GK Chesterton, he knew his comedy

The writer thought humour was the key to the serious, says Ian Ker

Everybody who knows anything about the writer G. K. Chesterton knows how funny he was both in real life and in his writings. But for Chesterton humour was not simply to entertain people or to provide a distraction from the cares of life. On the contrary, he believed in the seriousness of humour. Great comic writers like Aristophanes and Molière were as important and serious as the great tragedians. The difference was that they dealt with the emotion of joy rather than that of pain. But comedy was as heroic as tragedy.

Chesterton came to develop a veritable philosophy if not theology of humour. In his beloved Middle Ages even ‘the lost spirits were hilarious’. Its cathedrals were ‘full of blasphemous grotesques’ in the form of gargoyles. This was one reason why his favourite writer, Dickens, was essentially a medieval writer: a villain like Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop had an ‘atrocious hilarity’. But then Dickens ‘had to make a character humorous before he could make it human … when once he had laughed at a thing it is sacred for ever’.

This fitted in with Chesterton’s own quasi-religious conception of humour: ‘A good joke is the one ultimate and sacred thing. Our relations with a good joke are … divine relations. We speak of “seeing” ... a vision’ like we speak of seeing a joke.’ Not surprisingly, he thought, the oldest jokes in the world were about the serious things like being married or being hanged. To grasp a vulgar joke was to grasp ‘a subtle and spiritual idea’, for to see the joke was to see something deep, which can only be expressed by something silly.

Chesterton’s favourite book in the Bible, the Book of Job, showed that ‘funny’ was not the opposite of ‘serious’: ‘God himself overwhelms Job with a torrent of terrible levities. The same book which says that God’s name must not be taken vainly, talks easily and carelessly about God laughing and winking.’

Chesterton thought that England’s ‘great national heritage of humour’ was its ‘great contribution to the culture of Christendom’. The English sense of humour appeared first in the ‘father of English poetry’, Chaucer.

It was the saving grace of the English poor, the masses so despised by Chesterton’s fellow intellectuals like Shaw and Wells and Yeats. It was the latter ‘higher culture’ that did not understand that if ‘a thing is universal it is full of comic things’. And it was the daring mixture of tragedy and comedy that made Shakespeare’s drama superior to Greek and French classical tragedy, while Chesterton himself used comedy to make his most serious points.

  • Dr Ian Ker is a Roman Catholic priest , senior research fellow in theology at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and author of G. K. Chesterton:  A Biography, among other titles. On the evening of Wednesday July 6 he gives a talk on Chesterton and the Art of Comedy at the Idler Academy, 81 Westbourne Park Road, London. For tickets, priced £20 including wine and other refreshments, call 0207 221 5908.

Published: 28 Jun 2011

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