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  • Shoeless Joe:Fantasy and the Humor of Fellow-Feeling
  • Neil Randall (bio)

In his essay on Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, Thomas Carlyle writes of a humor that manifests itself in smile rather than laughter. "Richter is a man of mirth," says Carlyle, whose humor is "capricious . . . quaint . . . [and] heartfelt" (15). The three adjectives represent for Carlyle the essence of what he terms "true humor" because they suggest Richter's enormous respect for humanity. "True humor," he goes on to say, "springs not more from the head than from the heart; it is not contempt, its essence is love; it issues not in laughter, but in still smiles, which lie far deeper" (17). These smiles are not Hobbesian smirks of superiority1 but genuine signs of compassion for, sympathy toward, and empathy with the object of the humor. Carlyle further provides a direct link between humor and both pathos and nobility; the link is the smile of the caring man. For Carlyle, this smile is one of "fellow-feeling":

It has sometimes been made a wonder that things so discordant should go together; that men of humour are often likewise men of sensibility. But the wonder should rather be to see them divided; to find true genial humour dwelling in a mind that was coarse or callous. The essence of humour is sensibility; warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence.

(16) [End Page 173]

The humor of fellow-feeling denies humor that negates or denies life. Black humor, of course, with its laughter at the fallen, is anti-Carlylean,2 but in some senses so is Mikhail Bakhtin's canival humor, not because it is life-denying (it expressly is not) but because its dependence on the "lower body stratum" and indecent language renders it, in Carlyle's terms, "coarse or callous." True humor, for Carlyle, is affirmative without being coarse, a celebration of life without the outrageousness of Bakhtinian festivity. The problem with such humor, of course, is that it is apt to become, well, mushy. Out of context, the phrase "warm, tender fellow-feeling with all forms of existence" gives an image of a flower-child communing with nature on a soft-focus day in 1967, hardly the stuff of an inspiring novel. But the humor of fellow-feeling in fiction, I think, despite its inherent nostalgic dangers, is more complex than this. It demands that we grow to love the characters, and it forces us to examine why we do so. If done well, and this is the hard part, Carlylean humor asks of us a willing suspension of distrust and cynicism.

One of the twentieth century's most renowned practitioners of Carlylean fellow-feeling is J. R. R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings demands that we suspend cynicism, asks us to smile benignly on its hobbits, and insists that we love its characters. If we do so, we are rewarded with beauty and terror, joy and sorrow, and a true sense of the sublime. If we do not, the book is meaningless. Edmund Wilson, among others, found Tolkien's demands impossible, even as W. H. Auden accepted and praised them. But Tolkien knew precisely what he was asking. His famous essay "On Fairy Stories" presents his theories of fantasy, one of them being the insistence on the "consolation of the happy ending." Among the important elements of this consolation is the experience, in the reader, of the fantastic "turn":

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its elements, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the "turn" comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any literary art. . . . In such stories when the "turn" comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart's desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through.


The "piercing glimpse of joy," Tolkien goes on to say, is "a sudden glimpse of...


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