Lately I’ve been concerned with lightness and humor in storytelling. Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium opens with a discussion of how he believes lightness ought to be a dominant characteristic of fiction in the 21st century because it is a quality that can convey depth without weight.
I’ve started looking for short stories that exemplify lightness and its potential spiritual tutelage. Some of the best examples I’ve found are the 16th century tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel. In these stories the inescapable fallibility of mankind is mostly centered on the imperfections of the body, namely the contrast between God’s perfection and the visceral humor found in bodily functions. Rabelais has painted an early-modern demotic culture where everyone, royalty or peasant, is a cracked vessel, brought down to earth by overeating, belching, defecating, sex and lust, stink, and physical presence.
For example, Gargantua is given a sacred lineage that stems from the famed giants of the Bible, yet while pregnant with him, his mother Gargamelle consumes excessive vomit-inducing quantities of tripe while threatening to castrate Gargantua’s father during labor. Gargantua’s son, Pantagruel, who is also a giant, befriends a normal party-loving human, Panurge, and together they ravage the countryside with their fighting, drinking, and agressive erotic displays.
Before democracy and mass culture became the dominant values of western culture, Rabelais was describing a world where everyone was beholden to the same desires and needs, and thus makes light of everything. The lightness in these stories is a mixture of comic, grotesque, and satirical. Rabelais makes a brief justification of his approach in the epigraph of Book One:
Good friends, my Readers, who peruse this Book,
Be not offended, whil’st on it you look:
Denude your selves of all deprav’d affection,
For it containes no badnesse, nor infection:
‘Tis true that it brings forth to you no birth
Of any value, but in point of mirth;
Thinking therefore how sorrow might your minde
Consume, I could no apter subject finde;
One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;
Because to laugh, is proper to the man.
That doesn’t mean Rabelais wasn’t serious—as a former monk, his moral convictions were quite profound, primarily lined up against the excesses of the Catholic Church in the midst of the Reformations sweeping Europe. Literary scholar Terence Cave, in an introduction to Gargantua and Pantagruel, describes how humor is absolutely necessary to telling these sorts of stories, claiming that:
“If laughter is proper to man...it becomes a sufficient and even a necessary angle from which to view human activity. Humankind is like Panurge rather than the Pantagruel of the later books—mixed, fallen, fragmented. To speak of man with unmixed seriousness would be a fundamental error; the only seriousness humans deserve, the only seriousness they are capable of, is of a kind indivisible from the comic.”
Our world is rife with stories told with “unmixed seriousness”. Marketing and advertising is filled with simple stories designed to inflame desire while being easy to digest and popular films often have stories that depict good versus evil with little nuance. While these stories may serve their intended purposes, they ring hollow, whereas stories told with humor, satire, and self-deprecation feel more genuine to me.
I don’t always feel that protagonists in stories are so easy to root for or that they even deserve our constant sympathy, because I believe like Rabelais did that people are doomed forever to be flawed. Whatever sympathy a character gets, it ought to be earned by that character struggling against their flaws despite knowing that this struggle is eternal.
This is why I sought to withhold sympathy from Boris and Kazan, the two brothers at the center of my satirical play Sycamore, until the very end. In this play, two brothers struggle to maintain the fiction that their chocolate is authentic and pure on a live television show as it is gradually revealed that they had secretly been faking their chocolate all along.
These brothers are essentially two different flavors of techie hipsters, each committed to maintaining an image of their self despite the absurdities of the situation they’ve found themselves in. I found their excesses rooted in the character flaws of narcissism, pride, and fear were funnier and more authentic if they were unlikeable. At the end of the play, they overcome their fear of being found out and the dissolution of their brittle egos to come clean about their deception together as brothers.
At this point in the play, these brothers have hopefully earned both the sympathy of the audience and their trust by reflecting a bit of the inner struggle every person experiences. In a society that suffers a deficit of trust among people and institutions, I believe that lightness rooted in perpetual human fallibility has the potential to bring people together, and regardless of whether it is necessary in our fiction, we ought to continue to strive for more of it.