Saturday, October 12, 2013

Black Comedy in the Scriptures?


I was just looking through a book called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby and I went to the chapter called “Moral Argument.”  He described different ways that a writer’s moral vision is conveyed in a story.  One of the methods is black comedy.

I was surprised when I read the following:

Black comedy is the comedy of the logic—or more exactly, the illogic—of a system.  This advanced and difficult form of storytelling is designed to show that destruction is the result not so much of individual choice (like tragedy) but of individuals caught in a system that is innately destructive.  The key feature of this moral argument is that you withhold the self-revelation from the hero to give it more strongly to the audience.  This is how the black comedy moral argument works:
·      Many characters exist in an organization.  Someone explains the rules and logic by which the system operates in great detail.
·      Many of these characters, including the hero, go after a negative goal that involves killing someone or destroying something.
·      Each believes strongly in the goal and thinks what he is doing makes complete sense.  In fact, it is totally illogical.
·      The opponents, also within the system, compete for the same goal and also give detailed but insane justifications.
·      One sane person, usually the ally, continually points out that none of this makes any sense and action will lead to disaster.  He functions as a chorus, but no one listens to him.
·      All the characters, including the nominal hero, use extreme, sometimes even murderous, methods to reach the goal.
·      The actions of the characters lead to death and destruction for almost all.
·      The battle is intense and destructive, with everyone still thinking he is right.  The consequences are death and madness.
·      No one, including the hero, has a self-revelation.  But it is so obvious that the hero should have had a self-revelation that the audience has it instead.
·      The remaining characters are horribly maimed by the struggle but immediately resume their efforts to reach the goal.
·      Slightly more positive black comedies end with the sane person watching in horror and either leaving the system or trying to change it.

This tricky form is easy to screw up.  For the moral argument in black comedy to work, you must first make sure your hero is likable. Otherwise the comedy becomes an abstraction, an intellectual essay, as your audience backs away from the characters and feels morally superior to them.  You want the audience to get sucked in so that they suddenly discover that they are these characters in some fundamental way and not above them.
Besides a likable hero, the best way to pull the audience emotionally into a black comedy is to have your hero speak passionately about the logic of his goal.  Writers who want to add some hope to the bleakness of the form give the lone sane person an alternative to the madness, worked out in detail. (pp135-136)

When I was reading those bullet points above, I said to myself, “Oh my gosh!  This is like the Book of Mormon (the one inside the Book of Mormon) and end of the Book of Ether!” 

Truby’s description of black comedy
The Book of Mormon at the end of the Book of Mormon
The end of the Book of Ether
Many characters exist in an organization.  Someone explains the rules and logic by which the system operates in great detail.
By this time, readers have a lot of knowledge about Nephite, Lamanite, and Gadianton robbers.
Readers have also learned about the characteristics of legitimate “holy war.”
We learn some about Jaredite kingship and lots about the evils of Gadianton robbers.
Many of these characters, including the hero, go after a negative goal that involves killing someone or destroying something.
The Nephite civilization plays the part of the hero (and it has been heroic for most of its history until this time).
Their negative goal is to sweep off the Lamanites.
The Lamanites want to destroy the Nephites.
The Gadiantons want power and gain.
Coriantumr takes the part of the hero (though we debate whether he deserves the label).
His negative goal is to prove he can defend his throne and protect his people without repenting.
He is opposed by a succession of warlords (Shared, Gilead, Lib, Shiz).
Each believes strongly in the goal and thinks what he is doing makes complete sense.  In fact, it is totally illogical.
The Nephites believe they have to avenge the blood of their brethren and make oaths that they will do so.
This is totally illogical because their oaths force them to make revenge the main focus of their lives, driving out all higher considerations.
Coriantumr thinks it makes perfect sense to defend his throne and protect his people, even though Ether knows they are no longer worthy of defense because of wickedness.
The opponents, also within the system, compete for the same goal and also give detailed but insane justifications.
The Lamanites justify destroying the Nephites on the grounds they must reclaim their right to rule.
The Gadiantons also want to reclaim their right to rule.
Gilead, Lib, and Shiz want to take Coriantumr’s throne and kill Coriantumr to prove Ether’s prophecy is wrong, avenge relatives’ death, etc.
One sane person, usually the ally, continually points out that none of this makes any sense and action will lead to disaster.  He functions as a chorus, but no one listens to him.
Mormon and Moroni both play the part of the ally of the Nephites, trying to point out the Nephites must repent or be destroyed. 
The church dwindles.
Mormon’s mouth is shut when he tries to preach as a teen.  He and his son are generals in the Nephite army, but near the end, they can no longer enforce their commands.
Ether plays the part of the ally to Coriantumr and the Jaredites.
He calls Coriantumr and his family to repentance, but they don’t listen and try to kill him.
All the characters, including the nominal hero, use extreme, sometimes even murderous, methods to reach the goal.
Constant war as most delight in bloodshed.
Nephites rape and cannabalize Lamanite women.
Lamanites feed their Nephite prisoners human flesh of their family members and sacrifice prisoners to idol gods.

Sieges and killing drunken armies.
Secret combinations.
People steal anything not nailed down.
Shiz slays women and children and burns cities, forcing civilians to flock together in armies.
The actions of the characters lead to death and destruction for almost all.
All people not killed are gathered for final battle at Cumorah
War is so swift and speedy that no one could stay to bury the dead.
Even women and children are armed.
The battle is intense and destructive, with everyone still thinking he is right.  The consequences are death and madness.
Almost all Nephites die at Cumorah, except those that desert to the Lamanites.
 2 million Jaredites die in years of back-and-forth fighting.
No one, including the hero, has a self-revelation.  But it is so obvious that the hero should have had a self-revelation that the audience has it instead.
The Nephites persisted in their wickedness.
The Spirit ceased to strive with them.
They are led about by Satan.
Coriantumr has a self-revelation that Ether’s prophecies had been fulfilled so far and 2 million of his people had died, but it happens too late and others drag him back into the war.
The Spirit had ceased striving with them, and Satan has full power over the people.
They are drunken with anger.
The remaining characters are horribly maimed by the struggle but immediately resume their efforts to reach the goal.
The Lamanites and Gadianton robbers who are left continue to fight among themselves.
Coriantumr and Shiz battle to the very end.
Slightly more positive black comedies end with the sane person watching in horror and either leaving the system or trying to change it.
Mormon tries to preach repentance, but is ignored.
Mormon refuses to lead the armies anymore, but eventually decides to come back and try to help.
At the end, he laments,“Oh ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord!” (Mormon 6:17)
Ether preaches to the Jaredites until they cast him out.
By night he views what is happening to the Jaredites.
Ether tries to convince Coriantumr to repent, but Coriantumr refuses and tries to kill him.
Ether sees in the end that the Lord’s words were fulfilled.

Personally, I think this kind of story is badly named; I don’t see anything comedic about it.  It is incredibly tragic.  This is the kind of thing that the devil would laugh at, though.  (“Wo, wo, wo unto this people; wo unto the inhabitants of the whole earth except they shall repent; for the devil laugheth, and his angels rejoice, because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters of my people; and it is because of their iniquity and abominations that they are fallen!” [3 Nephi 9:2])

In doing a bit of a survey of how others define black comedy, I suppose that Truby has taken a particularly bleak type of storyline and applied this term to it.  That’s his prerogative, of course.

As I’ve looked at the comparison between Truby’s definition and the events in the Book of Mormon, it seems to me that the warning of the Book of Mormon is all the more powerful because the Book of Mormon isn’t fiction.  This was history.  It really happened.  It shows that without repentance, society descends into black comedy.  If we don’t repent, we will become this.