Umberto Eco’s masterpiece novel The Name of the Rose has a critical plot point centered around a debate about laughter. The debate begins when some monks are looking at illuminated manuscripts and find “Babewyn,” a style of illumination named after baboons that includes ridiculous juxtapositions and “figures of an inverted world, where houses stand on the tip of a steeple and the earth is above the sky.” The confused young narrator Adso describes being “torn between silent admiration and laughter,” because he sees both the silliness and the great beauty of these figures.
As the monks laugh at these figures, they are interrupted by a frowning, stern old man who declares to them in Latin that vain speech and laughter are to be avoided. This man is Jorge, tragically named after the great Borges, who believes that laughter is not fitting for God or for humans and presents that unpleasant side of the debate. Jorge dislikes the Babewyn illuminations because they “lie about the form of creation and show the world as the opposite of what it should be.”
William, his opponent in the debate, defends the Babewyn, saying that they “provoke smiles, but to edifying ends.” The silly figures “touch the imagination” and help “devout throngs” find greater understanding of virtue and vice. After all, the New Testament tells us that we see but “through a glass, darkly.” Since we cannot have a perfectly clear understanding of God in this world, we must use similes and figures, and so it is excusable even to use absurd ones, thus to “perceive the mysteries hidden under the turpitude of the images.”
The continuation of the debate is essentially an articulation of these two main points: first, that jollity is wicked because it tends come from things that are at least untrue and at worst perverse, and second, that it is good because the portrayal of the untrue and the perverse can help us realize the true and the good in a cheerful, attractive way. One side says that only the literally true should be communicated, and the other says that the untrue should be portrayed as a paradoxical path to the true. Both sides proceed from an acknowledgement that truth is the ultimate goal of communication – the only debate is regarding whether it is only permissible to arrive at truth through truth, or whether one can go through some degree of (hopefully harmless) error.
The question is not entirely unreasonable, and when expressed in its strongest form asks whether art needs to exist at all. Why does Romeo need to say that Juliet is the sun? She is not the sun, after all, and it is a lie and an error to say that she is. Wouldn’t it be right and proper and sufficient for Romeo to say things that were actually true about Juliet? That she was kind or pleasant or beautiful, rather than a ball of nuclear fusion millions of miles away? Why do we need to communicate the error (that Juliet is the sun) to get to the truth (that Romeo has a powerful infatuation with her)? The answer is difficult to articulate, but fundamentally it is this: that something literally false can contain an irreproducible kernel of truth that can be understood only with the aid of the imagination. The extent to which we can accept laughter is the same as the extent to which we can accept this truth or indeed accept art itself.
The form of this argument is almost as interesting as its content. There are actually many debates in which people want to know whether some goal X can be achieved only by seeking X, or whether it can be best achieved by a paradoxical path through some opposite or apparently opposing thing Y. In each debate there are literalists who believe that only X can produce more X, like Jorge who believes that only true pictures can teach us spiritual truths. Then there are paradoxists who insist that there is some secret and mysterious way that Y, though opposite of X, can lead to X, like William who believes that false, comical pictures can lead us in a mysterious way to true understanding. Some who are literalists in one X-Y debate become paradoxists in another without batting an eye.
As an example, consider the endless debates about the minimum wage. Here, X is per-capita wages. Advocates of a minimum wage say that wages are low and that by legislating a minimum wage, wages will be higher. So to get more of X, we must push only on X. Opponents of minimum-wage laws believe that by legislating a higher minimum-wage, employers will hire less and unemployment will run rampant and thus depress average wages (after factoring in huge numbers of people earning nothing). So to get higher wages, we must allow employers to pay lower wages, as low as they wish, until everyone is employed and the price of labor is bid up to a healthy level. They have proposed a paradoxical path through low wages (Y) to get more of Y’s opposite, higher wages. They are just like William who proposes a path through false joke illuminations to spiritual truth, or Shakespeare who took a path through lying about Juliet to telling a deeper truth about her.
