Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Humor, Madness; Man and Beast

Every spring my peaceful early-morning commuter train is transformed by the presence of The Tourists.  Usually these are families with kids; and usually the kids are pretty well-behaved (the other kind ride Metro), so I don't mind too much.  It does break the morning stillness though, having half-a-dozen people jabbering behind you about what they're going to have for breakfast, while you're trying to figure out why JPII said "dynamism" (or the Italian equivalent) when "power" is a more intelligible and traditional translation of St. Paul.

It struck me, as I sat there and listened to the family touring, that they were happy—giddy, actually—and they sounded a little crazy in the way that happy people who know each other well tend to sound.  Witty one-liners can ring like non-sequiturs when the listeners don't know the context; and that's the way this family's (I presume) witty one-liners rung to me.

Humor and insanity ... they've always been linked.  Grinning for one's portrait was once considered a sign of insanity—not, supposedly, because the pop culturati of the 18th Century thought being moody was all that, but because most people had bad teeth (if any) back then, and so anyone who smiled in such a way as to show them was considered certifiable.  Even into the 20th century the something of phenomenon persisted; I remember my grandmother never gave more than a thin-lipped smile for the camera, because her teeth hadn't been straightened.  Oh, times change ...

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.  Humor and insanity are still linked, and the linkage is not quite an arbitrary one.  Humor and insanity, as twin derangements of reason, are two means by which man is distinguished from the other animals.

The hyena may laugh, but we know better than to think it is because he finds us funny.  The apes may laugh—whether or not they possess an incipient sense of humor is less clear.  Certainly there have been cases of apes and others among the more intelligent and sociable species playing what a human might describe as "practical jokes".  But however practical the simian humor might prove to be, and however humorous they may find it, I do not think we shall ever see the apes engaging in elaborate word play, any more than we will find them philosophizing.

As for insanity—certainly an ape can be insane in the sense that it can be non-functioning per the usual requirements of its group (or even per the Darwinian demands of basic survival).  So too, a human being.  What an ape cannot do is be insane in that peculiarly human way that (for example) the upstairs brother in Arsenic and Old Lace is insane.  An ape cannot suppose himself to be Teddy Roosevelt.  An ape cannot form the least conception of what it would mean to be Teddy Roosevelt.  Simian society does produce historical figures of a complexity at all approaching that of Teddy Roosevelt; in fact, there is no evidence (so far as I know) that simian societies produce historical figures at all.  The memory of animals seems to be a fleeting thing, present in the return of a familiar figure but not (so far as we can tell) by its absence.  Grandpa Ape may be missed when he leaves, and greeted joyfully when he returns (if he has not been replaced by a new dominant male); but once Grandpa and all those who experienced his reign are deceased, there is no sense among the great-grandchildren—who have never seen him—that he ever existed.  Personal experience is everything to an animal.  However affectionate the ape may be within its own familial circle, it is—on the cognitive level—profoundly disconnected from its species as a whole.

Not so man.  Part of what it is to be human is to recognize the connection between oneself and one's whole species: close family, remote ancestors, distant descendants.  That connection provides the common and sustained experience, rich in stereotypes and generalizations, which is essential to The Joke.  Mothers-in-law are funny in the particular only because they are thought of in general.  The first mother-in-law cannot have been very funny, per se, because there was no such thing at that point in time as "mothers-in-law in general".  Apes do not tell jokes about mothers-in-law, because they have no such thing as "mothers-in-law in general".  Apes do laugh at pratfalls, because those can be funny in the particular: the most general knowledge required for that kind of humor is a knowledge of the individual falling.

Restricted, provincial, cabined—those are the adjectives belonging to the ape's conception of his own nature and social structures.  They are experienced, but not known; lived and even enforced, but not questioned.  So with the man insane; and it is the constriction of his viewpoint that leads us to question his sanity, to say that his reason is deranged, his thoughts are put out of line.  The humorist is another matter; the more threads he can draw together in his hand, the better the joke will be—and he knows it.  His thoughts are indeed put out of line, but their very derangement presupposes a broad, prior, very much arranged reality.  He is not merely a social, but a quintessentially societal animal.

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