22 May, 2007

Festina Lente

I concluded my last post with some rather compressed comments on humour; the laughter of Palaeologus, I wrote, 'is a laughter at that which breaks away from common sense, from judgement, from taste, and from the organic'. These items were not picked at random. They are, in fact, according to Gadamer, in his largely unreadable Truth and Method, the four central concepts of humanism. The humanist, as opposed to the scientist, is not concerned with method: instead he engages in a collective endeavour, guided by tradition and authority, taste and common sense. This post is about the relation of humanism, under this aspect, to the problem of humour, exemplified in the mocking of pedantry.


Humanism is the reaction to an intellectual life made mechanical, formal. This is not yet a definition, of course, but it is a start. Its kinship with humour is that laughter, too, is a reaction against the mechanical life. The great modern work on this theme is a slim and charming volume, Henri Bergson's On Laughter (online here), published in 1901. But first—Erasmus.

Between 1500 and 1533, the great humanist Erasmus compiled his Adagia, a collection of some 4,251 classical proverbs and commonplaces with a rich scholarly commentary—a truly astonishing achievement. One of his most well-known adages was 'Festina Lente' or hasten slowly. Aldus adopted it for a slogan, its visual counterpart being an emblem of dolphin and anchor, which he used as a printer's mark (see also here). Erasmus suggests a possible origin for the expression in a witty inversion of the Greek σπεύδε ταχέως, 'hasten hastily', found in Aristophanes' The Knights. It is most famous as the official motto of the Roman emperors Augustus and Titus; Erasmus thus dubs it the 'royal proverb', and remarks that it advocates 'a wise promptness together with moderation, tempered with both vigilance and gentleness, so that nothing is done rashly and then regretted, and nothing useful to the common weal omitted out of carelessness'. It represents, in short, the reining of passion by reason, Plato's ideal of statecraft—it is the paragon of proverbs.

Erasmus relates the adage to Aulus Gellius' discussion of the word maturus (ripe) in Noctes Atticae 10.11, and this turns out to be one of the most interesting chapters in the entire Noctes. The 'ripe' man, for Gellius, acts neither too soon nor too late: he is perfectly responsive to his environment. He embodies the ideal of 'elasticity of conduct', which we now associate with Machiavelli, and which was central to Renaissance virtue. Compare Auerbach, for instance, on the knavish Dindenault from Rabelais's Quart Livre
He is taken in and he perishes because he cannot adjust himself, cannot change himself, but instead, in his blind folly and vaingloriousness, runs straight forward, like Picrochole or the écolier limousin, his one-track mind incapable of registering his surroundings. . . Thick-headedness, inability to adjust, one-track arrogance which blinds a man to the complexity of the real situation, are vices to Rabelais.
The idea is not limited to the Renaissance: Goethe, arch-humanist, invokes the same principle when, in the prelude to Faust, the director tells the poet to 'wandelt mit bedächtger Schnelle', 'walk with thoughtful haste'. This classical-humanist virtue, without name but embodied in the proverb Festina lente, is a reaction to mechanical life. It bids us guard against rote, habit, unquestioned assumption, casual blindness—the 'inability to adjust' that is characteristic of unthinking method, of a clock or a machine. This is the stuff of death, of scholastic dialectic, and humanism is rather the exaltation of life.

Why should a sausage be an everlasting jest? If I tried to answer that, I should require, as M. Bergson did, a whole volume to show the world that I do not understand what laughter is.

— Stephen N. Palaeologus
Bergson has been called a 'philosopher of life' and a 'vitalist'; his concept of the élan vital was an attempt to extract the wonder of life from the analytical scalpels of cold science. In this respect, I think, he shares the orientation of Erasmus and Rabelais. On Laughter is a short book, crammed with beautiful insights, some of them true—Bergson's chief contention is that laughter is the response of a society towards anti-social behaviour. Ridicule is the sublimation of an instinct to destroy or ostracise; it is humane because it offers its target an opportunity to change. And society specifically targets those who are pedantic, absent-minded, and arrogant—those displaying the 'easy automatism of acquired habits'—which reveal 'the gravest inadaptability to social life'.

Bergson's example is that of a man striding down the street with airs and with his nose retroussée, quite failing in his gait to notice the stray banana-skin upon which he will proceed to tumble, so gracelessly, down. The man's 'obstinacy' prevents him from negotiating the pitfalls that life presents to him—he is very much like Rabelais's Dindenault. Bergson's key word is rigidity, which he equates with the 'mechanisation of the body'. In truth, he writes, 'a really living life should never repeat itself'—a statement which at once encapsulates Bergson's vitalist philosophy and his account of laughter. It also recapitulates, as far as I can tell, the old maxim: Festina lente.

