The Nonsense Sense

May 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

As a brief intermission from my thoughts on why literary authors should employ more humor, I want to digress and discuss an idea I touched on at the end of last week’s post: our sense that humor is a sense.

In English we refer to our “sense of humor,” and though the categorization fits in some ways, it seems pretty loose in others.  I’d love to know if other languages have similar idioms surrounding humor but would be especially excited to hear of any diverse expressions from around the globe, as they might provide a fresh angle to understand humor from.

In any event, we know that we haven’t always thought of humor as a sense: as Chesterton points out in his definition, the term evolved from the medieval idea of humours in the body, such as bile and phlegm.  As clumsy as it can feel at times, I think our conception of humor as a sense is closer to the truth than this physiological idea that our moods come from within us. I don’t know enough about the theory or its professors and leeches to say what they thought ruled these humours that ruled our passions, but it seems important to me that any conception of humor we have recognizes that it comes from outside ourselves and is mostly out of our control.

As a metaphysical sense (other examples may include our sense of sympathy or sorrow), our sense of humor responds to the levity that exists around us.  But it only seems capable of detecting the crudest distinctions: besides differences between polite laughter, sickly gallows chuckles, and surprising belly-quakes, there don’t seem to be too many lines to draw.  In contrast, we are able to name hundreds of colors and detect subtle shades between thousands more with our naked eyes.  Perhaps there are as many subtle hues to humor as there are differences in the wavelengths of light, or maybe mirth is a solid, unchanging quality throughout the universe: regardless, our senses of humor only seem developed enough to detect, not make many distinctions.

Maybe this is the modern, empirically-obsessed writer’s beef with humor: it is too imprecise.  Whatever the reason, though, it is important to note that mirth does exist; to those with their hearts ready to sense it, it can be found in even the most desperate circumstances.  Literature is about our human experiences, not ideal ones—certainly not ones that make perfect literal sense—and as a result, I’m happy to read a novel about character suffering from a prolonged bout of that critical lack of a sense of humor we all occasionally suffer from (this, after all, is the classic straight-man), but I don’t have much patience for a writer who would purposefully blinds themselves.

Why More (All!) Literature Should Employ Humor

May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Because laughing feels good, and I want to do it more.

If this answer doesn’t seem like enough, it’s because we expect our literature to do something more than simply entertain us.  While I think literature would hold a more democratically revered place in our popular culture if many authors focused a little more on being graciously entertaining, I’ll dedicate the rest of this post (and the next few to follow) to the more noble reasons writers should employ humor in their fiction.  Whether you think the sole, true purpose of literature is uplifting our spirits, shining a cold light on dark truths, giving audience to under-represented voices, or toppling the bourgeois hegemony, humor can only help in accomplishing these goals.

Humor is a tool, like characterization or dialogue, and it is foolhardy for any writer to rise to the impossible task of communicating the unspeakable with less than all available tools at their disposal.  Why, then, do some people try to write about parenthood or cancer or vampires without a large box of jokes at the ready?

I wonder if some associate humor with the genre of comedy, a narrative arc which I think literary authors are right in distrusting.  Every element in strict comedies must conform to a path—the protagonist falls further and further before triumphing in the climax— which is much neater and straighter than reality.  In trying to say something astute about life, literary authors need to be looser and subtler, free to let the plot follow the subtext.

But I don’t see why this should keep anyone from using as much humor as their structure allows; no author would think to write a novel without setting because of her distaste for the post-colonial trappings of commercial travel literature.  Nor would she do without a plot because Robert Ludlum could do it better by focusing on plot alone.  There are literary novels that have done so as noble experiments or self-absorbed stunts, but no one except the most fevered manifesto writers (which is probably the farthest one can get from being a fiction writer) have ever suggested that one of these elements is actually a distraction from the story and should be kept out of fiction forevermore.  Why then isn’t humor seen as a necessary element of fiction?

From another angle, humor isn’t a tool but a sense.  We all think of it this way—one’s “sense of humor”—and it is a common admonition in introductory creative writing classes to engage all the senses: the only chance you have of making the world of the story come to life is by stimulating every input the reader has.  A teacher of mine once encouraged the class to revise the first page of a story so that it included at least one concrete detail for each of the five senses.  Why not also engage the sense of humor?

Again, I hope a substitution illustrates my point: it should surely change the story if the narrator were unable to touch the world in a tactile way or if she were fully blind, so it is only a very specific narrative point of view that should ignore humor fully. Full humorlessness, though, seems almost past disability: the man who enters the cancer ward without holding tight to some sense of humor seems as monstrously disfigured as the sociopath who enters without a sense of sorrow or empathy.  While it may be useful to explore characters with these emotional blocks through literature, I fear most of our self-important writers choose to write without humor because they take their own thoughts too seriously.  As a result, their work ends up being evidence instead of an elucidation of this blindness.

Anyhow, that’s probably enough for this week, but I promise there’s more to come soon about humor as a sense and an essential element of fiction.

TOJItW Book Club: Leaving the Atocha Station

May 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m going to try something new this week, a recommendation instead of an idea or an example. Every couple months, I’ll give a quick review of a work that exemplifies the tone of important joking I’m trying to write about here.

