Laughter in the Precincts of Grace

British literary critic James Wood is hot right now. Formerly the chief critic for the London Guardian, Wood now lives in America and is a senior editor for The New Republic. He’s about to publish a new book, The Irresponsible Self: Humor and the Novel (forthcoming from Farrar Straus & Giroux). An extract from the book’s introduction has been published as an essay in the book section of The Guardian (April 24). In the essay, “Laughing Matters,” Wood sets forth the thesis of the book: that the modern novel has its roots in “a kind of tragic-comic stoicism which might best be called the comedy of forgiveness,” in distinction from “the comedy of correction: the latter is a way of laughing at; the former a way of laughing with.”

The comedy of correction, Wood tells us, traces its Western roots to Greco-Roman satirists like Aristophanes and Lucian, and finds its theoretical underpinnings in Aristotle’s notion of compassion as the enemy of laughter. He traces its line forward through such figures as Erasmus, Rabelais, Swift, and Molière, seeing its greatest representative in Gustav Flaubert, the coldly brilliant satirist of bourgeois life in nineteenth century France. Laughing Matters Since it presupposes a pitiless authorial omniscience that sees everything and forgives nothing, Wood characterizes the comedy of correction as “religious.”

The comedy of forgiveness, on the other hand, is a product of modernity, foreshadowed in Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and realized in a succession of more recent novelists, from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Saul Bellow and V. S. Naipaul. Such comedy assumes that characters are never fully disclosed to us in their complexity of motivation, that there is always a residue of opacity in people that should forestall our instinct to condemn and punish. In contrast to the comedy of correction, Wood claims, it is essentially secular. “If religious comedy is punishment for those who deserve it, secular comedy is forgiveness for those who don’t.”

So, let’s recap. A form of comedy with roots in that most secular of ancient philosophers, Aristotle, and practiced by a long succession of skeptics and satirists of religion is . . . religious. And a form of comedy that was practiced by Austen and Tolstoy, and has at its core a concept (forgiveness) that is also at the core of Christianity, is . . . secular. Is Wood showing off here, saddling himself with a hypothesis so boldly counter-intuitive that one might need a license (a Cambridge Ph.D., perhaps) before being allowed to entertain it? Or does he have, as they say, “issues” with religion?

Wood might cheerfully admit to the latter. His upbringing as an earnest evangelical Christian and his loss of faith in his teens is openly a part of his critical persona. His first collection of criticism, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Random House, 1999), includes an autobiographical essay on the subject. And his first foray into fiction is a novel about a young atheist from a devout family entitled The Book against God (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003), which one critic suggested should be titled “The Book against Dad.” Wood’s arguments for linking the comedy of correction to Christianity (he mentions no other religion) are almost defiantly sketchy: references to Yahweh’s scornful laughter against his foes in Psalm 2 and Jesus’ claim to see into the murderous or adulterous heart in Matthew 5. “The ambition of total transparency,” he notes, “the desire to put a window in the human heart, strikes one as essentially religious.”

Of course, what strikes one may not strike another, at least in quite the same way. For the Christian faith, one might object, belief in God is the polar opposite of belief that one is God. The total transparency of others would lead a sinner to pitiless pride; looking into the window of one’s own heart would drive a sinner to despair. Only a God who understands us fully and yet loves us totally can save; the gospel proclaims that this God is revealed in Jesus. How can one claim to believe that gospel and yet want to become God rather than worship God?

Easily enough, unfortunately. The church is full of aspiring divinities, and not all of them are named Jimmy, Jerry or Pat. The Christian faith has proved depressingly susceptible to being turned into its opposite, a religion of self-righteous, humorless godlets, experts on everybody else’s sin. Frankly, we’ve all probably done it ourselves, at one time or another. And there have always been Christian prophets to identify this tendency toward triumphant judgmentalism, or its complement, morbid introspection. But do these tendencies belong to the core of the faith, or are they recurring perversions of faith? It’s futile to attempt a scientific answer to that question; but the prophets should at any rate be heard.

Martin Luther pounded at the door of Romans 1:17 until he could see in the “righteousness of God” not (as the medieval church taught) a threat of certain punishment for the sinner, but instead the sure gift of salvation. Karl Barth thundered against the “religious” presumption of humanity to manage our relationship with God with our “natural” knowledge, rather than to “let God be God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted on a degree of reserve and privacy for the individual as an implication of his “religionless” Christianity; he insisted that the window into the heart is reserved for the God who loved us “while we were yet sinners,” not for the prying eyes of religious busybodies. Flannery O’Connor, often misread as a satirist of religious folly, is better read as a comedist of divine grace, whose characters never fully understand themselves or others, until ultimately they understand themselves as loved and forgiven by God.

Some of these Christians would happily let Wood abscond with the term “religion” to designate the common perversion of the Christian gospel that they oppose. But it might also be fair to expect so discerning a critic as Wood to recognize that the line between the two mentalities he posits does not run neatly between what most people would designate as the “religious” and the “secular,” and that the sources of the comedy of forgiveness lie within the precincts of grace.

Then again, perhaps it is less important to chide a recovering evangelical for picking at his theological scabs, and more important to keep bad religion from wounding yet another generation.

David E. Timmer teaches in the Department of Religion at Central College, in Pella, Iowa, and is a co-editor of Perspectives.