CROSSING THE ACHERON

 WITH HUMOROUS BRUSHSTROKES

by Efrosine Manta-Lazarou

As published in In Focus Vol. 11, No. 4, December 2014

In a bazaar in the East a man with a conjuror’s dexterity manages to snatch a clay pitcher without the shopkeeper seeing him. It’s an excellent object because it is useful for storing wine or oil or any other left-over commodity. In the event that he has nothing left over to keep, he will sell it easily to someone better off for a small sum of money. Enough to secure food and drink for a few days or something to wear in the winter.

As the thief makes off we are in time, in a split second, to see the man’s sly expression. There’s a spark of special satisfaction, not so much about the acquisition as the achievement. Is it perhaps the fleeting touch of a sense of victory, which he considers to be the result of personal intelligence, of planning, of ability, as happens in many human or, better, social situations? Or perhaps the gross indifference and malice of a person who gloats over success, being unable to imagine other dimensions beyond the actual object? Let’s give just one example of this failing, this inability to grasp the consequences. The thought does not cross his mind that the shopkeeper’s family will perhaps be deprived by the theft of the income of a week, when indeed they have nothing to spare. Or that the apprentice will be severely punished by his suspicious master. Perhaps even put in prison. On the other hand we are perhaps being unfair to the thief, because his joy is justifiably due to the fact that by selling the pitcher he will secure food after many days of going hungry while trying in vain to find work. All this, however, does not fall within the aims of this narrative.

The point is that the thief was spotted by a certain man whom almost the whole of mankind has heard about. By Lazarus. A man who had died and had risen. Some believe it, others do not. But the tradition, this is a human conception and act, one of these realities which are not doubted and thus what the myth states and what our noting of it implies must be seriously taken into account.

Tradition, then, says that Lazarus, who never smiled during his lifetime, having returned from Hades and evidently because of everything he had grasped in relation to the human and the divine, on seeing the theft of the pitcher smiled and said with bitter, tender, condescending humour, “Earth steals other earth.” Is he being sarcastic, mocking the thief? He is commenting on a situation, looking deeply at a reality which we usually choose to forget. Situations are the target of genuine humour and not the crushing humiliation of the specific person. Even when we likewise laugh at something unexpected and funny, for example when someone falls over while entering a room with great dignity for an official event in accordance with all the rules of the specific social occasion, our laughter is directed at the revealing collapse of a structure which was considered as something natural and real to the point of being irreversible, and not, of course, in mockery of the specific person.

Lazarus is an attractive figure and presence, who carries the burden of a contemplative silence about a world which is ineffable, inexpressible, incomprehensible for anyone who knows only one side of the mountain. That is, for everyone. Perhaps, if time existed, not clock time but as a concept, entity, then men would come and go on a two-way journey. We would see, that is, people coming from the other side of the mountain. But time does not exist. Yet everyone wants at some moment to learn what the other side hides. Even those who are caught up by a religion and by everything it dogmatically preaches as consolation, at some moment confess simply, as people usually say, “Who knows? No one has ever come back from Hades to tell us what is there.” However, always according to the tradition, the comment of Lazarus, an intelligent association, abolishes with humour the agony and fear over the crevasse which separates the two banks, here-there, and opens up a depth in the view of reality. Simply, literally, a wisdom settling within us to which we easily open up ourselves. Because humour accompanies it in a charming, gentle and pleasant way. The dark depth is lit for a moment, doing away with walls and rationalism, the picture is peeled thanks to a more inner truth but also when we remain in the dark once more, then the contemplative journey to the depths we guessed at begins.

Let us now examine another person whose path crosses with Lazarus. He is not coming from Hades but on the contrary is going there and, indeed, by his own, conscious, studied decision. The suicide. We have specifically chosen for him to be Karyotakis. Because the case of the poet is quite well-known as is his suicide. Shortly before he strides over the bank which according to logical convention separates the living and the dead, he leaves a letter. We isolate from this the post-script, the point where he makes a joke, black humour as someone would immediately add. If indeed black humour exists and we are not confusing the black colour of the situation in which the humour manifests itself and is directed like a flash of light.

We read then “ […] P.S. And to change tone, I advise all those who know how to swim never to try to commit suicide in the sea. All night tonight, for ten hours, I was thrashing the waves. I swallowed a lot of water but every so often, without understanding how, my mouth went up to the surface. Definitely, when I have the opportunity, I will write down the impressions of someone drowning.”

No comment on the many philological matters which could be discussed. We do not want to be side-tracked from our subject and we always proceed to the observation and examination of the humour.

We imagine the poet as he writes. He is already sharing with his family and also with some less close to him, the levity which his passage requires, – or perhaps the flight to heaven – and he himself creates it with sarcasm, with humour. Many perhaps will ask how he could make a joke just before killing himself. And yet, if he did not make a joke he might in the end have crumpled up the letter, thrown it away and gone peacefully to sleep in his room. He might have sat down to write another text laden with irony and emotion, a study, or sought company. Precisely in this extreme situation almost as icy as death, to which he had already arrived some time before, and when poetry, another form of exploration and deep probing into reality had closed for him, humour is the last means of expression. He chooses, before the shot which will put an end to his life, with a caustic smile, with a burst of tragic greatness of the human intellect, to take by storm the other side which is called uncertainty. As if he has already strode opposite, putting behind him on the side of the living the comments, the smile and the spark of an intellect, uniting for one moment two worlds which common logic separates, while this same reason swallows with ease many other questions which would be disturbing in its regulatory framework.

Humour is a stylish display of human intelligence, intelligence of the heart, the aroma of the intellect, emerging sometimes whistling the end of a game, sometimes announcing new rules, enriching the game with plenty of imagination. If time-space is a bubble, humour renews it and expands it.

If the recipients of the suicide’s letter, mainly his family, have the analogous readiness to accept this unexpected gift even in the midst of their unbearable pain, reading over and over again his last note, at some moment you will hear them respond to his playful invitation with a tender smile “The rascal!”

Humour is a rascal and fortunately its whistle, its song, enters through some incredible cracks to soften the rigidity and the aridity of all kinds of systems, hard and fast rules and principles, so that they do not end up insufferable tyrants. It removes the hackneyed and the expected with an invigorating movement of surprise. It opens new windows for looking at things, it lightens the weight, when the question, the doubt, the absence become overwhelming, it bridges the gaps, shatters without bloodshed absolute certainty and renews the hope in understanding. It is grace, joy, in part a gift for the pain of knowledge.

Translated by Christine Georghiades

The Greek text was published in the magazine Farfoulas, issue no.16 (Spring – Summer 2013)

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