Copyright © 1993 Milan Kundera.All rights reserved.
The Invention of Humor
The pregnant Madame Grandgousier ate too muchtripe, and they had to give her a purgative; it was sostrong, that the placenta let go, the fetus Gargantuaslipped into a vein, traveled up her system, and cameout of his mama's ear. From the very first lines,Rabelais's book shows its hand: the story being toldhere is not serious: that is, there are no statements oftruths here (scientific or mythic); no promise todescribe things as they are in reality.
Rabelais's time was fortunate: the novel as butterflyis taking flight, carrying the shreds of the chrysalison its back. With his giant form, Pantagruel stillbelongs to the past of fantastic tales, while Panurgecomes from the yet unknown future of the novel. Theextraordinary moment of the birth of a new art givesRabelais's book an astounding richness; it has everything:the plausible and the implausible, allegory,satire, giants and ordinary men, anecdotes, meditations,voyages real and fantastic, scholarly disputes,digressions of pure verbal virtuosity. Today's novelist,with his legacy from the nineteenth century, feels anenvious nostalgia for the superbly heterogeneous universeof those earliest novelists and for the delightfulliberty with which they dwelt in it.
Just as Rabelais starts his book by droppingGargantua onto the world's stage from his mama's ear,so in The Satanic Verses, after a midair plane explosion,do Salman Rushdie's two heroes fall through theair chattering, singing, and carrying on in comic andimprobable fashion. While "above, behind, belowthem in the void" float reclining seats, paper cups,oxygen masks, and passengers, one of them - GibreelFarishta - swims "in air, butterfly-stroke, breaststroke,bunching himself into a ball, spreadeaglinghimself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,"and the other - Saladin Chamcha - like "a fastidiousshadow falling headfirst in a grey suit with allthe jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides. . . abowler hat on his head." The novel opens with thatscene, for, like Rabelais, Rushdie knows that the contractbetween the novelist and the reader must beestablished from the outset; it must be clear: the storybeing told here is not serious, even though it is aboutthe most dreadful things.
The marriage of the not-serious and the dreadful:witness this scene from Rabelais's Fourth Book: on theopen sea, Pantagruel's boat meets a ship full of sheepmerchants; one of them, seeing Panurge with no codpieceand with his eyeglasses fastened to his hat, takesthe liberty of talking big and calls him a cuckold.Panurge is quick to retaliate: he buys a sheep from thefellow and throws it into the sea; it being their natureto follow the leader, all the other sheep start jumpinginto the water. In a panic, the merchants grab hold ofthe sheeps' fleece and horns, and are dragged into thesea themselves. Panurge picks up an oar, not to savethem but to keep them from climbing back onto theship; eloquently, he exhorts them, describing the miseriesof this world and the benefits and delights of thenext, declaring that the dead are more fortunate thanthe living. Even so, should they by some chance preferto go on living among humans, he wishes them a meetingwith some whale, like Jonah. The mass drowningaccomplished, the good Frere Jean congratulatesPanurge, only reproaching him for having paid themerchant beforehand and thus thrown away moneySays Panurge: "By God, I got a good fifty thousandfrancs' worth of fun for it!"
The scene is unreal, impossible; does it, at least,have a moral? Is Rabelais denouncing the stinginess ofthe merchants, whose punishment should please us?Or does he mean to make us indignant at Panurge'scruelty? Or, as a good anticlerical, is he mocking thestupidity of the religious cliches Panurge recites?Guess! Every answer is a booby trap.
Says Octavio Paz: "There is no humor in Homer orVirgil; Ariosto seems to foreshadow it, but not untilCervantes does humor take shape.... Humor," hegoes on, is the great invention of the modern spirit."A fundamental idea: humor is not an age-old humanpractice; it is an invention bound up with the birth ofthe novel. Thus humor is not laughter, not mockery,not satire, but a particular species of the comic, which,Paz says (and this is the key to understanding humor'sessence), "renders ambiguous everything it touches."People who cannot take pleasure from the spectacle ofPanurge letting the sheep merchants drown while hesings them the praises of the hereafter will neverunderstand a thing about the art of the novel.
The Realm Where Moral Judgment Is Suspended
If I were asked the most common cause of misunderstandingbetween my readers and me, I would not hesitate:humor. I had only recently come to France, and Iwas anything but blase. When a famous professor ofmedicine asked to meet me because he admired TheFarewell Party, I was most flattered. According to him,my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, adoctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa byinjecting them secretly with his own sperin from a specialsyringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future.The professor invites me to a conference on artificialinsemination. He puffs a sheet of paper from hispocket and reads me the draft of his own presentation.The gift of sperm must be anonymous, free of charge,and (here he looks me in the eye) impelled by a threefoldlove: love for an unknown ovum that seeks toaccomplish its mission; the donor's love for his ownindividuality, which is to be perpetuated by the donation;and, third, love for a couple that is suffering,unfulfilled. Then he looks me in the eye again: muchas he admires my work, he does have one criticism: Idid not manage to express powerfully enough themoral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: thisis a comic novel! My doctor is a crackpot! You shouldn'tbe taking it all so seriously! "So," he says, suspicious,"your novels aren't meant to be taken seriously?" I ambaffled, and suddenly I realize: there is nothing harderto explain than humor.
In The Fourth Book, there is a storm at sea.Everyone is on deck struggling to save the ship. Allexcept Panurge, paralyzed with fear, who just whimpers:his great lamentations go on for pages. When thestorm abates, his courage returns and he bawls all ofthem out for their laziness. And this is what's odd: notonly does this coward, this liar, this faker, provoke noindignation, but it is at the peak of his braggadociothat we love him most. These are the passages whereinRabelais's book becomes fully and radically a novel:that is, a realm where moral judgment is suspended.
Suspending moral judgment is not the immoralityof the novel; it is its morality. The morality that standsagainst the ineradicable human habit of judginginstantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before,and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpointof the novel's wisdom, that fervid readiness tojudge is the most detestable stupidity, the most perniciousevil. Not that the novelist utterly denies thatmoral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it aplace in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurgeof cowardice, accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac - that'syour business; the novelist has nothing todo with it.
Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgmentis suspended was a move of enormous significance:only there could novelistic characters develop - thatis, individuals conceived not as a function ofsome preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, oras representations of objective laws in conflict, but asautonomous beings grounded in their own morality, intheir own laws. Western society habitually presentsitself as the society of the rights of man; but before aman could have rights, he had to constitute himself asan individual, to consider himself such and to be consideredsuch; that could not happen without the longexperience of the European arts and particularly ofthe art of the novel, which teaches the reader to becurious about others and to try to comprehend truthsthat differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran isright to call European society "the society of thenovel" and to speak of Europeans as "the children ofthe novel."
The removal of gods from the world is one of thephenomena that characterize the Modem Era. Theremoval of gods does not mean atheism, it denotesthe situation in which the individual, the thinkingego, supplants God as the basis for all things; manmay continue to keep his faith, to kneel in church, topray at his bed, but his piety shall henceforward pertainonly to his subjective universe. Having describedthis situation, Heidegger concludes: "And thus thegods eventually departed. The resulting void is filledby the historical and psychological exploration ofmyths."