Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III


Miniature of Robin, the Miller, from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – early 1400s

Death, Desire, and the Sacramental Function of Humor in Lewis and His Medieval Sources – or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Self-Denial – part III

This is the conclusion, continued from part II.

Lewis’s incarnational appreciation for the earthiness in medieval literature and drama—including the mystery plays—can be seen in an interview from months before his death. The interviewer asked Lewis about the source of the “light touch” in his writing, even when dealing with “heavy theological themes.” Lewis responded, “I was helped in achieving this attitude by my studies of the literary men of the Middle Ages [Chaucer and Dante at least, one would think], and by the writings of G. K. Chesterton[, who] was not afraid to combine serious Christian themes with buffoonery. In the same way, the miracle plays of the Middle Ages would deal with a sacred subject such as the nativity of Christ, yet would combine it with a farce.”[1]

Those who know the medieval miracle play (or “mystery play”) tradition will recognize at once how themes of desire and death get treated in this way – with the earthy, humorous touch of buffoonery and farce. As for death, I think of the crucifixion play in the York cycle. The nailers’ guild (who had the hereditary responsibility for the play) had the workmen, as they prepared the cross and pounded the nails through Christ’s hands and feet, keep up a stream of complaints at the difficulty and boredom of the work, oblivious to the divine significance of what they were doing.

In his Life of Christ, Bonaventure (1221–74) had counseled: “You must direct your attention to these scenes of the Passion, as if you were actually present at the Cross, and watch the Crucifixion of our Lord with affection, diligence, love, and perseverance.” The plays helped their audiences do this by marrying the sublime and the ridiculous, heightening the bizarre reality of a God who becomes human and dies at the hands of those he created.

One might find here the same sort of what we might call “sacramental use of humor” we find in Lewis’s treatments of Eros and death. This is a farcical way of talking about our bodily, material lives so as to both challenge our bodies’ insistent claims to ultimacy and remind us that our bodily experiences point beyond our proximate desires to the desire for heaven. “Sacramental humor” thus reinforces the truth that our God, who came to us bodily in the Incarnation, still meets us in our bodies.

I would argue that this is in fact one of the most central insights of medieval faith, fixated as it was on the Incarnation. And I suspect (but would need to research further to prove) that inasmuch as Lewis has picked up anything that is distinctly “medieval” on death, it would be exactly this sacramental insight – whether reflected in the use of humor or not. In many ways, that sacramental way bodily experience opens up spiritual truth is what Lewis’s whole body of fictional and theological writing (at least) is about.

I said that this sacramental quality and function of earthly, bodily experience suffuses Lewis’s fictional and theological writings. But we may also find it, though not in explicitly religious form, in his scholarly work. One medieval literary work from the age of Chaucer that Lewis studied and wrote about, which draws together themes of Eros and death, is the Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”).

The Confessio is a 33,000-line Middle English poem by John Gower, which uses the confession made by an ageing lover to the chaplain of Venus as a frame story for a collection of shorter narrative poems. The poem takes the seven deadly sins as a framework and fills that framework with exempla – didactic stories adapted from Ovid and other sources. The modern reputation of the poem had mostly been for moralism and dullness until Lewis picked it up and wiped some of the mud off it, in his book The Allegory of Love.

Though he admits it has some structural and stylistic problems, Lewis praises the poem highly. And (here’s the nub), he takes the poem’s masterstroke to be precisely the way it relativizes Eros by placing it within a reflection on mortality by an aging narrator. Though I haven’t read Gower’s poem yet – and I’ll need to do so with the aid of copious notes, as my Middle English ain’t so good – I suspect I’ll find there some of the humorous, wry treatment of bodily life vis-à-vis spiritual and moral themes that is characteristic of Chaucer and the mystery plays.

In conclusion, if I were to frame this argument for further testing, it might look something like this:

(1) Both death and desire have bodily and spiritual dimensions.

(2) Both death and desire have sacramental functions, pointing us beyond bodily experience to God.

(3) To foster and protect this sacramental function, both death and desire must be kept from rising too high – that is, taking on “ultimate” status. (e.g., Lewis says in Surprised by Joy, and repeats elsewhere, that as soon as joy is pursued for its own sake it ceases to be joy. I take him to mean: it ceases to do that sacramental work.)

(4) One way of preventing ourselves from elevating material experience to ultimacy is to use humor. If humor can break the spell of ultimacy that death and desire can cast, then by all means, let us laugh together about these things!

(5) We find Lewis using humor to address Eros (e.g. in the Four Loves) as well as themes of mortality and death (e.g. in his own letters). In both cases, humor seems a rhetorical strategy to defuse ultimacy and restore sacramentality to these most basic earthly experiences.

(6) There are strong suggestions that Lewis arrives at his “light” treatment of death and desire through his exposure to medieval sources: Mystery plays, Chaucer, Gower, Dante.

(I ended the paper by saying I’d like to expand this research, and by asking the attending roomful of medievalist Lewis fans for suggestions for further research. They did not disappoint!)

[1] C. S. Lewis, interview at Magdalene College, Cambridge, by Sherwood E. Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on May 7, 1963, in God in the Dock, 286.

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