Divine Ironies

One of the tasks of the truly Catholic writer, is to loosen tragedy from its inner-ressentiment, its prospective disgust and cynical gloating over our infinite absurdities. The Christian tragedian seeks to ransom our deep helplessness in the hope of redemption.

"Madonna del Magnificat" (1481) by Sandro Botticelli. (Image: WikiCommons)

From its very outset Christianity was . . . a feeling which merely disgusted, hid and decked itself out in its belief in a ‘another’ or ‘better’ life . . . a Beyond, invented in order better to defame the Here-and-Now, fundamentally a desire for nothingness, for the end, for rest, for the ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths.’
—Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

From silly devotions, and sour-faced saints,
good Lord, deliver us.
—St. Teresa of Avila

When Dante called his cantos Commedia he saw, from a posture of comic dénouement, what troubled T.S. Eliot’s tragic sense: “in spite of” the torments that tore at Christ’s very core, “we call this Friday good.” Although Dante’s utter lostness at the onset of the Inferno coincides with that unspeakably bleak Friday, by the time he summits Mount Purgatory and ascends heaven’s ladders to the highest celestial sphere, the action resolves in Easter Resurrection. In his letter to Cangrande, Dante contends that, in addition to their respective, distinctive dictions (the vulgar sermo humilis of comedy and the elevated sermo sublimis of tragedy), “tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly, whereas its end or exit is foul and terrible . . . whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings its matter to a prosperous end.” The Commedia’s commencement is “horrible and fetid, for it is hell; and in the end it is prosperous, desirable, and gracious, for it is Paradise.”

The question escapes not a few faithful lips: need Christian narratives resolve in a redemptive—or in a happy—key? Is there anything really divine about comedy? A fact that will surprise no one: Flannery O’Connor found this penchant for cheery endings suspect, suggesting that most Christian readers hanker after storied grace as if it were “something which can be separated from nature and served to him raw as instant Uplift.” In his essay “The Art of Fiction” her forbear and literary mentor Henry James had said something of the same. He worried that “good literature” and “happy endings” might become synonymous, so that a novel’s goodness “depends for a ‘happy ending’ on a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks.” James’ ironic distance from such cheap dénouements needs no comment.

Not infrequently, the sincere Christian inquirer will answer this question of uplifting endings by citing Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” that lecture in which the unsurpassed fantasist elucidates the nature and aim of eucatastrophe. Tolkien telegraphs Aristotle’s Poetics when he calls tragedy the truest form of drama. But tragedy, he says, simply won’t do in the secondary worlds of Fairy-story:

Far more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending. Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it . . . Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale . . . the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale).

Tolkien anticipates objectors, offering a rejoinder before they’ve had the chance to set down their stout pints, swallow their swigs, and voice sed contras. The joy of which he speaks, which fairy-stories facilitate with great alacrity and capaciousness, “is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace.” This is not the sort of thing you can predict or count on. Eucatastrophe transcends but does not disown its sibling “dyscatastrophe,” that movement “of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” What it does repudiate—evidence to the contrary notwithstanding—is “universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Tolkien goes on to conclude that the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate eucatastrophe. Given that the pattern of Christ’s life “concludes” with an otherworldly upward tilt, ought not Catholic fiction follow the same structure?

In Christ and Apollo, William F. Lynch grants that there is a “dishonest” tragedy which gloats and even guffaws over our helplessness. But when tragedy “is really achieved” through the “great tragic texts,” we are brought to an “experience of deep beauty and exaltation, but not by way of beauty and exaltation.” Catholic writers can employ a tragic key insofar as tragedy is “rooted in mystical conquests of the human spirit over pain, in the emergence of godlike strength and qualities in man in the very midst of tragic defeat.”

While all human life will ultimately be judged according to Christ, in fiction it would be dishonest to force eucatastrophe out of every complication: some genuine goods can sear through our encounter with decent but flawed people, with troubled, imperfect characters of good will whose decisions and situations draw them close to hell’s gates. Artists who render this trajectory for us do us a great service—often purging us, through catharsis, of temptations which we share with their protagonists. Sins can lose their lure when we see characters act out immoralities we only imagined. We reel over Lear’s awful actions, but we reel more over our near imitation of them.

