Thoughts, now with Organization

July 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sorry there hasn’t been much activity on the blog this week.  My car broke down just after I agreed to house-sit for my mom in the suburbs, so I’ve been spending an extra hour on my bike every day—which is fun but also eats into my writing time.  I have, though, managed to organize the half dozen posts I’ve written on The Uses of Humor in Literature over the past three months into a single page.  Hopefully, this will make them easier to follow, as I initially conceived them as a single thought but ended up breaking them up to fit on the blog.  Just click the page link to the left–and relive the magic all over again.

And since this is sort of a milestone for the blog, I’m celebrating with this picture of The Oldest Jokes in the World’s patron saint, G.K. Chesterton.

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.

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.

Encyclopaeaeaedia

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.

Being Married; Being Hanged

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of my main goals in starting this blog is to combat the notion that there are subjects outside the realm of comedy.  I don’t believe the world is divided into matters of laughing and no-laughing or that there exist any situations best approached with your sense of humor blindfolded.

Of course, this isn’t the gravest misconception in our society, which is why I’m blogging about it in my spare time instead of occupying somewhere.  One can imagine a children’s blockbuster in which jokes are outlawed and secret police listen for laughter; a land where one brave boy must place his palm perfectly into the pit of his arm to simulate flatulence, a ripping rumble that travels the world, teaching us all how to smile again.

Thankfully, we don’t live in such a world, and my inclination to take things a little less than seriously most of the time has only ever landed me in minor trouble: in school, I learned which teachers took a good pun as evidence of engagement with the material and engaged a little less with the material of those who didn’t; the mostly-serious, overly-somber, and easily-offended have never lasted long among my close friends; and whenever a boss has asked me to take the job a little bit more seriously, I’ve just waited to continue commiserating with my coworkers until he was gone (and added his name into the punchlines).

So I’ve never felt like my comedic stylings were outlawed—just censored or circumscribed.  What makes it feel so stifling is that I I’ve most always wanted to learn much, be friendly, and work hard—those things just feel both easier and more complete with a little humor.  Since I feel humor is a way of lightening our situation without denying it, stopping laughter has always seemed like a double silencing to me: “Shut up so we can all pretend we’re not here.”

As a result, I’ve felt this silencing most concretely in the realm of my life where I have no aim besides making our lives more joyously bearable and honestly clear: my writing.  Time and time again, in seminars and workshops (though never outweighing my positive experiences), I struggled against the opinion that humor and true “serious” art are in opposition.  I agree that humor is surely seriousness’ opposite, but couldn’t understand why seriousness got sole claim to the truth.  It was the rawest, truest parts of my work that always seemed to demand—and provide—the most humor, but I was never sure quite how to explain this to my more sober professors and peers.

Thankfully G.K. Chesterton explains it all in Heretics:

A critic once remonstrated with me saying, with an air of indignant reasonableness, “If you must make jokes, at least you need not make them on such serious subjects.” I replied with a natural simplicity and wonder, “About what other subjects can one make jokes except serious subjects?” It is quite useless to talk about profane jesting. All jesting is in its nature profane, in the sense that it must be the sudden realization that something which thinks itself solemn is not so very solemn after all.  If a joke is not a joke about religion or morals, it is a joke about police-magistrates or scientific professors or undergraduates dressed up as Queen Victoria. […] men are always speaking gravely and earnestly and with  the utmost possible care about the things that are not important,  but always talking frivolously about the things that are.  Men talk for hours with the faces of a college of cardinals about things like golf, or tobacco, or waistcoats, or party politics.  But all the most grave and dreadful things in the world are the oldest jokes in the world–-being married; being hanged.

You can see that I’ve taken the blog’s title from the quote and hopefully, someday soon, you’ll be able to see that it’s sentiment is the driving logic behind much of my writing.  A joke is nothing frivolous; when a subject makes us laugh, it must be of grave importance.

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