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.