Monday, March 21, 2011

Comedy in a time of sorrow

When I was first introduced to the Decameron, my mother warned me that the stories are bawdy and inappropriate for a teenager to read.  Of course, I immediately reshelved the book and waited for another decade when I could handle "the truth."   Some zillion years later, The Spanish Medievalist and I are now teaching Boccaccio to teenagers.  The Medievalist tells the Freshman BICers the same thing.  "These stories involve adult situations, inappropriate for a young audience.  Read the few stories we have screened, but DO NOT read anything else in the book."  

Sex overshadows the story... the META-story.  And, I guess that is the point.  The interlocutors tell stories to each other to forget about the fact that friends and family have died from an unprecedented out-break of the Plague.  There was not only the sorrow of death, but a tremendous fear... no one knew why or how people were dying.  This is how Boccaccio begins the Decameron:

I say, then, that in the year 1348 after the Son of God's fruitful incarnation, into the distinguished city of Florence, that most beautiful of Italian cities, there entered a deadly pestilence. Whether one believes that it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies or that God, justly angered by our iniquities, sent it for our correction, in any case it had begun several years earlier in the east and killed an innumerable mass of people, spreading steadily from place to place and growing as it moved west.  No human wisdom or provision was of any help.
So, in light of this (and the suffering in Japan and Libya today), I ask you why do we seek out humor and comedy in times of great suffering?


  1. I cannot offer a philosophical explanation, only my personal experience. Two reasons came to my mind as to why we seek out humor/comedy in times of suffering:

    1) Grieving hurts. There is only so much time that you can spend weeping before your ribs ache, you get hiccups and your nose runs from the tears. Even in the throes of terrible grief, we have to come up for air at some point.

    2) Joy comes in the morning. I cling to my faith during times of suffering/grief. I realize that I may never reconcile or understand the suffering in this lifetime, but I believe that God has an overriding purpose through it all, and that gives me hope. Hope overcomes despair.

    P.S. You were kidding about shelving the book for a decade, right? It seems to me that telling a teenager *not* to do something is the ideal reverse psychology.

  2. The power and purpose of comedy cannot be that different from tragedy. Why do we watch Law and Order or MacBeth? Story telling allows for a transformation... or transcendence from our current predicament. The question then is whether indulging in comedy (or tragedy) is mere escapism?

  3. I believe that when we hurt, that laughter may be the only medicine that helps a grieving soul. This is not scientific, or logical, or researched, or have any basis is a reasoned reality of any kind, but laughter comes from deep in the soul and it drives out pain and anger and pride and envy and ire. Laughter heals the broken body.

  4. As to whether I re-shelved the book... I shall never tell.

    My view on the ability of comedy to heal sorrow is a cliche. Good comedy removes us from our sorrow and from our historical, backwards reflection and then the comedy reminds us that we can laugh and be happy. As the Medievalist says, a non-rational act that feels good.