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Laughter — from Borat to Rahner

Posted in: General by Tom Beaudoin on October 7, 2010

Over breakfast Tuesday morning, I was reading the newspaper, and alighted on a story about an anti-Borat film by a director from Kazakhstan, who is out to lampoon the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s infamous Borat and restore a sense of honor to many Kazakhs that was taken away by Cohen’s film. Halfway through the story, I was doubled over in laughter. When my wife (who is, by the way, a full participant in a household that finds all sorts of things funny all the time) asked me what was so funny, I could only laugh more.

The reporter, Clifford J. Levy, had interviewed this Kazakh director, Erkin Rakishev, about his forthcoming film, “My Brother, Borat.” I will leave the complete details to your reading. But in the course of interviewing Rakishev, Levy writes that “It was evident that he was pleased with the script — so much so that while recounting various scenes, he burst into teary-eyed laughter and the interview had to be halted temporarily.”

Between Levy’s very decision to report this, his deadpan tone, and the conjuring of a scene in which someone’s own delight in their work makes them laugh so hard that they cry, I myself could not stop laughing. And so I repeated those lines, oh, four or five times to my family. In vain!

This episode got me thinking about Rahner’s theology.

My favorite article by Karl Rahner is on laughter. It can be found in Rahner, The Content of Faith (Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt, eds.; Harvey G. Egan, translation ed., Crossroad, 1994), on pages 148-152. One could almost give an entire ruminative course on this short article, because it contains so many of what I consider to be Rahner’s characteristic praxis themes (learning to accept the graced uncontrollable dimension of life, the theological significance of the loss of self-consciousness, the lived everyday signals of a final and eternal consent to reality).

The “comical and the ridiculous should be laughed at,” Rahner counsels, cautioning that “the only one who can do this is the person who does not adapt everything to [one]self, the one who is free from self, and who like Christ can ‘sympathize’ with everything; the one who possesses that mysterious sympathy with each and every thing, and before whom each can get a chance to have [their] say. But only the person who loves has this sympathy.” The kind of laughter of which Rahner speaks “lets a human being be a loving person” who is “not anxious about their dignity.”

This spiritual exercise (my term, not his in this context) concerns not only the act of laughing as such but having the sort of disposition that makes one ready to laugh, who is able, Rahner says, to venture in this everyday way the loss of put-togetherness that laughing can induce, who risks being seen as superficial, because “laughter almost always borders on the trivial.” “The laughter of daily life announces and shows that one is on good terms with reality, even in advance of that all-powerful and eternal consent in which the saved will one day say their ‘Amen’ to everything that [one] has done and allowed to happen.”

As I typed out the lines above, I thought of some words I wrote for America seven years ago, about my most beloved mentor, Professor John Stack. I wrote: “His laugh — it was so generous, it flew out of him. I could ignite that full-torso, that I’m-not-embarrassed-to-blow-spittle-and-snot laugh, so easily, even over the phone, and that is one of the things I loved most about him.”

Laughing is, no doubt, part of an art of existence, especially in and as we make of it a spiritual exercise by the freedom it is allowed to find in our life: “Real laughter,” writes Rahner, “resounding laughter, the kind that makes a person double over and slap his thigh, the kind that brings tears to the eyes; the laughter that accompanies spicy jokes, the laughter that reflects the fact that a human being is no doubt somewhat childlike and childish.” And the laughter that can temporarily halt an interview about a Borat-revenge film in Kazakhstan, or that can interrupt breakfast.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

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