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.