True, on the deepest level of existence, the Christian must unite his agonies with those of the all-sufficient Master, knowing with St. Paul that we can “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church” (Cols 1:24, DV). And yet, as fiction that tracks conversions can help us grasp, the human spirit frequently dies “in real helplessness,” to use Lynch’s language.

However, this “really tragic level of existence,” he explains, “is the region of the soul into which Christianity descends in order to operate its unique effects. . . . There is a point to which the mind must come where it realizes it is no match for the full mystery of existence, where, therefore, it suffers a death.” Often it is only fully here, from this posture, that we fully consent to put on the mind of God—to surrender to Christ’s redemptive suffering—“and thus rise to a higher knowledge and insight.” Here, at this point, death and life coincide in a single act, and “in this sense Christian faith has the tragic at its very core”; it is always “an extremely complicated mixture of dying and living; at no stage in the whole life of faith can death be screened out.”

One of the tasks, then, of the truly Catholic writer, is to loosen tragedy from its inner-ressentiment, its prospective disgust and cynical gloating over our infinite absurdities. The Christian tragedian seeks to ransom our deep helplessness in the hope of redemption. This holds even if, in a given story, a character himself grows resentful, further fastening his own straightjacket. The Catholic writer will register, through the central intelligence guiding the whole, the radical insufficiency of this cynical turn—even if the protagonist turns totally cynical and spins circles around this world’s absurdities. Although at the deepest level the Catholic is obsessed with his character’s salvation or damnation, he does not defy his faith by following some of his characters into hell. Dante demonstrates that even told from hell the Catholic writer’s story will refract the persisting promises of paradise in Christ.

But the Resurrection is eucatastrophic—is narratologically comic. From Dante to Chaucer to Don Quixote, Catholic writers have never been strangers to the comic vein. Sometimes they settle for mere satiric wit, mockery meant to morally instruct, but at its best, as John Hagiopan has it, Catholic writing morphs from light chuckling or belly-laugh hilarity into muted seriousness.

The complications of comedy, resolved with more suddenness and surprises than tragedy, are only apparently superficial—we must pry into their depths. Comedy, Lynch says, “in its own unique language about man . . . turns the telescope around so that the eye looks through the greater end, and everything has become, not sea incardinate, but a disconcertingly small puddle.” The comic, in this sense, is concerned with the low—the animals chomping hay, say, while Christ was being born two feet away. The comic, Lynch continues, is “the complete and funny reminding of the collapsibility of the divine man,” ennobled so differently in tragedy. At its lowest, comedy laughs spitefully at man—with a hearty hatred that is gastrointestinal. At its highest, comedy teaches us to hate the man who cannot stand the sight of himself. Judas, Lynch says, is “the sinful and most serious form of the non-comic.” The true comic writer strives to produce a kind of clownish sadness over our sinfulness and smallness; in a roundabout, circuitous manner of the best acts at the circus, the comic reminds us of “the desperate predicament of being human.”

Take the following excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s children’s story “The Remarkable Rocket,” which have become something of a medicine in our family’s way of being; we cite them when one of us is inclined to be as ridiculous as the rocket:

“I was saying,” continued the Rocket, “I was saying—what was I saying?”

“You were talking about yourself,” replied the Roman Candle.

“Of course; I knew I was discussing some interesting subject when I was so rudely interrupted.”

And, a little later:

“I am laughing because I am happy,” replied the Cracker.

“That is a very selfish reason,” said the Rocket angrily. “What right have you to be happy? You should be thinking about others. In fact, you should be thinking about me.”

The comic laughs at those who cannot laugh at themselves. It cuts the Christian life with a belly-ache laugh, loosening our idolatries and chastening (quite jollily) our pharisaical seriousness. Pseudo-comic authors, on the contrary, will revel in the buffoonish desperation that marks the human condition, drudging up diabolical hilarity that lashes out, teaching us, Lynch tells us, that “nothing is serious, everything is a parody of itself, about to laugh at itself.”