First up is Ben Lerner’s incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station from Coffee House Press. It’s been reviewed and awarded all over during the past year, so I’m recommending it  not because I’m afraid it isn’t getting it’s due, but because taking examples from it will help me elucidate my points more elegantly than my iphone essay prose is capable of: the novel is full of the sort of humor I’m interested in, drawing the reader deeper into a subject instead of flippantly dismissing it.

The deeper subject here is human connection; Adam, the narrator, is a young poet “studying” on a fellowship in Spain. But instead of writing or reading, he mostly gets high and worries that everyone can tell he’s a fraud; he’s worried that everyone can tell his poetry is empty, that there is no such thing as meaningful poetry anyway, and that everyone can tell he’s just using his poor Spanish as an excuse to seem profound and stay distant. Add in the terrorist attack on the Atocha Station from 2004, and the whole thing sounds very sober, but somehow there is humor on nearly every page. Best of all, it never feels extraneous or ingratiating, but continually draws the reader deeper into the story and the problems it explores.

Below, Adam has just been punched in the face for being too high and full of himself to notice he was cockily smiling through a story he should have been frowning at. The girl who told the story finds him to apologize for her punchy friend.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t understand what story you said before to me,” is probably what I said. “My Spanish is very bad, I get nervous.”

“Your Spanish is good,” she said. “How is your face?”

“My face is good,” I said, which made her laugh. She undid her hair and took the scarf and dipped it and wrung it out and used it to wipe the rest of the blood from my face and then dipped it and wrung it out. She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full. Her hair was long, maybe longer than the guard’s. Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish. She asked me if I knew a poem by Lorca, this time about something that involved several colors and required her to softly roll her r‘s, which I couldn’t do. She offered me a cigarette and we smoked and I looked at the water and was sober.

There’s plenty of fun like this throughout the book, as Adam invents whole self-serving stories out of the fractions of Spanish that he understands, a process he likens to our modern relationship with poetry.

I’m hoping to write most of the next month’s posts specifically about literature and humor, and how humor can be used as a tool to deepen the subtext of literature. I plan to use Leaving the Atocha Station for most of my textual examples because it does everything I want to talk about so elegantly.  But it’s so full of cathartic moments of complicated laughter–too many for me to attach specific points to–that I hope you’ll read it for your own enjoyment.

Deficiencies Defined

May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

This fourth big post marks a month’s worth of blogging for me, but I still wonder each week what the hell I am trying to do here, writing seriously about humor.  So while reading through the Britannica article by GK Chesterton that I posted last week, it occurred to me that I am guilty of one of the conceits he pokes fun at. Humor, he writes,

…is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.

During the composition of each post, I’ve had at least two distinct moments of panic: first I weep, “Oh, fucking woe: this blog is supposed to be about humor but these paragraphs are all dry and academic,” and then, after I’ve shoehorned in a few puns or self-deprecating references, I sigh, “Darn-it-all: now that it’s marginally funny, the points I was trying to make are obscured and undercut.”  Then I edit back and forth between seriousness and humor for a while until I find the balance I am least disappointed with.

It was disheartening at first to realize I was the dunce GK was writing about, the humorless idiot trying to define humor.  But as I read on, through his distinction between wit, wielded to make a judgment against others, and humor, which always implicates it’s wielder as well, I realized Chesterton was, as always, being humorous while he made his points; he started off his definition of humor by deriding those who would seek to define it.

Now, I’m taking this definition as a model for my future blogging instead of a warning against continuing.  While it is impossible to write seriously about humor and a waste of time to try to use it to build an argument, it is a human necessity to exist somewhere in the space between.  The comedy in the Britanica article comes from Chesterton’s exploration of the futility of our attempts to catalogue the infinite details and abstractions of out lives into a few hundred encyclopedia articles.  But while Chesterton is as capable as anyone of using wit to cut down stupidity, here he uses humor to humble himself, seeming to say for all it’s foolishness, attempting to define and understand is a worthwhile pursuit—as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously while doing it.  Though the article uses 2,500 words to say nothing definite about humor, it does a great job of describing centuries worth of what it means to be human.

The definition is nowhere closer to being definite than when it says humor boasts of being indefinable; not only is a joke not funny if you have to explain it, it is not funny once it has been explained (unless, of course, it is a joke about unfunny jokes (or one of those jokes where the joke is actually the set-up and the convoluted, wandering, needlessly-long, and hyphenated (and parenthesized) explanation is the punchline)).

I feared when starting this blog, that I might rob humor of its joys if I gave it too much discerning thought. But after a month’s worth of posts that amount to little more that a catalogue of questions, I no longer think finding the full definition of humor is anything the human intellect has to worry about.


May 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

For our fun this weekend, I’m providing a link to an Encyclopedia Britannica entry on humor from 1928, written by our very own patron saint, GK Chesterton.  Tracing the history of the word and the phenomenon itself, the article is chock full of insightful details and little witties in the piece.  I’m intrigued by this idea of celebrity authored encyclopedia entires, and while it is cruel to compare anyone’s prose to GK’s, the wikipedia entry’s prose-by-commitee pales in comparison.  I admire the democratic nature of wikipedia, but am saddened they’d have to take down insights like this to keep it up.

Humour, like wit, is related however indirectly, to truth and the eternal virtues; as it is the greatest incongruity of all to be serious about humour, so it is the worst sort of pomposity to be monotonously proud of humour; for it is itself the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.

I guess these days we just have to leave this sort of editorializing to the blogs.

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