In the climactic scenes of Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville confront the old, blind, and malignant librarian Jorge, sworn, no matter the price to be paid in lives, to keeping Aristotle‘s Poetics a perennial secret because of its subversive doctrines that not only analyze and permit laughter, but speak of it approvingly. Jorge senses the dangers that lurk were such a revelation come to pass, for laughter would bring in its wake gaiety that would disdain solemnity, the fear of the unknown, and the punctiliousness of church doctrine. In sum, it would bring about, and elevate to the status of desirable and necessary, a subversive, corrosive, irreverence:
But 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 weapon 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 breath where they list! [Warner Books, New York, 1980, pp. 580]
In his humorless, grim apprehension of the power of the message of the Poetics, Jorge is not alone, and such fulminations are not unknown to contemporary readers. Eco’s purpose in bringing this character to life, in populating him with such bombast and self-importance, seems to be that of reminding readers of the Jorge-archetypes that even today, dog our every step in every walk of life, but do so most perniciously in the public, political sphere.
Most prominently, Jorge’s refusal to get the joke, to throw his head back and allow himself a chuckle or two, reminds us of the idiotic knee-jerk reactions of the pompously pious who are easily offended, hurt or otherwise insulted by satire, ridicule, parody, or indeed, the merest descent into something less than the unquestioningly reverential. Sometimes they are priests, sometimes the lay devotee, sometimes they are politicians, sometimes they are their acolytes, sometimes they are academics. No matter their exact identity, there is always some doctrine out there, defended to the end by a band of the faithful, diverse in all manners, but yet united by a deep and fundamental, almost existential, insecurity, a frightening suspicion that the object of their firm and committed belief might not be all its cracked up to be, for whom even the miseries of hell pale into comparison with the uncertainties that might be induced by any attitude toward their devotional object that does not rise to the level of worship.
The protestations of these Jorges would be merely amusing irritants if they did not, like the suicidal, sightless character in Eco’s novel, also insist on adding other, more deadly, arrows to the quivers of their reprisals. It is then that the humorless reveal themselves to be the most dangerous of all.