Holy Satire, Breitbart!

Our story thus far...

Last Thursday, our hero Milo did an interview with Cathy Newman on British television's Channel 4 News. In the course of the interview, Ms. Newman challenged Mr. Yiannopoulos on some of the headlines that have appeared over his articles published on Breitbart.com, including this one: "The Solution to Online 'Harassment' is Simple: Women Should Log Off." "You said," Ms. Newman read from her notes, barely able to suppress the contempt that she clearly felt at having to give voice to his prose, "'yes, we will certainly let women onto the men’s internet a few times a year, as long as you follow a few basic rules.'" At which our hero tried to suppress a smile, rejoining, "You can't hear the humor in that?"

But Ms. Newman continued to speak over him, clearly finding nothing funny--or ironic--in the claim that, if women find it hard to understand men's "natural tendency to be boisterous, confrontational and delightfully autistic" when they encounter it on the internet, they might be better off leaving the internet to the boys. "No," she insisted, when Milo tried to explain that pieces like these were intended as satire, to get people to think, "I know you want women to log off the internet, but we are here in the Channel 4 news studio; you have to allow me to speak."

Which was rich, given that she barely let him speak or answer her questions, leading as they were, but never mind. The real question is, why couldn't she hear the joke? Milo was sitting there, willing to be interviewed by her, more accurately, allowing himself to be baited by a hostile interviewer, and she was accusing him (and, by association, his employer) of being divisive. And there she was, reading with a straight face lines out of context that in context were meant to acknowledge the very distress that she herself was expressing. Almost as if it were her purpose to prove Milo's central point: "The fact is, women are more easily rattled by nastiness than men.... Women are upset at men being rude to them, and feel 'oppressed,' we are told, whenever they are treated on equal terms as men in the maelstrom that is social media." (As, to be fair, was I, when I attracted my very own troll; I like to think I got over it, although you will have noticed that I have not turned the comments on my blog back on--which is to say, I think Milo is right, at least in my case. I do have a hard time with the rough-and-tumble of the boys.)

But, of course, it is not only women like Ms. Newman who have found Milo's headlines hard to read. For the last week or so, ever since President-elect Trump appointed Milo's former boss Steve Bannon to his incoming White House staff, Milo's headlines about birth control making women "unattractive and crazy" and women in the tech industry sucking at interviews have been making the internet rounds as proof of Bannon's--and, by association, Trump's--sexism, always closely followed by the usual crowd of deplorable -isms. (I'm not sure I need to link for these; I suspect you can find them yourselves fairly easily.) My own friends on Facebook have scolded me roundly for refusing to take the headlines literally, not to mention seriously. One friend shared a whole string of them, more or less demanding that I denounce them as sexist...or else: "Planned Parenthood's Body Count Under Cecile Richards is Up to Half a Holocaust" (an article against abortion, which as a Catholic, Milo is); "How Donald Trump Made It Cool to be Gay Again" (an article giving examples of Trump's support for gay conservatives); and "Teenage Boys with Tits: Here's My Problem with Ghostbusters" (an article explaining why the film was a flop--which it was).

"I just don't understand," my friend who posted the headlines argued, "how you can sit there and say there's no cause for alarm or that these are okay messages to be broadcasting." Well, in a word: because I'm a medievalist--and can hear the echo in her words. "Verba vana aut risui apta non loqui," the Rule of St. Benedict intoned. "[Monks ought] not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.... The tenth degree of humility is that the monk be not ready and quick to laugh, for it is written, 'The fool lifts up his voice in laughter' (Ecclesiastes 21:23)." Because, of course, as every schoolchild knows, monks, more particularly, medieval monks, were utterly joyless, not to mention the whole of the Middle Ages in which they lived. The great Italian medievalist Umberto Eco wrote a whole book about it, more accurately, a novel, in which (spoiler alert!) the blind librarian of a (fictional) Benedictine monastery was willing to kill so as to assure that the monks never even laughed, never mind spent their days ornamenting the margins of their books with the marvelous creatures for which medieval manuscripts are still sometimes famous but which he himself could not see.

Monkey falconer
Luttrell Psalter
London, British Library, Add. MS 42130, fol. 38r
"Shame!" the Venerable Jorge of Burgos chastises the monks of the scriptorium as they laugh over the lyre-playing asses, owls ploughing with shields, seas catching fire, and wolves turning hermit that they have painted out of delight. "For the desire of your eyes and for your smiles!" Such images, Jorge would have it, are not just ridiculous, but dangerous: "Little by little the man who depicts monsters and portents of nature to reveal the things of God per speculum et in aenigmate, comes to enjoy the very nature of the monstrosities he creates and to delight in them, and as a result he no longer sees except through them." And yet, his dialectical opponent and Sherlockian nemesis Friar William of Baskerville (played, inevitably, by Sir Sean Connery) suggests: "Marginal images often provoke smiles, but to edifying ends.... Monkeys do not laugh; laughter is proper to man, it is a sign of his rationality." (Here William, a Franciscan, is quoting Notker Labeo, an eleventh-century monk of St. Gall.)

