Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Understated Reality

Catlin Castan
Dr. Ellis
Humor Studies
10 October 2014
Understated Reality
            LaMott begins her narrative with, “On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death”(3). Similarly, on the first page of Last Places, Millman offers us the image of “a little half-digested sheep’s brain salad on the floor”(1). While LaMott and Millman describe very different situations, both authors use the same technique of understatement to convey their authorial messages. By “playing down” things like suicide, exposed bodily fluids, and death—things we usually regard as serious--LaMott and Millman catch us off guard as they invert and reintroduce our conventional understanding of these occurrences. In doing so, we are more easily able to identity points of literary emphasis and approach the difficult content of their writing. Specifically, in Last Places, Millman describes a man that he sits next to, he explains:
            “Indeed, he was so composed that when a particularly violent lurch sent two dozen raki glasses crashing to the floor, he didn’t bother to look up from the notebook in which he was writing. A short while later I found out that the      man’s name was Gudmundur”(2-3).            
In this excerpt we notice that Millman chooses to articulate the concept of death through the subtle mention of the man not “looking up”. While we may be a bit confused as to what actually transpires, Millman aims to clarify this ambiguity by using verbs in the past tense when describing the same man in the following sentences. As we come to understand the gravity of the situation, we begin to question Millman and the appropriateness of his trivializing of death—we struggle to find firm ground to stand on.
            While reading “Ham of God”, LaMott also makes it difficult for us to find sturdy ground. Specifically, LaMott flawlessly constructs a narrative in which she overly expresses her discontent for President George W. Bush, however; Amidst her endless critique of politics, appeals to suicide, death, and food, we begin to understand LaMott’s most important message: that of faith. Here, we notice—as LaMott does—that despite our many differences, faith is universal.
            Towards the end of LaMott’s piece, we learn that she wins a free ham—a quite random and rather awkward thing to win. Interestingly, though, this seemingly mundane “prize” becomes an act of God—a divine miracle—as we observe her gifting the ham to an old friend who is in need. In this moment, LaMott transforms the everyday into something that is sacred. She also reveals our humanly capacity to become divine through small, selfless (and sometimes absurd) acts—she urges us to find faith within our own lives and does so without coming off as the overbearing preacher.
            After reading Turner’s piece, I felt that he touched upon a lot of what authors such as LaMott and Millman are doing—that is: performing a narrative ritual for their audiences. Specifically, Turner explains:
            “Theater, though, breaks the unity of the congregation which is ritual’s  characteristic performative unit, converting total obligatory participation into the voluntary watching of actors by an audience. Such dualism and   distancing create the possibility of critique . . . and the possibility of subjunctive evaluation of what was tribally most sacred and beyond question may be a lively item on the cultural agenda”(255). While reading LaMott’s piece, it is unlikely that we would arrive at the same conclusion—universal faith—if it weren’t for LaMott’s commitment to chaos and absurdity; through her narrative style we are able to achieve the appropriate “distance” that Turner explains is essential to our experience as critical readers.

            Humor makes this same experience possible. Similar to many of the other authors we have read—especially Douglas—we have learned the ways in which humor functions as a disorienting and distancing agent that ultimately promotes self-reflection and awareness. In “The Joke”, Douglas explains how humor serves to highlight various social structures and conventions. I tend to like Douglas’ notion of humor as an “identifier” because it coincides with our semester long debate over humor’s ability to bring about social justice. While I am still uncertain as to where I stand regarding the matter, I would like to think that humorous writers--or perhaps the act of ritual—at the very least make their audiences “aware of what was hidden before”(Turner 248).

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