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The Human Condition

What Makes This Question Funny?

Jeffrey Gordon delivers the punch line.

To undertake an analysis of the essence of humor risks being boorish. After all, analysis brings to humor the very spirit of seriousness humor intends to dispel. The enterprise seems therefore gauche, unappreciative, intellectually purblind – in short, humorless. But surely this situation is nothing new for philosophers. If to analyze some aspect of human experience is to be willing to sacrifice natural pleasure for clarity, then philosophers are by nature spoilers of fun. Isn’t this what has always marked the philosopher as a subversive threat, a predator of joy? I propose that we acknowledge our subversion, our perennial unwillingness to get with the program, and heedlessly proceed. If the common folk resent our clinical dissections, let them laugh defensively at our expense. Indeed, let them laugh until they cry.

Actually, my key points on humor can be expressed in a truism and a Shakespearean cliché. The truism: Humor is the negation of the serious. The cliché: Brevity is the soul of wit. If you are already convinced of these propositions, what motive can I offer for you to read further? The answer is that I will try to show the unexpected and profounder meanings in both the truism and the cliché. I will try to show what aspect of the serious humor negates, and I will try to show that brevity is essential to wit because humor prolonged is despair. What is humor, and why does its protraction transform it into its antithesis? These are the questions I will try to answer.

Laughter Lines

Some very thoughtful and even great philosophers have taken an interest in humor. I want to begin with a brief overview of what they’ve had to say.

There have been three major candidates for the essential source of the humorous: unexpected triumph, incongruous juxtaposition, and relief from inhibition. Hobbes and Bergson argued versions of the first; Kant and Schopenhauer, the second; and Freud, the third.

Hobbes held that the key feature of humorous situations is a sudden elevation in self-esteem, a sudden realization of the superiority of our condition to that of others. Bergson tried to advance this view by specifying the essential feature of those situations responsible for the feeling of elevation. The essence of the humorous situation is, he believed, the rigidity of the protagonist in face of life’s demand for flexibility. Seeing the protagonist’s failure to meet this demand, we congratulate ourselves on our comparative success, and add our voice to the communal howl of derision. As Bergson pointed out, this theory explains well our laughter at Chaplin’s Little Tramp dancing his way up the mountain, unaware of the huge bear directly behind him. And Paul Carus pointed out the resemblance of laughter to the primitive cry of triumph, “Aha!”

Kant maintained that humor emerged “from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” – in other words, from the incongruity between expectation and reality where this transformation brings sudden relief. Schopenhauer, adopting the theory that the humorous is the incongruous, nevertheless disputed Kant’s emphasis on surprise, and in contrast to Kant cited the sophistical connection between the incongruous elements. That is, for Schopenhauer, the humorous consists in the artful invention of connections where none in fact exist (e.g., “A dyslexic walks into a bra…”).

Herbert Spencer saw laughter as a physical release of energy. He believed that the humorous consisted in an abrupt transition from lofty sentiments to trivial ones, the transition leaving a surplus of energy, expended in the form of laughter. (“This is a question of legality we cannot afford to ignore. I therefore insist that President Obama put the matter to rest by presenting his gift certificate to the clerk.”) The notion of laughter as physical release influenced Freud, who presented the theory that humor is a means of relief from the unbearable constraints of society, where we can violate with impunity the taboos of the social order. (“Father, Son, and Holy Ghost walk into a bar…”)

One initial reaction to this panoply of theories might be that they are all compatible: that unexpected triumph, incongruous juxtaposition (and its variant, speciously congruous juxtaposition), and relief from constraint, may all be occasions for laughter. If we believe this, and that the three characteristics are distinct, we will conclude that no single theory can account for all cases of humor, even if each does account for some. But we might have other reactions. We might argue that any given instance of humor will contain all three of these features in conjunction. In this case, each of the theories mistakes a part of the truth for the whole. An ardent advocate of any one of them could reply that the particular feature of humor his theory glorifies is the crucial one, the others being mere epiphenomena. He could say for example that it is really the incongruity in a situation that excites our delight, although it is also the case that the status of some authority is diminished by it, and that this diminution simultaneously releases us from the hold of that authority and elevates our position in regard to it. (A pompous plutocrat dressed in tails hurries to the stage to receive an award, but he trips and falls when a little boy sticks out his foot.)

