Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Defense of Wit

Freud makes an interesting distinction between humor and wit in his essay that I think is important to explore further. 
Freud writes that “the aim of wit is either simply to afford gratification, or, in so doing, to provide an outlet for aggressive tendencies” (Freud 113).  He argues that wit is less refined and is less dignified than humor.  When looking at examples in Candide, wit is used as more of a response to a certain event or person whereas humor is perhaps more independently funny, not in relation to a specific event (as in the author constructs their own joke, independent of a real subject).  For example, in chapter 3, Voltaire writes, “Candide, was trembling like a philosopher” (Voltaire 5).  He took a specific person, a philosopher, and made humor come from it.  Independently, if he just mentioned a philosopher, it would not be funny, but he made a quick one-line joke that pointed out a quirky characteristic, turning the unfunny into funny (which I think is more of a service to philosophers than an insult).     
On the contrary, humor has a more narrow definition, as Freud claims it is a “repudiation of suffering” (Freud 111).  When we use humor, we indicate that we have rose above suffering and adversity.  While he writes that both wit and humor have a liberating element to them, he argues that humor, more than wit, protects humorists from the arrows of reality and we can escape suffering through humor.  In Candide, the whole notion of “they should all say it is for the best” is funny independently because the idea does not necessarily need any subject to match it against to make the concept funny.  Without pointing to anyone specifically, we all know as readers that not everything is for the best.  This is debatable and Voltaire is apparently satirizing optimism or some religious fatalistic belief of sorts, but this joke is not explicitly stated.  Therefore, this humor is independent, requiring no other subject to bounce the joke off of.      
It is really difficult to analyze wit and humor because they are so connected.  Both humor and wit elicit the same response: it awakens amusement or pleasure in someone.  While Freud values humor over wit in a way, arguing wit is just looking for gratification and is somewhat more aggressive, we can also argue that wit is equally as valuable as humor.  Candide is built on wit, a joke that requires a subject to bounce the joke off of, and humor, a joke that is more independently funny.  Voltaire uses one liner witty jokes to build an overall humorous story, so I think wit and humor are sometimes both required to produce a genuinely funny work.  Perhaps without humor (used as an overarching mood), wit can seem a bit malicious, and perhaps without wit, humor can become dull since the best part of humor is that someone makes a joke and then we feel gratified because we get it.  If all humor lacked intelligence and we all laughed at someone falling up the stairs, for example, it would not nearly be as gratifying to the audience because there is no opportunity for the people receiving the joke to engage and realize, aha, that was funny and I know why!  The transparency of the joke—the person falling up the stairs— is just not as stimulating or engaging to us, on the receiving end of the joke, as it once was in the sixth grade when we were considerably less witty and we required that transparent humor.    
This humor and wit combination can be seen in several examples of comedy today.  For example, in the television show, “The Office,” Jim Halpert is one of the main characters who represents sanity in the office.  Dwight Shrute is another main character who is Jim’s crazy coworker and is obsessed with bears, beets, and Battlestar Galactica.  Much of the show revolves around their relationship because they are so different and Dwight is so earnestly weird.  At the risk of simplifying too much, I think this is why the show is so great because Jim represents wit, in that we are all invited to make fun of Dwight’s shenanigans because Dwight is so odd.  Therefore, Dwight represents humor, in that he is so far out there, there is a very small margin of possibly offending someone watching the show.  Together, they make the show hilarious, but if it was just Jim, or just Dwight, they could not bounce jokes off each other as they do.  Jim kind of gives us permission to laugh at Dwight’s quirks because without Jim, we could just be laughing at a crazy person (which is the type of malice Plato is talking about).  Therefore, Jim gives us (the audience) the gratification that we all yearn for—that we are in on the joke/ we are intelligent enough to get the joke, and Dwight gives us the humor without us having to think too hard because he is transparently funny.         
In this way, maybe we do need Freud’s distinction between humor and wit because they rely on each other.  While wit provides the intellectually gratifying experience for the audience, humor provides the nonthreatening mood implying this whole book is a joke, so don’t get too offended. 

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