Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Painful and Painless in Contradiction

E.B. White once wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”  During our first class, we discussed possible reasons for why people find certain things to be funny, and the readings for this week gave us a sturdy framework to understand our earlier discussion. I suppose this qualifies us as some of White’s “pure scientific minds” as we attempt to rationalize why we find certain things to be funny. However, I would disagree with this assertion that the humor dies in the process; by analyzing and questioning the motivations for our laughter, we gain a greater appreciation and understanding of the relationship between ourselves and the joke, as well as their context within the rest of the world.

One of the recurring theories on why we laugh at what we laugh at was that there is something humorous in the relationship between what is considered “normal” and what actually happens. This juxtaposition between the norm and the absurd relates to Søren Kierkegaard’s Incongruity Theory, which he describes as being rooted in contradiction. He states that both tragedy and comedy are the same because of this but that the difference lies within the tragic being “the suffering contradiction” and the comic being the “painless contradiction.” There are, of course, myriad examples of things that support Kierkegaard’s theory. In both “Death Knocks” and “The Whore of Mensa,” for example, Woody Allen uses contradiction to weave humorous tales. In “Death Knocks,” the ubiquitous image of Death as a somber, ominous figure is instead replaced with a bumbling character who loses his bid to take the protagonist to the other side in a game of gin rummy. And in “The Whore of Mensa,” Allen challenges the prescribed stereotype of men lusting after women’s bodies by creating a prostitution ring in which men instead seek out intellectual trysts with these women. The language in “The Whore of Mensa” provides an additional level of amusing contradiction because it mimics the serious tone of a detective novel while discussing the absurd subject matter of man who had “cheated” on his wife by discussing The Waste Land with another woman.

However, I would have to challenge Kierkegaard’s notion that the contradiction of comedy is universally painless. In Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits,” the clerk at the candy store at the end of the story remarks, “Wist I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em.” From his perspective, the life of a black person at that time was one of bliss and joviality. The contradiction arises in the clerk’s complete unawareness that Joe’s laughter was a recent phenomena, as his negative emotions regarding Missie May’s infidelity had just begun to wane. For Joe and Missie May, the last nine months were a time of great emotional pain, and this serves as the other component to the dramatic irony that allows the clerk’s statement to become something humorous.

“The Gilded Six-Bits” also serves as an excellent example of what Mark Twain calls a “humorous story” in “How to Tell a Story.” Twain notes that in order to tell a “humorous story,” it must be relayed in a “grave” manner and that “the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.” If Hurston’s story was told with little detail in the manner of a “comic story,” the “nub,” or punchline, found in the clerk’s last words would have been a harsh blow to the audience rather than a casually spoken comment by a secondary character in the story.

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