Sunday, August 11, 2013

Laughter: What's So Funny?

If you spend any time at all as a sharecropper in the fields of writing, the prospect increases that someone in a position beyond peer will think to mention two works to you as a means of shutting you up or down.  One of these is the relevant sections of Aristotle's Poetics, the other E.M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel.

Over the years of your attempts at farming the fields of story, you've read, re-read, and returned to both, the first run through as a means of plonking your patronizers, as in, "I was a bit disappointed that Aristotle never quite got around to defining catharsis in a way that made the term anything but a bit of pedantry."  And of Forester, you could, and did, say, "Pity he didn't pay more attention to his own observations in his fiction."

Subsequent returns to each brought you a greater sense of admiration for each work to the point where, now, they are, so far as your abilities to absorb things go, part of your composition muscle memory and you are left to venture ahead with your own questions and definitions, extending your personal awareness from the last century into this one.

Thus your own sense of catharsis tacks on to Aristotle and his suggestions of tragedy as a splendid means of providing the reader/viewer relief from pity, fear, and sorrow.  Thus you drag laughter on stage as a pal, a Costello, if you will, to tragedy's Abbott.

Things we think are funny bear investigation.  You like the notion that some forms of laughter arrive as a sense of relief that the victim, the one who slips on the banana peel, is not you, that the buffoon, embarrassed or humiliated, is not you.  

You do not so much wish other fools and buffoons ill as you rejoice in their pratfalls not being yours, this in uncomfortable memory of your own pratfalls, foolishness, and embarrassments of the real world.

Is there, you wonder, a similar sense of relief (or catharsis) when you see a pretentious or supercilious peer or someone who has some control over your destiny being brought to a comeuppance?  Is this why you are so in admiration of the satirical skills of Steven Colbert?  

Laughter is the purging of fear, dread, and personal identification, brought to a full, explosive release; it is your passport into the landscape of the unthinkable come to pass.  If the Cosmos were animate, laughter would be its music, the music of missed trains, opportunities, signals, appointments.

The Cosmos does not have to be animate because it has the mischievous play of event from humans, animals, and all other things animate and inanimate.  The Cosmos itself is humor in action, events, pratfalls, injustices, successes, earned victories, and last-minute snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory.

Humor, and its by-product, laughter, are our awareness of sad, irreconcilable truths related to the fall of the dice, the play of the Cosmos.  Humor is more than the simplistic vision of the inmates running the asylum; it is in fact the vision of all of us as the inmates, each of us acute to the visions of our own delusion.

In its wry, slightly acerbic way, humor is living proof of evolution at work, each of us, you for a certainty included, able to grow away from being governed by absurdity in direct proportion to laugh at the self.  The act of recognizing absurdity gives us the freedom to accept the dignity we seek in ways that are playful.  When someone is hurt, we laugh with relief that this time, it is not us, then we rush to help that injured person join the laughter.

Some of the great causes for laughter are to be found in the earlier, evolving visions of the Cosmos at play, and the renewed attempts we make to systematize and control what is before us.

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