Let me say at once that I reject these three theories and these reactions to them. The error is not that each takes itself to account for all cases when it only accounts for some, nor that each mistakes a part of the truth for the whole. The fault is that they all miss the truth altogether. If sudden elevation in status were the essence of humor, then we should not merely smile when the boss informs us of our promotion, but break out into peals of laughter. If incongruous juxtaposition were the key, a Rauschenberg collage or the contents of a dumpster should provide considerable amusement. And if relief from constraint were the crucial feature, the shouting of a man in rage should be followed by his uncontrollable guffaws. Nevertheless, we will find, I think, that the philosophers have not wholly misled us – that the seductiveness of their theories is not completely without good ground. They have not altogether misread their subject, but they have mistaken accidental features for its heart and soul.

Liberation Comedy

Let us take as the starting point of our constructive analysis those occasions for laughter which we’re not inclined to call instances of humor. These would include the experience of sudden release from great pressure – whether physical burden, threat, or psychological expectation; certain games; sudden bursts of vigorous physical activity, and certain cases of high-speed travel. Granted that none of these will be called a joke, the fact that they all may evoke laughter allows us to take them jointly as a clue. And what is common to these experiences may be identified at once: it is a sense of transport beyond the confines of the present, a thrilling sense of liberation. Assuming that the humorous, which elicits the same physical response, shares this feature, we can now ask what it is from which we might be liberated by humor.

Here I should like to call your attention to a fact so intimate as to be, like the eye to itself, wholly inconspicuous. This is the fact that we pursue our lives with enormous devotion – that from dawn’s early light to the moon’s cool grace, we plan and decide, conquer and divide, with varying degrees of anguish and relentlessness; that we are committed to our moving and shaking, to the various idols of our concerns as if their importance were emblazoned forever in their very aspect. Sartre called this devotion ‘the spirit of seriousness’, and this description has a certain aptness, for I can express the point I am aiming at here by saying that we are, at bottom and inescapably, dead serious about the progress of our lives. This state of affairs implies immediately that there is for each of us some vast network of things whose significance and value remain for the greater stretch of our lives simply beyond question.

When we consider the contrary of this state – the aimless insignificance and pointlessness illustrated by Camus’ Stranger – we might well feel grateful that it is so, however coldly Sartre might condemn us for it. But it is also obvious that our serious attitude to life is an enormous burden, and the sine qua non of life’s lesser burdens. And it is precisely the strain of this enormous burden from which we desperately require release.

Since what I am driving at is already becoming clear, I will now state plainly what I have in mind. My thesis is that the essence of the humorous is that it relieves us suddenly and briefly from the enormous burden of seriousness from which there is no permanent earthly escape. It is often pointed out that humor jolts us from familiar perspectives, and this is true, though not yet quite the key. The Critique of Pure Reason also does this, but without raising a smile. What is crucial is that, in jolting us, humor casts a fleeting yet devastating light on the frail bulwarks of all things sacred. It exposes to us, as if under lightning, the terrible vulnerability of our faith in the overwhelming importance of our endeavors. The humorous propels us at the speed of light beyond the horizon of all our concerns, to their ultimate dubitability. This is why we feel a quiver of embarrassment when we return to a serious discussion that has been interrupted by humor: the instant of wit has caused us to glimpse the ultimate unjustifiability of our concerns. To return to the discussion requires that we try to put that insight out of mind. The humorous and the serious are two wholly incompatible Gestalts, and we must choose.

Comedic Catastrophe

Hearing me express myself in this manner, you might wonder if I take myself to be offering a formula for humor, or a prescription for existential despair. But I have one further point to make, which will, I think, illuminate the proximity between humor and despair.

You may recall that many of the philosophers note in their formulae the necessity of suddenness and brevity. In this their intuition is acute. It is well known that what begins as a joke sometimes ends as the occasion of despair (we “laugh until we cry”). What accounts for this may be pinpointed precisely: it’s a matter of time. If the instant of wit exceeds its natural duration, we are delivered to something much worse than the burden of the spirit of seriousness. We are forced to dwell upon that insight the brevity of which was essential to its delight, replacing familiar passions as the unsolicited new object of seriousness. The stand-up comedian dying on stage brings home to us as nothing else can our foolishness and vanity. Our seriousness having been called into question, our moment of relief having passed, we are suspended in the cruel limbo of the realization of desolation.

The potential for despair is contained within humor as a perpetual threat. This is why the best humor is recognizably daring, dangerous. It risks a permanent affliction of mockery for an instant of sweet release. The insight that a perspective is always available that will shatter the urgency of our affairs may be the source of liberation, or the source of despair. What will determine whether it is one or the other will be the manner of its coming – whether as a merciless torrent, or as a bolt in the summer sky.

© Prof. Jeffrey Gordon 2010

Jeffrey Gordon is Professor of Philosophy and NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at Texas State University.

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