Over the course of seven days at the abbey, Jorge of Burgos and William of Baskerville share several debates on the subject of laughter. The significance of these conversations only becomes clear at the end of the novel, when Jorge is revealed as the perpetrator of the murders. All of his actions were intended, in one way or another, to preserve the secrecy of a forbidden book hidden in the abbey’s library: the sole surviving copy of the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise on comedy. In Jorge’s eyes, this book is threatening and dangerous because it elevates comedy to the status of an art form and a subject of serious intellectual inquiry, but to Jorge’s mind, laughter has the power to disrupt the stability of society, religion, and even truth itself.
In contrast to Jorge, William argues for the virtues of laughter. He points out that the Scriptures are silent on the subject of whether Jesus laughed or not—and in such cases “God demands that we apply our reason to many obscure things about which Scripture has left us free to decide.” In other words, just because the Bible doesn’t mention that Jesus laughed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he never did. William’s emphasis on there being room for interpretation in the Scriptures demonstrates that he sees truth as fundamentally unknowable and mysterious: there is much in the world and in God’s word that Christians do not understand. In Jorge’s view, by contrast, all truth is known, and so all laughter is by definition subversive of that truth. While Jorge condemns laughter because it “foments doubt,” William argues that “sometimes it is right to doubt.” Unlike Jorge, William believes that laughter can be a weapon against liars and those who deny the truth of God because it allows us “to undermine the false authority of an absurd proposition that offends reason.” Sometimes the best defense against absurdity is to laugh at it.
William asks Jorge why he has gone to such great lengths—even murdering his fellow monks—to hide Aristotle’s treatise on laughter, since “there are many other books that speak of comedy, many others that praise laughter.” Jorge explains that Aristotle is particularly subversive, since materialist philosophy (i.e. science) has turned the universe into “dull and slimy matter,” when the Book of Genesis has already explained everything there is to know about the origins of the cosmos. The ultimate implication of Aristotle’s philosophy, Jorge argues, is to “overturn the image of God,” putting science in the place of religion. The other threat posed by Aristotle’s Poetics, in Jorge’s view, is that it would turn comedy into an appropriate object of philosophical inquiry. Whereas before laughter was commonly regarded as a “base” entertainment and a “defense for the simple,” this book would elevate laughter to the realm of art, for if “the doors of the world of the learned are opened to [comedy], it becomes the object of philosophy, and of perfidious theology.” And the laughter of the learned, Jorge fears, is much more dangerous than the laughter of the “simple.”
By the end of The Name of the Rose, then, Jorge and William’s theoretical discussions about the merits and appropriateness of laughter in Christendom are revealed as the driving force behind all the catastrophes that have befallen the abbey in the past seven days. Jorge sees laughter as the subversive power that would destroy everything he holds dear—ushering in a new era where “the rhetoric of conviction [is] replaced by the rhetoric of mockery,” and where “every holy and venerable image” is turned upside down. In a sense, Jorge is right: in his zealous campaign against laughter, he accidentally burns down the library and the entire abbey, obliterating not only the dangerous treatise on laughter but also every other book in the library. Jorge’s passionate opposition to laughter was so destructive because he was convinced that he possessed the truth of God’s word, and his fanatical certainty left no room for doubt. For William, however, “the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” Because he made room for doubt, William had the intellectual flexibility to accommodate new ideas. By contrast, Jorge’s zealotry and “insane passion for the truth” left him so resistant to any challenges to his worldview that he preferred to destroy all the books he held dear rather than to allow that single, subversive book to come to light.
The Subversive Power of Laughter ThemeTracker
The Subversive Power of Laughter Quotes in The Name of the Rose
“The spirit is serene only when it contemplates the truth and takes delight in good achieved, and truth and good are not to be laughed at. That is why Christ did not laugh. Laughter foments doubt.”
“But sometimes it is right to doubt.”
“I cannot see any reason. When you are in doubt, you must turn to an authority, to the words of a father or of a doctor; then all reason for doubt ceases.”
The Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. […]And now I say to you that, in the infinite whirl of possible things, God allows you also to imagine a world where the presumed interpreter of the truth is nothing but a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.