This student is referring to the Baroness in Voltaire’s grotesque satiric novel Candide. Here’s pretty much all Voltaire does to “make fun of the Baroness’s weight”: “My Lady Baroness, who weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, consequently was a person of no small consideration.” (When the Bulgarian army comes to the castle they split Cunégonde, Candide’s lady love, and then repeatedly ravish her; her mother, the Baroness, they “cut…in pieces.” When Cunégonde reappears in the story—not all accidents, she assures Candide, prove fatal—she confirms her mother’s death. Although many presumed-dead characters continue to reappear, the Baroness is gone from the story. Cunégonde later refers to herself as “born a Baroness,” but her weight is not in question.)
So my student is wrong: Voltaire is not really “making fun of the Baroness’s weight”: he is making fun of the weightiness of the nobility, and probably also of the general avoirdupois of German burghers, in that the “most noble Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh” lives in Westphalia. The fatter they were, the more important they were, generally speaking, and Voltaire mocks the automatic respect consequently afforded the hefty.
But my student explains away her implied criticism of Voltaire:
“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark, but because it was written in humor it is funny.”
I believe (but do not know) that my student meant that in the context of Voltaire’s satiric purpose and tone, a remark that would otherwise be far from comical, or even tasteful, elicits laughter. I probably talked a bit about the black comedy, or “dark humor,” of the twentieth century when introducing this eighteenth-century work—I usually do. If that is what she was trying to say, she was right to try to say it.
But of course she didn’t say it. Instead, she gave us a comment not far from Nixon’s explanation that if the President of the U.S. does a thing it is by definition legal. My student is saying that if Voltaire writes something dark “in humor,” it “is funny,” as a matter of course.
I once had a colleague who made remarks that were startlingly rude—”God, you’re a slob, aren’t you?” she said to a friend who, pausing with his spoon halfway to his mouth in order to finish a comment about department politics, had just dripped some soup onto his tie at lunch—and then evidently believed she made it all all right by following up with “Only kidding.” She, too, must have thought that anything said or “written in humor” was funny, regardless of what it was. Yes, she was a barrel of laughs.
And speaking of department politics: I’m going to be tied up for the next several days getting ready for and then participating in the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Meeting in D.C. I own neither a laptop nor an iPhone, so unless someone wants to lend me a computer for an hour or two I will probably not be able to maintain my blog until maybe Sunday. Please go back and read some of the posts from August and September of 2011 in the interim—I led with some of my most hilarious horrors, all of which, I hasten to say, were not “written in humor” but are very funny just the same.