Laughing in church

“‘Consider, therefore, whether you won’t consult a fool.’ ‘Upon my soul,’ replied Panurge, ‘I will. I seem to feel my bowels loosening. A moment before they were all tight and constipated. But just as we have chosen the fine cream of wisdom to advise us, so I should like someone who is a fool of the first water to preside over our new deliberations.’ ‘Triboulet seems sufficient of a fool to me, said Pantagruel. ‘A proper and total fool,’ replied Panurge. ‘A fatal fool.’ ‘A high-toned fool.’ ‘A natural fool.’ ‘A B sharp and B flat fool.’ ‘A celestial fool.’ ‘A terrestrial fool.’ ‘A jovial fool.’ ‘A jolly, mocking fool.’ ‘A mercurial fool.’ ‘A merry, sportive fool.’ ‘A lunatical fool.'” (Etc., for three more pages.)
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 3:37-38 (trans. by J. M. Cohen, Penguin, 1963)

In the course of my usual coffee-fueled wool-gathering this morning I realized I have yet to write a single line about Rabelais, or about his foremost interpreter, the 20th-century Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin – like his 16th-century mentor – was the rare example of a scholar who seemed to know a lot about everything, and to remember virtually everything he ever read. Most attempts to develop new theories fail because they attempt to synthesize too much about which the author knows too little. Bakhtin had the sense to restrict his scope to a single author (Rabelais in Rabelais and His World, elsewhere Dostoevsky) and let his discoveries and suggestions about their works ripple outward. Thus, instead of writing a comprehensive history or geography of laughter he situates himself at one pivotal point in human space-time – the Renaissance in Western Europe – and looks in all directions from there.

I was reminded of this while reading some Ashanti folktales about the trickster culture hero Anansi, the spider. It was no more than a tossed-off comment of Bakhtin’s about the original character of religion that first gave me, years ago, what I think is an essential interpretive insight into stories such as these. It’s not that Mircea Eliade’s hypothesis of a separate sacred time existing within but somehow completely apart from ordinary time – illo tempore, as he called it – isn’t useful and important in its own right. But Eliade neglected one key factor: the unique power of laughter to bridge the gap between sacred and secular, between the atemporal utopia and the here-and-now, between the spirit and the body. The king and the fool are born under the same horoscope, says Rabelais. Here is the self-important Anansi, perched ridiculously on a cashew shell “as if he were a chief sitting on a carved stool,” abandoning his role as arbiter among the other animals to claim the right of primogeniture for himself:

“‘If you had come to me first, I would have saved you this argument, for I am the oldest of all creatures. When I was born, the earth itself had not yet been made, and there was nothing to stand on. When my father died, there was no ground to bury him in. So I had to bury him in my head.'”
(Harold Courlander, The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Ashanti Tales From Ghana, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957)

Laughter pulls the ground out from under us, leaves us hanging, as it were, in mid-air. Ordinary laws are suspended (as in Eliade’s illo tempore) but so, too, is all fear and reverence, all sorrow and anger. In fact, if laughter has been generally outlawed by the so-called world religions, it is because it threatens their monopoly on the primal emotions. You can’t laugh in church. Bakhtin notes that “Early Christianity had already condemned laughter. Tertullian, Cyprian, and John Chrysostom preached against ancient spectacles, especially against the mime and the mime’s jests and laughter. John Chrysostum declared that jests and laughter are not from God but the devil. Only permanent seriousness, remorse, and sorrow for his sins befit the Christian.” (Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Indiana U.P., 1984.)

Bakhtin shows, at least within the Western Christian milieu, the central importance of what he calls “the material bodily element” to the unofficial culture of festive laughter. It is, he writes, a “degrading and regenerating principle.” One has only to read accounts of the sacred clowns of the American Southwest and Mexico (see below) to realize the truth of this insight. If Aristotle was right about laughter being a unique and fundamental human trait, what from the perspective of Christian history appears to be a temporary lapse (in what were, after all, the “Middle Ages”) may instead represent a return to the origins of religious expression: “During the Easter season laughter and jokes were permitted even in church. The priest could tell amusing stories and jokes from the pulpit. Following the days of lenten sadness he could incite his congregation’s gay laughter as a joyous celebration . . . The jokes and stories concerned especially material bodily life, and were of a carnival type. Permission to laugh was granted simultaneously with the permission to eat meat and to resume sexual intercourse.”

Laughter and the grotesque were (are) opposed to death and the fear of death through their very celebration of change and renewal. Bakhtin stresses “the essential relation of festive laughter to time and to the change of season. . . . The gay aspect of the feast presented this happier future of a general material affluence, equality, and freedom, just as the Roman Saturnalia announced the return of the Golden Age. Thus, the medieval feast had, as it were, the face of Janus. Its official, ecclesiastical face was turned to the past and sanctioned the existing order, but the face of the people of the marketplace looked into the future and laughed, attending the funeral of the past and the present.” The comic inversions of the folk festivals included travesty/transvestitism; the reversal of hierarchical orders (jesters turned into kings and bishops); parodies of sacred rituals; and of course the celebration of all that was forbidden: drunkenness, gluttony, debauchery.

