Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Contradictions: The Root of All Laughter?

In an attempt to connect all the arguments of these four humor theorists together (which, as will be evidenced in the following, may or may not be such a good idea), I found that contradiction played a role (large and small) in what Plato, Hobbes, Kant and Kierkegaard have to say about humor. Certainly defining laughter as a combination of pleasure and pain as Plato suggests is contradictory, and the superior-inferior dichotomy of Hobbes’ theory expresses a similar conclusion. Kant and Kierkegaard speak more explicitly about why rifts in expectation yield laughter, with Kant focusing on the “sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (47) and Kierkegaard saying, quite succinctly, that “the comical [is a] painless contradiction” (83).

Yet, despite all four theorists touching on the idea of contradiction as one source of humor (or perhaps, laughter), I have still to fully grasp why contradiction is even humorous. Plato contends that laughter is bad and makes you feel bad for laughing—calling you (which I find very insulting) a “malicious man” (10). Hobbes fairs no better and makes you feel like a jerk (and coward) should you find someone’s misfortune funny (“And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity” (19)). And Kant argues otherwise and says that the thwarting of expectations, the clash of the anticipated and what comes to be, makes you feel—physically—good; though whenever something goes unexpectedly wrong inside my organs, I certainly am not laughing. Kierkegaard, perhaps, develops his idea of contradiction as a means of accessing humor, in the most clarified manner.

Many of the examples Kierkegaard gives to illustrate his idea of humor as a “painless” contradiction I could relate directly back to Hao’ufa’s Tales of the Tikongs. When Kierkegaard gives the example of the person who puts his fingers in a bowl of salad and mistakenly covers it up with the error of saying that he thought it was caviar, I drew a direct parallel to the case of Ti in “The Wages of Sin” in which he mistakenly believes he can fix his sin by ripping out a page from someone else’s Bible. In both cases, our expectations as readers are blown up in our faces. We expect (or at least I do) that the men in each anecdote will successfully save themselves from further humiliation, and both ultimately do not.

However, as was mentioned in class, there are moments in which we laugh at what our particular society would deem as void of humor altogether, such as when we laughed at the bit about Mr. Leka beating his wife in Hao’ufa’s “Blessed are the Meek” and then immediately questioned our laughter. Do we laugh because we expected him to stop beating her at all only to discover that he occasionally beats her—another expectation thwarted (and thus laughable) as Kierkegaard’s theory would imply? Or do we, at times, find “painful” contradictions inherently humorous (but condemnable) as Hobbes and Plato would suggest because we find pleasure (or relief) in knowing that we are not the victims of the situation?

I believe that Kierkegaard explains painless contradiction as humorous effectively, but I am still left wondering where the darker side of humor has its place and whether or not it is a reflection of our moral characters on what we find laughable or not. Hobbes and Plato appear to keep the ethical nature of an individual in mind as a factor in assessing humor, which, I think, is why several of us have responded to them with more than just frowns on our faces; Kant and Kierkegaard seem to avoid the social or individual ethics for the purposes of their theories and focus, respectively, on the physical pleasure of laughter and the painless pleasure of contradictions that victimize no party in particular. While contradictions and thwarted expectations do, as Kant and Kierkegaard point out, give us laughter and gratification, I am left pondering whether or not there is a theory that justifies finding humor at the expense of others without rendering me a heartless, well, you know; and whether there is any truth or credibility behind learning to laugh at our or other people’s pain.

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