By Doug Jackson
Thalia, the Muse of Humor, has a lot to answer for. Sure, humor is a great gift, but only in the Pandora’s Box line: In Hesiod’s answer to the Genesis story of the Fall, Pandora opens a jar she should’ve left shut and unleashes all the evils of the world. As a consolation prize, she finds Hope stashed at the bottom. Moral: Life sucks but at least you have your health. Humor works the same way, I think: We’re a race of idiots, but at least we can laugh at ourselves.
But this creates problems.
Stevens, the buttoned-up butler who narrates Katzuo Ishiguro’s haunting Remains of the Day, has trouble adapting to the jocular communications of his new American boss. Mr. Farraday likes to make wisecracks and Stevens worries that perhaps the lord of the manor expects his major domo to respond in kind. Ever the professional, Stevens truly wants to please:
But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.
When one of his attempted “witicisms” bombs, he muses that:
[T]his small episode is as good an illustration as any of the hazards of uttering witticisms. By the very nature of a witticism, one is given very little time to assess its various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience.
Two problems, then, with humor: Is it funny, and is it appropriate? My dad once told his assistant pastor, “You have two problems: You think humor is always appropriate, and you think you’re always humorous.”
I remember a freshman class in American history where our professor asked the class at large why American merchants of the nineteenth century sought so eagerly to establish shipping routes to China. “What was there in China that they wanted so badly?” he asked. Without thinking, I quipped, “Transistor radios?” It got a laugh; I got a B in the class. I’ll never forget how the prof stared at me blankly, then dropped his head into his hands.
Sculptures typically depict Thalia holding a “comedy” mask in one hand. This signifies her association with humor, but I think it might also symbolize the need we feel to disappear when a joke falls flat. I cannot recall the number of times I have sworn off Thalia’s company and vowed a lifetime of verbal austerity. Invariably, however, the seductress returns and whispers in my ear: “Put that lampshade on your head; it’ll be hilarious!”
Still, since the horrors are out of the box and the forbidden fruit is still in our systems, we need to take the bold risk of humor. At the end of the novel, Stevens, realizing that he has traded his one chance at love for a poker up his butt, decides that Thalia may be his one hope of salvaging what little time he has left.
Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.