A patient in a large hospital room with many beds complains to the doctor about the constant noise and cries other patients are making, which are driving him crazy. After the doctor replies that nothing can be done if the patients are like that, that one cannot forbid them from expressing their despair since they all know they are dying, the patient goes on: “Why don’t you then put them in a separate room for dying?” The doctor replies calmly and glibly: “But this is a room for those who are dying…” Why does anyone who knows a little bit about Hegel immediately discern a “Hegelian” taste in this morbid joke? It is precisely because of the final twist in which the patient’s subjective position is undermined: he finds himself included into the series from which he wanted to maintain distance.
And, since one is dealing with Hegel here, one is immediately tempted to conceive of this joke as the first term of a triad. Thus, since the basic turn of this joke resides in the inclusion into the series of the apparent exception (the complaining patient is himself dying), its “negation” would be a joke whose final turn would, on the contrary, involve exclusion from the series, i.e., the extraction of the One and its positing as an exception to the series. In a recent Bosnian joke, for example, Fata (the proverbial ordinary Bosnian’s wife) complains to the doctor that Muyo, her husband, makes love to her for hours every evening, so that, even in the darkness of their bedroom, she cannot get enough sleep—again and again, he jumps on her. The good doctor advises her to apply shock therapy: she should keep at her bedside a strong lamp so that, when she gets really tired of sex, she can all of a sudden blind Muyo, and this shock will for sure cool off his excessive passion. That same evening, after hours of sex, Fata does exactly as advised—and recognizes the face of Haso, one of Muyo’s colleagues. Surprised, she asks him, ”But what are you doing here? Where is Muyo, my husband?” The embarrassed Haso answers, “Well, he is there at the door, collecting money from those waiting in line…” And the third term in the Hegelian triad would be here a kind of joke-correlative of the “infinite judgment,” the tautology as supreme contradiction, as in the joke about a man who complains to his doctor that he often hears voices of people who are not present in the room. The doctor inquires, “Really? In order to enable me to discover the meaning of this hallucination, could you describe to me under what precise circumstances you usually hear the voices of people who are not present?” “Well, it mostly happens when I talk on a phone…”
As is often the case, Kierkegaard is here unexpectedly close to Hegel, officially his greatest opponent. Kierkegaard insists on the comical character of Christianity: is there anything more comical than Incarnation, this ridiculous overlapping of the Highest and the Lowest, the coincidence of God, creator of the universe, and a miserable man? And, again, the point is that the gap that separates God from man in Christ is purely parallactic: Christ is not a person with two substances, immortal and mortal. Perhaps, this would also be one way to distinguish between pagan gnosticism and Christianity: the problem with Gnosticism is that it is all too serious in developing its narrative of ascent towards Wisdom, that it misses the humorous side of religious experience—Gnostics are Christians who miss the joke of Christianity. (And, incidentally, this is why Mel Gibson’s Passion is ultimately an anti-Christian film: it totally lacks this comic aspect.)
[Extract. Appeared in Cabinet Magazine, Issue 17, Spring 2005]