In his Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera proposes that humor is an invention of the modern, tracing its development alongside that of the novel from the Decameron to the present day. Kunderaís dizzyingly ambitious essay provides a framework locating humor in both its artistic and historical contexts. Kundera identifies the birth of the novel as well as that of humor with "the great precursor" Boccacio. (Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, "The European Novel.") In the Decameron first arises the embodiment of Octavio Pazís humor, that entity which "renders ambiguous everything it touches." (Ibid., "The Invention of Humor.") A marvelous example is the tale of the monk Rustico teaching his pious, nubile pupil Alibech to "put the devil back in hell." Here Boccacio develops deliciously bawdy metaphors for putting Rusticoís male "devil" back in the eager Alibechís female "Hell," and each line of his prose overflows with comic implications. He writes:
Before the next few days, . . . the devilís pride frequently reared its head again, and the girl, ever ready to obey the call to duty and bring him under control, happened to develop a taste for the sport, and began saying to Rustico:
ĎI can certainly see what those worthy men in Gafsa meant when they said that serving God was so agreeable. I donít honestly recall ever having done anything that gave me so much pleasure and satisfaction as I get from putting the devil back in Hell. To my way of thinking, anyone who devotes his energies to anything but the service of God is a complete blockhead.'--(Boccacio, Decameron, 277.)
Is the purpose of this passage to mock the profligacy of monks like Rustico? Does it ridicule the high-minded piety of "those worthy men in Gafsa"? Is it a meditation on the churchís hypocrisy on the divided inclinations of spirit and body? There are shadings present of all these elements. Bocaccioís tale refuses to be categorized as any of these, instead suggesting glimmerings of each in turn. This represents what Kundera describes as "the realm where moral judgment is suspended." This is captured pithily in Alibechís habitual declaration to Rustico, "Father, I came here to serve God, not to idle away my time. Letís go and put the devil back in Hell." (Ibid., 278.) Boccacio encapsulates in one line a delightful contrast between Alibechís determination to "serve God" and her determination to have her monk bed her again. Boccacio refuses to lecture or admonish, but simply watches the rich absurdity of life with an amused eye.
The laughter comes from seeing these men and women in all their diverse contradictions. Rustico is "a very devout and kindly fellow" who does try, however briefly, to "prove to himself that he possessed a will of iron" and resist temptation. (Ibid., 275.) The humor lies in that Rustico is human and cannot. Alibech, likewise, is at once innocent and corrupt, and the hilarity stems from her conflation of these opposites. Boccacioís figures appear humorous because they are, as it were, more true to life than life itself, revealing in their actions what goes on in all of us. Each is a bundle of human conflict. They lust madly and believe earnestly. They sin eagerly and repent honestly. This humor, Kundera argues, is "a particular species of the comic" (Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, "The Invention of the Comic") that strips away judgment and preconception and, in examining human nature by laughter alone, aspires to capture it on the page.
In originating the essay, Montaigne transmits to his new genre this same act of self-discovery through humor. In a memorable section of his "On the power of the imagination," he makes a stirring case in defense of the male member:
How often do the involuntary movements of our features reveal what we are secretly thinking and betray us to those about us! The same cause that governs this member, without our knowing it governs the heart, the lungs, and the pulse, the sight of a charming object imperceptibly spreading within us the flame of a feverish emotion. Are these the only muscles and veins that swell and subside without the consent, not only of our will, but even of our thoughts? . . . How much more justifiably can we brand [our will] with rebellion and sedition, on account of its constant irregularities and disobedience! Does it not often desire, to our obvious disadvantage, what we forbid it to? Does it let itself be guided, either, by the conclusions of our reason?
In short, I ask you on behalf of my noble client kindly to reflect that, although his case in this matter is inseparably and indistinguishably joined with that of an accomplice, nevertheless he alone is attacked, and with such arguments and accusations as, seeing the condition of the parties, cannot possibly appertain to or concern the said accomplice. Wherefore the malice and manifest injustice of his accusers is apparent.--(Montaigne, Essays, 42 - 44.)
Montaigne has learned the lessons Boccacio has to teach. The same approach to humor recurs, that of revealing the human intermingling of the rarefied with the vulgar. Boccacio showed theology mixed with sex, whereas here Montaigne combines fine points of law with locker room subject matter. Kundera and his inspiration Paz would be proud; Montaigne makes no moral judgments, choosing only to laugh. His personification of the penis as a wronged client shows the penis to be a part of the man every bit as much as any other, neither nobler nor more base. Montaigneís humor thus reveals his grasp of the totality of man. For Montaigne, this consists of indigestion, impotence, a little seduction, and a lot of "legal wrangling," and that Montaigne can show all these disparate elements synthesized into a human whole is what can make him so funny.
These human elements are also what give Montaigneís essays their novelistic bent. He imbues them with the lush use of anecdote and imagery, and makes them not so much about any one thesis as some nebulous, inexhaustibly fascinating human pursuit of self-knowledge. He rambles, and rambles brilliantly. With each passing paragraph, Montaigne adds a new nuance to his ongoing portrait of humanity. In the course of "On the power of the imagination," he evokes manís dreams, manís empathy for his fellow men, manís seductions, and lastly, with the same tone of even-handed respect, manís penis. This member "is the author of the sole immortal work of mortal man," and as such deserves an equal place next to every other part of man. (Ibid., 44.) It is from this syncretism that humor arises.
