One of my favorite novels is Umberto Eco’s celebrated The Name of the Rose, set in the context of papal politics in the 14th century but treating of a perennial theme: a “lifeworld” without freedom and suspicious of laughter is a world too grim to contemplate, a world that needs to be resisted. The plot is set in a Benedictine monastery, luridly portrayed in the blockbuster movie and the Sundance TV/Amazon Prime miniseries, and revolves around a manuscript thought to have been lost in “the mists of antiquity”—Aristotle’s second book of Poetics, dealing with the psychological springs of laughter and its social and political function, the mocking of authority in a spirit of irreverent freedom.
The hero is a visiting Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, accompanied by his young novice, Adso of Melk. They soon find themselves drawn into the search for the surviving Aristotelian codex hidden in the depths of the abbey’s vast library. The mysterious text is jealously guarded by the blind and aged Jorge of Burgos, a passionate agelast, or “denouncer of laughter,” who fears that the prestige of Aristotle would justify laughter, irony, and humor in the austere and solemn realm of the monastic orders. There is no place for laughter—lightheartedness, joking, satire, carnival, profanity and flippancy—in the endless battle against evil. The devil stalks the world every moment of the day, infecting the minds of men with disrespect for the strict rule of faith. Humor is sacrilege and Aristotle’s book would legitimize and condone the overthrow of authority. “Every word of the Philosopher,” says Jorge, “overturns the image of God” and laughter frees us “from fear of the Devil.” And fear is the necessary principle of social control.
The menace inherent in laughter, which dispels fear, is recognized and condemned by credal literalism wherever we may find it. One recalls Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s admonition to the faithful in a 1979 radio sermon:
Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun or joy in whatever is serious.
The peccant joys of protest against the ossifications of authority, precedence and rank, the unfettered freedom of expression, and the play of cultural parody which punctures pomposity and affectation are a threat to the repressive domination of totalitarian regimes. “Laughter,” as Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in Rabelais and His World, “demolishes fear and piety before an object … thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it.” For laughter is therapeutic, a prelude to social restoration and the reaffirmation of our essential humanity.
Obviously, Western society is not immune to the many different forms that a rigid fundamentalism can take, from the totalizing dictates of narrow religiosity and autocratic political doctrine to the general climate of political correctness in the media and the universities to the standardizing rules and restrictions we find in the workplace, the school, the government, the various social bureaucracies and agencies—everywhere authorities can impose their regulative powers to implement what Bakhtin called a “universal system,” a sort of Great Reset. Those who oppose its norms and usages, who resist its criteria of acceptability, are immediately subsumed under the rubric of “hate.” A slip of the tongue, an untimely joke, an unguarded remark, an ironic observation, a satiric thrust, can cost the heretic his livelihood. Such humor as the “universal system” permits is of the clapter variety, as we note in the lamentable and unfunny performances of our late-night comics.
The ruling powers will move to suppress or “cancel” every instance of rogue humor. A recent example stands out. YouTube and TikTok have just erased the hit rap song “Let’s Go, Brandon,” popularized by three rappers, Bryson Gray, Fogiato Blow, and Loza Alexander. As everyone knows, the song derives from NBC News sports reporter Kelli Stavast’s interview of NASCAR driver Brandon Brown as the crowd chanted “F***Joe Biden” in the background, which the politically correct Stavast rephrased as “Let’s Go, Brandon.” The meme has gone viral and Stavast has become a laughingstock. Our cultural bosses get the joke but don’t appreciate it and don’t find it funny, which it manifestly is in its mockery of both a demagogic president and an obsequious media.
As French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has pointed out in The Defeat of the Mind, the postmodern Left with its progressivist pathology and sanctimonious invocation of identity politics, has become “a celebration of servitude … using threats of high treason to silence expressions of doubt, irony and reason.” Its mobilizing of the instruments of cultural repression and its dour humourlessness are reminiscent of Jorge’s Benedictines and the papal inquisition. This is the central theme of Umberto Eco’s novel: humor is subversive. The function of laughter is a means of inverting the course of political and verbal oppression and bringing genuine merriment into a somber and unforgiving ideological world.
