“If it weren’t so serious, it would be funny.” All of us are familiar with this paradox of human affairs, which affects puzzlement at the equally familiar truth that things are quite often both serious and funny at the same time. But this mostly happens when the funny part is precisely that the serious part takes itself so seriously that it can’t see how funny it is.
In a previous post, I cited an article in the (London) Daily Telegraph by the Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Fabricant that adumbrated the high principle on which he stood in deciding that he could not vote for the plan of his own party’s prime minister, Theresa May, to take Britain out of the European Union. Well, Michael is back, now as a latter-day subscriber to Groucho Marx’s famous dictum: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them—well, I have others.” One of the others, outlined in yesterday’s Telegraph turns out to be this: “Sadly, I must abandon my heart for my head and vote for this accursed Withdrawal Agreement.”
Strangely, however, Mr. Fabricant appears to have little or no appreciation of the comical side to his agonies of conscience. If he had, he might have figured out in the first place that a matter which simultaneously must be resolved and can never be resolved without compromise might not admit of too many high-minded stands on principle. But his blindness to the comedy of his own tergiversations is only one small part of the blindness of the whole British political class, seemingly, to the farce that Brexit has become. The latest example, engineered by my old college friend Oliver Letwin (now Sir Oliver), can be summed up in the words of The Independent: “MPs take back control—but then reject every single option in front of them.” Here, as elsewhere, if such people could see how funny they are, they might be able to get serious enough to end the whole messy Brexit process.
Of course, it’s a lot easier for Americans, at a relatively detached three-thousand-mile distance, to see the comedy in the self-righteousness and self-importance of British parliamentarians than it is for those in the thick of the fight in London and Brussels to see it. By the same token, I imagine there must be at least a few people in Britain outside the British media—who mostly follow slavishly in the track of the American media when it comes to reporting on American affairs—who are laughing their heads off at the American Left’s attempts to spin the Mueller report in such a way as to play down their own foolishness (to put it no more seriously) in two years of reporting and analyzing and endlessly hashing over for their own gratification what turns out to be Fake News.
Leontes, that is, like so many of the souls in Dante’s Inferno, took himself so seriously that he was blind to the comedy of such seriousness.
Tuesday’s headline in The New York Times, “Disappointed Fans of Mueller Rethink the Pedestal They Built for Him,” was my favorite laugh riot so far, but Adam Schiff’s impersonation of Leontes in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale runs it pretty close. In that case, you will remember, Leontes was so sure of his own suspicion of his wife’s infidelity that he sent messengers to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, confident that the god would confirm it. The oracle, taking considerably less time and costing considerably less money than Mr. Mueller, returned as follows: “Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten.” Whereupon Leontes, anticipating Mr. Schiff, cried out: “There is no truth at all i’ th’ oracle. The sessions shall proceed. This is mere falsehood.”
Leontes, that is, like so many of the souls in Dante’s Inferno, or the Russian revolutionaries in the novel by Dostoevsky whose title is usually translated as Devils, took himself so seriously that he was blind to the comedy of such seriousness. And maybe that’s what the Divine Comedy and Devils were both meant to demonstrate: that such unbreachable self-assurance is characteristic of the damned.