people who crave dark stories are living in bad faith because I’m guessing that their lives aren’t all that dark, either.

Then I thought about really great art.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays are tragic.  They dramatize the lust for power, prejudice, the lust for revenge, hatred, anger, death, and other themes that are hard to watch.  And Sophocles not only wrote about murder, he wrote about incest.

Yet I enjoy Shakespeare.  And the darkness in it doesn’t put me off.  I think that the difference with Shakespeare is that there is nobility in it, too.  Of course I need not even mention the beauty of the language–the perfect marriage of sound and sense.  Shakespeare tears one’s heart open.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri just bored me with the incessant rage and petty revenge.  It wasn’t even all that true to life, as people, generally, don’t burn down police stations.

Plato had a real problem with well-done evil.  The Greek word kala means good and beautiful.  So it was a real question how you could have a beautiful ugliness.  Shakespeare isn’t wholly ugly in its beauty, with the noble impulses motivating his characters.  There is no nobility in Three Billboards, Manchester by the Sea, or Moonlight.  There is only base and unlovely humanity.

The Bee Gees are considered a great band by some.  And Boogie-oogie-oogie, the disco song, won a Grammy.  But when I had to live through the disco period, I turned exclusively to Classical Music until better pop music came back.  Looks like I’m going to have to do that with Hollywood, now.  Hope it won’t take too long.

Well-Rounded and Alienation

In the renaissance period, the character ideal was to be well-rounded.  The various character virtues a courtier was supposed to acquire were listed in Castigione’s “Book of the Courtier.”  Among them were knowledge of the classical languages, aesthetic appreciation, musical proficiency, literary knowledge and practice, poetic ability, historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge and reasoning ability, wit and good manners, wrestling.  In general, the liberal arts.  Plato had another similar list of virtues in his “The Republic,” and Aristotle, also, in “The Nicomachean Ethics.”

Today, it is hard to figure out what character virtues western society values.  Society has become so fragmented that it is impossible to discern what the twenty-first century person is to aspire to.  Consequently, people tend to stay within the prescriptions of their career and family.  Emerson decried this form of society.  He said, “The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship” (The American Scholar).

I have tried to widen my horizons by becoming more of a renaissance man, a more well-rounded individual than someone defined by his profession, geographical region, and family relations.  But I have found that by being well-rounded, I am rather alienated and that I don’t really fit in anywhere.  In a bar, I sound too intellectual and like I’m putting on airs; in a university, I sound too raw and unrefined; in a church, too worldly and in my denomination, too interfaith oriented; in secular society, too spiritual; among intellectuals, too uninhibited; among scientists, too literary, etc . . . I like the character I have developed in my pilgrimage on this planet.  My soul is rich from having lived a variety of lives–academic, spiritual, philosophical, construction worker, poet, minister, lover and friend, scientist.  But for all this, I am not a dilettante.  I have a strong enough background in a discipline which I practice.  But I am not only my discipline.  I am not a form, a statute book, a machine, a rope, a test-tube, a hammer, a library.  I am a man.  A happy man.  A man with wide horizons.  I do not mind that I don’t really fit into a narrow social box.  When I was growing up I was taught to do your own thing.  I have done that, continue to do that, and my world is many worlds.