By Tom Ribitzky
What I enjoy most about teaching Dostoevsky is seeing how many students catch on to his humor. Most of them are horrified; some even confess in class that he gives them nightmares. But there are always a few who see the hilarious absurdity of many of his situations.
In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, the Grand Inquisitor chapter can be read as an extended meditation on theology, but it’s also a lesson in throwing all kinds of shade. The Grand Inquisitor is seething with anger as he berates a silent man who may or may not be Jesus in his Second Coming. Even if this man was Jesus, the Inquisition and the orders of the Church would have to get rid of him, otherwise there would be nothing left for the Church to do. In the Russian literary equivalent of a mic drop, Jesus keeps quiet, but kisses the irate Inquisitor on the lips.
It’s harder for my students to find Crime and Punishment particularly funny (it is, after all, a novel that graphically depicts an axe murder). But then I ask them what they make of all the laughter. Even in the moments of highest tension, in the cat-and-mouse game that the murderer Raskolnikov plays with the examining magistrate Porfiry Petrovich, the two rarely have an interaction without laughing, albeit under nerve-wracking circumstances. More alarming than the characters’ laughter, though, is the dream Raskolnikov has, in which he returns to the site of the crime and repeatedly swings the axe on Alëna Ivanovna’s head, except this time she refuses to die. Instead, she laughs. Even after her death, her laughter is the only weapon that’s stronger than Raskolnikov’s axe. It ends up effectively castrating him, undermining his predatory power, and sending him into a mental spiral that eventually leads to his confession.
The use of laughter as a threat to violent, tyrannical men (Raskolnikov fashions himself a kind of Napoleon) may seem overstated—something that works in a novel, but not so much in real life. But in the same week that the House voted to axe the Affordable Care Act, effectively signing the death warrants of people depending on it and making the vulnerable among us even more so, we’ve already seen Desiree Fairooz convicted for laughing at a Republican Senator’s reference to Jeff Sessions’ supposedly equal and fair treatment of “all Americans.”
If political humor is the barometer of a healthy democracy, ours is now being tested in ways that are borrowed from dictatorships. A day after the jury found Fairooz guilty, the FCC announced an investigation into Stephen Colbert’s comic evisceration of Trump. In Colbert’s own defense, he said, “I have jokes; [Trump] has the launch codes. So, it’s a fair fight.” Whether the lunatic in question is wielding an axe or the nuclear codes, laughter is clearly a potent weapon.
Is it appropriate to bring up political humor in the classroom? That’s a decision that only the person in front of the classroom can make, but it’s a decision I fear administrators will, sooner or later, encroach upon. I don’t propose any answer for all situations, as it must take into account every individual teacher’s personal comfort and safety. What I can say is that I use my classes to ridicule Trump every chance I get. I teach texts from the female Christian mystics of the Middle Ages specifically to see what we can learn from women’s resistance movements across the centuries. I teach Lysistrata side-by-side with Pussy Riot music videos lambasting Trump. I can’t even read Macbeth’s lines out loud anymore without interjecting a Trumpism at the end of them. “Bring me no reports,” Macbeth says to his political advisers in Act 5, Scene 3, and I supply the addendum, “because I’m, like, smart—I don’t need intelligence briefings. They’re for losers. Sad!”
Is this admittedly obnoxious behavior on my part professional? Absolutely. As I understand it, my profession cultivates a critical faculty through a set of texts that have historically shaped and challenged our cultural and political institutions—the same ones that are now being dismantled by this administration. Unlike the humor from the Right, which is frequently predicated on bigotry and reactionary hatred, the humor and satire in my classes take aim precisely at this hateful ideology. Since this kind of humor is a tool of critique, and critique is precisely what I’m teaching, then there’s no reason for me to shy away from it. To this extent, I’m as “professional” as the profession itself demands.
Does it annoy some students? Maybe. Does it even alienate any of them who happen to agree with Trump? Perhaps. But if they espouse the current administration’s bigotry, then yes, they should feel uncomfortable in my class. They should be exposed to an excoriating critique of the fascist ideology that undergirds this administration, because its sweeping policies of cruelty are much more dire than having to listen to me make bad jokes once or twice a week. Or as a source I quoted in my first post put it, “It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to truth.”
A recent McSweeney’s post pointed out that the Trump era feels like it’s written by Dostoevsky. The absurd humor is certainly there, but so too is the intense pain and suffering of the disenfranchised in his works. Maybe Trump’s next memoir should steal one of his titles, like “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Or, better yet: The Idiot.
Tom Ribitzky is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.