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The Steeple and the Gargoyle: Celebrating the Simpsons
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The Steeple and the Gargoyle: Celebrating The Simpson’s
by David Dark
Mystical ecstasy and laughter are the two great delights of living, and saints and clowns their purveyors, the only two categories of human beings who can be relied on to tell the truth; hence, steeples and gargoyles side by side on the great cathedrals.
Every Christmas (or thereabouts), William F. Buckley sees fit to fill his Firing Line slot on public television with a re-airing of an outrageously strange conversation with Malcolm Muggeridge. Buckley customarily introduces the segment by observing that this is, by far, his favorite episode of Firing Line, and what’s remarkable is the utterly undignified and awkward aspect of the interview that follows.
It’s not an argument, exactly. Both men seem to be deriving a great amount of pleasure from one another’s company. But the stakes strike the viewer as, somehow, alarmingly high as Muggeridge, covering his smile, gazes at Buckley with his Obi-Wan Kenobi-eyes and Buckley shoots back furtive glances of disbelief at what’s being proposed.
Muggeridge, you see, contends that everything, under Heaven, is laughable, and he does mean everything. Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mother Theresa, whatever we can propose for the status of dignified and noble and true. Buckley, as we might guess, is scandalized. How can this be?
Muggeridge: “Let’s think of the steeple and the gargoyle. The steeple is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy—attempting something utterly impossible—to climb up to heaven through a steeple. The gargoyle is this little man grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior of men on earth, and these two things, both built into this building to the glory of God.”
But what is he laughing at? Evil? Pomposity?
“He’s laughing at the inadequacy of man, the pretensions of man, the absolute preposterous gap—disparity —between his aspirations and his performance, which is the eternal comedy of human life. It will be so till the end of time you see.”
Till the end of time. This is where Buckley (like a great many of us) can hardly help but hesitate. But the alternative, a worldview that allows for some finalized perfectibility of human nature in the Here and Now (the steeple without the gargoyle, Babel, what-have-you), is hopelessly off as well, and we all know it. What Muggeridge so profoundly understood and what Buckley had such trouble seeing (to the former’s respectful amusement) is that the state of affairs we’ve found ourselves in is really quite wonderful. No one, as it turns out, has managed to plateau. No one has successfully dotted every “i” and crossed every “t.”
And there’s a glory in this imperfection.
Mother Theresa knows she’s simply doing what she can, and this, according to Muggeridge, is precisely what makes her such a beautiful person. The word is modesty. The fact that Muggeridge is no longer with us (the date of his departure is transmitted across the screen half-way through the interview) somehow serves to heighten the comedy as mortality gets a word in at his “expense.” Television has never looked so good.
And yet, it does occasionally come close. I’m referring to the closest thing I’ve personally found on the airwaves to a Muggeridgean tragicomedy: The Simpsons. It is a work of art. It’s also a cartoon. I won’t stoop to pretend you’ve never heard of it. What it offers is very likely the most pro-family, God-preoccupied, home-based program on television. Statistically speaking, there is more prayer on The Simpsons than on any sitcom in broadcast history. After all hell has broken loose over the Simpson family’s Thanksgiving dinner, Homer offers thanks for the food while interjecting, “Lord, are we the most screwed up family in the whole universe or what?” Later, when the runaway Bart has returned home and a haphazard order has been restored, they convene again for a late-night meal and Homer ends the show praying, “Thank you, Lord, for another crack at togetherness.”
The Simpsons’ creator, Matt Groening, puts it this way: “We try to put real human emotion into it. Most other cartoons, except the Disney Films, don’t seem to do that. They are just about surface emotion. The show has a rubber-band reality. We stretch it way out into the far reaches of human folly, and it snaps back to relative sanity.”
As a kind of celebration, The Simpsons fulfills, in part, the role that Carnival played in medieval culture. Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin gives this description: “Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people... It is directed at all and everyone...The entire world is seen in its droll aspect...It is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives. Such is the laughter of carnival....It is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete, they also die and are revived and renewed.”
