Divine Comedy vs Divine Tragedy

ComedyIn a great piece of polemic, Julian Gough has written in Prospect this month about the tendency for Western literature to express itself in the tragic, rather than the comic:

“Two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods’ view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it. The big, drunk, flawed, horny Greek gods watched us for entertainment, like a dirty, funny, violent, repetitive cartoon. And the best of the old Greek comedy tried to give us that relaxed, amused perspective on our flawed selves. We became as gods, laughing at our own follies.

“But, since the middle ages, western culture has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. This is why fiction today is so full of anxiety and suffering. It’s time writers got back to the serious business of making us laugh.”

The article is flawed. For one thing it itself contains no jokes; it also fails to mention Shakespeare, whose comedies did light up the Middle Ages. More importantly, Gough’s thesis appears to be that the reason we have so little comedy is that ‘God has died’:

To have the gods laughing at us through our fictions is acceptable if the gods are multiple, and flawed like us, laughing in recognition and sympathy: if they are Greek gods. But to have the single omnipotent, omniscient God who made us laughing at us is a very different thing: sadistic, and almost unbearable. We do not wish to hear the sound of one God laughing. The western comic novel has often had a harsh, judgemental edge. Swift has a hint of Yahweh about him. But the recent death of God has freed a lot of space for the comic novel.

Actually, I think the whole thesis could be framed in reverse: the reason we have so little comedy now is precisely because so few of the world’s ‘literati’ that Gough delightfully mocks have any notion of the divine at all.

Either way, comedy is something we never did well in Vaux. And, having read Gough, I rather regret that. The Emerging Church at worship can take itself far too seriously. There is a rich comic vein in all dirt work, and especially in our often ridiculous practice 😉


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2 responses to “Divine Comedy vs Divine Tragedy”

  1. rdavis

    1. Gough is flat wrong. The Greeks did not value comedy over tragedy.
    2. Shakespeare was Renaissance, not Middle Ages. And his comedies have been ignored in both the “God is dead” and the “God is alive” phases of history.
    3. It’s Julian, not John, Gough.

  2. Apologies. Poor old Shakespeare gets misrepresented again. Blogging in a hurry is never a good idea.
    But I don’t see John anywhere?