What were they saying about laughter in Rabelais's day? I have here the very thing: Laurent Joubert's 1560 Treatise on Laughter. Joubert was a Montpellier physician, like Rabelais, only one generation later. He wrote a book on Popular Errors (I own the partial translation by Gregory de Rocher)—which would prove most instrumental to Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica—and also a Dialogue Sur La Cacographie Française. He still lacks a Wiki article. Joubert writes,
I am astonished that not one of those noble authors who have gone before us has undertaken the search for the causes which move us to laugh, considering that it is one of the most astounding actions of man, if one examines it closely.
Most of his treatise is taken up with the physiological origins of laughter, which do not here concern us. His psychology of laughter, on the other hand, is dull and commonplace: 'What we see that is ugly, deformed, improper, indecent, unfitting, and indecorous excites laughter in us, provided that we are not moved to compassion'. This is the Aristotelian notion, and it is perfectly pious. By the eighteenth century the piety was mostly intact, although as James Beattie (1764) observes, contra Aristotle, 'men laugh at that in which there is neither fault nor turpitude of any kind'. For Beattie, rather, 'certain forms of irregularity and unsuitableness raise within us that agreeable emotion whereof LAUGHTER is the outward sign'. It is still very bloodless. More interesting to us is Sterne:
I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.
For Bergson, as for Sterne, laughter is the stuff of Life—and it is an active process, a struggle, or an aspect thereof. Laughter is the product of common sense, which
represents the endeavor of a mind continually adapting itself anew and changing ideas when it changes objects. It is the mobility of the intelligence conforming exactly to the mobility of things. It is the moving continuity of our attention to life.
For Bergson—as for Erasmus and Gadamer—'common sense' is not yet a dirty word. (Two words, if you prefer.) It is not yet the sinister, coercive common sense defined by Einstein as 'the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen'. We see that Einstein's attitude is essentially the same as that of Plato to opinion, or of Bacon to authority. It is an anti-humanistic attitude, in that it scorns tradition, proclaiming instead a scepticism oriented around the individual—each man must learn the truth for himself, by direct ratiocination (Plato) or observation of nature (Bacon). Gadamer, on the other hand, uses the Latin form, sensus communis, which retains some of the freshness of the idea: the sense common to all. In my last post I wrote, 'what is the new old, or the old new, but humanism itself: liberty in culture, in tradition?' Humanism represents liberty in what is common and open—the great storehouse of the past, of history, which is of course not dead at all, but rather the animating force, the élan vital, of the present. This is why for Gadamer, humanism is that which makes sense of an object not by an analysis of its contents, but by a study of its origins.

And it is why the Bergsonian ridiculous is manifested in pedantry, defined as a pathological blindness to the limits imposed by tact, by experience in society: it is 'nothing else than art pretending to outdo nature'. The humanist's laughter is a rejection of the ahistorical—of that which has no past, and which therefore repeats itself as a machine, without vitality, unable to adapt—it is a rejection of the inhuman. I think we can all appreciate the value of such a laughter.


Anonymous said...

But surely one can live according to Bergson's dicta—to live a life free of mechanism, repitition, full of vital flexibility and nuance, etc—and still have some sympathy for Einstein et al's latter-day mistrust of tradition, societal values, that which is common? Surely, in other words, there can be a humanism of individualism?

I can only imagine the word I'm looking for here is 'existentialism', if Sartre's own words are to be trusted, and existentialism is a humanism after all. But I don't see how the two principles contradict each other as much as they might intermingle oppositionally. What is more humanist, after all, than the ceaseless weaving together of the strands of past and present? Of living one's life as individually, as independently as one can, a man apart as much as one needs to be in order to achieve fullness, while also drawing into one's self the total of the wisdom of the past (the world, society, you get the point). Embracing both one's own reason and the common knowledge of everyone around—radicalism and conservatism, if you want to cast them in that light—and letting them brutalize each other in the crucible of the self. Indeed, I know no other real way to go about things.

John Emerson said...

On sausages, today's "Language Log" says that "wurst" and "war" are cognate. "Melee" is the same metaphor. Bismarck would agree.

John Cowan said...

Gellius is evidently of the Tao's party without knowing it, and of course there are strong connections between Taoist enlightenment and laughter. Prior to Finnegans Wake and the Principia Discordia, I think we can safely say that the Dao De Jing is the world's only sacred book in the comic mode (the Bible has its funny bits, but is mostly ironic-tragic).

What interests me, though is that laughter is itself partly mechanical. As Frye points out in discussing Riders of the Sea, the play is a tragedy because the woman's son is drowned, she having already lost her husband and his father and all her other five sons to the sea. But if the matter had been spelled out at full length, the audience would have been choking with laughter by the fourth death or so.

Repetition overdone or going nowhere is one of the basic sources of laughter, and yet laughter, with dance and tears, is among the most characteristically human of actions.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John E: yes, and of course 'salsiccio' (sausage), 'salmagundi' and plain old 'sally (forth)' are cognates too. Rabelais (4.35ff) has a war of the sausages.

John C: "only sacred book in the comic mode"--and let's not forget the Book of Bokonon.

"laughter, with dance and tears, is among the most characteristically human of actions."

Compare Beattie:

"Whatever is peculiar to rational nature, must be an object of some importance to a rational being; and Milton has observed that

Smiles from reason flow,
To brute denied:—"

Crux: yes. What I'm discussing here is an abstraction, and in reality nobody lives or thinks exactly according to any one principle. You are therefore quite right to see an 'oppositional intermingling', rather than an irreconcilable contradiction.