As Christmas comes, exams and final papers come in at AmherstCollege, while the students pack and head for home. I’ll be packing two thick bundles of papers and exams in the car, along with clothes and books, as I drive down to rejoin my wife in the Banana Republic of Washington, D.C. I’ve often absorbed myself in those hours on the road in listening to recordings of the old Jack Benny shows I grew up with in the 1940s. And part of the appeal is that those programs give us a virtual anthropological record of how thoroughly the American people at the time had absorbed the premises of natural law.
For the jokes often play on the shadings of meaning and logic contained in the language, and the laugh was the sure sign that the logic was understood. If people didn’t “get it,” there was no laugh. And what people seemed to “get” – and get instantly – offers an interesting reflection of our people at the time. In one notable incident it was shown that Jack, with a bow and arrow, was a lethal combination. He keeps missing the target completely. Phil Harris, the bandleader, dares Jack: He offers a bet of 10 cents that Jack can’t hit an apple off the head of Don Wilson, the announcer. Wilson recoils. He wants no part of this. To which Benny says, “What’s your complaint? It’s our money.”
The laugh was instantaneous. People evidently grasped that life was too precious to be put at hazard in a sporting contest, and for a stake that made the loss of life into something trivial. We fast-forward as they say, and we find Mel Brooks, in The History of the World Part I, doing a burlesque of the King of France before the revolution, out skeet-shooting. The king says, “pull,” and instead of the lever being used to cast in the air a clay disc, the servitors pull the lever and cast up. . .a peasant.
Mel Brooks is not a subtle man. He had to presume that almost everyone in a mass audience would “get” that joke, the same joke involved in the sketch with Jack Benny many years earlier. We could translate the scene into another one of our day: A young man tells his girlfriend that we have this new entertainment: “I spill my seed into you – and not to worry. If anything happens, we can just throw it away.”
Christmas: A story to cheer us on the way home.
Jack Benny and Mel Brooks had revealed, in comedy, the template of the moral reasoning we would need in dealing with that snapshot from the “culture” in our own, more recent days. The sensibility reflected in the scene is one that has become more widespread in our own time, because the laws began to treat, as a matter of a serene indifference, what had been regarded as portentous, as recently as the 1940s and 1950s.
In the last week of my course on “Political Obligations” at Amherst we were reaching the matter of abortion as the culminating problem. One student asked about the Petri dish with in vitro fertilization and began backing into those little details that have been so troubling all along. He wondered about that fluid in the dish and whether some of it, or its issue, could be thrown away. I drew upon an old line and asked: What if someone wanted to take that fluid and put it all on his salad? He tells us that he’s tried it, he likes it – and it goes especially well with arugula. Would you object? And on what grounds?
The reaction, I confess, surprised me. This class of fifty students had struck me as remarkably slow on the uptake. I was mildly astonished then by the scale of the laughter that filled the room. The laugh was the sign, again, that something had been understood. But it would be another matter to put into words what the listeners had grasped. To invoke an old line, “that wasn’t what it was made for”: That was not the purpose for which this remarkable fluid had been brought into being.
What came back was a scene at St. LouisUniversity in the early 1990s with Elizabeth Anscombe, the venerable English philosopher (and serious Catholic). She imagined that remarkable “fluid” in her cupped hand, and with her other hand she made as though to stir. Somehow, she said, this fluid turned into a human being with all of its powers. How did it do that? She looked up and said, “It’s a miracle.”
Spinoza once wondered why people took the presence of miracles – the striking departure from the laws of nature – as the sign of God’s presence, rather than finding the hand of God in those remarkable laws by which nature has been ordered. Isaiah prophesied that God will give us this sign: “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son.” And yet, people may still regard it as a story that strains credulity. But why should that particular miracle be much of a stretch for the God who had wrought the miracle of life itself? The real point of awe is that, with that birth, God entered the world, to share a human nature, and from that point, a new story unfolds. It’s still the story that can cheer us on the road as we pack and head for home.