Recently, Ugo Bardi wrote a fine review of my second novel, The Order of the Secret Chiefs. There was one criticism Ugo made that I thought was unjustified but in an interesting way. Ugo made the point that the characters in the novel do not evolve but remain static. This would normally be a valid criticism. Any story which follows the Hero’s Journey pattern should have a denouement at the end where the protagonist transcends their old self and transforms into something new. However, comedy is the one genre where this is not true. To understand why, let’s first define some terms. I define a comedy as follows:
A story where the protagonist wins in spite of, or even because of, their vices.
We can contrast this with a tragedy:
A story where the protagonist loses in spite of, or even because of, their virtues.
The ur-novel of the modern West is also the ur-comedy of the modern West: Don Quixote. The protagonist, Alonso Quixano, is a fifty year old low level noble who is married and lives a comfortable life for the time. He decides to drop everything, call himself Don Quixote and go off on a grand adventure as a knight-errant. I hope it’s not a spoiler alert to say that Quixano “wins” in the end. Despite his vice – insanity – he makes it home safe and sound. What’s important to note is that Quixano has not evolved in any way. At the end of the story he is right back where he started and, although he renounces his previous actions, this is more of a social commentary on the part of Cervantes than a great revelation for the character.
Given that comedy is the genre where the protagonist wins in spite of their faults, it makes sense that the protagonist does not evolve. They have no need to. When things go well in life, we tend not to learn much. It’s mostly through pain and suffering that lessons get learned. This is one of the reasons why protagonists in comedy stories tend to finish where they started.
We see a similar pattern in what I consider to be the greatest comedic novels in the English language: the Jeeves books by P G Wodehouse. The protagonist, Bertie Wooster, is as clueless as Quixote. He is an inversion of the stereotypical English gentleman of the 1800s. Not for Bertie the gallant adventures of a Richard Francis Burton or squandering the family fortune on coke and hookers (I guess it was opium and hookers at that time) like many other young “gentlemen” of the age. Bertie is a wealthy man in his early twenties who could be playing the field, travelling or involved in affairs of state. Instead, he is wound up in trifling domestic disputes that get blown out of proportion through his own bungling. Fortunately, his trusty butler, Jeeves, is there to save the day. Jeeves must solve the problem while keeping the solution secret from Bertie who will only mess things up if he gets involved.
Like Quixote, what is going on in Bertie’s mind and what is actually happening in the real world are very different things and this drives the comedy in both books. There is nothing for Bertie to learn because he completely misunderstands what is going on. Because he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t evolve either. Again, we find that the protagonist in the comedy stays the same. The formula is neatly summed up in a line from another great comedy, The Big Lebowski: the Dude abides.
There is something else going on in Quixote and the Jeeves books that I think is interesting and relevant to larger social issues at the moment. Both Quixote and Bertie Wooster are anachronisms. Quixote has been reading too many old books and got himself riled up over a mythology about knights errant that was out of date even at that time. Wooster is an English gentleman of the old school at the time when that stereotype was fast going out of date and would be completely extinct after WW2. The fact that both characters are anachronisms is part of their charm. Both men are not just unwilling to conform to social expectations, they are completely unaware of them. The result is that they are not fitted for their world and must continually be rescued giving both of them an eternal childlike quality; two grown men who still believe in fairy tales. Another way to think about it is that they are out there in the real world acting as if the ideal in their mind were true and consistently ignoring all the feedback that it is not. This is in contrast to most of us who give up on whatever ideals we had in order to get by in society. There are strong parallels with Christ which Dostoevsky captured quite precisely in his fittingly-titled book, The Idiot.
What happens when we apply a standard comedic technique and invert this configuration? Instead of individuals who are running on an outdated social script, we make society the one which is running on an outdated social script. Then we change the individual from an idealist into a realist. Now it’s society forcing the individual to conform to an outdated, often absurd, social script. This is still a source for comedy. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where George is forced to eat a poisoned pie by his co-workers: “If you’re one of us, you’ll take a bite.” It’s also an excellent description of where our society is at right now. On a daily basis, we are expected to believe all kinds of outright nonsense; to eat all kinds of poisoned pie. The process was in place before corona and has only gone into hyperdrive since.
As I’m sure Ugo would agree, we are coming to the end of the line of our current social arrangements. The story could be a tragedy and there are plenty of people who want to view it as such. That is the driver of many of the apocalypse fantasies that float around these days. There are a lot of people who want to heroically go down with the ship. However, societies, like most things in nature, operate in cycles. The end of one cycle is also the beginning of another. So, another way to think about where we are right now is the beginning of a new cycle. That is where the protagonist of the comedy, the Fool, comes into the picture.
It is not without good reason that the Fool card is the first in the tarot deck. It symbolises among other things the beginning of a journey. Quixote was a fool. So was Bertie Wooster. We are all now fools in that we belong to a society running on an outdated script. We must search for a new script but this mission is also foolish. We can expect many failures so we’ll need our Sancho Panza to keep our spirits up and our Jeeves to keep us from our worst mistakes. Like Quixote, we have to metaphorically leave our comfortable home where everything is still functioning more or less and go out into the world looking for adventure. We have to do that knowing full well that most of what we try won’t succeed but with the fool’s assurance that it will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.