Don Quixote, Charlie Hebdo, and the Politics of Laughter

From Satire to Schadenfreude

The year 2015 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first comical novel in the Western world, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha.  The first part of the irreverent work, published in Madrid in 1605, introduced the world to the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and its definitive sequel of 1615 furthered their misbegotten quest to reactivate knight errantry while doubling down on the pranks and misfortunes they suffered at the hands of fellow Spaniards eager for a laugh.  It was doubtless the humorous quality of these pranks and misfortunes that was partly responsible for both volumes’ distinction as early modern bestsellers and, at the same, that which induced Vladimir Nabokov centuries later to characterize Don Quixote as a story of “hideous cruelty.”  These opposing reactions underscore a rift that has often divided Cervantes scholars between two major approaches to the novel: on the one hand, the ‘hard’ view that the work should be interpreted in line with its primary historical purpose of lighthearted entertainment and laughter; and, on the other, the ‘soft’ or Romantic school of thought, which held that Don Quixote offers a host of more serious insights to the reader, from the tragic to the political, cultural, and even ethical.

While this critical division has often been overblown, it alerts us to the tendency of comedic genres such as parody, the burlesque, and satire to produce diametrically opposed reactions among its readers.  We were reminded of this fact when it was announced earlier this week that French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo will receive this year’s coveted PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage award.  Since then, a number of writers have come out strongly in favor of the award recipient—most notably Salman Rushdie, an avowed fan of Cervantes’s novel—while others have expressed their dismay at the literary and human rights organization’s decision, some of whom have promised to withdraw from next week’s award ceremony at the PEN American Center gala in protest.  The controversy has reopened many of the debates that followed in the wake of the tragic murder of twelve people at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters earlier this year, including the issues of terrorism, security, immigration, the limits of free speech, and the fine line between ‘civility’ and censorship that is often challenged by satire.

Less explored, however, have been the underlying motivations of the laughter that is—or is not—produced by this satire, especially the variety in which Charlie Hebdo specializes.  This is where Cervantes’s four-hundred-year old work can lend us a hand.  Some of the most iconic and largely satirical episodes of Part Two of Don Quixote take place in the company of the duke and duchess, characters of the high nobility who eagerly exploit the novel’s protagonists in a series of elaborate pranks designed to provide comic relief and laughter for their courtly entourage.  One such prank involves appointing Sancho Panza as ‘governor’ of a small town in order to relish in the poor, uneducated peasant’s failures in a position of power.

Much to the surprise of the duke and duchess, however, Sancho largely prevails in the government by displaying prudence, discretion, and fairness, simultaneously denying his puppeteers the chance for schadenfreude while subtly critiquing the hypocrisy, cruelty, and ineptitude of the aristocratic ruling class of seventeenth-century Spain, which was disposed to exploit anyone for a good laugh—especially the powerless.  The humorous pleasure sought by the duke and duchess exemplifies what has become known as the superiority theory of laughter, the predominant philosophical paradigm from Ancient Greece until the Enlightenment.  As Thomas Hobbes described it, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others.”

But this is not the only kind of laughter represented in Don Quixote.  Shortly after renouncing his governorship, Sancho happens upon Ricote, a morisco character from his hometown who has returned to Spain in search of the family patrimony he was forced to leave behind when he was exiled from the country due to his race and religion.  The historical subtext of their encounter could not be more poignant, since all of the moriscos, or those Spaniards of Islamic heritage who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, were systematically expelled from the Iberian Peninsula from 1609-1614 by decree of King Philip III.  The political tension of the expulsion suffuses the narrative of this episode.  And yet Cervantes, while avoiding any overt criticism of royal policy that would have run afoul of Inquisitional censors, portrays Sancho and Ricote’s reunion as one between old friends, marked by wistful nostalgia and longing for a time before the expulsion had created a morisco diaspora and sundered entire communities.  After sharing food, wine, and conversation with Ricote, Sancho is overtaken by a fit of good-natured laughter that, the text reports, lasts over an hour.

These examples of laughter in the novel, just two of many, invite us to consider not only the power of laughter, but the laughter of those with power.  For in the case of Sancho’s government, the duke and duchess are denied the chance for greater mirth by Cervantes’s choice that Sancho take pride in his humble roots—or to quote Hobbes, that he embrace his ‘infirmities’—and prevail in his government.  With the Muslim Ricote, a character who inhabits an even lower stratum than Sancho of Spanish society’s deeply hierarchical structure, laughter becomes a medium of exchange, compassion, and solidarity.  To laugh with Ricote is a refusal to demonize the other.  This is one of the most potent and subtly subversive moments of Cervantine satire.

