Umberto Eco’s Last Laugh: On Theology, Philosophy, and The Laughing Creature

Umberto Eco’s passing gives us a lot to think about. His explorations of language, fiction, and thought spanned post-structuralism, deconstruction, and philosophy. Umberto Eco was a philosopher, a linguist, and a semiotician. He was fascinated with the relationship of thought to writing (and textuality). But, as one can see in his most famous works of fiction – such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose – Eco was also very interested in the relationship of thought and language to religion.  But when he addressed this relationship, he brought in something few people would associate with religion: laughter.

In The Name of the Rose, Eco prompts the reader to think about how powerful a foe laughter is, who has the last laugh, and why laughter was, during the Middle Ages, censored by the Church. Because Eco puts a purported work by Aristotle on laughter at the center of the novel’s murder mystery, he suggests that this censorship has a deeper source in the work of Aristotle (which was, in the Middle Ages translated from the Arabic into the Latin and had a major influence on not only Islamic Philosophy, but also Jewish Philosophy – pace Maimonides – and Christian Theology – pace St. Thomas Aquinas and many others). By way of this query into Aristotle’s thoughts on laughter, Eco’s novel suggests an unusual nexus for philosophy and theology that is not in God or Being so much as in…comedy. Since man may be defined in terms of reason or faith by thought or religion, the way the laugher and laughter appears in and to the world are a troubling concern for philosophy and theology. Laughter puts their foundational definitions of man into quotation marks.

Plato had a love/hate relationship with laughter. For him laughter is dangerous when it is excessive. InThe Republic, he suggests that the laughter can even lead to violence. When a citizen becomes a “buffoon,” he can affect the community and create dissent. As Barry Sanders notes in his book,Laughter as Subversive History Plato didn’t think of laughter as challenging the gods so much as challenging “public appearances”(90) that normalize the polis. On the other hand, Plato thought that ridicule (Republic 5.4520) can be used “effectively against wrongheaded and disruptive new ideas”(90).   In other words, laughter – at its best – maintains the status quo:

We must not fear jests of wit which are directed against this sort of innovation.

But in the Laws (Book 11, 934-36), Plato gives strict fines to those who cause damage to others through laughter.   However, Sanders suggests that Socrates embodies Plato’s ambiguous attitude toward laughter since he tells “serious stories with a wry sense of humor”(93). Socrates is a “gullible, innocent, and somewhat ignorant character, who always manages to ask precisely the right disingenuous questions…Socrates engages others as a kind of disarming and ancient Israelite, whom we suspect of knowing much more that he speaks”(93). Plato characterizes Socrates as having a “pretended self-deprecation or affected ignorance”(93). And this is the basis for calling Socrates “eiron” (ironic).

The key to Socrates’ humor, and what makes it more acceptable, is that “Socrates never laughs aloud”(93).   Socrates, in other words, may “seem” like a buffoon but, in truth, he is really a wise man. He contains his laughter. And this irony leads the reader to make a distinction between outer appearance (Becoming) and inner reality (Being). This was a distinction made by Parmenides and perfected by Plato, who distinguishes, in many places, between doxa (which refers to opinion, appearance, and Becoming) and eidos (which refers to ideas, Being, which transcends appearance).  For Plato, materiality was associated with appearance and becoming. Through this distinction, Plato was able to distinguish between a “lower” kind of humor (which keeps one trapped in the world of Becoming and materiality) and a “higher” kind of humor (which leads one toward Being and Wisdom). The higher kind of humor really isn’t humor; it appears to be comical, but in reality it masks seriousness.

Strangely enough, however, it is not Plato whose works were primarily translated by the Muslims as they swept threw Northern Africa and parts of Europe. Rather, it was the work of Aristotle that took on greater interest to them and then to the scholastics and Jewish philosophy. Unlike Plato, Aristotle’s views on comedy were lesser known. Umberto Eco plays on this lack and even suggests a hidden treatise on Aristotle’s work that was not translated for the masses. Eco’s move is interesting because, as per history, he is correct: Aristotle has a greater affect on theology and philosophy in the Middle Ages than Plato. Nonetheless, what we do have from Aristotle is very revealing and can help us to understand what Eco is doing in his book.

In The Poetics, Aristotle associates laughter with an “imitation of inferior people” and with a “species that is disgraceful.” He also notes that the “comic mask is ugly.” Laughter, in other words, can make the human into an animal. Laughter brings humanity into greater materiality and draws them away from what makes man special: the intellect. (This notion of laughter as distortion was taken on not only by the Church but also by the famous symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire in his celebrated essay, “The Essence of Laughter.).

Nonetheless, there is an ambiguity at the heart of Aristotle’s reflections on laughter as it relates to animal life. He argues elsewhere – in his writings on biology – that a child becomes human through laughter. Man is a “Homo Ridens,” a “creature who laughs.” This notion, it seems, was displaced by Aristotle’s reading of man as a rational animal, a social/political animal, or an animal that uses language (a description that was of great interest to Martin Heidegger in his later work).   This Aristotelian interpretation of man as a laughing animal was, so to speak, lost in translation.

While philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages found no use for this notion of Homo Ridens, literature did. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the writer Rabelais – who, according to Milan Kundera, is the father of Modern Literature (because, for him, modern literature is founded on a kind of humor) – called man, in his novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel, the “laughing animal.” Montaigne also took note of this when he wrote that not only is man “Homo Ridens,” he is also “Homo Risibilus”(a laughable creature): “our own specific property is to be equally laughable and able to laugh.” Henri Bergson, in his famous essay on laughter, takes note of this as well. And, in his recent book on humor,On Humor, Simon Critchley, takes this as a central hypothesis.

What Eco does in The Name of the Rose is to suggest, through the blind old monk character, Jorge de Burgos (a play on Jorge Luis Borges), an imperative: that man should not see himself as a “laughing animal.” The main premise of the scholastic argument is put forth: if man is made in the image of the Christian God, who he imitates, then he cannot laugh. He claims that, based on Scripture, one can clearly see that “Christ did not laugh.” Laughter is beneath him. It is too physical, animalic, and sinful.

The images of men as half-animals in the illuminated manuscript discussed in this clip – which is based on the book – suggest that the lapse between man and animal affected by laughter is an open secret that the Church sought – so to speak – to murder. Instead of becoming human though laughter, one becomes an animal. And since the separation between man and animal must be maintained, laughter is a threat to that binary. When one laughs, one appears…different.

The seriousness of philosophy and theology are compromised by laughter. One loses one’s serious face. Moreover, as a poet like Baudelaire would suggest, knowledge of this descent into materiality shouldn’t bring one joy (laughter as joy) so much as endless torment (laughter as a reminder of “fallenness”). It is an irony that tortures him. Baudelaire’s interest in ugliness and animality – which we also see expressed in Eco’s novel and throughout this film clip – is based on what he calls “spleen.” It is not laughable – in a good sense. The laughter is Satanic and apocalyptic. For Eco’s Burgos, it is also apocalyptic.

For Eco, the last laugh may be God’s but in the sense that he laughs the world into materiality rather than out of it. At the end of the Name of the Rose, Eco suggests this alternate reading of Creation:

The moment God laughed seven gods were born who governed the world, the moment he burst out laughing light appeared, at his second laugh appeared water, and on the seventh day of his laughing appeared the soul. (467)

The soul is made – so to speak – in the image of laughter. Unlike Aristotle, we have a neo-Aristotelian – so to speak – interpretation of laughter. Instead of man laughing himself into humanity (from animality), God laughs man into being. And instead of being a “laughing animal,” with this quasi-theological interpretation we have a “laughing creature.”

The main irony, however, is that this account doesn’t come from Moses; it comes from a fiction writer. But instead of making the writer into the demiurge (which is what we see in much modernist fiction), we should see the writer as engaged in a reading of Creation in terms of a comical kind of materiality. By returning to the sources – whether to Aristotle’s laughing animal or to a more “personal” and embodied reading of the Torah/Bible (as the Jewish Theologian Michael Wyschogrod suggests) – we, along with Umberto Eco, can address what much of the Western philosophical and religious tradition has left out.

Materiality, animal life, and humor have all been relegated to an inferior status for millennia. Eco’s audacious novel shows us that now it’s time to return to the sources and give them their due. And rather than simply see laughter only as a rebellion against the tradition (which it is), we should also see laughter as an opportunity to understand the meaning of God’s presence in the world rather than beyond it. The text should lead us to the possibility of what the Rabbis (and Jacques Derrida) might call a “laughter to come,” which they associated with the messianic. I would suggest that this laughter is closely tied to a return to a rejected materiality and otherness that has been deemed ugly and satanic. Only by doing this can we become more aware of people rather than texts (and inter-texts). Instead of seeking out the Logos of the text, we can seek out the face and the person who laughs and is laughable. Most importantly, laughter alerts us to something that is pre-linguistic and shared amongst humans. In Eco’s version of Creation, laughter comes before language and it brings us closer rather than farther away from Creation.

For the author of The Name of the Rose, man is laughed into existence and his defining trait – which puts him contact with the Creator – is not reason or spirit; it is laughter. Although we are very close to animals in terms of empathy, play, and even happiness, Eco argues, in one interview, that the one thing we have (and that they do not) are “comic feelings” and a “sense” of humor. This sensibility comes to the fore in death. Since Eco suggests that humor is the “quintessential reaction to death,” humans don’t have the last word. Rather, they can have the last laugh.

But that possibility all depends on how developed one’s sense of humor is. And perhaps this alsodepends on the “laughing creature’s” faith in the Creator. The question, however, is whether the same Creator who laughs one’s soul into existence laughs it out of existence or whether the creature does. In other words, who has the last laugh? When it comes to death, can only the Creator laugh? And if that Creator – in a modernist sense – is a fiction writer, what does it mean that he finds his creations and the world he/she has created risible?

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory

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