Normal Rockwell

The butterfly flits on wings of gold,
The June bug wings of flame,
The bed bug has no wings at all,
But gets there just the same.
                         American folk song

Nonsense literature has a long and storied history—I’m looking at you, Jabberwock—and then there’s Edward Lear who, had he not been a Brit, could have been a great American poet laureate. On this side of the pond, our tradition of nonsense and farce has been robust, and I mention this only because I think it is past time to say when.

There is a difference between living in a world of bedrock normal, and deliberately skewing some aspect of it for the sake of the humor, on the one hand, and watching all the little pieces of the world float off in different directions, on the other. The former is humor; the latter is a postmodern and relativistic tragedy.

A talented humorist takes the normal as his gravity, and then does tricks with it, the way a disciplined trapeze artist does. But under the governance of our postmodern relativism, it is as though we are all now living in an enormous space station, and we are all floating around in the great hall, trying to make one another laugh by watching the pens float out of our pockets. It got old after about fifteen minutes.

Nonsense only makes sense if sense makes sense.

The essence of humor is incongruity, and you cannot really have incongruity without congruity. And you cannot have congruity unless things go together in a particular way. And when I say something like “go together in a particular way,” I do not mean “go together in any old way.” And so it is that you cannot have congruity without a robust doctrine of creation and intelligent design. No real humor without a base line.

If the meaning of anything is the meaning assigned to it by whoever is present and arbitrarily willing to assign meanings, then this is just another way of saying that everything is actually meaningless. And if everything is meaningless, then meaninglessness is also . . . meaningless. At some point, as mentioned earlier, the trick gets old. You can only use the rallying cry of Épater la bourgeoisie for so long. If the bourgeoisie still have functional nerve endings, if Mrs. Grundy still has her shocked face available, then you can do your decadent artiste thing.

But our sense of the absurd has been effectively cauterized. Over the last several centuries, and I actually blame Darwin for this, we have been told so many absurd things that we don’t know when to laugh (or cry) anymore. And now that the correspondence view of truth appears to be almost entirely abandoned, at least by the important media gatekeepers and cool kids, the absurdities are picking up speed.

A white woman identifies as a black woman. A white man identifies as a white woman. A young male track athlete identifies as someone who can beat girls in a race if only he is allowed to run against them. A paint splatterer identifies as an important artist. A scatterer of notes by the fistful identifies as a musician. A brilliant evolutionary biologist identifies as a distant cousin of the tree frog.

There is no baseline normal anymore, and this is why everyone appears to have lost their sense of humor. The politically correct screechers, the perpetually outraged on campus, are merely the shock troops for a future in which a sense of humor will be totally outlawed.

It will be outlawed because all humor, if it is genuine humor, presupposes a norm. And to presuppose a norm is almost as bad as coming down off Mount Sinai with a list of prohibitions that God told Moses to give to all the department heads of all the English programs.

Belief in gravity is now thought to be legalistic. It is, our thought leaders maintain, oppressively dictatorial.

The late Malcolm Muggeridge once commented that these are difficult days for a satirist to lampoon anything. If you make up something ludicrous, if you draw your caricature and make it a particularly ripe one, you will open the pages of your newspaper the following day and discover that someone is out there performing the equivalent of your little reductio with quite a serious face on, solemnly unaware of your quite hateful suggestions about any possible incongruities.

The satirist who doubles down is saying, in effect, that the presupposed norm is real. It is transcendentally grounded. It is fixed and cannot be moved. It was written in the spangled stars above us, before any of us were born, and the inscription read, “Thou shalt not allow trannies into the girls’ restrooms.”

This is because the satirist is centered. He has a sense of the absurd. But he can only have a sense of the absurd if he knows and loves what plain old surdity is. You know, the normal. A red-checked tablecloth. An apple pie cooling on the window sill. A Winchester over the fireplace. Mom and dad holding hands to say grace with the kids. Norman Rockwell teaching a Sunday School class.

In the old days, back when the satirist and the satirized both shared a conviction that there was such a thing as normal, the duty of the satirist was to identify the ways in which the conventional mind was taking that normal for granted, and thereby misunderstanding it. Which sanctifies which? The altar the gold, or the gold the altar?

But in these, our troubled times, when the satirist and the satirized do not share any kind of conviction about what constitutes normal, the satirist has a steeper hill to climb. Not only is it steeper, it is also more perilous, because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

In addition to that, he also has to do his work on two fronts. He has to handle all the epistemological orangutans, on the one hand, whose errors require bludgeoning, and all the sweet Christian people on the other, who think that Norman Rockwell is still teaching his Sunday School class, and who object to the sound effects that are coming from the room where the bludgeoning is occurring.

This is why I stick my head out occasionally to remind them that the name is actually Normal Rockwell.