When I say “diabolical” I mean it quite literally. “There can be no joy in Hell,” says Anthony Esolen, “but whoever said anything about fun?” When Dante’s Wickedtail “made a trumpet of his ass,” and the sound successfully rallies his underlings, we’ve reached a wretched, limitless laughter that unleashes a laisses-faire affair of comic grossness that has gone too far—butting up against blasphemy and so totally unfunny. His fellow devils can’t help surpassing one another with something more heinous:

The soul resurfaced, showing his backside,

And the devils beneath the bridge began to crow/

“This is no place for the Holy Face!” they cried.

The demons in this canto have caricatures for names: Tramplefrost and Droopwing, Spikebeard and Baddog. But this bawdy comedy gives way to profanity, Dante develops a new wariness. Before this he has contributed his own jibes, asking one sinner why he’s “cooked in spicy sauces now”; though he’s Italian this recipe for laughter is borderline too far. Here, trying to pass the Grafters, he watches as demonic play gives way to sick predatory jokes. Early in the Canto a demon goads his comrades into a new game: “Hey Evilclaws, here’s a prize . . . Dunk him under while I go back there for some fresh supplies.” Soon this mildly unsettling silliness breeds a really creepy variety of levity:

They aimed their hooks, and one said: “Should I scratch

His butt for him?” and another one replied:

“Sure, why not stick it to him in the notch?”

Dante’s primary need is to be purged of misguided pity so that piety can take hold of his soul. He must also discern the dialects of comedy spoken by the wise and the fool.

David Foster Wallace had something of these demonic habits in mind when he wrote “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”: pervasive postmodern irony marks a “weary cynicism” which is essentially a mask to cover “gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naiveté. . . . What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably . . . to be in some basic interior way forever infantile.” Wallace notes, though, that “irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This, Wallace notes, “is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function.” Like their postmodern children, Evilclaws and Co. have manufactured entertainment out of manure. They have come to make the most of their prison—and what once might have healed has become poison.

Wallace, that sometimes darling of postmodernism, finds friendly fire in the aesthetical lectures of Hegel, the harbinger of Modern Reason who, in his cerebral and hyper-rational way, sees sickness in the Ironist’s soul. For Hegel, “God-like irony” marks the “concentration of the I into itself for which all bonds are broken, and which will only endure to live in the bliss of self-enjoyment.” Negative irony reduces to insignificance, futility, and nothingnesss all that is truly substantial. The “I,” the self, elevated to an “absolute principle” begins to believe that “the Divine” itself is “the Ironical,” and therefore conducts the “self-annihilation of what is noble, great, and excellent.” Nonetheless, over time the Ironical “I” finds itself unsatisfied in enjoyment of itself, and so begins to crave “the solid and substantial”; tragically, this often happens too late, and when it tries to “penetrate into truth,” it finds that it is “unable to abandon its isolation and retirement into itself, and to strip itself of this unsatisfied abstract inwardness.” So limited, the Ironical “I” has a “seizure of sickly yearning.”

Balzac, frenzied recorder of the La Comédie humaine, also participated in and yet distanced himself from the penchant for satire: “All we can do these days is jest,” he writes in the preface to The Wild Ass’s Skin. “The whole literature of a moribund society is mockery.” Henry James found “something cruel and wounding” in Balzac, when his irony made “[being] ridiculous . . . appear like a crime.” The targets of this irony are not to be ignored—“middle-class ignorance, narrowness” for instance—but fiction is weakened when we can hear through his pages an author’s own “grudges and hates.”

On the other hand, irony of the sort Socrates used so liberally is not merely negative—although it too can take on a cruel character. Romano Guardini said of Socratic irony, “Its object is not to expose, to wound, to dispatch, but to help.” It aims to liberate, to serve truth. Guardini goes on, “Socrates’s concern is, above all things, for an inward mobility, a living relation to being and truth, which can only with difficulty be elicited by direct speech. So irony seeks to bring the centre of a man into a state of tension from which this mobility arises.” Similarly, Hegel posits an alternative to negative irony in what he calls “comic.” The comic, Hegel concludes, is contrary to the ironic, should be swapped for it. Whereas the latter exercises uncanny arrogance and condescension, bringing things of utmost import to the bottom of a shoe, the comic only nullifies what is actually and already null—misguided whims, for instance, or a “supposed reliable principle or rigid maxim” which is in fact groundless; the comic rescues us from the dominance of such falsifying and deadening mores.

