Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Laughter, the best medicine?

Shakespearean Humor
(Image from Wikipedia)

As an old man now, I must lean on a rickety false staff to support myself with good humor as I continue this pilgrimage of mine through life, still climbing up along my chosen career path despite the many detours that I've taken.

But my humor often gets misread, as my longsuffering Uncle Cran has reported since yesterday's humorous blog entry. For instance, in his anecdote concerning the high school reunion where everyone present was expected to offer a brief biography of life's events since graduation, he originally related:
When I got to the part about meeting Gay and our marriage, I stated, "When we got married, we were both young, shy, inexperienced, and inhibited."

Then I continued, "Our first son was born 10 and 1/2 months later," and I heard someone, (who will not be identified), make the snide remark, "Sounds like Cran got over his inhibitions!"

There were a few (shall we say, sniggers?) as those two near but unconnected comments of mine were somehow mis-applied. This demonstrates that this lady, and perhaps others of my classmates, still had thoughts in their minds not exactly appropriate for such a gathering. But I will forgive and try to forget! As only I should.
That was Uncle Cran's summary of his brief remark, and he now reports in a circular sent out to those who might have misconstrued:
Some of our classmates have written, thanking me for my report on the 52nd class reunion. One (or more?) thought I might have had my feelings hurt about the cute remarks and giggles following my account of my and Gay's marriage and son's birth. That was actually intended to elicit such a response, and is a demonstration of my twisted humor.
Others, apparently, were worried that my gentle ribbing of my dear Uncle Cran throughout yesterday's blog entry might have been intended as harsh sarcasm or as some sort of criticism

Uncle Cran, however, has reassured them:
Nephew Jeffery has again placed my account on his blog. We have a good time doing this, and all comments are meant to be funny, as he is afflicted with the same family trait of wry (some would call 'strange') humor.
I've replied to Uncle Cran:
I can well imagine that some readers might lack the [peculiar] sense of humor . . . to recognize that we are just kidding. People have often thought that my posts on fan death are serious, a severe misreading that I cannot fathom. So . . . I sometimes wonder if we should be less 'humorous'. Except that it entertains the two of us and makes my blog more interesting . . . I think . . . . As for the comment made at the reunion itself -- the one about your loss of inhibitions -- I suspected that you'd been fishing for that. Yes, we share a sense of humor, unfortunately. Both our humors are radioactive, it seems, for when your humor and mine meet on my blog, there's a nuclear reaction. We ought to threaten North Korea.
As an aside, I'd note that humor probably would be felt as a threat by the Beloved Leader, General King Jong-il.

Anyway, speaking of humor, that 'paramour of scholarly virtue', Wikipedia, offers some theories on how humor works. One of these is the "superiority theory," which says that we laugh at the misfortunes of other people because such misfortunes imply our superiority to others in their failings. Superficially, this seems to be my humor at Uncle Cran's expense, and some people might read my humor this way and take offense on Uncle Cran's part. Those people are not in on the joke, so let me explain to any who haven't understood -- my jokes about Uncle Cran do not belong to this category of humor. A different theory better conveys my meaning, the "incongruity theory," which is a bit more complicated to explain, but this theory basically says that humor is conveyed through the incongruity between what is said and what is meant. What makes my humor at Uncle Cran's expense difficult to catch is that I pretend to laugh at his misfortunes (superiority) but depend upon readers to understand that I surely don't mean what I seem to be saying (incongruity). But, as I noted, not everybody is in on the joke. Well . . . I suppose that they now are.

Humor is often complex when it occurs in literature. Take the case of Falstaff. Are we intended to laugh at him? Or with him? Our reason for laughing says something about us. On the Milton List a couple of weeks ago, a question was raised about humor in Paradise Lost. Several scholars gave examples, and I offered a line by Eve in which she responds to the serpent's multiple, excessively over-the-top compliments on her wonderful qualities by doubting that the forbidden fruit truly conveys wisdom:
In my opinion, Eve has the funniest line in Paradise Lost. Immediately after Satan in serpent form has praised Eve with excessive compliments, she retorts:

Serpent, thy overpraising leaves in doubt
The vertue of that Fruit, in thee first prov'd: (PL 9.615-6)

I always have to laugh when I read Eve's remark. But is she aware of the humor . . . or is this solely Milton's joke?
In a recent offlist email, I received a belated response to my question from the scholar David Ainsworth:
Nothing like this time of year for a delayed response.

