Of Saints, Madmen, and Louis C.K.


I find the current cover of Rolling Stone difficult to look at. Louis C.K. just looks so damn vulnerable. Of course, he’s more or less built his whole career on that vulnerability. What makes his standup—and his FX series Louie—so compelling is his willingness to put on display, totally and fully and unabashedly, everything about ourselves that we generally want to run away from. He’s spoken frankly, obscenely—and hilariously, IMHO—about getting old, having kids, owning up to white privilege, and recognizing that we’ve all developed an increasingly vacuous relationship to the world.

In the Rolling Stone interview, he admits that “I don’t have a relationship with my dad, which is a bit uncomfortable.” On one episode of Louie, he jumps on a speedboat just to avoid standing up to his “dad.” He says the episode was in part about his strained relationship with his father, about “me making fun of my own not dealing with it.” Comedy, at least in Louis C.K.’s vein, is ultimately about an owning up to those things that we usually can’t bring ourselves to look at. But there’s something about the honesty that is, in itself, a breath of fresh air. It’s as though real beauty can exist only after we’ve exorcised all the shiny bullshit masquerading as beauty and taken a look at the whole unvarnished truth of our world. Towards the end of the discussion, the interviewer notes: “You do have that way of making life seem simultaneously beautiful and amazing and really ugly and horrible. Is that how you see the world?” He responds: “Yeah, I try to observe and report, and the more purely and without editorial I can do that, the better, especially on the show. Then what comes out, if you just show everything, all sides, is that everything is sad and happy and hilarious and depressing.”

Comedians love to talk about things that make us uncomfortable in our daily lives—sex, death, racism, violence. Why do we laugh? Freud suggests that, because jokes often invoke situations where we would need to repress feelings of desire or aggression, the conversion of these situations into “non-serious” scenarios causes us to laugh with relief in order to dispatch with the energy that we would normally need to repress our feelings.  The joke is a safe space for libidinal energy. I’m inclined to broaden this idea a bit to suggest that we laugh because we’re allowed, for a moment, to be free of all the effort we normally expend to look away from reality instead of seeing it as what it truly is. Coming face-to-face with the thing we fear—the truth—a certain weight is lifted off our shoulders because it is finally here, in front of us, and we can’t run anymore. Of course, laughter can also be a way of protecting ourselves from the full force of the truth; as we sometimes say when confronted with the absurdly awful, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Our modern comedians play a role perhaps not entirely dissimilar to that once played by “madmen” (the fact that the word “fool” has been used to  designate court jesters, the mentally ill, and the mentally challenged helps underscore the connection).  Michel Foucault notes, in Madness and Civilization, that in Renaissance dramaboschfools

the Madman, the Fool, or the Simpleton assumes more and more importance. He is no longer simply a ridiculous and familiar silhouette in the wings: he stands center stage as the guardian of truth—playing here a role which is the complement and converse of that taken by madness in the tales and the satires. If folly leads each man into a blindness where he is lost, the madman, on the contrary, reminds each man of his truth; in a comedy where each man deceives the other and dupes him, the madman is comedy to the second degree: the deception of deception; he utters, in his simpleton’s language which makes no show of reason, the words of reason that release, in the comic, the comedy: he speaks love to lovers, the truth of life to the young, the middling reality of things to the proud, to the insolent, and to liars.

The most famous example of this is, of course, the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is ultimately with his Fool that the King, grappling with his own madness and with the madness of his world, takes to the storm:

But what are all my thoughts on madmen and comedians doing on a blog that is, presumably, about Catholicism? Because Catholicism has its own long tradition of recognizing the wisdom of “fools.” “Holy fools” have a prominent place in both Orthodox and Catholic hagiography and it is precisely in their foolishness, in their self-abasement, in their unsettling and absurd vulnerability, that they reveal truth to us.

stf01004The most famous of these “Holy Fools” in the West is doubtless St. Francis of Asssisi. In fact, one of his nicknames was Le Jongleur de Dieu, “The Jester of God.” Francis, once a proud soldier, ends up as a strange and even ridiculous beggar. Believing that he was called by God to rebuild St. Damian’s church, Francis begins to sell his own belongings and even bolts of cloth that belonged to his merchant father. Francis’s father, meanwhile, is upset enough about all this that he locks up his own son as a thief. Eventually, Francis and his father get called to the court of the local Bishop, who instructs Francis to return his father’s money. Francis goes one step further. G.K. Chesteron offers a particularly memorable relation of the scene in his book St. Francis of Assisi

[Francis] stood before them all and said,”Up to this time I have called Pietro Bernardone father, but now I am the servant of God. Not only the money but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.” And he rent off all his garments except one; and they saw that it was a hair shirt.

He piled the garments in a heap on the floor and tossed the money on top of them. Then he turned to the bishop, and received his blessing, like one who turns his back on society; and, according to the account, went out as he was into the cold world. Apparently it was literally a cold world at the moment, and snow was on the ground. […] He went out half-naked in his hair-shirt into the winter woods, walking the frozen ground beneath the frosty trees; a man without a father. He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.

The scene is both comic and moving, a performance of madness and of a strange sort of sense. In his nakedness Francis stands before his father and his bishop and his town as though to say: “Look! This is me. This is the truth of me. This is what I was meant for.” And then he sings.  And so we also—in the wake of comics and of madmen and of saints—laugh.


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