Comic Faith, Wonder And Activism

Co-written by Valleria Ruselli and Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel

“Comedy is an escape not from truth, but from despair: a narrow escape into faith.” — Christopher Fry

Smile, though your heart is aching” — The lyrics of John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, which were written for the Modern Times instrumental theme of Charlie Chaplin, written two years after the cinematic activist comic genius was exiled from the United States.


Spoiler Warning: The ending dialogue of Joyce Cary’s 1944 The Horse’s Mouth is immediately revealed here. No worries if you’re planning to check out the 1956 Ronald Neame film adaptation, as the cinematic treatment deviates from the social, political and spiritual dimensions, choosing to focus on what it means to be an artist exclusively.

At the very end of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, the artist Gulley Jimson is dying, but he tells the nun attending him he feels like laughing. “How don’t you enjoy life, mother. I should laugh all round my neck this minute if my shirt wasn’t a bit on the tight side.” “It would be better for you to pray,” responds the nun. “Same thing, mother.”

That union of laughter and prayer there asserts in a flash the existence in 21st Century life and literature of what can be called Comic Faith: a tacit belief that the world is both funny and potentially good; hilarious and infused with a sacred dimension; a pattern of expressing or finding religious impulse, motive and meaning in the forms of the genre; and an implicit assumption that a basis for believing in the value of life can be found in the fact of comic expression itself.

Cary’s dialogue suggests the underlying, original ties between religious and comic celebration. It also underscores the uneasy relationship that has historically existed between comedy and religion. It even compresses in a few words the gist of the tension and conflict between Christian orthodoxy and comic imagination that was crucial in generating the major British comic fictions of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, the later writings of James Joyce for example.

Gulley’s equation of the will to laughter with an act of faith — and all that his identification implies, culturally and aesthetically — comes directly out of the comic tradition in English prose fiction.

We’ve chosen to single out Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking-Glass to make a point for activists, using all of this as a point of departure.

Carroll’s words and images are to the formulation of a comic faith what Jesus’ parables are to Christian doctrine: they create a fiction so radical that it can bring its audience to look with fresh wonder at the structure and meaning of experience. Ultimately, they focus on the necessity of faith in humanity’s potential. But unlike Scripture, they also proclaim and make us laugh at the inescapable absurdity of the world.

Proactive concerned citizens attempting to bring about institutional changes in the midst of our horrid momentum — rife with what makes us wretch morning, noon and night now — must embrace humor as they heft their sad sandbags onto barricades being used to fight the powers that be. They cannot afford to be overcome — as they are at present — by their self-generated comic faithlessness. Comic because there’s something inherently funny about people banging their heads against a brick wall repeatedly to no avail, or fighting a five-hundred-foot wave with a teaspoon.

Faithless because they’ve set themselves up to be The (Humorless) Answer. Without cracking a smile, profiling themselves as having solved The Mystery. The hilarious, inexplicable million petaled flower full of suffering which rules The Universe.

That won’t do. We must adopt a different perspective.

A Comic Faith angle, perhaps.

But wonder — the wonder of a child — must come first.

Valleria Ruselli writes exclusively for alternative media outlets, and has been an educator and activist for decades. Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel is a freelance writer. They can be contacted at [email protected]. They are indebted to Robert M. Polhemus for his Comic Faith: The Great Tradition from Austen to Joyce.


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