For all his learnedness, Umberto Eco is no stranger to fun and mischief, teasing his readers with a kind of fractal whimsicality, what the French call a mise-en-abyme, a playful nesting effect which is both opaque and present, like a Matryoshka doll. In other words, in other words. For the plot is recapitulated as part of the understory, hidden in the depths of the narrative. The fictional manuscript in the novel is an actual, though truncated, manuscript in the world. The reader assumes that Aristotle’s book on comedy is Eco’s invention, a figment of the author’s imagination, a ghostly fabrication meant to advance the plot. But it really does exist, if only as a fragment. Eco did not invent it for the sake of the tale.
The Name of the Rose signals toward an obscure and anonymous tenth-century manuscript remnant known as Tractatus Coislinianus, found by philologist J.A. Cramer in 1839 in Parisian Codex 120 of the Coislin collection housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Essentially a Table of Contents for the irrecoverable second Poetics of Aristotle, copied by an unknown scribe, the Tractate is the only extant document authenticating the Philosopher’s lost book on Comedy, intended to complete the expository arc of the famous first Poetics, which deals with Epic and Tragedy. Knowing that the crux of Rose involves the search for a presumably missing manuscript, which turns out to be the last surviving copy of Aristotle’s Poetics II treating of the nature of laughter, comedy and the play of meanings associated with various tropes and verbal devices—figures of speech and plays on words—we become aware that we have unwittingly entered the game that Eco is setting up.
Thus, the reader accompanies William and Adso in the search for an elusive and fictive manuscript, a precious Aristotelian vellum or parchment that drives the story—except that it is a real (if abbreviated) text embedded recursively and by implication in the narrative, which brings the reader into the fictional world that Eco is constructing and opens new lines of investigation, curiosity and pleasure. The real manuscript is there to be found—that is, intuited, guessed at, perhaps discovered, if one has a mind to it, of course.
Interestingly, in my early correspondence with Eco (archived in The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto), the novelist admitted he had suppressed the identity of the interior or semaphore manuscript and felt a certain playful resentment at my having discovered that it actually does exist—though it was always there to be unearthed. It is Eco’s echo. True, the issue has since been discussed in two scholarly and little-known books, Richard Janko’s Aristotle on Comedy and William Watson’s The Lost Second Book of Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’. But Janko’s volume was first published in 1987 and Watson’s in 2012 whereas Rose appeared in 1980 and was an instant bestseller, creating a stir in both the public and academic domains. Eco was there first.
The novel rapidly became a staple on book club reading lists, university courses, and Faculties of Theology, yet its prankish doubling of the plot to incorporate the reader as protagonist was missed by the majority of “experts.” This was Eco’s way of having a good laugh by making fun of academic expertise, of exercising his freedom to be mischievous and irreverent, of razzing the scholarly mavens of taste and knowledge who occupy the Ivory Halls of erudite power in Literature and Theology departments but don’t have a clue about what is going on in the book—namely, that the reader is intended to be the sleuth, that the reader is potentially William of Baskerville, and that Aristotle really wrote a book on comedy. Moreover, The Name of the Rose is not just a medieval mystery novel with theological trappings; it is both a parody and an allegory of the drab and humorless political world we find ourselves inhabiting, a fact that the reader as detective may come to disinter in plumbing Eco’s disparate purposes.
The game, then, is far more urgent and consequential than a literary jest or fanciful improvisation. From the political standpoint, resistance to ascendant command must often be subtle and covert, but it represents a start to a more overt counter-offensive against the assumption of arbitrary and doctrinaire privilege. Tyrants and dogmatists—social justice warriors, political commissars, party hacks, fellow travelers in the media, Woke university profs—do not laugh in the joyful expression of freedom of spirit. The joke is on them.
For laughter is not only innocent, it is also corrosive, containing an inner text of defiant independence and militant ridicule that deflates and strikes back against the self-important and single-minded cultural legislators who wear the mantle of authority at whatever level: political, academic, ecclesiastical, medical, journalistic. Like Jorge of Burgos, who knows that fear is the agent that controls the masses, they insist on their supremacy as guardians of a repressive ideology, strangers to the liberty enjoyed by the unregimented individual who digs beneath the surface, figures out what is going on, begins by laughing and finishes by overthrowing.
Let’s go, Brandon!