Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Belated April Fool’s Day Post: The Virtue of Silliness

Several years ago I had the opportunity to see a wonderful thoughtful April Fool’s Day sermon by one of my favorite ministers (Rev. Bill Breeden ), on the values of change and surprise and leaving one’s comfortable ruts. In 2007 I was asked to give an April Fool’s day sermon and I imitated several of Rev. Breeden’s playful tricks. Most of that sermon was on a variety of roles that humor plays in religion, and isn’t directly relevant here on this blog. I talked about jokes about religions, and joke religions; about using humors stories in wisdom traditions, like Zen teaching or Mullah Nasruddin jokes, about Buddhist use of humor to deflate egos, of ancient Greek use of humor for social commentary, or Medieval Christmas celebrations of a feast of fools, to help rebalance social relations in the community for the coming year, about Discordeans and Sub-Genii, and Pastafarians. Humor has a lot of important roles in religion, but that isn’t really our topic today. But the end of that sermon was on the transcendent value of silliness in dark times, and that is very relevant to this blog.

Before I get to an excerpt of my writing on silliness, I need to explain a little about Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat was the greatest comic strip of all time, or at least the greatest comic strip in English. I was written and drawn by George Harriman in the US from 1913 to 1944. Its hard to understand for someone from my generation who grew up with the dying leftovers of the comic strip genre, but newspaper comic strips were full on literary art at one point, cutting edge venues of populism and artistic exploration, and genuine cultural commentary. And Harriman was the best of the best. Dali latter admitting that many of the key ideas of Surrealism came from Harriman’s comics, and that the European painters felt that they were hustling to keep up. The best writers and poets of the day swooned over Harriman’s work, we’ll read a bit of E.E. Cummings commentary in a minute. The style of Krazy Kat is a proto-surrealism, with a constantly changing background, numerous use of unconventional page layouts, and lots of whimsy. The dialogue is often in a very thick argot ("A fowl konspirissy — is it pussible?"), but is also often is poetry or near poetry. (“Agathla, centuries aslumber, shivers in its sleep with splenetic splendor, and spreads abroad a seismic spasm with the supreme suavity of a vagabond volcano.”) The “plot” is achingly simple yet bizarre. There are 3 characters, Krazy Kat, whose gender is kept carefully undeclared, Ignatz the Mouse, who is constantly throwing bricks at Krazy or otherwise acting up and disrupting things, and Officer Pupp (a dog) who is constantly trying to arrest Ignatz for law-breaking. But here is the Krazy thing. Krazy Kat is full-on head over heels in love with Ignatz, and refuses to accept the brick throwing as violence. Krazy just thinks that the bricks are Ignatz’s way of showing Krazy that Ignatz loves Krazy right back. So he/she just accepts the bricks, interpreting them as an expression of love. This uhm, love triangle, plays out over and over again in Sunday comics for 30 years, set against the painted desert of Coconino, county Arizona, where the 3 live. Ignatz and Pupp constantly re-enact the cops and robbers struggle, but Krazy just turns every act of violence into an act of love by the alchemy of silliness. And in this bit of silliness is a profound philosophy. E.E. Cummings puts it like this

“The Sensical law of this world is might makes right, the nonsensical law of our heroine [Krazy Kat] is that love conquers all. … But if our hero and our villain don’t and can’t understand our heroine, each of them can and each of them does misunderstand her differently. To our softheaded altruist she is the adorably helpless incarnation of saintliness. To our hardheaded egoist, she is the puzzlingly indestructible embodiment of idiocy. The benevolent overdog sees her as an inspired weakling. The malevolent undermouse views her as born target. Meanwhile Krazy Kat, through this double misunderstanding fulfills her joyous destiny. ”
E.E. Cummings “A Forward to Krazy” in Krazy Kat, 1946.

Alright with that introduction, we are ready for my comments on silliness.

* * *

… So religions have used silliness all across the world, for a variety of legitimate religious and spiritual purposes; as comedy relief, to helping us to be wise, or humble, or remain in right relation with our neighbors. But silliness has never been very popular with religions. Look through lists of religious virtues, and you may find obedience, justice, generosity, compassion, courage, and so on. But you will not find silliness. The Protestant Reformers of the 17th century were pretty staunchly opposed to silliness, for example. The British Puritans banned "games, sports, plays [and] comedies" because they didn't agree with "Christian silence, gravity and sobriety." That is they weren’t serious enough. In Buddhism, lay people are allowed to be silly, but one of the vows of monks and nuns is to give up frivolous talk, ie anything that isn’t aimed at bringing people to enlightenment. Even religions that tolerate silliness well rarely consider it a virtue. Our own hymnal contains beautiful songs and words in praise of peace, and justice, and freedom, and reason, and compassion, and work, of learning, of valuing cultures around the world, of respecting nature, of awe and the spirit of worship. But it contains no praise for silliness. Here we are not an anomaly but, are clearly in the norm.

This is a mistake. The most important spiritual use of silliness is one I haven’t mentioned yet, and one that has become clearer during the 20th century. Silliness is a virtue, and virtue whose time has come.

