Laughter can topple tyrants. Or it’s nice to think so anyway. When the little child guffaws at the naked emperor, we like to believe that said emperor will blush, admit the error of his ways, and put some pants on, rather than, say, hanging the child from the nearest lamppost and covering his own royal unmentionables by bathing in the blood of anyone in the surrounding throng who happened to utter a sympathetic giggle. When John Stewart gets off a particularly pointed jibe, we like to think it matters to somebody, rather than that it’s just going on to dissipate affectlessly into the virtual ether. Philosopher Simon Critchley may say, “I…want to claim what goes on in humour is a form of liberation or elevation that expresses something essential to the humanity of the human being,” but in that initial nervous “I…want to claim,” and in the over-enthusiastic resort to italics he reveals, perhaps that this statement is as much hope as certainty. He adds, “By laughing at power, we expose its contingency”…and then, with fetching inevitability, he starts to talk about the emperor’s new clothes, that parable for skeptics which we are, of all parables, not to take skeptically. [Critchley 47-48]

Art Young’s Inferno certainly participates in the hope that the jester might threaten the Khanate. Inspired semi-ironically by Dante and Doré, The Inferno is a description of Young’s journey through Hell, circa 1934. This was actually Young’s third book exploring the pit: the first two were Hell Up To Date from 1892; the second, Through Hell With Hiprah Hunt, from 1901. Both of these were cheerful and non-threatening, focusing on devising witty punishments for modern sins. Unfeeling editors are consigned to red-hot wastebaskets, unattentive husbands are dressed in drag, hobos are forced to bathe, and justice is more or less inoffensively dispensed.

In 1906, however, Young became a convert to socialism. The Inferno, written during the Great Depression, is, then, not a light-hearted fantasy about a just universe, but rather a Marxist panegyric, which explicitly uses its humor to castigate the status quo. As I wrote in a 2006 article for The Comics Journal:

Young reports that “Big Business organizers and Bankers” had been going to Hell in such numbers that they had managed to take over. Satan retains a ceremonial role, but the real power is now vested in an All-Hell Congress controlled by business interests. The new overlords have no interest in punishing the unjust; rather they want to “make money out of Hell.” To this purpose, they establish schools which are “operated like factories to produce standard size thought” and hospitals to which “poor sinners are sometimes grudgingly admitted.” The sophisticated Hellions have even, Young notes, “learned to use the word ‘sorry.’ A gentlemanly Hellion tears out the heart of his brother, spits on it and says, ‘I’m sorry.’” [Berlatsky 133]

As the above quotes indicate, Young’s text in the Inferno is drily ironic rather than uproarious. His drawings, too, while rendered in a quick, cartoony style, aren’t exactly jokey. Instead, some — like a drawing of adorably confused devil children — are sentimental and sympathetic. Others — like a breath-taking ink-wash painting of the idiot giant war eating people like popcorn — are grimly gothic. Still others, like his drawing of a man waist deep in boiling pitch declaring, “I told him no one could order me around like a dog,” are satirical.

But for all these variations, the humor in Young’s book is all based on a single cosmic joke. This joke is everywhere in Inferno, but is perhaps most succinctly stated in a sequence where Young, exhausted by his travels thorugh hell, goes to visit the doctor. The author complains about he noise of hell and “the fraud, hatred, insolence, brutality, superstition, malice, venality…” To which the doctor responds:

“Man, what do you expect? You know where you are! But there’s nothing to worry about. All you need is a change.”

“A change? Where for instance?” I asked.

“Well, if I were you I’d go right back to earth. You don’t have to stay here, like the rest of us. I could recommend a resort here where the rich Hellions take the cure, but you’d better go back where you came from.”

“Back to Earth! A change! Hell!” [Young 165]

That’s the gag, emphasized by a punning expletive. Hell is earth. Earth is Hell — and will be as long as capitalism is in power.

This seems like a fairly rudimentary laff-generating algorithm. And yet, Slavoj Zizek, another intermittently funny, theology-obsessed Marxist, argues that this kind of unexpected revelation of sameness is in fact the basis of all comedy.

Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavours to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content — in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask…. When, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter behind the veil the same thing as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the “pure” difference that separates an element from itself. [italics in original] (Zizek 56)

The joke is finding that beneath the familiar lies the familiar — the Hell under earth is earth.

Humor then does not cause us to “see the familiar defamiliarized, the ordinary made extraordinary and the real rendered surreal,” as Simon Critchley argues (47). Rather, humor makes the unfamiliar familiar. The humor of Young’s Inferno is not that the ordinariness of earth is rendered extraordinary by putting it in Hell; it’s that the strangeness of Hell is rendered mundane by making it just like earth. Or to put it another way, the comedy is not in self-alienation — in seeing yourself as another — but in the more (or possibly less) profound self-alienation of seeing yourself as yourself.

