Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Having the Last Laugh

What is the relationship between humor and contradiction? What is the relationship between laughter and power?

Woody Allen's “The Whore of Mensa” and Mark Twain's “Jim Blaine and His Grandfather's Old Ram” are both explorations of humor based in incongruity and contradiction, as the characters in the story refuse to meet our expectations. Allen takes a funny contradiction: an intellectual brothel, and runs with it. Twain's story defies our expectations (and those of the narrator's) because the Grandfather never actually tells the story of the Old Ram, despite our expectation that he will eventually do so.

Zora Neale Hurston's “The Gilded Six-Bits” begins to answer the question of not only why something is humorous in the abstract—but also why we might laugh. Hobbes and Plato both find the root of humor in relationships of power: the strong laughing at the weak. In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Joe has the final laugh against Slemmons when he reveals the falsity of Slemmons' wealth-claim (Plato sees identifies false claims of wealth as comic), and also has the last laugh because he keeps his wife, Missie May, despite Slemmons' attempt to claim her as his own. When Joe breaks into unexpected laugher at discovering Slemmons and Missie May in bed together, it's a recognition of his broken expectation, and the laugher comes from the power imbalance. Allen's “Death Knocks” plays with contradiction and power, too, with the absurd image of “Death” falling through a window and playing cards, and the balance of power upset as Nat, doomed to die, refuses to obey fate.

Plato's Republic sought to describe the features of a utopia. While discussing this book in my Philosophy class, Dr. Bagley suggested that Socrates enjoys (perhaps even finds humorous) presenting the features of his perfect polis that he knows will never be accepted by the broader population (such as rule by a philosopher-king and the communizing of all property). Socrates believes that the selfish aspects of human nature will need to be completely overcome in order to establish a just city. Perhaps this is why Plato's opposition to humor seems so contradictory to our every day experience. In a perfect world, maybe there would be no laughter. But the world is far from perfect; in Christian terms, it's fallen. Kant categorizes laughter as an animal function, beneath the intellectual capacities of his definition of humanity (this may be partly based on Kant's flawed—by modern medicinal standards—theory of how humor affects the internal organs). I would argue that laughter is an authentically human response to the world in which we live.

The Christian worldview of Jesuit education began with the rebellious death of Jesus on the cross, an image which Edith Stein once referred to as “the sign of contradiction.” This begins to explicate Kierkegaard's remark that “Christianity is the most humorous view of life in world-history.” Humanity's struggle against spiritual sin and worldly oppression is finally won not by the expected soldier Messiah, but by the weakest of humans. The Romans laugh because they believe they have won, but the Christians laugh because they trust that they have ultimately won.

King's “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” is not meant to be a humorous document. But perhaps that is because King recognized that it was still within the realm of human possibility to overcome oppression. Sometimes, as Joe teaches us when he knows he can never reverse Slemmons' momentary triumph, all we have left to fight the contradiction and weakness of human existence is to have the last laugh.

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