Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The "Liberating Element" of Humor

This week's readings generated a lot of questions for me. I think I've come to the realization that all of these different theories of humor and laughter should be read for what they are, which is simply a proposed explanation. I've come to accept certain aspects of each theory, and I think that when combined these together form a fairly coherent explanation of the phenomenon that is humor. That being said, I don't think any one theory is all-encompassing. Descartes, Spencer, and Freud all seem to deal with the Relief/Release Theory of humor, and from class discussions it is clear that most of us have experienced laughter as a result of this type of situation.
Looking back on the past six months or so, I can see an increase in the relief/release type of laughter within my own family. Beginning in July, my 92-year old grandfather's health began to decline. We've watched my Dad and his siblings make heartbreaking decision involving lengthy hospital stays, hospice care, and nursing homes It has been a long and drawn out period of high stress, tension, and sadness. In the midst of it all, my family has grown closer, which is something I think that I subconsciously expected. What I did not expect was our turn to humor to heal our pain. Laughter swooped in to calm us, comfort us, and cure us. During the long hours in the hospital, nursing home, and even in our own homes, it seemed like we were always making jokes, telling funny stories, and giggling. The jokes and stories are most likely intended to "blow off steam" and ease tension, and perhaps the general propensity for laughter is "reflexive" release that Spencer describes. It could be nervous or tense laughter, but it certainly makes a difficult situation much more bearable. Based on my experiences, I agree with Freud's assertion that "the essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise" (Freud 112). The situation that my family has been going through (witnessing and experiencing the rapid decline of a once vivacious relative) should give rise to grief and hysteria, but it has in fact created solidarity and humor. The emotions associated with the experience are so strong that they "Must expend [themselves] in some direction" (Spencer 102). It is truly a relief when the emotions that cause so much stress turn into laughter rather than tears. This is not to discount tears in any way; we will grieve when the time for grief arrives, but at this moment laughter really is the best medicine.
In this respect, the laughter has been "liberating" as Freud explains it. It has freed us from some negative emotions. It is also also "rebellious" (Freud 113). It sometimes feels wrong or out of line to be laughing when we should be suffering. This is where the line gets blurry. When is it okay to laugh or make jokes when the mood is tragic? When is it okay to "escape from the restraint of grave feelings" (Spencer 105)? How are we supposed to know when laughter is appropriate, and when it's tasteless? There is a line, but I find it difficult to articulate just where that line lies.

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