Aug 4, 2022

incongruity, by degrees

Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humor and Faith”:

To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies with laughter, is a high form of wisdom. Such laughter does not obscure or defy the dark irrationality. It merely yields to it without much emotion and friction. A humorous acceptance of fate is really the expression of a high form of self-detachment. If men do not take themselves too seriously, if they have some sense of the precarious nature of the human enterprise, they prove that they are looking at the whole drama of life not merely from the circumscribed point of their own interests but from some further and higher vantage point.

Niebuhr writes in this piece about how both humor and faith arise from grappling with life’s many incongruities: the reversals and contrasts between a world that suggests a supposed order but is everywhere in disorder. At the low levels, we get good strong humor, he says, but the deeper incongruity of existence calls for something else, something that humor can’t really address. Humor for everyday life is necessary; but when humor tries to take on the existential matters, it so often becomes bitterness and despair. Incongruity really does follow us around, unresolved:

The final problem of human existence is derived from the fact that in one context and from one perspective man has no preeminence above the beast; and yet from another perspective his preeminence is very great. No beast comes to the melancholy conclusion that “all is vanity”; for the purposes of its life do not outrun its power, and death does not therefore invade its life as an irrelevance. Furthermore it has no prevision of its own end and is therefore not tempted to melancholy. Man’s melancholy over the prospect of death is the proof of his partial transcendence over the natural process which ends in death. But this is only a partial transcendence and man’s power is not great enough to secure his own immortality.

This problem of man, so perfectly and finally symbolized in the fact of death, can be solved neither by proving that he has no preeminence above the beast, nor yet proving that his preeminence is a guarantee that death has no final dominion over him. Man is both great and small, both strong and weak, both involved in and free of the limits of nature; and he is a unity of strength and weakness, of spirit and creatureliness. There is therefore no possibility of man extricating himself by his own power from the predicament of his amphibious state.