Let’s celebrate what for lack of a better term one might call the optimistic imagination as practiced by wretches. I’m in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s assessment of Dickens, that he was: “delighted at the same moment that he was desperate. The two opposite things existed in him simultaneously, and each in its full strength. His soul was not a mixed colour like grey and purple, caused by no component colour being quite itself. His soul was like a shot silk of black and crimson, a shot silk of misery and joy.”
Yes optimism for the wretch is a dyer’s art but it must be farcical in its hope. (Think Shakespeare’s Bottom.) One must be ridiculous in the boot black factory. (Dickens-Chaplin.) This is the thing, likely a tee shirt slogan: we hope in misery. As for the literary imagination printed ideas are invariably sad even when they propose optimism and no honest writer can ignore it. What did J.P. Morgan’s library smell like in 1902? Short answer? The vapors of sorrow.
A game I play, more often than I should admit, is a dramatic transference for which there may be a name but I’ve never found one. Perhaps there’s something in German. In short, I employ the characters of Shakespeare and Moliere as standard bearers for people I meet and especially for public figures. The literary term for this is “comparison” but what I’m describing is better than that—“kayfab” is what they call it in professional wrestling, where everyone, both wrestlers and fans collectively pretend a false drama is real. Essentially I live and have always lived since my late teens in Tartuffe and The Taming of the Shrew and at this stage of life there’s no help for it. This is comedy as it’s lived but not necessarily admired. Moliere:
“The comic is the outward and visible form that nature’s bounty has attached to everything unreasonable, so that we should see, and avoid, it. To know the comic we must know the rational, of which it denotes the absence and we must see wherein the rational consists . . . incongruity is the heart of the comic . . . it follows that all lying, disguise, cheating, dissimulation, all outward show different from the reality, all contradiction in fact between actions that proceed from a single source, all this is in essence comic.”
Both Moliere and Shakespeare grew up watching morality plays, fables whose stock characters were invariably named God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. Because they lived during the first flowering of public literacy they understood the indispensable healthiness of word flipping. Talk about nature’s bounty! Words were no longer merely to be received and absorbed. Can you imagine the joy of a 17th century adolescent forced to watch Everyman or The Second Shepherd’s Play, as he substituted Satan, Life, Neighbor, Sin, Second Rate Demons, Ignorance, Ugliness, Gossip, and Basic Human Weakness for the stock characters of religious drama? Of course you can. Almost no one who’s lived through a high school production of The Man of La Mancha has not done this.
Comic irony is when you recognize the impostors beyond their appearances on stage. The characters in Tartuffe are at every holiday party. They creep through the workplace. Confidence men, hypocrites, exceptionally vain head cases, the credulous, and all who make their living feigning virtue. Ah, nature’s bounty indeed!
By living Moliere I reside in kayfab—I know the world may be better or worse than this adoption, but I can bear my illusions for not to live in Tartuffe would be, at least for me, unsupportable. Comedic representation is healthier than plodding credulity and more philosophical since incongruity is the mainspring for understanding the irrational. If you’re following me, you’ll say my proscenium of custom if it’s all Moliere, all Shakespeare, all the time, is a matter that must by necessity make me unreasonable. I prefer this to any conversation with the human resources crowd or political canvasers or god help me, professors at a conference. I’d gladly sip the milk of custom and spit it in a potted plant than talk to Orgon or Tartuffe. Contradiction isn’t a customary beverage. It’s milk and iodine and it’s healthier for you than any drink Madame Pernelle will offer.
Shakespeare was the first comic writer to dramatize reverse psychology as Petruchio, a wandering nobleman, undertakes the wooing of Kate who’s notoriously short tempered and cruel:
“Say she rail; why, I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown; I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
and say she uttereth piercing eloquence.”
We are the ones invited to say she rail; we’re instructed to become as devious as Petruchio. Taken into his confidence we’re delighted by his promissory book of lies.
That’s optimism as comedy. Not as a vehicle for pratfalls or put downs, but discernment and the vanity of hope.
Hope is comedy. The sadness of the world is irrational. This is how I live. I think of Auden’s line: “All we are not stares back at what we are.” If an empowered disability identity is “out” and on the street it’s ironies are inherently complicated by the acculturated language of normalcy. This is both a signature subject for performance theory and disability studies. It is also the seed bed of literary consciousness. Watch out! The crip writers are comics.