altSurprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis by Terry Lindvall (Thomas Nelson, 1996)

C. S. Lewis was right: it is almost always better to read what an author has written, rather than what someone else has written about an author. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I purchased Surprised by Laughter back in 1998, but I think I was disappointed early on: judging by an old bookmark, I think I never finished reading it.

This time I did, but it was rather a slog at times. I can tell that Dr. Lindvall knows a lot about Lewis and his works. But Surprised by Laughter reads like something an English professor might have written, and I never did like what English teachers had to say about books. Lindvall's writing is fine, though his style is not really to my liking, and there are far too many errors that should have been caught somewhere in the editing/proofreading process. But I think my greatest problem with the book is that there is too much Lindvall, and not enough Lewis.

Here are some examples that illustrate what I don't like about the author's way with words. I wish I knew enough about language and writing to express what it is that annoys me; I only know that it does.

The hoarse, dreadful laughter of those who see life as a fraud—who taste it and find it bitter—is a hollow, hopeless laughter. There were those who laughed at Jesus with scorn when He said that the girl was not dead, she was only sleeping, and would wake again. For them, the laughter of hope and joy is a mere illusion that evaporates like steam from a hot spring. Death is the futile end and the grave its grin, and grave laughter is silent, deadly silent. (p. 19)

The moment became a savoring of what the Germans call Das Erhabene, the instant of being moved and feeling pain in a positive way, of allowing the laughter and the tear to cohabit the tomb of the eye. (p. 62)

Aslan sings Narnia into existence, and throughout the Chronicles dancing erupts continually, like hiccups. (p. 83)

And here are a couple of proofreading errors that stood out:

[Lewis] once began in an address to theological students: "The proper study of shepherds is sheep, not (save accidentally) other shepherds. And woe to you if you evangelize." (p. 44)

I knew that could not have been right. And sure enough, thanks to Lindvall's habit of careful sourcing, I was able to look up the quote in Christian Reflections and confirm that, indeed, Lewis had said "woe to you if you do not evangelize." (emphasis mine)

[Quoting Lewis in Mere Christianity] It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining in the egg. (p. 69)

This, too, grated like fingernails on a blackboard. The original—unless we are working from different editions of the book—is, "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. (emphasis mine). 

True, both these examples are minor, but they change the meaning of what Lewis said, in one case to its exact opposite.

Overall, I'd say, if you are at all like me, there's little point in reading Surprised by Laughter.  But if you are one of those who enjoys thinking like a teacher of English Lit, go for it.


Lewis also likens his division of comedy to his categories of religions and soups: the thick and the clear. The thick includes all humor that deals with the animal side of human nature—that which grows out of the earth and blood and sex of men and women. The clear, on the other hand, encompasses wit, the philosophical and the intellectual, the rational realm of human nature. True comedy, ideally, brings together both—the child and man, savage and citizen, head and belly. (pp 9-10)

Based not only on Lindvall's analysis, but on what I have learned through my reading of and about Lewis, I can tell one thing: Lewis and I do not share the same sense of humor. (Maybe that's because he had a sense of humour?) I'm all for what he calls the "clear," but rarely appreciate what I consider adolescent humor: slapstick, insult, mockery, and bawdy jokes. I'm sure I didn't even much like it when I was an adolescent.

[Quoting Lewis, from Letters of C. S. Lewis] The greatest pleasure that money can give us is to make it unnecessary to think about money. (p. 103)

Finding gems like this, from a Lewis book that I don't own and have not read, helps make reading Lindvall's book worthwhile.

In Lewis's school days, "the organised and compulsory games had ... banished the element of play from school life almost entirely. There was no time to play (in the proper sense of the word)." ... When games become professional, they become serious and cease really to be games at all. ...

After that experience, Lewis was able to detect this same warped "professionalism" in the use, for instance, of the word hiking and "its abuse for something so simple as going for a walk." To Lewis, this tendency to formalize the language of play was indicative of the professional's "passion for making specialized and self-conscious stunts out of activities which have hitherto been as ordinary as shaving or playing with the kitten." (pp. 153-154)

Certainly it was when sports became organized and structured in my own life that I was transformed from an always-active child—in constant motion during recess, and nearly every night till dark outside playing sports-like games of our own invention through the streets of our neighborhood—into one who loathes sports. Lewis doesn't mention music, but that, too, has become almost entirely professionalized. So many people walk around with someone else's music blasting in their ears, and so few people sing.

Lewis decried the fact that the BBC now paid professionals to play for an audience "the same games we used to play for ourselves as children." Fun, when mass-produced, is stripped of its vitality. Who knows? Soon there even may be a television channel devoted solely to playing games for us. (p 154)

I'm not sure what Lindvall is getting at here, since his "soon" had been around a long time when he wrote Surprised by Laughter—ESPN, for example, had been founded nearly 20 years earlier. But if he meant games as opposed to sports games, then The Poker Channel was a decade away. And now our TV shows even play video games for us.

In "The Perfect Game," [G. K.] Chesterton described a contest of croquet with a man named Parkinson who took the game too seriously:

"Oh, Parkinson, Parkinson! ... how far you really are from the pure love of the sport—you who can play. It is only we who play badly who love the Game itself. You love glory; you love applause; you love the earthquake voice of victory; you do not love croquet. You do not love croquet until you love being beaten at croquet." (p. 154, emphasis mine)

When Lewis was approached about going to study with a special tutor, he was asked, "Would he be happy with no companions of his age?" He responded in ecstatic relief:

"The mere thought 'Never, never, never, shall I have to play games again!' was enough to transport me. ... My heart laughed. Happy without other boys? Happy without toothache, without chilblains, happy without pebbles in my shoes. ... If you want to know how I felt, imagine your own feelings on waking one morning to find that income tax or unrequited love had vanished from the world." (p. 156)

Christianity frees us to have fun with the rest of life once our first duties are done. In fact, Lewis acknowledged, "there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy" between the ultimate issues of our lives and the immediate tasks God gives us.... "Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment 'as to the Lord.'" Placing our life under the infinite and inexorable claim of God's rule does not "exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells us to get on with our jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding, and provides miraculous wine." (p. 156)

Lewis argued that wit and humor can cloak what is right. They can fog or camouflage the moral thing to do. This doesn't mean, however, that the joke is not funny. The fact that it is funny diverts our attention away from the fact of its being wrong. Chesterton emphasized the same point in writing about a boy, who as a prank, painted a statue of a foreign general a vivid red.

"When some trick of this sort is played, the newspapers opposed to it always describe it as a 'senseless joke.' What is the good of saying that? Every joke is a senseless joke. A joke is by its nature a protest against sense. It is no good attacking nonsense for being successfully nonsensical. Of course it is nonsensical to paint a celebrated Italian General a bright red; it is as nonsensical as Alice in Wonderland. It is also, in my opinion, very nearly as funny. But the real answer to the affair is not to say that it is not funny, but to point out that it is wrong to spoil statues which belong to other people." (pp. 268-269, emphasis mine)

If one is to awaken audiences from the slumber of cold vulgarity, obscenity, and cruelty, one must awaken them into a sunshine of splendid hilarity. The right defense against mean humor and false sentiments is to inculcate good comedy and just sentiments. If one demon is chased out, and no good, holy, and happy spirit settles into that heart, seven more diabolical laughters will repossess. (p. 276)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 17, 2020 at 8:55 am | Edit
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