Unlike Socratic irony, cynical satire is a means of dealing with the dissolution and fragmentation of the world, of so many people’s disillusionment with the political, the religious, etc. through a wry grin that often affords no more than a momentary, and quite shallow, laugh. Again, instead of harnessing this irony in our favor, we should try to ask what is behind the ironic impulse? I would suggest that at least part of what we will find in those cagey shadows is a sort of self-protection against the hollowness of the world, against those that T. S. Eliot called “The Hollow Men”:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Eliot’s diagnosis of postmodernity is frustratingly perfect. The loss of hope in language’s capacity to carry meaning. The loss of form and colour. What Martin Mosebach calls the heresy of formlessness. Paralysis. But amidst these falling forces, this incessant gesturing (the media saturation and celebrity culture, for instance . . . art as mere self-expression or therapy), Eliot articulates the transcendent. Not outside these things, mind you, but between them:

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
             For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Do not these words resonate so deeply today? Have not the collective hopes prescribed by a secular culture been collapsing now for decades, so that if we listen closely, beneath the “bangs,” between the noise, we hear that holy whimper (or whisper)? Yes, but we also hear that For Thine is the Kingdom struggling like a bug stuck in sweet but spoiled honey to fly aloft again.

Wallace confessed that he used “postmodern techniques . . . to discuss or represent very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community and ideas that the avant-garde would consider very old-fashioned.” The movement he fostered is sometimes called “the new sincerity.” It is true that sincerity in and of itself is no guarantee of truth or cultural excellence. As Jacques Maritain argues in The Dream of Descartes, “Many diverse states of mind, and of a greater or less degree of integrity, can find themselves compatible with sincerity” and yet filled with grave errors. Still, this push towards sincerity helps us believe again in art’s capacity to tip us towards truth, even to the point that it is possible (now and again) to employ and enjoy postmodern techniques like pastiche, passing through them to reach what matters; in fact this movement imitates what contemporary human beings inhabiting an inhuman, technocratic world are often obliged to do in order to restore a humane sanity.

Martin Mosebach, that champion of form, is friendliest to literature in the sermo humilis. “The literary form of Catholicism,” he contends, “is the comedy . . . the grotesque gargoyle,” a truth resurrected repeatedly—from Dante to “Cervantes to Joyce.” John Cox makes the case that comedy “is the genre Shakespeare most favored, and it is the genre that arguably best represents his characteristic way of thinking,” for the genre is “deeply suspicious in its thoughtful exploration of the human capacity for self-deception, misperception, and the destruction of relationships.” His comedies, Cox says, do not rule out repair but they possess a “pervasive insistence on human imperfection, and the possibility of tentative renewal” is tied up with “specifically Christian virtues.”

The Catholic comic writer may tell stories that seem anarchic, teasing out threads full of vulgar characters who thieve and drink and play the fool. Between these sometimes ribald lines, Lynch explains, comics are “only [defenders] of another and more human order (more muddy, more free)” than the false categories of stuffy conventions and pretentious inventions that teach us to worship our whitewashed tombs.

The Catholic who writes comically works to restore sanity by fixing his canons on a veritable nation of clownish creatures—A Confederacy of Dunces: those who see “all reality as simple and reduces a multitudinous creed to a single, exacerbating, crusading formula”; not to mention the “scrupulous man who reduces the overflowing life of being and the mind to a worrisome pinpoint”; or “the great conquerors,” men who “have the universe under perfect control and have it forever fixed in an icy stare.” Reader beware: the life you laugh toward sanctity may be your own.

A final, gnawing nervousness: but doesn’t Christian revelation eliminate humors that have always lurked among the gentiles? Is the life YHWH created out of nothing really something to be satirized, comically cauterized? As St. Thomas More detects in his Dialogue of Comfort:

And to prove that this life is no laughing time, but rather the time of weeping, we find that our Saviour himself wept twice or thrice, but never find we that he laughed so much as once. I will not swear that he never did, but at least he left us no example of it. But on the other hand, he left us example of weeping.

