Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Laughter: The Rebel WITH a Cause

“The principal thing is the intention which humor fulfills… Its meaning is: ‘Look here! This is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about’” (116)! They are kind of funny, right? The little lies we tell ourselves about life problems, school problems, relationship issues: I’m always safe, I’ve got tons of time to write that paper, We’ll always be friends, or in love, or together. Freud’s argument struck me, in particular, because it so greatly contrasts with my own perspective of the humorous. What I took as his main point is this: our reason, our super-ego, the father figure of the mind, in all its infinite parental wisdom, lies. It flat-out lies to our juvenile, immature ego. And while I tried desperately to argue the opposite, I found myself agreeing because I’ve seen this at work:

One of my very best friends from high school, Steve, went away to college while I began my senior year. About three days before he was meant to come home for Christmas break, he went to the emergency room because of a headache he’d had for almost 48 hours and was immediately admitted when doctors discovered a three inch blood clot in his brain, preventing blood from flowing continuously to his heart. To top it all off, he was living every athlete/college student’s worst nightmare: no more playing lacrosse (he was captain of our high school team) and no more alcohol. Ever. Well, that is not funny. Or, it shouldn’t have been. But it only took about a week and a half, a couple MRI’s, his release from the hospital, and a prescription for blood-thinning medication for his entire family to start laughing it off. We were all having dinner one night when Steve’s sister said, “I told Mom and Dad we should just bubble-wrap your head for safekeeping.” Then his brother told him, “That is the best thing that happened to you this semester: you don’t have to take any finals.” And on and on, and Steve laughed with the rest of them like we were sitting in some comedy club having drinks and lasagna while watching the show. When I asked him why in the world everyone thought a near-death experience was knee-slappingly funny, he said “First you told me not to cry over losing lacrosse and beer and now you’re telling me not to laugh. We’re running out of emotions here, so what else am I supposed to do?”

And in a really big, glaring way, I think that’s true. We talked in class about laughter being healthy, a physical exercise of sorts. In cases like Steve’s, I think laughter is like self-medicating… with the healthiest medicine there is. Even though, to this day, I don’t find those few weeks and subsequent months of doctor’s visits and blood tests funny, I understand why he felt the need to make them so. In that way, Freud made another good point: “…it is not everyone who is capable of the humorous attitude” (116). But ultimately, his humorous attitude towards his own situation served him much better than my laughing at his situation would have anyway. Laughter, in the presence of despair, does, as Freud says, highlight a type of liberation from vulnerability. It is a coping mechanism, as we’ve said in class, but I think that in this case it also seems to be a component of hope. Who was it who said, “If you can laugh at it, it can’t be that bad?” I think Freud, in labeling humor a sort of sane-and-rational-delusion, misses this key element. Yes, we’re lying to ourselves in a way when we do this, because we’re trying to convince ourselves of an invincibility we most certainly do not possess, but it helps us move forward. If we allowed that vulnerability to control us, we’d be locked away in our houses with the windows boarded. Don’t we have to feel a little invincible to live our lives? In that case, I don’t disagree with the idea that laughter is a shield of sorts, meant to protect and delude us. Because really? I don’t want to know how vulnerable I am. Steve’s use of humor, similarly, convinces me of another of Freud’s points: “humor possesses a dignity which is wholly lacking, for instance, in wit…” (113). His humor that Christmas served a distinct and noble purpose: to comfort him and remind him that he survived the worst and, with a little more laughter and luck, the worst was definitely over.

Neither Spencer nor Descartes provided arguments about humor that I’ve ever seen illustrated in the real world. On the one hand, it’s possible to make the argument that Steve’s humor was “…evidence of the gaiety of his temper and the tranquility of his soul…” because he found a way to laugh at the very thing that almost killed him. In some ways I feel this is true, and in others, simply saying it feels as though I’m stretching the boundaries of what I actually believe too far. Much of Descartes’ argument, in fact, anchors laughter in hatred and scorn. In particular, article 179 caught my attention because it reminded me of another friend from high school who had one of the most debilitating speech impediments I’ve ever heard. He was, almost naturally as a result, the class clown. He made fun of everyone and I mean everyone. However, I don’t think this was because he actually “rejoiced at the evils” which befell our classmates. I think his sense of humor was simply the result of wanting to be accepted, and it wasn’t that he saw “all others held in as low estimation as” himself, but that he just wanted to deflect attention from his speech. (And laughter doesn’t require too much articulation)

Spencer’s argument, once again, seemed more focused on the physical action that is laughter as opposed to its causes. He seemed to be discussing not so much why we laugh, but how. I did agree with his argument that suppressed feeling or energy leads to a more intense outburst, but I don’t see how laughter fits perfectly into the structure of this argument. I don’t think that humor is so intensely physical, even though laughter is a physical representation. I think Spencer’s argument lacks attention to emotion, to the state of mind that recognizes humor for what it is. We all know what happens when we laugh because we feel our bodies react. But what makes one person laugh doesn’t make another person laugh and that fact speaks to the element of a person’s personality, his or her disposition. I don’t think that simply labeling laughter as a physical consequence of excess energy speaks to its actual causes. Laughter cannot be reduced to a simple formula, and that’s what Spencer seemed intent on creating.

Overall, Freud’s argument seemed most able to be represented in the everyday. Although lacking the component of hope, he clearly illustrated much of what we’ve already discussed in class, painting laughter as a sort of security blanket we never want to put in the wash.

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