If I differ with Bakhtin at all it is only in my sense of the relative value of the spiritual/sacred versus the material/festive. My reading of ethnography over the past several years has convinced me that these two principles need not be ideologically opposed; we don’t need to choose between them. I do agree they we would be better to return to a more Rabelaisian, holistic appreciation of laughter. I think Bakhtin describes very well the diminished role of laughter in the post-16th century West, where “the essential truth about the world and about man cannot be told in laughter.”

Our conception of the body has narrowed as well. In contrast to the grotesque and universal body of the carnival, in the modern view bodies are smooth, closed off, private. Serious art and literature studiously ignores nose, mouth, belly and genitals, concentrating instead on eyes and hands. (Think of the language of love poetry, or the Victorian novel.) Whereas “the grotesque body . . is a body in the act of becoming,” the modern body is complete and strictly limited. I can’t help picturing the contrast between the bodies of local working-class people I know – and the kind of earthy humor they tend to indulge in – and the ideal bodily images of Hollywood and Madison Avenue: “That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off (when a body transgresses its limits and a new one begins) is eliminated, hidden or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable facade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed . . . The verbal norms of official and literary language . . . prohibit all that is linked with fecundation, pregnancy, childbirth. There is a sharp line of division between familiar speech and ‘correct’ language.” Well, fuck that!

Here’s anthropologist Barbara Tedlock (The Beautiful and the Dangerous, Penguin, 1992) describing one of the two main orders of Zuni clowns:

“I gazed at the ten silly-looking, but nonetheless sacred, serious, even dangerous, Mudhead clowns. Adobe-colored beings in tight-fitting cotton masks with inside-out eyes and doughnut-shaped mouths, simultaneously expressing eternal amazement and voracious hunger. Ears, antennae, and genitals (stuffed with hand-spun cotton, garden seeds, and the dust of human footprints) protruded knoblike from their heads. Without noses or hair, they were naked except for lumpy orange-brown body paint, feathered ear ornaments, black neck scarves, men’s woolen kilts, and women’s blanket dresses, concealing their tied-down penises.”

These ten Mudheads – or Dickheads, we should probably call them – were born through a primordial act of incest, and were the original inhabitants of the Zuni land of the dead, Kachina Village. As real beings who somehow inhabit the bodies of the men who play them every year, they represent more than archetypes: each possesses “a distinguishing personality trait and a sacred gift for humankind.

“Molanhakto, with a miniature rabbit snare dangling from his right earlobe, brought native squash. The Speaker, a daydreamer who rarely spoke, and then only irreverently, carried yellow corn. Great Warrior Priest, a coward, brought blue corn. Bat, in his blanket dress, who feared the dark but saw marvelously well in daylight, red corn. Small Horn, who thought he was invisible, white corn. Small Mouth the glum, gabbling and cackling constantly, offered sweet corn. Old Buck, frisky and giggly as a young girl, black corn. Gamekeeper, in his woman’s dress, speckled corn. Water Drinker, always thirsty, toted his water gourd. And Old Youth, the self-centered, thoughtless adviser of the team, brought the clairvoyance locked tightly within the tiny cracks in parched corn.”

In short, a pretty corny lot.

But what about us, us U.S.ians? By and large, for all the vaunted liberation of sexual mores, the tyranny of the official body remains nearly absolute. Freud, by reducing everything to sex, perhaps shares a great deal of the blame for our continuing discomfort in our own skins. Neurosis is endemic to the psychoanalyzed subject. Modern medicine has reinforced the wall between mind and body, which thus by definition can never truly be healed (made whole). This separation breeds many more. Even for those who abandon themselves to carnality, the body remains unreal: filth or idol, something to be whipped, something to be fetishized. Sex and laughter are still very far apart. Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals, religious and secular alike elevate the same, tortured body inhabited by the same lonely and alienated soul.

Whether we flagellate ourselves like the Shi’a commemorating the death of Hussein or ogle the flagellation of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, our sense of what it means to be compassionate is limited, really, to a single emotion: sorrow. But is it not in shared laughter that people feel most akin? If the goal of religion is, as it proclaims, to promote peace and unite humankind, why is laughter still barred from the churches, temples and mosques? We alternate between the supposed poles of sacred solemnity and profane laughter without perceiving that they form a single axis – that axis on which this whole, vast, bulging, fecund and tragicomic world forever spins.

UPDATE: My sometime debating partner (and faithful reader) commonbeauty has written a highly compatible post, partly in response to this, on ‘vernacular bodies’ in the paintings of Bruegel. A brief and wonderful essay about a fascinating subject – check it out.

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