In one of Young’s illustrations, for example, a large devil is shown throwing money to a bunch of rooting, squirming, piglike souls, or Hellions. At the bottom right of the image, one little Hellion turns to look out of the fourth wall with an expression which is possibly embarrassment or possibly surprise.

This is reminiscent of what Zizek calls “the trademark gesture” of Lucy in I Love Lucy who would, when startled, “cast a direct fixed gaze of surprise into the camera.” [55] Zizek argues that this movement reconciles the distance between the actor and the character not by showing they are one person, but rather by affixing the “attitude of self-estrangement” to the screen persona Lucy.

Zizek does not address the other duality however: that between screen persona and watcher. Nor does he discuss the fact that in watching herself, Lucy becomes, essentially, part of the viewing audience. Similarly, the Hellion in Young’s drawing is defined by its awareness of its plight — an awareness which is funny because it is also the self-awareness of the viewer. The self seeing the self sees the self seeing the self in a reflexive bliss of self-identity. This self-identity is separated, by its own obsessive reflexiveness, from the piglike orgy of cupidity and posteriors pictured by Young as the self-annihilating plight of man and Hellion alike.

Young in this image, then, is playing with the disjunction between man as wriggling animalcule and man as observer of himself who, because he can observe, goes beyond the animal. Reinhold Niebuhr, in his essay “Humour and Faith,” argued that this contradiction was the central incongruity at the root of much humor. “The sense of humour,” Niebuhr says, “is…a by-product of self-transcendence.” [Niebuhr 54] In providing a bridge between human weakness (the animal) and human strength (self-transcendence), humor, for Niebuhr, functions as a kind of first step towards Christian faith.

Niebuhr believes that this Christian faith is the only way, ultimately, for humans to successfully face the mystery of being an angel stapled to a dying ape. Thus, according to Niebuhr, “Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion; and the echoes of it should resound in the sanctuary, but there is no laughter in the holy of holies. There laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humour is fulfilled by faith.” [49] Niebuhr adds that “there is no humour in the scene of Christ upon the Cross. The only humour on Calvary is the derisive laughter of those who cried, ‘He saved others, himself he can not save….’” [53]

The idea of humor being a station on the way to faith is perhaps counterintuitive. Usually, the black humour of say, Bunuel, is seen as opposed to faith in general and Christianity in particular. Niebuhr acknowledges the potential of humor to detract from faith himself , noting that “when we turn life into a comedy we also reduce it to meaninglessness. That is why laughter, when pressed to solve the ultimate issue, turns into a vehicle of bitterness rather than joy.” [57] For his part, Art Young in the Inferno does not mock Christianity directly, but he does float some heresies — suggesting, for example, that Satan was given Hell not because he was tossed out of Heaven, but because he defeated God and received the Pit as the spoils of war. There’s also a not-very-muted critique of religion in the portrait of the “Inners” who believe “One must make a protective heaven within one’s mind” and who deliberately “become oblivious to the material facts.” [142] Young’s drawing of a typical Inner shows a well-fed Hellion bathed in light and reading from a good book while behind him others burn and writhe and torment one another.

Yet it wouldn’t be correct to say that Young eschewed faith. On the contrary, humor and faith are, for him, intimately connected — even more so than they were, perhaps, for Niebuhr. Humor in Young is not just an analogue to faith, dealing with the same issues, or a step on the way to faith. Humor is, rather, a sword to be used on faith’s behalf.

You can see this most clearly, perhaps, if you look at one of Young’s illustrations showing a mild-mannered devil with glasses preparing to sentence a bespectacled, mustachioed, naked, and non-plussed Hellion.

The drawing has no caption…but imagine that it were juxtaposed with the following lines from the Apostle Paul. Niebuhr claims that there’s little laughter in the Bible, but this sure sounds like black-humor tinged sarcasm to me:

if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? [Romans 2:19-23]

Paul finds (bleak) humor in the distance between the law and the actions of those who profess the law. The law here, the universal, is self-transcendence; the hypocritical action is the animal. But what changes the gap between the two into an incongruous joke — what turns Paul’s face to us like the face of Lucille Ball — is faith.

Young’s faith isn’t Paul’s, of course. But believing in Marx works much like believing in Christ, at least in this context. The little Hellion turning his head, imbued with the realization that somehow, something isn’t right — he has that realization because Young has hope in a system that can make things better. In a 1940 interview, he noted, “I think we have the true religion. If only the crusade would take on more converts. But faith, like the faith they talk about in the churches, is ours and the goal is not unlike theirs, in that we want the same objectives but want it here on earth and not in the sky when we die.”

