February 13, 2011

Laughter in the Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco's novel the Name of the Rose is about monks. Fundementally it is about theology and the way that a theology which is taken seriously can lead to real world consequences. Eco reflects on many ideas- the role of learning, the Renaissance, science and the begginings of modern society- but one of the key themes of the book is about laughter. Is laughter ultimately justified in the sight of God, or is it a signal of the dominance of Satan in the world? One monk Jorge argues that laughter is the principle of all evil:

Certainly one who accepts dangerous ideas can also appreciate the jesting of the ignorant man who laughs at the sole truth one should know, which has already been said once and for all. With his laughter the fool says in his heart 'Deus non est' (God is not)
Jorge's position is based on his belief that he knows what is true. Think about it for a second. In his universe, there are only two kinds of statements. The first are statements which are true. They are either descriptions of God's mercy and power or prayers to God. To laugh at these is to imagine that God's sovereignty is funny. The second set of statements are statements that attack God or condemn him or ignore him. These again should not spark laughter but rage and denounciation. Jorge's position is set out from a position of power: Christianity is, and to laugh is to say that it is not. It is to disturb the single truth and single rule of God.

In contrast to this Eco develops another character William of Baskerville who argues against Jorge. I take William's arguments to be dual: interestingly they imagine a world in which knowledge is much more unstable than in Jorge's world. Baskerville's first challenge concerns scriptural and other examples of the persecuted: they laugh at those who persecute them. He sets up the Christian not as an authority or an authoritative presence but as the subordinate: his point therefore is akin, and Eco would know this, to Christ's to the inquisition in the Brothers Karamazov. Secondly he argues that there are things which scripture does not declare upon:

God demands that we apply our reason to many obscure things about which Scripture has left us free to decide. And when someone suggests you believe in a proposition, you must first examine it to see whether it is acceptable, because our reason was created by God, and whatever pleases our reason can but please divine reason, of which for that matter, we know only what we infer from our own reason by analogy and often by negation. Thus you see to undermine the false authority of an absurd proposition that offends reason, laughter can sometimes also be a suitable instrument.

Laughter for Baskerville serves to mark the division between propositions which are absurd and those which are plausible. Tell me that a secret cabal of aliens runs the world and I'll laugh, argue in favour of Keynesianism or Monetarism and I'll respond seriously. The key point here though is that William admits of a whole set of questions that Jorge does not admit of: questions which are ambiguous where our judgement is uncertain and God does not provide a rule. Laughter is a device within a continuous argument.

What I think is so interesting about Baskerville's position and Jorge's position is that Eco cleverly exposes one of the functions of laughter. In a world where everything was known, where the world was revealed, Jorge might well be right. Laughter would be silly: either indecorous or positively slanderous of truth. This is not the world that we live in: Baskerville's view of truth, that we do not know much and that that that we do know must be constructed painstakenly from argument and inference is much more familiar to a world of laughter. His is a reminder that we are strangers in our own land and what we understand is much less than what we do not understand. Jorge is wrong, the fool who laughs has not said in his heart Deus non est, he has said that he is a fool!