This morning I tried to persuade a class to laugh at Homer's Odyssey and tomorrow I'll try to persuade another class to laugh at Henry James, but it ain't easy. One unfortunate effect of their prior education is a tendency to see classic texts as forbidding fortresses of High Seriousness embracing obscure meanings and locking out any light, joy, or laughter.
But seriously, folks: a big hairy one-eyed man-eating giant gets his eye poked out with a sharp stick and then flails about screaming "Nobody is killing me!"--and then Our Illustrious Hero describes how he escaped from the Cyclops by grabbing the belly of a ram and hugging it tight as it ambled out the door--and I'm not supposed to laugh?
And little Randolph Miller goes tearing about in an orderly European garden poking his long walking-stick into the trains of elegant ladies' dresses and then declares that his father is in a "better place" (meaning not heaven but Schenectady)--and I'm supposed to be so awed by the stately Jamesian prose that I'm expected to stifle my chuckles?
Come on, people--lighten up! Sure, Homer and Henry suffused their tales with serious questions about identity, fate, and the sources of suffering, but their writing gains strength by touching on the whole range of human experience and emotion. If we stand so in awe of these authors that we can't comprehend their lighter side, we're missing half of the meaning--and more than half of the fun.
Which makes me wonder: If Homer and Henry ever bump elbows in the authorial afterlife, how can either one get a word in edgewise?