The Venerable Jorge will have none of Friar William's argument in favor of laughter. (Note that in Hollywood, the only good monks are Franciscans; Benedictines are always crazy or fat.) More to the point, once Jorge's plot is discovered, he is willing to kill himself for it by eating the pages of the book he has poisoned so as to keep its poisonous teachings lost to the world; it is the Second Book of Aristotle's Poetics, on comedy, which Jorge fears will give its arguments greater authority. "But what frightened you in this discussion of laughter?" William asks Jorge when he finds him deep in the labyrinth of the library preparing to destroy the book. "You cannot eliminate laughter by eliminating the book."

"No," Jorge replies,
to be sure. But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh. It is the peasant's entertainment, the drunkard's license...a defense for the simple, a mystery desecrated for the plebeians.... Laughter frees the villein from fear of the Devil, because in the feast of fools the Devil also appears poor and foolish, and therefore controllable. But this book could teach that freeing oneself of the fear of the Devil is wisdom.... That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitation, sinners that we are. But from this book many corrupt minds like yours would draw the extreme syllogism, whereby laughter is man's end! Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God. This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for canceling fear.
Worst of all, Jorge insists, is the effect that laughter would have on belief in God, for
if one day--and no longer as plebeian exception, but as ascesis of the learned, devoted to the indestructible testimony of Scripture--the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, and to seem noble and liberal and no longer mechanical; if one day someone could say (and be heard), "I laugh at the Incarnation," then we would have no weapons to combat that blasphemy, because it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter, those that are affirmed in the fart and the belch, and the fart and the belch would claim the right that is only of the spirit, to breathe where they list.
"You are the Devil," William says in response. "I?" Jorge asks. "Yes," William replies.
They lied to you. The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came. You are the Devil, and like the Devil you live in darkness. I hate you, Jorge, and if I could, I would lead you downstairs, across the ground, naked, with fowl's feathers stuck in your asshole and your face painted like a juggler and a buffoon, so the whole monastery would laugh at you and be afraid no longer. I would like to smear honey all over you and then roll you in feathers, and take you on a leash to fairs, to say to all: He was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness. And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.
Monkey woman riding monkey man
Book of Hours
Regenstein Library Special Collections MS 347
We hear often these days how so-and-so wants to take us back to the Middle Ages, as pundits and academics point ominously to the fact that our media are awash with lies and accusations of lies, superstitions and half-truths, the scourges of misogyny and racism, ignorance and fear of science--almost as if all of the calamities that Jorge predicted have come to pass. The world is about to go up in flames, Lucifer has gained the upper hand, reason has fled, and half of humanity or, at the very least, of our nation's voters have become monsters, more akin to wild beasts ravening for their prey than the human beings whose form they wear. How, under such circumstances, we might ask Friar William, are we to tell the difference between the Devil's lies and God's truth?

Easily: the Devil hates laughter, would like nothing more than a world without laughter, without joy, without satire and jokes and monsters and marginalia, without Dangerous Faggots and their mischievous talks, without headlines that poke fun at the pieties of the present day. Jorge in his blindness would banish laughter from the lives not only of the monks, but ideally of all Christians, out of fear that mockery might lead to blasphemy and blasphemy to loss of faith in God. But Christians worship not a God afraid of jokes, but rather a God who made himself the butt of jokes, entering into the world with all its farts and belching so as to fart and belch along with his creatures. (Seriously, Jesus spent most of his time at drinking parties. You think he never farted or belched?) It is the Devil who cannot hear the humor in the kinds of headlines that Breitbart has published under Milo's by-line, the Devil who finds the prospect of laughter unbearable, precisely because it frees those whom others would oppress from fear.

What is the Devil? Friar William describes him: "The Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt." The Devil is the grimness with which the self-righteous like Jorge profess to protect the world from its messiness and sin, to prevent the plebeians from enjoying their jokes at the expense of the powerful and elite. The Devil is the humorlessness of taking offense at jokes pointing out uncomfortable facts or for using words otherwise banished from polite society. The Devil is believing oneself above criticism because one holds the right opinions, and the Devil is the fear of becoming oneself the butt of jokes. The Devil is every impulse that we have to protect ourselves from ridicule and embarrassment, the horror of being in the wrong. The Devil is refusing to laugh at ourselves for taking offense when none was intended or for feeling awkward when we realize that we have made fools of ourselves.

I don't know whether Ms. Newman was able to hear herself as she read out Milo's headlines last Thursday or to appreciate the humorlessness in her voice as she chastised him for describing her own offense-taking so aptly. Certainly, few of my women friends seem to find Milo's jokes funny, even as they react in exactly the ways he says women often do to the name-calling and ribbing men seem to enjoy. Perhaps tellingly, Eco's great joke--or the great joke on Eco--is that the Middle Ages were the exact opposite of joyless: Jorge is a caricature of a monk, a Hollywood freak of a monk, refusing to laugh at the whimsy and monstrousness of the absurdity of fallen and redeemed man. Perhaps this is the reason that we, as medievalists, have struggled for so many decades to make sense of the marginal nonsense we find in the most holy books of the period--the psalters and books of Hours with which medieval Christians praised God. Our modern god of diversity and identity politics is a singularly joyless god compared with the God of medieval Christianity who delighted in monkeys riding goats and asses playing the lyre. As William tells the young novice Adso as they ride away from the library, now up in flames,
Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.
Truth that denies our ability to laugh is no longer truth, but insanity. In the words of the medieval monks: "Laughter is proper to man; it is a sign of his rationality." Which means that Milo is quite possibly right when he says, as he often does, that he is doing the work of God.

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