Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chaim Potok on Comedy

S. Lillian Kremer: Many Jewish-American writers have turned to the comedic tone. Do you feel the comic is an inauthentic voice in which to render twentieth-century experience or does it hold no appeal for you?

Potok: No, it isn't that the comedic doesn't appeal to me. I've thought about this often because people have pointed out to me that the comedic tone really is not the way I write and I've come to the conclusion that the reason for that is that I was brought up in a yeshiva, and things are very, very heavy in Jewish parochial schools. Your friends might have certain interesting and strange senses of humor, but the models, the teachers and the rabbis, really don't. If you go to yeshivot from the time you are five or six years old until the time you are twenty-one, which was my span of yeshiva education, and you retain any sense of humor at all, that has to border on the miraculous. I think for many the comedic tone may be the only way to handle the twentieth century, because to handle the twentieth century seriously may lead one to lose one's mind. Humor is essentially one of the ways the secular humanist responds to an essentially impossible world. He doesn't have the heaviness of sanctity to fall back on, or the heaviness of mystery [emph. mine]. There are no mysteries to the secular humanist. Something is either potentially capable of being explored and answered or of no interest whatsoever. There are no mysteries to a logical positivist. Now, in this new book, The Book of Lights, there are comedic tonalities, especially in one of the characters. The reason for that is that for him not to resort to the comedic would be for him to be incapable of handling the particular dilemma that confronts him. That is precisely the dilemma of the twentieth century. How do you live with the insanities that we have created? This particular character can only live with it through a screen of the comedic.

-pages 40-41 of Conversations with Chaim Potok of the Literary Conversations Series, edited by Daniel Walden

1 comment:

Moshe said...

I think the idea that humor is somehow secular is problematic. As RAL is fond of pointing out, the gemara says that the comedian is a ben olam haba. irony and humor are a way of searching out truth. They are also a form of healing the fractured world and drawing holiness from it.

Moshe Shoshan