The purpose of Carnival is to overcome or provide momentary relief from the death-dealing seriousness of the status quo, the official. On The Simpsons, all societal personalities are pushed together into a normalizing proximity in which the prerogatives of power and class and celebrity are dropped. George Bush moves into a house across the street, Sting assists in getting Bart out of a well, and Michael Jackson appears as a huge, white mental patient with a shaved head. Everyone comes to know everybody, and any appeal to aloofness or superiority from any quarter is subject to the heaviest lampoon and ridicule. The playing field is leveled, and the forum is open.
The Simpsons is customarily subjected to a false evaluation for a variety of reasons, but its status as a kind of stumbling block is not, primarily, as an enemy of family values but, rather, as its advocate. The necessary, much-needed, life-giving gargoyle, if you will. It refuses to take seriously our proudest efforts, the various instances of self-centeredness and idiocy which fall so hopelessly short. That our presumed goodness is so devastatingly shabby is not a cause for outrage, but is, rather, a major part of what we profess (for those who do) when we claim Christianity. An acknowledgment of the ongoing persistence of our frailties is, after all, the central groundwork for what is called comedy. And we need comedy like we need the gargoyle. We need a sense of humor. Without it, we lose the ability to criticize ourselves.
Seriousness, after all, can be an excruciatingly inhumane task-master. Its vision is very often too small. It doesn’t want to know, for instance, that the person disagreeing with us or whose very existence offends has, as it turns out, a really nice smile. It certainly doesn’t want to hear that a Samaritan would do a thing like that. No time for it.
We’ve got to keep an eye on seriousness. It can make us treat people very unkindly. As Walker Percy says of sentimentality, it leads to the gas chamber. Seriously.
On The Simpsons, everybody’s soft and funny-looking. No exceptions. Everybody’s invited.
Everybody fits, because nobody does. They’re all weird and getting weirder. Moe, the bartender, is just about consigned to a stereotype when, suddenly, we see him reading stories to children in an orphanage, a weekly activity he goes to great lengths to conceal. The writers of the program are kind enough to violate our prejudices at every available opportunity. And occasionally, through one child punching another on the arm or Marge gently stroking the back of Homer’s hand, we get to hear the strange, delightful sound of this silly-putty flesh-on-flesh. They’re ridiculous. They can’t seem to get away from each other. And the kindness and compassion that works its way between them is always funny but never ridiculed. They’re alive like us.
Is this making sense? It’s certainly okay to wince or to be a little bit bothered. But we probably ought to be careful about deciding we’re feeling offended. It can get old after awhile. We become offended in all the ways God isn’t. And the seat of offendedness (like the seat of judgement) can be a real tricky spot to occupy. Before we know it, it can become a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. It becomes all we’re known for. And when we’re all caught up in all the things we’re against, we forget the beauty of the things we’re supposed to be for. We forget what the kingdom of Heaven looks like and all the wonderfully odd characters taking up residence there.
I’ll end with another Christmas story. I was sitting in a corner at a Yuletide gathering when one of our hosts decided it was time to sing Christmas carols. Why she picked my own personal corner as the place to commence with this activity I neither know nor understand, but I was stuck.
So I sang. Me and three women and another fellow who’d suffered a similar fate. Softly at first, and with face reddened, I tried to do my part without sticking out too much and wishing all the time that enough people would join up and I could excuse myself. But no joy.
Eventually, another guy entered the throng and this one saw fit to sing real, real loud. He’d been drinking, but he knew how to harmonize, and he knew he knew, and he knew
it was funny. So we all started going for it. Entirely too loudly. And we belted it out as the false reverence gave way to parody. This was a delight.
We ran out of carols, but we wanted to keep on going, so we reran the ones we’d started with. We were still going pretty loud, but we’d worn ourselves out somewhat, and although it was still funny, it didn’t have to be. The words were beginning to take on meaning (for me anyway) that hadn’t been too accessible before. And what I can only describe as reverie seemed to settle on the whole lot of us. We’d started with a kind of purported earnestness shot past seriousness into burlesque, and now we’d broken out of orbit. We’d made our way into authenticity. Maybe. In any case, I think all of life should be lived that way. I want to shoot past seriousness more often. As often as possible, actually. Keep an eye on the gargoyle. Just do it. Thank you for your time and attention.
David Dark is a Nashville-based teacher, writer and critic.