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche notes that the “appearance of Greek cheerfulness” in New Comedy, with its “supreme deities” of “wit, frivolity, caprice,” outraged the “profound and fierce natures” of the early Christians because “it seemed to them that this womanish flight from all that was grave and frightening, this cowardly contentment with comfortable pleasure, was not simply despicable but was the true anti-Christian attitude of mind.”

Given the sorrow of so many saints, their sublime surrender to redemptive suffering, what, please tell me, is worthy of a belly-laugh? Lynch emerges from the lurch to lighten our way once again: for the Catholic writer, “things are funny precisely because they can recall the relation between God and themselves.” Whereas in tragedy the comic facts are concealed because the action’s inner-logic is, well, utterly logical (movement from ignorance to knowledge), even tragedy concurs with the essential comic clue: “to recall this incredible relation between mud and God is, in its own distant, adumbrating way, the function of comedy.” Perhaps precisely because its inclination is to lead hapless, hopeless cases towards happy endings, comedy calls tragedy’s core teaching funny: man, with his godlike potentialities, is helpless when left to his own ornate devices—an all-too-human irony that ought to leave us crying out tears we can only call divine.

(Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic, published by TAN Books on May 4, 2021.)


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About Joshua Hren 5 Articles
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, America, Public Discourse and LOGOS. Joshua's books include Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade 2018), the story collections This Our Exile (Angelico 2018) and In the Wine Press (Angelico 2020), as well as How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic (TAN 2021) and a book of poems First Things, Last Things, and Other Lost Causes (Little Gidding 2021). Joshua's novel, Infinite Regress, and his theological-aesthetical manifesto Contemplative Realism, are forthcoming in 2022.

4 Comments

  1. A beautiful essay, enough to make me yearn for the classroom left behind 40+ years ago.

    But more than one consolation…I can give the books as gifts…to my children…and even to myself.

    Thank you Mr. Wren…

  2. Letter CWR humor GKC 05-02-21

    We read from Thomas More that “never find we that he [Christ] laughed so much as once.” But, then this from G.K. Chesterton:

    “He never concealed his tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomats are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to SHOW [italics] us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth” (final lines in ORTHODOXY).

  3. An interesting subject readily observed if we are immersed in the Gospels. It can be missed when seeking to comprehend the spiritual content rather than historical exegetical analysis. Irony has several meanings, divine irony would seem to be more anomaly than sarcasm. Reason is we find the psalms referencing the laughter of the happily redeemed victory over their oppressors. Christ showed his emotions vividly when grieving, groans and tears over the Naim widow’s loss, or the impervious Jerusalem. He is depicted as joining in song once, just before his departure to Gethsemane. Expressive joy is not indicated elsewhere except by characters in parables. He reveals a dry humor in the one about the judge and demanding widow. We, at least I cannot imagine Jesus sitting around a fire with the Apostles saying, Did you hear the one about the rabbi who…? Perhaps with the merciful grace of God that we enter Paradise we might ask, Lord. Why is it you were never recorded as laughing? Was it purposely omitted by dour evangelists? My anticipated answer is, What is it to you? My emotions are my own. True. As the Palmist describes God laughing at the futility of the wicked, Jesus the Son of Man had his own human personality incorporated in the divine. Perhaps justifying Hrens, all-too-human irony that ought to leave us crying out tears we can only call divine.

  4. Did Christ ever laugh? Well, not in the the manner of a loud bar room guffaw. He laughed in a subtle way as when a parent laughs with joy internally and lovingly at a child stumbling to walk and talk and learning at the same time. Strangely this occurred to me in a drug store when I was challenged to navigate the buttons of a self-checkout screen. I had done something that the device did not like and suddenly there appeared an angel who pushed me aside with “You are supposed to push this button first! Can’t you read?” I thanked her as I understood that she was tying to help me while internally laughing at me with knowing satisfaction that she had helped me get to where I needed to be. Then it occurred to me to wonder “Was this Christ’s internal state of mind when He spoke ‘Oh you of little Faith.’ as the boat was about to capsize in a storm?” In this case Faith was the correct button to push first.

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