Early on in the essay, “Is a Sense of Humor a Virtue?,” John Lippitt asks the question, “Could it be, then, that exposure to a ‘virtuous’ sense of humor can make a difference to my character, and therefore be a useful tool in moral education?” At first glance it may appear self-evident that if one is exposed to a “virtuous” anything, whether it be a man, woman, book, commercial, song, or dream, then, of course, it is a useful tool in moral education. The question then becomes how to distinguish “virtuous” humor from what Lippitt calls a “vicious” humor and, in doing so, differentiating virtue from vice in general.
A distinguishing characteristic of virtuous humor, for Lippitt, and by implication virtue in general, is that it opens up the potential found in the Delphic edict, “Know thyself,” which Socrates distilled further into “The unexamined life not worth living.” For Lippitt, “Insofar as self-knowledge is an essential factor in the development of the virtues, such a sense of humor can still count as virtuous.’” For humor to be virtuous, then, it must open up the possibility of greater insight into oneself. In other words, if, after being exposed to virtuous humor (or virtue in general), one understands oneself in relation to the world to a greater extent than before the encounter, one has, in a sense, transcended one’s previous “self” and become more fully human.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, “Gimpel the Fool,” provides, on multiple levels, such an encounter with humor. The story is narrated by none the than the Gimpel of the title, a humble baker, who, at first glance, really is a fool. The townspeople of Frampol have learned through experience that Gimpel is gullible, to say the least, and they waste no time in taking advantage of the fact. For example, the townspeople tell Gimpel his parents have risen from the dead, and he goes outside to take a look. He claims he doesn’t believe them but goes along with the charade anyway, for what else is he supposed to do? People will get angry if he doesn’t play along. They eventually convince him to marry the town whore, Elka, who happens to have an illegitimate son in tow. It is easy enough to persuade Gimpel that Elka’s son is actually her brother. Elka then gives birth four months later to another child, and Gimpel is convinced that he is the father’s child because “the very same thing happened with Adam and Eve,” as the schoolmaster tells him. “Two they went up to bed and four they descended.” Gimpel once again claims he doesn’t believe the story but goes along with it anyway.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Gimpel’s over-the-top credulousness inevitably (after one gets over being angry with him) causes the reader to cringe and then laugh at the absurdity of the situation which Gimpel brings upon himself. Something must give. Finally, while on her deathbed, Elka confesses to Gimpel that not one of their now six children is his! This is a blow to Gimpel, though the reader shakes their head wondering why it takes Elka’s confession for him to see the light. Soon after she dies, the “Spirit of Evil” visits Gimpel in a dream and instructs him to urinate in the bread dough and feed it to all of the people of Frampol in revenge for fooling him the greater part of his life. In the end, he chooses not to do so and, instead, packs up and leaves Frampol to become a wandering storyteller who tells tales about wild and improbable things that could have never happened.
In “Humor and Moral Vision,” a course offered by Holy Apostles College, humor is divided into three theories: Superiority Theory, where “humor is a state of mind resulting from a perception of one’s own superiority to others or to one’s own former self”; Release Theory, in which “humor releases or relieves pent-up energy directed to repression of feeling, mounting expectations, etc.”; and Incongruity Theory, where “humor or amusement is the perception of an incongruity that delights rather than pains or puzzles.” Singer masterfully blends these three types of humor throughout Gimpel’s story. At times we inevitably feel superior to Gimpel because we would never be such a fool as he. At other times, we are relieved, as when Gimpel considers urinating in the bread dough to release his (and our) pent-up energy at being the willing fool. Still, at other times, we laugh at the incongruity of it all; Gimpel claims time and again that he does not believe the townspeople but he continues to act as if he does. Which is it? In blending these types of humor does Singer manage to bring us toward virtue?
The topic is too broad for this sketch, but I would argue that virtuous humor requires at least a smidgen of one key ingredient: irony. Early in the story, Gimpel asks, “What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.” Later in the story, Gimpel consults a rabbi about Elka and is told, “It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil.” These are the sentences which the story turns on and where irony is unleashed. Is Gimpel really the fool here? He decides not to seek revenge on the people of Frampol and in doing so avoids being evil for one hour. By believing they are his, Gimpel comes to love the children, though they are not legitimately his own. He splits up the “hoard” of money he has made from his bakery (this fool is a great businessman) among the children (who he now knows are not his own) before he leaves Frampol to wander the land telling his impossible stories. He continues to love and dream of Elka who appears with the “radiant eyes of a saint.” He waits for the next world where “God be praised: even Gimpel cannot be fooled.”
The irony? The seeming fool is actually a saint who truly does love his neighbor, and it is us, the reader, who may have been fooled. Speaking for myself (and I have read this story numerous times), the ending of the story—arriving after the story has travelled through the three stations of humor outlined above—leaves me content with the knowledge, ironic as it may be, that, along with Socrates, “as for me, all I know is I know nothing.” My thoughts are halted as my mind attempts to grapple with the incongruity of knowing that one can know nothing, for how can one know that one knows nothing without knowing something about nothing, though nothing can be known about nothing? It is reminiscent somehow of the old Abbott and Costello bit “Who’s on first?” In essence, it is a comedic instance of negative theology.
Near the end of the story, when Gimpel has wandered telling impossible stories for many years and is old and gray, he makes a startling observation:
I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me. After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often, I heard tales of which I said, ‘Now this is a thing that cannot happen.’ But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere.
One moral lesson in Singer’s narrative is this: Who am I to judge in a world where miracles have and do occur? This question helps me to “Know thyself” by realizing the world, at bottom, is a mystery where a crucified Christ rose from the dead. Singer’s humor, then, is virtuous, and we realize this in better understanding ourselves as human beings in a grander scheme. This kind of understanding is a hallmark of virtue.