Neo-Grobianism and the Courage to Laugh
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
Serious political debate is seemingly impossible nowadays. Politicians are beholden to the upcoming 2008 election, held hostage by the current sanctification of all things military and, in general, hog-tied by our money-driven political system.
To be sure, these are sobering times. An unending war in Iraq, constant warnings from Washington about impending terrorism, rising murder rates, domestic surveillance, tazered college students and plummeting markets have all taken their toll on our collective American psyche. Why, then, do seemingly frivolous comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report serve as one our country’s greatest pastimes? Is it pure folly to laugh at our situation? Not if we survey the long history of transcendent laughter.
Comedy, it seems, is the human way to survive another day against the odds. The gift of laughing at what is a horrible situation has roots as old as history itself. As Conrad Hyers has written in And God Created Laughter: the Bible as Divine Comedy (1987), examples of humor from the Bible abound. He cites a “stinging satire” by Amos against the greedy wives of Samaria who encouraged their husbands to squeeze the poor harder for their personal gain:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are in the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks. — Amos 4:1-2 (Hyers, p. 7.)
Centuries later, in the Renaissance, Rabelais’ churlish epic Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532) was written both as ribald entertainment and as a humanist’s weapon to combat increasing cultural restrictions on the freedom of both language and the body.
Rabelais is but one example of a carnivalesque, liberal tradition. On the opposing side, the emerging middle classes of the early modern period marshaled satirical humor to constrain expression. In contrast to Rabelais’ comedic overthrow of strictures though the use of grotesque realism, conservative intellects contrived of a pale derivative—prudish Grobianism: pithy literary descriptions of revolting peasant behavior used to shock its audience into good manners. While “Grobiana” usually focused on table manners (like not blowing your nose over the plates or defecating), eventually all anti-social behavior came under the auspices of the totalitarian Grobian style. This included: failing to greet people and being generally offensive, bragging and telling indecent stories and even using physical violence if there is anything to be gained. Methinks those burghers didst protest too much. Like their conservative descendants, they worked awfully hard at proving their own separation from their boorish, peasant roots.
So, here is my suggestion for Stephen Colbert: With the lack of civility and excess of swagger and bravado on the part of our public servants (especially the schoolyard rules of military engagement), we should enlist the power of ancient forms of comedy to dose them with their own authoritarian medicine and shatter their glass houses. Since our elected officials haven’t yet learned civility, perhaps we could use a bourgeois Neo-Grobianism to satirize their boorish antics. Although this traditional type of social ostracism and shaming of excess might not change the actors, it may yet make us feel better to turn them into public effigies and exercise our atrophied freedom of speech.
Even better than derisive biting satire, however, one could paint a truly comic picture of every self-serving politician as Lucius in Apuleis’ Golden Ass (the Metamorphoses, ca. 170 AD). In the picaresque Latin novel Lucius was a Roman country aristocrat magically transformed into an ass and forced to spend time as a member of the downtrodden lower classes he claims to serve. (The guise of a donkey being a wonderful metaphorical cross for Republicans in particular to bear.) In the happy ending, Lucius has a religious epiphany and rights his erring ways. Maybe we could similarly pen our politicians into New Orleans where they meet their constituents and humbly help to bear their burdens? Survivor-New Orleans-Mule Nation? Now there’s a plot line.
This type of comic levity might help buoy distraught souls who despair of America’s future, people like Naomi Wolf. In her new book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot (2007), Wolf outlines the ten steps that fascists typically follow in overtaking governments and connects them to the actions of the current White House administration. Considering reality, she quite understandably strikes one as a woman profoundly haunted and disturbed by the echoes of past dictatorships found in contemporary events. One can see how she cares deeply about liberty.
I have one simple message for her and any empathetic readers:
What we can laugh at, we cannot fear.
This is the core principle of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (1980) and of the celebrated Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s irreverent masterpiece, Rabelais and his World (1965; Indiana U. Press, 1984)—his compelling critique of Stalinist Russia through the lens of the Renaissance. As he wrote:
For fear can only enter a part that has been separated from the whole,
the dying link torn from the link that is being born.
(Bakhtin, Rabelais, p. 256.)
For Bakhtin, nothing in culture exists in a vacuum, history is cyclical and death is always followed by birth. Indeed, as the old saying goes, as one door closes another always opens.
Though we cannot be sure of what the future holds for “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” we can face it knowing that America is not simply its current Government, it is—more importantly—the timeless “We the People,” and regardless of our current predicament “We” can learn from our past mistakes. Reconciling laughter will help us to ease the transition to a brighter future. For, as Michael Hoyle states poignantly in his prologue to Bakhtin: “Necessary to the pursuit of liberty is the courage to laugh.” (Rabelais, p. xxiii)
There must be a new wind blowing. Since I sent this article off to my Bread and Circus editors, comedian Stephen Colbert was quoted in the (9/23/2007) Parade section of Sunday’s Boston Globe as saying:
“Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” (As interviewed by James Kaplan, p.7.)
I kid you not.
Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.
Image (above): Steve Colbert of The Colbert Report. Comedy Central image used according to Fair Use guidelines.