In the case of minimum wage, the Left has taken the side of the literalists and the Right has taken the circuitous path of the paradoxists. But Left and Right switch places for other debates. As recently as this Mother’s Day, there was a small controversy when an abortion provider ran advertisements that represented an abortion as an act of love. In this debate, people on the Right took the literalist stance, arguing that since abortions are performed with knives and destroy something violently, abortion can never be the path to love: only something that is obviously love can beget more love. The abortion provider seemed to be taking the paradoxist stance: that a violent act performed with a knife can lead to a better and more love-filled life for the mother manqué and her other children because of a one-time violent act.
Speaking of violence, the sides switch again when it comes to war. Pacifists, associated mostly with the Left today, argue that if we want to get to a goal of peace, only peace can get us there. Only by winding down the military, decreasing foreign engagements, and firing fewer bullets will we get to a goal of having a peaceful world. The interventionist Right takes the paradoxist approach here, agreeing that peace is the goal but saying that we need to have conflicts to get to peace, like how Augustine wrote “the aim of all conflict is peace.” We beef up the military, wipe out the world’s most evil organizations like so many weeds, and that violence will paradoxically give us more peace. If they learned from the abortion provider, they could even say that violent engagements abroad are acts of love since they lead to peace.
With regard to love, there are plenty of conflicts to be found between literalists and paradoxists. The proverb “spare the rod and spoil the child” expresses one such conflict: that one whose love for a child leads him to avoid the harshness of discipline, is in fact neglecting the child’s proper development and thus failing to love the child properly. There are great controversies today in religious communities about the proper attitude toward sin and sinners, with the cliched idea of “love the sinner, hate the sin” being quoted quite often on all sides. If homosexual intercourse is, as most Christian communities believe, a grave sin, then it could be reasonable to deny the privilege of communion to practicing homosexuals, as some groups do. A literalist, however, might argue that extending the privilege of communion is an act of love, and the only way to increase love is through love. A paradoxist, as Christian leaders seem to be in this case, would argue that a harsher line towards practicing homosexuals could lead them and the community at large toward the great truth of a purer life.
We see a literalist/paradoxist split in the debate about drugs as well: we all wish to decrease fatal drug overdoses, but should we take a literalist approach by banning drugs and therefore decreasing their usage overall, or by legalizing them, and by increasing drug use, get them out in the open so that they can be regulated and people educated to avoid their worst effects. There are analogous arguments related to prostitution, gun control, the death penalty, and just about every issue related to the economy. On each of these, a strict literalist on one issue may become a subtle-minded paradoxist on the next, arguing one moment for plain thinking and straight talking, and the next for nuance and careful attention to unintended consequences.
As unsatisfying as it is, there is no rule or formula for knowing whether a literalist or paradoxist argument is the correct one. As an example of literalism being correct, consider Lenin and his infamous dictum “the worse, the better.” He was making a paradoxist argument that is still adopted by some Marxists today: that if capitalism leads to bad outcomes, it will hasten and glorify the eventual Communist revolution, and the worse capitalism’s outcomes, the better the eventual triumph of Communism. Those who subscribe to this paradoxist argument could cheer for the abuses of employers or the suffering of the poor, with the mistaken paradoxist notion that this suffering will lead to future bliss after the Revolution. Unfortunately, there is no bliss after the Communist revolution, only greater suffering, so a literalist would be correct here by arguing “the better, the better.”
On the other hand, sometimes the paradoxist interpretation contains real wisdom. Consider the saying by Christ, that “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Today, people are constantly concerned with “finding themselves,” and study “the science of happiness,” taking an implicitly literalist approach to personal fulfillment: the more they push themselves towards happiness, and the more they try very to find themselves, the more they will find themselves and be happy. But Christ advocates a paradoxist approach, saying that the only way to find one’s life or one’s soul is to abandon it, giving it wholly to something greater – but by abandoning it one will save it anyway. There is a deep wisdom here worth meditating on more seriously.
As for the original question of whether humor can lead us through error to truth, I am a staunch paradoxist. I think that fiction, art, and jokes may be composed of falsehoods but at their best can lead us to great truths. The truths we find in fiction and art are not usually the truths of science and history, but the truths of the heart and spirit that are more difficult to express except through artifice. As for humor, I think that God laughs and that mirth leads us at its best to one of the most important truths of all – the truth of the reality of joy and the truth that life is good and worth enthusiastically living.