Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose has a very special place in my secret library of all-time favourite books. This library, which I carry in my heart -even though there is an exact replica in the shelves hanging in my living room- is a treasure that I guard dearly. Just like the main character in Eco’s book, William of Baskerville, a devotee of Literature and Philosophy and seeker of truth, I conceive books as magical keys that open up paths towards those ever elusive answers, which make reading such a stimulating experience and enduring legacy for the journey of life.
Laughter is the topic which has been occupying my mind lately, thus the association with The Name of the Rose. I sense so much bitterness and hostility in today’s world, I fear we might be forgetting the benefits of humour just as much as we seem to be forgetting the usefulness of Literature and Philosophy.
Laughter is the universal language of diplomacy, a space where controversy temporarily dissipates and where differences are actually welcome. Laughter is also the language of reconciliation, and therefore of truce and humility. It is no wonder that humour is so demonised by authoritarian regimes and by religious fundamentalism. Despots abhor the idea of being the subject of mockery. They fear the unifying power of humour. Laughter is undesirable to them because it promotes camaraderie and because it relaxes the tensions they so fiercely desire to intensify. Nothing scares me more in this world than politicians or religious individuals who are incapable of laughing at themselves. Their lack of sense of humour and arrogance impudently reveal their insecurity, their failure to empathise, all in all, their impoverished spirit.
In the climatic exchange between Jorge de Burgos and William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, after Baskerville finally uncovers Burgos’ treacherous schemes to keep Aristotle’s book about laughter concealed from the world, the Franciscan monk, Baskerville, makes an assertion which has always stayed with me: “The Devil,” he says, “is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.” And I do indeed wonder, how can somebody who feels so certain of possessing the truth ever be able to adapt to this diverse world we inhabit? In arrogance there is no space for debate, much less for empathy, caring and compassion. Arrogance doesn’t laugh, it is bitter by nature and rigid to the point of being impenetrable.
But humour is much more than just the language of fellowship and harmony in human interaction. Laughter is also empowering and healing for both mind and body. Countless studies demonstrate it. In Psychoanalysis, it is said that “Mature humour allows individuals to look directly at what is painful.” It is in fact one of the most desirable defence mechanisms because it acknowledges reality whilst offering outlets to the emotions that the painful side of reality might encompass.
When I was studying at Emory, I remember reading a wonderful author called Sholom Aleichem for a semester course I took on Jewish Literature. I have not revisited Aleichem’s stories ever since but the laughter and tenderness his stories provoked in me have always remained in my heart. I am convinced that one of the virtues and strengths that has allowed Jewish communities across the world to not only survive but also stay strong in the face of suffering and oppression is precisely their sense of humour and their open disposition to laugh at themselves. African Americans share this virtue as well, I think, with a unique touch of blues and music.
In any case, my intention today is to promote humour. The mature and classy type of course; not the bullyish and bitter type exhibited by narcissists. Current times demand camaraderie and fellowship, rebellion in the form of humour and stubbornness in compassion. If we protect our happiness and fight the temptation of resentment and bitterness back, we will surely succeed. After all, it is each of us who can really make a difference in this world, no matter what the despots say from their cold tribunes of television, Facebook and twitter.
Two very different but equally amazing books:
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Vintage Classics, 2004.
Sholom Aleichem: Five Short Stories by Sholom Aleichem. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014