Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Emotion vs. Intellect

While reading the excerpts from Sigmund Freud, Descartes, and Herbert Spencer, I thought of a particular (and might I say hilarious) instance. When I was an RA, I would often leave my door open so that my residents could pop in with any questions, concerns, a quick hello, or just to chat. This particular evening was one of the first few weeks of school and three girls from the floor stayed in my room for hours on end, sitting at my kitchen table, eating, talking and laughing. One girl, Frankie, ran downstairs and got a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to snack on while we talked. She ate it rather quickly and washed it down with a big glass of water. I suppose something particularly funny must have happened (I cannot quite remember) because suddenly Frankie projectile vomited watery ice cream down her shirt and onto her legs amidst a splutter of laughter and coughing. The other two girls were disgusted and possibly embarrassed that I had witnessed such an absurd series of events, but I threw myself onto my bed in a fit of laughter that went on for what seemed like ten minutes.

When I read, “Humor has in it a liberating element,” (Freud 113) I thought about Frankie because once we had opened ourselves to the hilarity of the situation, there were no more barriers to knock down, nothing to hide behind, no reason to pretend. Our friendship became genuine, accepting and (obviously) filled with laughter. Freud continues, “A man adopts a humorous attitude towards himself in order to ward off possible suffering” (Freud 114). Frankie and I laughed. Right there amidst the vomit, the empty Ben and Jerry’s container and the Clorox wipes, we laughed. Frankie could have easily “suffered” in embarrassment or shame, but she laughed, cleaned up, changed her clothes and came right back to sit at the kitchen table and continue our conversations. Reading about the purposes and the effects of laughter made me realize how vomiting up ice cream can really do for a relationship. Frankie was comfortable enough with herself to laugh, I was comfortable enough with myself to laugh; we were liberated, but our outward expression of unrestrained laughter liberated the other. She avoided the feelings of embarrassment and shame not only by her own laughter but also in our laughter, in the wordless physical expression that laughter held for us. She didn’t need to apologize for making a mess and I didn’t need to assure her that I didn’t care—the laughter said it all.

Herbert Spencer, however, writes, “Generally a large amount of emotion disturbs the action of the intellect, and interferes with the power of expression” (Spencer 109). I found it odd that a natural, involuntary “expression” might impede “the action of the intellect” and the “power of expression.” Yes, I can see that it may be difficult to take someone seriously if they are showing signs of “a large amount of emotion,” but why is this so? Do we lose rationale when we laugh or cry or is this merely a socially constructed perception? How much do emotions truly “disturb the action of the intellect”? What is the relationship between emotion and intellect? In Spencer’s statement, emotion and intellect are pitted against each other in a dichotomous relationship to one another, as one increases, the other decreases. Furthermore, intellect is valued more than emotion is; emotion is something that “disturbs” and “interferes” with the prized intellect, but in our readings and conversations about humor thus far, I question both the relationship and the hierarchy Spencer presents. Descartes, echoing Mark Twain’s “How to Tell a Story,” writes,

As regards the modest bantering which is useful in reproving vices by making them appear ridiculous, so long as we do not laugh at them ourselves or bear any hatred towards the individuals concerned, it is not a passion, but a quality pertaining to the well disposed man which gives evidence of the gaiety of his temper and the tranquility of his soul. (Descartes 24)

The capability of “reproving vices by making them appear ridiculous” is “a quality pertaining to the well disposed man,” according to Descartes. The art of humor is something that stems from intellect and ignites both the heart and the mind. In laughing at the absurdity of a situation, be it something we are or are not related to, gives us a new perspective, which is the surprise value that Descartes claims makes us laugh in the first place. We laugh because we see something we have never seen before or something we have seen a million times in a completely new light. Humor makes people think. It’s the best of both worlds, an emotional release and a rational expression that has the power to build relationships.

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