Spring 2005

The Christian-Hegelian Comedy

“God is dead,” and other classic one-liners

Slavoj Žižek

A patient in a large hospital room with many beds complains to the doctor about the constant noise and cries other patients are making, which are driving him crazy. After the doctor replies that nothing can be done if the patients are like that, that one cannot forbid them from expressing their despair since they all know they are dying, the patient goes on: “Why don’t you then put them in a separate room for dying?” The doctor replies calmly and glibly: “But this is a room for those who are dying…” Why does anyone who knows a little bit about Hegel immediately discern a “Hegelian” taste in this morbid joke? It is precisely because of the final twist in which the patient’s subjective position is undermined: he finds himself included into the series from which he wanted to maintain distance.

And, since one is dealing with Hegel here, one is immediately tempted to conceive of this joke as the first term of a triad. Thus, since the basic turn of this joke resides in the inclusion into the series of the apparent exception (the complaining patient is himself dying), its “negation” would be a joke whose final turn would, on the contrary, involve exclusion from the series, i.e., the extraction of the One and its positing as an exception to the series. In a recent Bosnian joke, for example, Fata (the proverbial ordinary Bosnian’s wife) complains to the doctor that Muyo, her husband, makes love to her for hours every evening, so that, even in the darkness of their bedroom, she cannot get enough sleep—again and again, he jumps on her. The good doctor advises her to apply shock therapy: she should keep at her bedside a strong lamp so that, when she gets really tired of sex, she can all of a sudden blind Muyo, and this shock will for sure cool off his excessive passion. That same evening, after hours of sex, Fata does exactly as advised—and recognizes the face of Haso, one of Muyo’s colleagues. Surprised, she asks him, ”But what are you doing here? Where is Muyo, my husband?” The embarrassed Haso answers, “Well, he is there at the door, collecting money from those waiting in line…” And the third term in the Hegelian triad would be here a kind of joke-correlative of the “infinite judgment,” the tautology as supreme contradiction, as in the joke about a man who complains to his doctor that he often hears voices of people who are not present in the room. The doctor inquires, “Really? In order to enable me to discover the meaning of this hallucination, could you describe to me under what precise circumstances you usually hear the voices of people who are not present?” “Well, it mostly happens when I talk on a phone…”

As is often the case, Kierkegaard is here unexpectedly close to Hegel, officially his greatest opponent. Kierkegaard insists on the comical character of Christianity: is there anything more comical than Incarnation, this ridiculous overlapping of the Highest and the Lowest, the coincidence of God, creator of the universe, and a miserable man?[1] And, again, the point is that the gap that separates God from man in Christ is purely parallactic: Christ is not a person with two substances, immortal and mortal. Perhaps, this would also be one way to distinguish between pagan gnosticism and Christianity: the problem with Gnosticism is that it is all too serious in developing its narrative of ascent towards Wisdom, that it misses the humorous side of religious experience—Gnostics are Christians who miss the joke of Christianity. (And, incidentally, this is why Mel Gibson’s Passion is ultimately an anti-Christian film: it totally lacks this comic aspect.)

For Hegel, the passage from tragedy to comedy concerns overcoming the limits of representation. While in a tragedy the individual actor represents the universal character he plays, in a comedy he immediately is this character.[2] The gap of representation is thus closed, exactly as in the case of Christ who, in contrast to previous pagan divinities, does not “represent” some universal power or principle (as in Hinduism, in which Krishna, Vishna, Shivu, etc., all “stand for” certain spiritual principles or powers such as love, hatred, reason). As this miserable human, Christ directly is God. Christ is not also human distinct from being a god; he is a man precisely insofar as he is God, i.e., the ecce homo is the highest mark of his divinity. There is thus an objective irony in Pontius Pilate’s “Ecce homo!,” when he presents Christ to the enraged mob. Its meaning is not “Look at this miserable tortured creature? Do you not see in it a simple vulnerable man? Have you not any compassion for it?” but, rather, “Here is God himself!”

However, in a comedy, the actor does not coincide with the person he plays in the sense that he plays himself on the stage, that he “is what he really is” up there. It is rather that, in a properly Hegelian way, the gap that separates the actor from his stage persona in a tragedy is transposed into the stage persona itself. A comic character is never fully identified with his role; he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside, “making fun of himself.” Recall the immortal Lucy from I Love Lucy whose trademark gesture when something surprised her was to bend her neck slightly and cast a direct fixed gaze of surprise into the camera—this was not Lucille Ball, the actress, mockingly addressing the public, but an attitude of self-estrangement that was part of “Lucy” (as a screen persona) herself. This is how Hegelian “reconciliation” works: not as an immediate synthesis or reconciliation of opposites, but as the redoubling of the gap or antagonism—the two opposed moments are “reconciled” when the gap that separates them is posited as inherent to one of the terms. In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” directly in the figure of Christ as God-man, but only in the tensest moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”). In this moment, the gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God-Father. The properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature that appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.

Mask of Domingo Cavallo, Minister of Economy in Argentina, 1991–1996. Thanks to Lara Correa. Photo Josefina Tommasi.

And this brings us back to comedy: for Hegel, what happens in comedy is that the Universal appears directly. It appears “as such,” in direct contrast to the mere “abstract” universal which is the “mute” universality of the passive link (common feature) between particular moments. In other words, in comedy, universality directly acts. How? Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence. On the contrary, comedy is the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character’s/actor’s singularity. Or to ask it another way, what effectively happens when all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted in a comedy? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. And does the same not hold for Christ? All stable-substantial universal features are undermined, relativized, by his scandalous acts, so that the only remaining universality is the one embodied in Him, in his very singularity. The universals undermined by Christ are “abstract” substantial universals (presented in the guise of the Jewish Law), while the “concrete” universality is the very negativity of undermining abstract universals. 