I think unquestionably that there's a joke here, on several layers. If Eve doesn't mean the contradiction, then she must be using "prov'd" in the sense of being tested or made trial of. Milton would unquestionably appreciate that this other usage of the word aligns itself not just with testing but with *tasting* in particular. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] doesn't list many usages specific to tasting, but the quibble on test/taste was common enough even outside circumstances like this one.

I suspect there's plenty of bilingual or trilingual plays on words in Milton's poetry which slip past readers.

As for Eve's awareness -- I guess that depends on how close to falling one believes her at this moment. The more she's chiding Satan for praise which she has secretly embraced, the more calculated this response will seem. For me, part of what I appreciate about lines like these is that Eve can mean the joke regardless of how she's taking in the situation, but that the purpose of the humor shifts -- she's either expressing false humility by affirming the serpent's judgment by affirming the fruit's virtue, or she's genuinely chiding the serpent.

Sadly, I suspect in context that Eve's doubt of the fruit must be seen as her humor, deployed precisely in a situation where Satan's overpraising genuinely ought to lead her to genuine doubt.
I take Professor Ainsworth's point to be that Eve only pretends to doubt the fruit's power to bring wisdom, for she secretly enjoys the serpent's attentions and wants to believe the serpent truly wise and therefore correct. As Professor Ainsworth notes, the humor can work on several levels. One possibility is that the reader will react as the superiority theory might predict -- with a sort of judgemental humor, as though one felt superior to Eve and were silently thinking I wouldn't fall for that flattery! Milton, however, thinks that we would fall for it -- if Stanley Fish is right about Milton tempting the reader to fall into sin along with Eve and Adam by encouraging us to identify with Satan. If so, there comes a moment of grim, ironic incongruity as we recognize that Milton is not merely describing Eve but also describing us. If such is the case, then echoing Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet, I can say, "That is a failing indeed, . . . [but] I really cannot laugh at it."

And with those words, I must now exit this stage and begin my day.

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At 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Surely you jest. Fan Death is REAL and SERIOUS.

(Further evidence should be amply evident in Cran's "observations" and "carryings-on" simply by noting that he himself has admitted to sleeping, YES ACTUALLY SLEEPING in a room with a whirling fan.)


At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I merely meant that fan death does not cause death. Of course, it causes severe dementia . . . and the dementia kills the victim. Hence the misnomer: "Fan Death."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To think of all the wasted counsel I have heaped upon Jeffery, hoping to wean him from his excessive blogging on the danger of fan death.....!
Now it turns out he was likely secretly laughing at my tilting at my personal windmill, death.
Is there no end of Jeffery's deceitfulnesss?


At 9:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sadly, Uncle Cran, I get nearer that end as I grow ever older. Shame on you for wishing to hasten that day!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was beginning to think for some few moments Jeff that you, like Cran, had been seriously effectualized (and therefore - affectualized) by ethereal perturbations.


I am happy to see that you continue to humor me (although my fear is real)...

and Cran's (which since I know he doesn't partake copiously of the youth vitamin - reserverallpatronize - however it's spelled... all I know is that it is in red wine and inhibited youths, anyway...

I KNOW Fan Death is real.

After all, I've read Cran's blogs even here. Of course I've read them on the National Enquirer's grocery store check out line too - (not in my basket: it's just that my eyesight is pretty good) - anyway... I had a terrible worry that you'd come too far under Cran's sway.

Please Doctor Hodges, remember - you are not "Bull Doggin' Methusalah Hodges" who sleeps on lakes and separates mighty foes in mortal combat by simply chugging the last of whatever "non"alcohol containing beverage it was that "only once has passed my lips."

Ah. I'd suggest keeping loose change (especially dimes) in quarentine. Except that... well except that 1940's dimes are cheaper than 2000 and something dimes. At least not


There must be a fan running nearby.


At 5:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you must be a popular gentleman indeed to have your own fans running after you. I expect that you can move pretty quickly when you have to.

Jeffery Hodges

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