Pompous people lend themselves so readily to ridicule. Unconsciously, of course. By their very nature they would not stoop to the indignity of common humor since it punctures the mirage of superior respectability they strive to maintain. That is precisely what makes it so easy (and so much fun) to lampoon such persons – albeit usually without their knowledge since they generally are the ones who wield power. Whether it is the official in high office, the wealthy heir, or the elderly matron, such people disapprove of anything or anyone that upsets their self-imposed definition of what is right and proper. Such definitions tend to be myopic at best, as well as inflexible, brittle, and hilariously easy to dispel. Doing so brings amusement and some measure of relief to the oppressed even though it likely will not result in appreciable change, or perhaps even notice by the butt of the joke.
Which explains why the operas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are still appealing. The best of their works feature masterful caricatures of England’s increasingly ossified Victorian society of the late 19th century. Perhaps the best of the best is The Mikado, a farce set in Imperial Japan, but featuring decidedly English characters and situations. This is apparent from the opening scene when a chorus of Japanese gentlemen strut haughtily about the stage singing of their lofty status. We soon learn that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu, has a dilemma: the Mikado, Japan’s emperor, has decreed that since there has been no execution of a criminal in Titipu for quite some time, an execution must take place within a month. It just so happens that Ko-Ko is himself a condemned criminal on reprieve from execution and is next in line for the chopping block. He is “consoled” by two noblemen, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush. Pooh-Bah explains that his family pride calls on him to take Ko-Ko’s place, but his desire for self-preservation prevents him from doing so. Pish-Tush takes a different approach with this empathetic offering:
I heard one day a gentleman say
That criminals who are cut in two
Can hardly feel the fatal steel,
And so are slain, are slain without much pain.
If this is true, it’s jolly for you,
Your courage screw to bid us adieu.
Ko-Ko is not amused with either man’s offering, which leads Pish-Tush to confess the truth:
And go and show
Both friend and foe how much you dare.
I’m quite aware it’s your affair.
Yet I declare I’d take your share,
But I don’t much care.
That is not unlike the lamentable comfort of Job’s friend Eliphaz:
Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. (Job 4:7-8 NASB)
One wonders whether Lewis Carroll required chemical substances to help him create the absurd worlds of his literature. Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and audiences of the screen and stage adaptations thereof often conclude that the author – whose real name was Charles Dodgson – must have been on opium or some other sort of mind-altering substance fashionable in Victorian England. If we are to believe the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and other authoritative sources, there is no truth in such allegations. How, then, could a rational man come up with such outrageous fiction, creating characters and situations that defy logic and even sanity? Most likely Carroll would have explained in the same way C.S. Lewis explained how he could create the diabolical correspondence of the demon Screwtape a generation later:
Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology. They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.” (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
What Professor Lewis tells us is that all humans have the capacity to imagine evil, and to act upon it once it is imagined. Evil is abnormal; the opposite of good and right and true. If our hearts are inclined toward evil, they are also inclined toward everything else that is contrary to good and right and true – things which are unsuitable, wrong, and illogical. That is why Carroll can depict an absurd criminal trial with such success. The King and Queen of Hearts sit as judges to determine the guilt or innocence of the Knave, who stands accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts. As judge, the King has trouble getting beyond his instructions to the jury to consider the verdict before any evidence has been given. As witnesses, the Mad Hatter and the Knave say nothing of substance, and throughout the trial no one seems to care that the stolen tarts are there in the courtroom, presumably having been returned by the thief. The trial ends with a mockery of due process of law as the Queen says, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”, and then pronounces summary judgment on Alice: “Off with her head!”
The sad thing about this trial is that it is not far removed from reality. For much, perhaps most, of history unjust judges have made people’s lives miserable and shorter than they should be. This is true even for judges among the people of God, which is why in promising to restore His nation of Israel, YHVH delivers this glowing promise:
“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.” Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:26-27 NASB)