Humour, by Terry Eagleton

by
28 June 2019

Christianity is always breaking in here, says Fergus Butler-Gallie

TERRY EAGLETON’s written a joke book. While that sounds as if it could be one of the more surreal entries in Alan Bennett’s diaries (“I read it whilst having my tea — but it became besmirched by some piccalilli,” etc.), it is, in fact, true.

Eagleton’s latest book, entitled, simply, Humour, is, undoubtedly, a weighty exploration of the literary and social theories by which thinkers past and present have sought to define the humorous, and it is something of a manifesto for Eagleton’s own views in that regard; but it is also a brilliant collection of jokes.

There are jokes about Freud, about Bill Clinton, about the USSR, about dead nuns. Each time Eagleton seeks to propagate or demolish an idea about what it is to make us laugh or smile, he weaves in a joke or two, some long-winded — such as the riff on Moses bargaining with God on behalf of the Israelites (“I’ve got him down to ten but I’m afraid adultery’s still in”); some short — such as a play on words involving a peeress involved in some early-morning activity wholly unsuitable for repetition here; many of them immensely amusing; and all of them well selected. This is a book worth having even just as a collection of other people’s jokes to deploy, as Eagleton does, to great effect when required.

granger historical picture archive/ALAMYLaurence Sterne (1760 portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Central to Eagleton’s exploration is a demolition of several theories of humour — in particular, the theory of “superiority” advanced by Thomas Hobbes, among others, which states that we laugh to show how much better we are than our subject. The simplistic dualism of such a theory would render joking incompatible with any world-view, Christianity not least, that purported to include charity toward others.

Eagleton’s argument against this is convincing, but one can’t help but feel that few in the contemporary Church would want to listen: even a cursory look at some of the piety displayed on Christian social media would suggest that the view of Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, that laughter at the folly of the human condition is indicative of a “Luciferian sardonic mood”, is alive and well.

That said, and certain jokes aside, this is explicitly not an anti-religious book, though it gives po-faced piety short shrift. Faith is — as one might argue in relation to much of Eagleton’s writing — always lurking beneath the surface of his argument, actively bubbling up from time to time. The great Christian practitioners of humour (of whom, we tend to forget, there were many) are regularly name-checked.

Among these, in particular, are the two Anglican titans of the genre, Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne (whose respective theologies most of us seem strangely uninterested in exploring. Then again, the sort of Christian anthropology on show in Gulliver is unlikely to be popular in a Church whose members persist in reading the works of Richard Rohr).

As one would expect from a writer of Eagleton’s calibre, the Christianity of many of these writers — as diverse as Trollope and Rabelais — isn’t coincidental. Rather, it is central to how they express the humorous.

church timesJonathan Swift (from Dean Spence’s The Church of England, Cassell, 1898)

It isn’t just Christians, but also Christianity, that we find placed squarely at the centre of much of the theory of humour. Eagleton deploys a brilliant Orwell quotation to demonstrate this in his disproving of the “superiority theory”: “the aim of a joke is not to degrade a human being, but to remind him that he is already degraded.” Who needs Calvin, eh? Indeed, Eagleton’s own theory (which is hinged on analysis of the works of the Soviet thinker Mikhail Bakhtin) is entirely dependent on the gospel and its “carnivalesque bathos”.

The book ends with a discussion of the topsy-turvy humour, the glorious, paradoxical truths that are central to Christianity — from the shocking incongruity of the crucified Saviour to the carnivalesque medium of flesh to attain communion in the eucharist. Eagleton seems pretty convinced that, while the devil might have the best tunes, the Church really has got the best jokes, and certainly the best reasons to laugh loud and long. If only we were as convinced as he.

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is Assistant Curate of Liverpool Parish Church and the author of A Field Guide to the English Clergy (Oneworld, 2018).

Humour
Terry Eagleton
Yale £16.99
(978-0-300-24314-7)
Church Times Bookshop £14.99

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