Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Apotheosis of Wit

While discussing Hau'ofa, our class discussions touched on the notion that humor is primarily contextual: in order for expectations to fail we must have set expectations; in order for the absurd to be transgressive, there must be a normalcy that can be transgressed. However, we didn't dwell on the notion of context, often focusing on the immediate explanation for a joke. Metaphysics, theology, anthropology: the approaches in today's readings (whether expressed through academic writing or through literature) are all about "contexts"—of culture, of life, of the divine plan, and of the universe.

Turner, in "Images of Anti-Temporality," describes two facets of human experience: firstly, that we are inherently social creatures. I think modern liberal capitalism has a tendency to alienate us from that reality, unless we actively fight back. ("I tried to cooperate with grace, which is to say, I did not turn on the TV," the narrator says in “Ham of God.”) Turner also describes a second facet of human experience: that time doesn't move rhythmically, but rather in leaps and bounds of narrative, in breaches of the social order.

Douglas analyzes the combination of the funereal and the scatalogical that combine to form the foundation of a typical African joke structure. He steps back to see how jokes play roles in the broader cultural rituals of our life, and even suggesting that jokes themselves are a form of death (Douglas 160). Jokes are both a breach of cultural norms and a coming-to-grips with the deepest mysteries of human experience.

If my analysis is correct, I think that this gives a two-fold meaning to LaMott's short story “Ham of God.” Aspects of this story are absurd; one of the funniest moments comes when the narrator, hoping for help from God, is instead handed a free ham at the check-out counter at the grocery store. But on a higher level, shouldn't we all be wondering sometimes if God sometimes laughs at our own breaches of God's plan? LaMott's narrator is frustrated that the Iraq war is a breach of plan of “the left”: this isn't the direction the country is supposed to be going! Father Tom helpfully puts into perspective that God doesn't abandon people in suffering. He doesn't try to explain the divine plan, but reminds the narrator that there is one, and that we each have a small part to play.

The great joke of the whole story occurs when the narrator receives a ham. Not only does this violate our typical expectations at a grocery store (maybe we'd be less surprised at a Casino, where one is supposed to win things!), but it also doesn't conform to the narrator's plan for herself. The humor actually has a genuine and life-giving part to play in a plan much greater than the capitalistic enterprise of Coca-Cola bottles, Ritz Crackers, and organic bananas. Although the narrator's reception of the ham is humorous, the humor dissipates when her friend actually needs the ham.

Millman's travel narrative presents us with a similar scenario: Gudmundur, the Icelandic trawler captain who speaks poor English, doesn't like threesomes, writes poetry and collects shards of ancient Icelandic mythological heritage, is a tremendously humorous character! But his humor comes from two of our contexts: firstly, our non-Northern Atlantic Western culture, in which thousand-year old feuds and ancient relics are completely foreign, even humorous, concepts. Secondly, we don't have a story in which to fit Gudmundur. The narrator is traveling to Turkey! This Icelandic man seemingly emerges out of nowhere. But from Gudmundur's perspective, he isn't a humorous person simply in his act of being. In fact, he's travelling for work, having his romantic life interfered with, and sharing a piece of his treasured national heritage with a strange American fellow. And within Millman's narrative, Gudmundur is the “thorn in the side” that eventually leads the author to explore the North Atlantic, meeting more fishermen and shepards and priests whose day-to-day lives conform to a whole series of plans and expectations, but for an outsider are quite funny. I don't know if Millman is religious or not, but it would certainly seem to be part of God's plan that he met Gudmundur.

Both Millman and LaMott present narrators who encounter humorous scenarios that later are more providential than funny. Returning to Turner, this speaks to his notion of human experience as yearning for connection, even while our own selfish natures and individualistic society try to prevent us from building meaningful connections. I previously discussed how Turner's theory of history relies largely on breaches in the social order, much like African jokes rely on breaches in the social order that must be understood in order to be humorous. Turner's theory of history also suggests that events must happen within culture for history to even move forward (although whether human society is improving or disintegrating can take hundreds or thousands of years to know: LaMott's quote from Chou En-lai speaks to this).

I would suggest that in our lives, which occur within cultural norms, personal plans, subjective expectations, and ultimately, a divine plan, our personal narratives move forward not rhythmically, but unevenly. And the great leaps of our personal narratives, as experienced by the narrator of “Ham of God,” occur when God reveals His plan. For someone who isn't religious, I imagine these moments would come when the “next step” suddenly makes sense, and the next door to one's future is opened, even if subsequent doors remain hidden and still closed. (A Jesuit I know once told me that sometimes all God is asking us to do is to try something—it's in the trying that we'll learn whether or not we are supposed to succeed.)

A person of prayer myself, I certainly know the feeling that time has come to a standstill. I often feel as if my own temporality (my own history) could be recorded by reference to dates and times and places when suddenly "the plan" made sense, when God's plan unfolded in front of me just one little inch more. And the dry spells in between those miniature revelations? A desert, a chaos, a formless void, as Turner describes. Much like LaMott's experience laying in bed on her birthday, hopeless and despairing. Already halfway through the fall semester, I feel like time is moving too fast! Perhaps that's because in my subjective experience of time, the rhythms of life have continued uninterrupted by any recent divine revelation. I will remain precisely the person I was at that last “God-moment.” Father's Tom advice here might be that there is a divine rhythm, a reason for every moment, and that from God's perspective, history marches forward precisely as planned, even when we subjectively feel like it moves in fits and starts.

Douglas suggests (echoing Turner) that African cultures have reached an “apotheosis of wit” and that the joke rite reflects the “conditions of human knowledge” (Douglas 162). Yes! Jokes are all about what we think we know and what we actually know—not only in the present moment, but in broader cultural contexts and at the very fringes of human existence.

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