The humor in Boccacio and Montaigne alike support Kunderaís approach to humor as something programmatic; it is an implement towards human self-understanding. As such, the development of humor is an integral part of the development of literary aesthetics. In evincing a thoroughly ambiguous, fully problematized view of its characters, humor brings the author and the reader closer to comprehending what it is to be human. These are lofty words, and it is a testament to Kunderaís staggering skill as an essayist that he can make a convincing case for such an overarching thesis. To explore the truth of Kunderaís approach, consider Virgil. It is because it offers few insights into human nature or the society of its time that Virgilís beautifully crafted Aeneid is filled with profoundly unfunny verse such as this, when Aeneas flees the flames of Troy with Anchises:
ĎThen come, dear father. Arms around my
Iíll take you on my shoulders, no great weigt.
Whatever happens, both will face one danger,
Find one safety. Iulus will come with me,
My wife at a good interval behind. . . .
Father, carry our hearthgods, our Penatës.--(Virgil, Aeneid, 58.)
What makes this passage so impressively unfunny is its artificiality. It is written in stilted, elegant language in carefully measured meter. In the original Latin, it would rhyme, making it still more contrived and solemn. If one wanted to make this passage humorous, one would endow the text with a greater sense of reality. This applies equally to the situation and the charactersí identities. To address first the reality of the situation, one need only attempt to visualize what takes place in this passage. One imagines sword-wielding warrior Aeneas, holding his sonís hand, wizened old Dad on his back, Dad himself carrying idols of gods under an arm here or over the head there, all of them running around northern Turkey. Even if what is humorous, as Kundera acknowledges, is subjective and difficult to explain, there is an inherent humor to this absurd image of son reaching up to father supporting grandfather reaching for god. It is Roman patriarchy executed as perverse cheerleader pyramid.
Where the reality of the charactersí identities is concerned, one might look at Aeneas not as some duty-bound caricature but as a disheveled New York nebbish with badly matched clothes and thick glasses. In that context, the dialogue livens up at once: "You want to ride piggyback carrying the hearth gods again, Dad?" or "Every time the Greeks burn Troy, I just get so verklemmt" are only two examples. These new lines are, to whatever extent they better capture human nature, both more plausible and more entertaining than Virgilís originals. A devoted classicist recreating Virgil with contemporary idioms and characters and a puerile college student out to mock the great epics face precisely the same challenge. They are both on an ontological quest to discover Virgilís characters in modern equivalents and to remake Virgilís milieu in the mold of their own.
Kundera documents his awe at Carlos Fuentesí Terra Nostra, which fused disparate times and places in the Mexican past to create what Kundera calls a "poetic and oneiric metahistory." (Kundera, Testaments Betrayed, "Coexistence of Various Historical Periods Within a Novel.") What we have done with Virgil represents a likeminded "metahumor" that dreams of the comic possibilities of modern sensibilities and realities grafted onto an unfunny work. This is consistent with, if rather less ambitious than, the "aesthetic obsession to bring different historical periods to coexist in a novel" (ibid.) of Fuentes and Kundera; "metahumor" seeks to bring different historical perspectives on humor to coexist in a reading of the classics. In doing so, one envisions them as novels and gains new insights into them. It is in finding the humor in the Aeneid that one most fully comprehends the inherent falseness of the work. Perceiving that, in the context of a modern reality, Aeneas possesses all the grace of Harpo Marx, one confronts the fact that the Aeneid is only superbly executed mythology, poor in revelations as to the nature of man.
Moreover, like the metahistory of Fuentes and Kundera, a metahumor is a reaction against history. Kundera ponders Thomas Mannís view of the brutally deterministic power of history on human development, dooming each person to "revive certain given forms, certain mythical schema established by forebears, and to allow them reincarnation." (Ibid., "The Well of the Past.") Against the onslaught of this "inhuman force that . . . invades our lives from the outside and destroys them," Kundera champions the novel, and specifically the elaboration of its aesthetics, as a means to rebel against history and establish a personal identity independent of it. The novelís history, he writes, "is opposed to the meaning of history itself. Because of its personal nature, the history of an art is a revenge by man against the impersonality of the history of humanity." (Ibid., "The History of the Novel as Revenge on History Itself.") Metahumor, in like fashion, is itself revenge against impersonal, historically dominated literature such as Virgilís propagandistic Aeneid, rooting out its ridiculousness. Just as Gargantua and Pantagruel became a novel "gradually as later novelists . . . took their inspiration from it, openly drew on it, thus integrating it into the history of the novel," (ibid.) the Aeneid can become farce if later writers draw on the human absurdity underlying its stories.
Kundera, in his writings on humor, captures the monumental scale of the novelistís enterprise. Humor and the novel are the authorís means to follow Socratesí edict to know thyself. Even readers may gain insight and amusement by approaching everything they read, no matter how stolid the text, with a humoristís keen eye for human idiosyncrasy. Through the aggressive pursuit of humor, both as author and reader, we may escape "the ordinary pursued to its utmost" and the "tedium of gray" (ibid., "The European Novel") that Kundera finds plagues the literary world today.