March 25, 2011

Augustinian Puns

You will notice that I stopped posting about Augustine in September last year- I got so absorbed in him that I think I lost the thread of my thought and was concerned I would write the same article too many times. I've decided to resume posting thoughts though- we left Augustine in Book V so we shall resume our account in Book VI.

Augustine used humour to undermine pagan beliefs, take this passage from Book VI of the City of God, when he addresses those who believe that the pagan gods can offer eternal life:

will these authors assure any man who supplicates the immortal gods that, when he asks the Lymphs for wine, and they reply, 'We have water, ask Liber for wine', he may then rightly say 'If you have no wine at least give me eternal life?' What absurdity could be more monstrous? If they do not try to deceive him will not these Lymphs laugh at him?... Will they not answer the supplicant: 'O man do you suppose that we have power over life [vitam] when you have heard that we do not have even power over water [vitem]. (VI 1)

Augustine uses humour in this passage for two reasons. Firstly he is pointing out the absurdity of polytheism: these are not powerful Gods, they have 'minute portions', 'little offices' within heaven. Compared to the all powerful monotheistic God of Abraham and Isaac they seem puny indeed. The temporal limits to their power suggest they cannot offer eternal life in the same way as the powerful Christian God: Juventas as he argues cannot make a man's beard grow so surely cannot give him eternal life. That is the substance of the argument of the chapter- but the humour is performing two functions, and its first alone is to support the argument.

Consider the passage above. The Lymphs, Augustine imagines, are laughing at the man concerned. Augustine believed that the pagan gods existed as demons rather than Gods: it is important to realise this because it reinforces why his humour is so powerful. In this passage as in others, what he is saying is that the belief system of paganism is absurd- but moreover it is created by demons. Part of their demonic design is to fool humans and Augustine is convinced and wants us to be convinced that they are enjoying the deception. The point here is that the deception is funny: the human is like the gulled victim in a comedy act, and that the believer in paganism as opposed to the Christian is the butt of the joke. Ultimately his Gods are vindictive and cruel. Laughter echoes through Augustine's text and its often the spiteful laughter of demons, we are invited to laugh in order to persuade us both to see the stupidity of pagans and to understand the evil of their gods.