In one sequence from the Inferno, an anarchist Hellion argues that all of Hell should just be blown up. Young protests:

don’t you think that the working class with the help of socially conscious people — Economists, Socialists, Communists, Social Engineers and perhaps some intelligent Capitalists — will eventually put things right?

The anarchist laughs at him, but Young insists:

We still hope that the upper world will be saved from suicide, and that you and your fellow-workers will learn how to abolish the Capitalist tyranny of the Terrestrial Hell and save yourselves from its duplicate down here. [157]

That hope is everywhere in the book — in the excoriation of lives wasted in pursuit of money; of unjust laws; even (in aging old crank style) of the lack of convenient public bathrooms. It’s there too in Young’s one drawing of God.

In this picture, the deity looks out with a blank expression at the reader while he signs Hell over to the cheerful Devil. God’s body posture is mildly slumped and he seems resigned to defeat. But the energy of Young’s quick lines, and, indeed, the goofiness of the caricature — the traditional God morphed into a balding guy with glasses and worry lines — suggests a human creativity that subsumes and may transcend the divine failure. God screwed up, but he’s only human — and in laughing at him we recognize a greater order, and a greater hope.

This is why Zizek sees humor where Niebuhr says there is none — on the cross. The moment when Christ despairs and cries “Father, why have you forsaken me!” is when Christ’s dual nature is most paradoxically incongruous. Christ in his despair is at this moment at his most distant point from God. But in being distant from God, Christ becomes like man — which means that God (as Christ) and man are united. In being, like man, exiled from God, Christ brings man and God together. The black joke, made out of faith, is that despair is hope.

“Or to put it another way,” as Zizek says:

What effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated values, and this negativity is the only true remaining universal force. Does the same not hold for Christ? All stable—substantial universal features are undermined, relativised, by his scandalous acts, so that the only remaining universality is the one embodied in Him, in his very singularity. [55]

The nihilist who sneers at the universe, is, for Zizek, the image of Christ. In rejecting all “stable-substantial universal features” through his scandalous act, Christ is the ultimate black humorist, and the cross is the final cosmic joke. Thus, in “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano submerges a plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine and photographs it. The result, a blurred shimmering image, is a sneering joke — and that joke is also the meaning of the Cross. Thus, for Zizek, when Serrano or Bunuel or Young use Christian imagery for the purposes of atheist mockery, they are not undermining Christianity, but participating in it. The desecration of black humor is holy.

That holiness doesn’t mean that humor banishes all that’s wrong in the world. Niebuhr argues, quite rightly, that laughter has no power in itself to deter evil, and points out ruefully that “There were those who thought that we could laugh Mussolini and Hitler out of court.” [52] There are those who hoped we could laugh Communist dictators to death too, I’m sure — but here’s Art Young, using laughter on behalf of a 1930s Marxism which was certainly far, far less skeptical about Stalin than it should have been.

That’s not surprising, though, because laughter is not really about deterring evil or bringing down tyrants. Humor is not anarchic liberation. On the contrary, its purpose is to create a structure — a dialectic — to contain the incongruities of faith. You can’t have mockery without a belief in something that is not mocked — you can’t have the ridiculous without a belief in that which is not ridiculed. In The Mysterious Stranger Mark Twain has Satan declare that, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand,” but the statement only has authority because we’re not laughing at Satan when he says it. If we laugh at the Emperor’s clothes we can’t see, it is only because a clothed Emperor rides beside him, invisible but seen by all. Art Young made Hell into Earth not to upend order, but because he believed, with all his atheist heart, that Earth could be made into Heaven.
This essay was originally commissioned for an anthology on black humor edited by Ryan Standfest. Ryan decided he couldn’t use the piece…for reasons which he will explain in a post tomorrow. So click back then! (Update: Ryan’s post is now here.

Noah Berlatsky, “Building a Better Abyss,” The Comics Journal No. 273, January 2006, pp. 131-134.

Simon Critchley, “Did You Hear the Joke About the Philosopher Who Wrote a Book About Humour?” in Felicity Lunn and Heinke Munder, ed., When Humour Becomes Painful, Zürich, Switzerland: JRP/Ringier, 2006, pp. 44-51.

Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humour and Faith,” in The Essential Reinhold Neibuhr, Robert Mcafee Brown, ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 49-60.

Gil Wilson interview with Art Young, May 1940, quoted in “Art Young: Biography,” Spartacus Educational. Accessed: 11/11/10,.

Art Young, Art Young’s Inferno: A Journey Through Hell Six Hundred Years After Dante, New York: Delphic Studios, 1934.

Slavoj Zizek, “The Chrisitan-Hegelian Comedy,” in When Humour Becomes Painful, pp. 52-58.

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