The 20th century revaluing of silliness has a lot to do with the literary tradition of Absurdism. Absurdism has roots in Kierkegaard’s religious thought, and the brilliance of Krazy Kat, and some other Existentialists, but really comes into its own in the hands of Humanist writers reacting to the horrors of WWII. Here is a story I read somewhere, I can’t find it now, but I think it was in the writing of Polish Nobel Prize Winner Czeslaw Milosz, somewhere. There was a joke shop prior to WWII. It was the kind of place that sold whoopee cushions, and electric handbuzzers. Dribble glasses, fake tits, and bawdy postcards. A sort of Polish Spencer’s gifts. One of their “novelty” products was a pink plastic artificial foreskin, so that Jews could pretend to be gentiles in sex play. And yet WWII was such a bizarre, absurd, silly-yet-deadly-serious conflict, that possession of pink plastic artificial foreskin became all at once a matter of life and death, instead of a casual joke. How do we humans, us survivors, cope with the kind of silly world where artificial pink plastic foreskins are a matter of life and death? We laugh. The world is broken, it is crazy, it is terrible and yet it is silly beyond belief. Silliness is the key to coping with an insane world. This is a theme explored again and again by the Absurdists. It is the heart of Joseph Keller’s Catch-22. It is the heart of Vonnegut’s made-up religion Bokonism, in the novel Cat’s Cradle. It is the recurring theme of the fiction of Douglas Adams.

The story of the 20th century is a story of humanity triumphing over nature, or at least warring with it, and cutting itself more and more away from constant contact with nature. American life is a life of culture, of daily interaction with humanly made things far more than it is a life of constant interaction with nature. The natural order and the divine order recede each year further and further from our daily lives, and the cultural order, the political order, the economic order replace them more and more. And this is NOT healthy, not sane, as WWII and the environmental crises since have clearly shown. The world itself has gone insane, and we have the task of daily coping with the insane world we live in. Silliness is most importantly, a method of coping with an insane world.

This is why religions both conservative and progressive have always been very leery of silliness. It is a spiritual competitor to their programs. The conservative spirituality bids us to be in the world but not of it, and to focus our hopes on the more perfect world that is to come. The progressive spirituality asks us to seriously and earnestly work to heal the world to fix its problems and bring it back to sanity. But silly spirituality bids us to laugh at the insanity of the world and try to enjoy the world despite its manifest brokenness.

Is a deep spiritual silliness then opposed to the social justice values that Unitarian-Univeralists hold dear? Well, yes it is in an important sense, but I want to be very clear about the issue. Pure silliness without any admixture of seriousness, is an uncaring frivolity that is blind to the world around it, and unconcerned with its problems. But not all silliness needs to be pure. Pure seriousness is just as bad, it is a lead weight dragging us down into an abyss of darkness.

The Indigo Girls in their song “Closer to Fine” sing that “Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable, and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.” If your spirituality is based around trying to heal our insane world, you will be dragged down into the darkness with its insatiable hunger! No amount of serious work or serious progress will even be enough. No matter how good you are you will never be good enough. The man who seriously hungers for riches will never be rich enough. The earnest progressive do-gooder will never do enough good. No matter how many of the world’s problems you succeed in solving there will be more. Gandhi died believing himself a miserable failure, because he had been unable to prevent the partition of India and Pakistan; we see his many amazing successes, he saw his terrible failures.

The only viable spirituality for the 21st century, is a mixture of seriousness and silliness which values and respects both. It is Ok to work to mend the world, as long as one also takes silly delight in the many humorous bizarre facets of its brokenness. Work cannot be healthy with out play, and this is as true of religious or spiritual work as any other kind. Silliness is a lightness of spirit, a call that is hard to hear, especially in times of serious trouble. Our serious side bids us to work earnestly at mending the troubles of the world, our silly side opposes just this impulse and tells us instead to delight in this world despite its troubles. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to stop Ignatz Mouse from throwing his brick at Krazy Kat. Silly Krazy Kat tries to take delight in having Ignatz the Mouse throwing a brick at her. Serious Offissa Pupp tries to use his might, in the best way he can. Silly Krazy Kat tries to use her love to transform the situation. Progressive Seriousness says might, used rightly, makes right, Progressive Silliness says love conquers all. Seriousness calls us to our power; Silliness calls us to our joy.

We live in an insane, broken world, in a time of great spiritual darkness. The traditional spiritual remedy for spiritual darkness has been enlightenment. But the language of light and dark suggest another natural remedy for spiritual darkness. We can treat it instead with de-light. I wear a lot of black, and have been known to listen to my fair share of goth music. And in many ways this is the heart of the goth message. Dwell in the dark places, and do you best to find beauty there, to find delight. Silliness expresses the same basic spiritual message, in a quite different artistic style. Do you best to take delight, and keep your spirit light, despite the gathering darkness around you. And that is my April Fool’s day message to you, in all its earnest pompousness, repeating the jokes of others instead of making my own. Value silliness as a virtue. It helps us to be wise, and humble, and in right relation with each other, and most importantly helps us to keep out spirits light in a dark world, despite the many bricks that the world throws at us.

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