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Volume 11, Issue 4: Poetics

Hostility and Humor

Douglas Jones

Are you standing there telling me this baby of mine isn’t uglier than that baby of yours?” he cried incredulously. It was Bingo’s turn to be stunned.

“Are you standing there and telling me it is?”
“I certainly am. Why, yours looks human.” Bingo could scarcely believe his ears.
“Human? Mine?”
“Well, practically human.”
“My poor misguided Pikelet, you’re talking rot.”
“Perhaps you’d care to have a bet on it? Five to one I’m offering that my little Arabella here stands alone as the ugliest baby in Wimbledon.” A sudden thrill shot through Bingo. —P.G. Wodehouse, “Sonny Boy”
The absurdity of the above scene lies in the fact that each of two fathers is arguing that his own baby is uglier than the other’s. We laugh in part because it tells us something true about fathers. Some of us know fathers who have confessed to the lizard-likeness of their new babes to other fathers, but not when any mothers are present. But telling the truth by itself isn’t funny. Declaring the rain when it’s raining doesn’t provoke laughs. Something more is needed to get the laugh. And most people who have thought about humor say that that extra something is hostility or aggression. Hostility is essential to laughter. We laugh at the Wodehouse scene, they say, because he’s mocking men. And, they explain like Thomas Hobbes did, that “laughter is nothing else but the sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.” More recently, Henri Bergson claimed that “in laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and consequently to correct our neighbor.”
But if laughter always contains some hint of aggression, then will we laugh in heaven? Was there no laughter in Eden? The real reason to think about this is not to speculate about heaven, but to try to get clearer on sin and holiness here and now. A common error in evangelical piety is that we think we can be holier than God. I suspect the same problem here. We think of heaven as this crystalline world where everyone is equally beautiful, smart, and perfectly annoying as Elsie Dinsmore. But Elsie doesn’t provoke laughter so much as a longing to slap. Surely there won’t be slapping in heaven. Or will there be?
One way to answer this is to argue that aggression isn’t essential to humor. Sure, much, even most involves aggression, but not all. And if not all, then heaven may be filled with elaborations of the latter sorts of humor. For instance, one candidate for replacing aggression is that humor turns more on mixing categories and kinds in odd, wrong ways. Consider Wodehouse again: “Freddie looked at the dog. The dog looked at Freddie. The situation was one fraught with embarrassment.” Or, “He finished his tea and muffins, and then ordering the perambulator, had the son and heir decanted into it.” Or Steven Wright observations: “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.” “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” “I have the oldest typewriter in the world. It types in pencil.” “I had a friend who was a clown. When he died, all his friends went to the funeral in one car.” “I made wine out of raisins so I wouldn’t have to wait for it to age.” “I can levitate birds. No one cares.” “When I was a baby, I kept a diary. Recently, I was rereading it. It said, ‘Day 1—Still tired from the move. Day 2—Everybody talks to me like I’m an idiot.’”
The humor in each of these comes from mixing up the world in odd ways, and our laughter says, “No, it doesn’t go like that.” And since the world will have even more pronounced edges and kinds in heaven, we could still do the same. But the aggressivists can find hostility anywhere, even in each example above. That should make us suspicious.
We often confuse finitude and sinfulness. We will still be finite in heaven, though not able to sin. We certainly won’t be omniscient, and we won’t all be equal in personality and body. If we’re not omniscient, then we can make mistakes and misunderstand things. Adam could have miscalculated an engineering equation without deserving the wrath of God. He could have misidentified some creature. Finitude isn’t sinful. And if we’re not omniscient and equal, then we’ll still be growing in knowledge and wisdom. That leaves plenty of room for humor. Think of how much humor is based on misunderstanding (think Shakespeare). Think of the Wright humor above. Most of them are plays on words and the speaker’s ignorance. Those turn on finitude not sin. And finitude will always be funny, perhaps even more so in heaven in such direct contrast with God’s infinitude. We could make fun of ourselves not out of any deep hostility to the created order but as a way of praising God’s craftiness.
Humor is often so much more subtle than we are. Think again of Wodehouse. On the surface, he spends pages mocking and mocking British quirkiness: “there is one thing every right-minded young man believes in, and that is in the infallibility of Bodmin’s hats. It is one of the eternal verities. Once admit that it is possible for a Bodmin hat not to fit, and you leave the door open for Doubt, Schism, and Chaos generally.” An American writing that might be displaying hostility. But Wodehouse is England. He loved English traits, and his books often create anglophiles. He is his characters, and his mocking is a form of praise. And heaven will have plenty of place for praise. “Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh” (Lk. 6:21).

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