A closer examination of the motivations behind our laughter can also reveal the ways in which it is both coopted by and constitutive of power.  For example, why exactly do we find a comic-strip representation of Muhammad comical?  Is it because a clever witticism, play on words, or cartoonish posture makes it inherently funny?  Or do we simply laugh out of the knowledge that the joke offends another?  Out of the comfort that our Western sensibilities spare us the burden of indignation, pain, distress—and, yes, outrage—that is produced for a great many Muslims by such jokes?  If we do derive malicious pleasure from these varying reactions of the Islamic community, then the provocation on which Charlie Hebdo prides itself would seem to be less satire than schadenfreude.

Of course, if this is so, then it is not fortuitous that the community that takes offense is the same one to have suffered a long history of colonial violence, religious persecution, and racial discrimination.  Or that its members have been frequently demonized by popular, anti-immigrant movements of the sort that have gripped various parts of Europe, most recently in Germany—where, incidentally, Cervantes’s character of Ricote flees upon his expulsion because of that country’s embracing of “freedom of conscience.”  In other words, the racial and socioeconomic privilege of the dominant majority is often coterminous with the privilege of laughing, as is demonstrated by the duke and duchess of Don Quixote.  The pre-modern superiority theory of laughter offers purchase for understanding the contemporary moment as well.

While the full repercussions of recent events in France remain to be seen, appeals to bolster national security laws, tighten European immigration controls, and curtail civil liberties have already been lodged, while the threat of extended military action in the Middle East looms as another potential response to the Charlie Hebdo attack.  Meanwhile, the political forces with an interest in exaggerating the ‘Islamization’ of Europe have been further emboldened—those same forces, perhaps, to which the Spain of Cervantes’s time succumbed upon forcefully expelling the last remaining moriscos from its shores.  At the same time, the surging popularity of Charlie Hebdo—and its upcoming PEN award—has become a symbolic touchstone and rallying cry for free speech advocates, all while stoking fears of more attacks.

By remarking on these complex issues, in no way do I mean to suggest that we abandon our commitment to the principle of free speech, even when that speech harbors the potential to offend the most deeply held beliefs of an entire sector of the population.  This has long been a side effect, and often the valiant primary goal, of satire.  Indeed, Cervantes was intimately familiar with the specter of censorship and the delicate art of a satirical prose that managed to evade Inquisitional suppression.  But the most noble objective of satire, one with which his Don Quixote would likely agree, is to vindicate the powerless in the face of power, to expose the hypocrisy of the ruling elite as an impetus to political change.  We may glimpse one such hypocrisy when satire is deployed not as a means of political critique but as a vehicle for schadenfreude and, therefore, a tool of imperial soft power conveniently masquerading under the unimpeachable banner of free speech.

One of Don Quixote’s greatest qualities, four hundred years on, is its unique capacity to produce for the reader not only laughter but sadness, parody as well as pathos, sympathy alongside schadenfreude.  These complexities—along with the work’s resistance to fitting into a single critical paradigm—remind us of the fraught enterprise of recovering authorial intention while underscoring the need to examine our own reactions to satire, whether in the form of a seventeenth-century novel or a twenty-first century comic strip.  For Charlie Hebdo, too, is a complex text and therefore merits similar scrutiny.  To recognize this should not discount the general importance of the anticlerical and other valuable work it performs, but it does call upon us to resist the unquestioned canonization of the magazine as a whole, to simultaneously reduce and elevate it to an all-or-nothing standard-bearer for secular freedoms.  Indeed, the very foundational spirit of satire suggests that nothing should be immune from critique, even when the object of that critique is satire itself.

We must therefore contest the reflexive accusation—implicit or explicit—that a critical examination of our own investment in satirical humor, the deeper motives behind it, and its potential complicity with broader political and economic interests amounts to a betrayal of democratic principles or a conciliatory cowering to the threat of violence.  Such calculated yet indiscriminate violence of the sort which assailed France is never justified, and yet as a free-thinking society we would be remiss to buy into the suggestion that a willingness to interrogate the motives of this violence somehow condones it.  Though resolving the differences between Islam and the West may seem a quixotic undertaking, we would do well to reflect upon how laughter can be exploited as a means of exacerbating these differences yet as an opportunity for bridging them as well.

Paul Michael Johnson, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Modern Languages (Spanish) at DePauw University. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.