Frank Buckley is a professor of law at George Mason University. He has a theory about how laughter works. So let’s have a joke to try it out. Any joke will do. Here’s one of my old favorites.
Pope John the XXIII dies and goes to paradise. Or, at least he gets to the gates of paradise. “Who are you?” “I’m Pope John the XXIII.” “You are not on the list, go away.” “Don’t be silly, I must be on the list, I’m Pope John the XXIII.” “Never heard of you.” “But I’m Pope John the XXIII, a good man and much beloved of the ordinary people.” “You’re not on the list and I’ve never heard of you.” “There’s been a mistake, go and ask a Principality or Dominion, they’ll know me.” “The Principalities and Dominions are busy.” “Well, what about an Archangel or Seraphim?” “They’re even more busy, go away.”
Now this is a joke which can go on and on with all sorts of side matters about the bureaucratic organization of paradise. But we must get on and cut it short. At length Pope John, “good” Pope John, insisting on the affection in which ordinary people hold him, demands that the Holy Spirit be consulted. This is at first refused then eventually but reluctantly accepted. The Holy Spirit tells the official to go away, “I’ve never heard of this Pope John the XXIII.” Then, just as the official is closing the door and setting off down flights of solid gold steps, the Holy Spirit turns round,
“Wait, hold it, John? John, the XXIII, you say. Ah, yes, there is something, What is it? … Was he? Wasn’t that the chap who invited me to his Council and I couldn’t go?”
The Buckley theory is twofold. The Positive Thesis is that laughter reveals the laugher’s sense of superiority to a butt who is thereby degraded. I suppose the butts here are liberal Catholics and, to an extent, the listeners who are fooled by all the talk about paradise when the joke is nothing essentially to do with that. Moreover the joke teller shows off a sort of superiority by playing at doing one of those gates of heaven jokes, but then making an unexpected theological put-down.
Thesis Two is that not only is superiority felt and displayed by the teller, but that “the message of superiority is more often than not correct.” This is what Mr. Buckley calls the Normative Thesis. Those who laugh are moralists. Humor sets the world to rights, tells truths, reveals comic virtues, teaches us how to extract joy from life by holding up the joyless to ridicule. Buckley suggests that laughter is part of morality, then suggests that we need more sources of order than morality: laughter supplements, enlarges, and humanizes morality.
There’s a lot to question here. I don’t buy the idea of different sets of rules for the good life. Indeed, there is more to the good life than the contents of some deficient moralities, and you can, as Buckley eloquently does, show forth a set of laughter virtues—integrity, moderation, fortitude, temperance—which may be distinct from some moralities. The liberal cult of “good” Pope John needs puncturing. The point of the joke is that whatever the merits of John himself, being much beloved of the ordinary people may be small compensation for the loss of order, religion, and authority which resulted from certain interpretations of Vatican II. Laughter may help do this but so could a religious analysis. And it is surely religious rules which undergird the legal and moral and laughter ones, at least in any decent religion. That, however, is a trivial objection.
Frank Buckley himself seeks out the other objections, the rival contenders to what he calls the “superiority thesis.” And he sees them off. I was especially impressed with the way he sees off the idea that humor is often self-deprecation. This would fatally damage the superiority thesis, of course, if true. In fact, self-deprecation is usually a pose. The fault mocked in oneself is often trivial or in the past—I was like that, I can laugh at it now. Or my failing is outshone by the wit of my joke. Or the apparent self-deprecation is a preemptive strike to prevent an opponent doing real deprecation. In the case of irony the laughter shows off a weakness or ignorance in order later to reveal a hidden strength.
There’s much more in The Morality of Laughter like this, on excessive laughter, cruel and vicious laughter (let’s have two cheers for the importance of a spot of gentle cruelty), wit, language games and laughter, intuition and laughter, the difference between happiness and joy, hypocrisy, misanthropy, taste, and—one of the most fascinating of all—rigidity and laughter. The author’s treatment of them all is acute and convincing.
There are so many good things in this book, but I’m not sure they really need to be placed in an overall theory. If one is needed, then the superiority theory is as good as any and it has the merit of being a goad to egalitarians. Yet Buckley himself admits that superiority is a necessary but not a sufficient cause of laughter. And if we look at any joke, such as that which starts this review, we can see that there is much more to it than superiority and much of what is most interesting about it has little to do with superiority.
The author does not need his theory to achieve what the book achieves, which is to confront us with the neglected importance of humor. That is really his theme and his treatment of it is a triumph. Laughter is crucial for the good life and the good society. And there is laughter to be had while reading the book. I had not heard before “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.”
Digby Anderson is Director of the Social Affaires Unit, a London think-tank
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