This direct overlapping of the Universal and the Singular also poses a limit to the standard critique of “reification.” While observing Napoleon on a horse in the streets of Jena after the battle of 1807, Hegel remarked that it was as if he saw there World Spirit riding a horse. The Christological implications of this remark are obvious: what happened in the case of Christ is that God himself, the creator of our entire universe, was walking out there as a common individual. This mystery of incarnation is discernible at different levels, up to parents’ speculative judgment apropos a child that “out there our love is walking,” which stands for the Hegelian reversal of determinate reflection into reflexive determination. The same happens with a king when his subjects see him walking around: “Out there our state is walking.” Marx’s evocation of reflexive determination (in his famous footnote in Chapter 1 of Capital) falls too short: individuals think they treat a person as a king because he is a king in himself, while, effectively, he is a king only because they treat him as one. However, the crucial point is that this “reification” of a social relation in a person cannot be dismissed as a simple “fetishist misperception”; what such a dismissal itself misses is something that, perhaps, could be designated as the “Hegelian performative.” Of course a king is “in himself” a miserable individual, and of course he is a king only insofar as his subjects treat him like one. However, the point is that the “fetishist illusion” which sustains our veneration of the king has in itself a performative dimension—the very unity of our state, that which the king “embodies,” actualizes itself only in the person of a king. Which is why it is not enough to insist on the need to avoid the “fetishist trap” and to distinguish between the contingent person of a king and what he stands for. What the king stands for only comes to be in his person, the same as with a couple’s love which only becomes actual in their offspring (at least within a certain traditional perspective). And it is not difficult to see the extreme proximity of the sublime and the ridiculous in these cases: there is something sublime in stating, “Look out! The World Spirit itself is riding a horse there,” but also something inherently comical.

Comedy is thus the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More closely, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, one confronts the ridicule and the nullity of the unveiled content—in contrast to encountering behind the veil the terrifying Thing too traumatic for our gaze. Which is why the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face as that of the mask. A supreme case of such a comedy occurred in December 2001 in Buenos Aires, when Argentinians took to the streets to protest against the current government, and especially against Domingo Cavallo, the Minister of Economy. When the crowd gathered around Cavallo’s building, threatening to storm it, he escaped wearing a mask of himself (sold in disguise shops so that people could mock him by wearing his mask). It thus seems that at least Cavallo did learn something from the widely spread Lacanian movement in Argentina—the fact that a thing is its own best mask. And is this also not the ultimate definition of the divinity—God also has to wear a mask of himself? Perhaps “God” is the name for this supreme split between the absolute as the noumenal Thing and the absolute as the appearance of itself, for the fact is that the two are the same, that the difference between the two is purely formal. In this precise sense, “God” names the supreme contradiction: God—the absolute irrepresentable Beyond—has to appear as such. What one encounters in tautology is thus pure difference, not the difference between the element and other elements, but the difference of the element from itself. This is why the Marx brothers’ “This man looks as an idiot and acts as an idiot; but this should not deceive you—he is an idiot!” is properly comical: when, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter behind the veil the same thing as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the “pure” difference that separates an element from itself.

According to an anecdote from the May ’68 period, there was a graffito on a Paris wall that read “God is dead. Nietzsche.” Next day, another graffito appeared below it: “Nietzsche is dead. God.” What is wrong with this joke? Why is it so obviously reactionary? It is not only that the reversed statement relies on a moralistic platitude with no inherent truth; its failure is deeper, and it concerns the form of reversal itself. What makes the joke a bad joke is the pure symmetry of the reversal—the underlying claim of the first graffito (“God is dead. Signed by [obviously living] Nietzsche”) is turned around into a statement which implies “Nietzsche is dead, while I am still alive. God.” There is a well-known Yugoslav riddle-joke: “What is the difference between the Pope and a trumpet? The Pope is from Rome, and the trumpet is made from tin. And what is the difference between the Pope from Rome and the trumpet made from tin? The trumpet made from tin can be from Rome, while the Pope from Rome cannot be made from tin.” In a similar way, one should redouble the Paris graffiti joke: “What is the difference between ‘God is dead’ and ‘Nietzsche is dead’? It was Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead,’ and it was God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead.’ And what is the difference between Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ and God who said, ‘Nietzsche is dead’? Nietzsche who said, ‘God is dead’ was not dead, while the God who said ‘Nietzsche is dead’ was himself dead.” Crucial for the proper comical effect is not difference where we expect sameness, but, rather, sameness where we expect difference,[3] which is why, as Alenka Zupancic has pointed out, the materialist (and therefore properly comic) version of the above joke would have been something like: “God is dead. And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…” Is this not a comic version of Christ’s complaint on the cross? Christ will die on the cross not to get rid of his mortal envelope and rejoin the divine; he will die because he is God. No wonder, then, that, in the last years of his intellectual activity, Nietzsche used to sign his texts and letters also as “Christ”: the proper comical supplement to Nietzsche’s “God is dead” would have been to make Nietzsche himself add to it: “And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…”

  1. See The Humor of Kierkegaard. An Anthology, edited and introduced by Thomas C. Oden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  2. I rely here heavily on Alenka Zupancic’s unpublished manuscript on comedy.

  3. This is why the “What is the difference between…” jokes are most efficient when difference is denied, as in: “What is the difference between toy trains and women’s breasts? None: both are meant for children, and with both it is mostly adult men that play.”

Slavoj Žižek, a dialectical-materialist philosopher, is the co-director of the International Center for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest publications are Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (Verso, 2004) and The Puppet and the Dwarf (MIT, 2003).

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