On Humor, Freud, and Falling Down: Part 2 (of 2)

Freud, later on in “The ‘Uncanny’,” recognizes that there is a difference between the uncanny produced in real life and the uncanny produced in art. Some situations that would be uncanny in real life, Freud says, are not uncanny in art and vice versa. He gives the example of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, in which “household utensils, furniture, and tin soldiers are alive.” 

If this were to happen in real life, Freud thinks, it would certainly produce feelings of the uncanny. However, when it comes to Andersen’s fairy tales, he sees no evidence of the uncanny in them. This problem, he says, “probably calls for an aesthetic inquiry,” which he then proceeds to do. The conclusion he arrives at, regarding the uncanny, is very much in line with Kierkegaard’s conclusion regarding humor. Kierkegaard’s theory of humor is considered an incongruity theory. It’s for this reason, and for others, that Freud’s notion of the uncanny goes a long way toward establishing his (incongruity) theory of humor.

So why are some incongruities (between familiar and strange) uncanny and others are not? We might also ask why some incongruities are humorous and others are not?

No one philosopher has thoroughly answered either question. This is to be expected, at least in the case of humor, because answering the question would mean arriving at a sufficient condition for humor, which most philosophers agree probably doesn’t exist.

***

Michael Clark is an incongruity theorist. Though he doesn’t believe that there are any sufficient conditions for humor (that is, a condition that guarantees humor), he does believe in at least one necessary condition. Contradiction, he says, is a necessary condition, that is, without contradiction or incongruity, humor couldn’t exist. Likewise, for Freud, contradiction is a necessary condition for the uncanny. Without it, the uncanny couldn’t exist either.

Freud, therefore, answers his question about why Hans Christian Andersen’s talking teapot isn’t uncanny.  

In a world in which the idea of a talking teapot has been repressed or surmounted, it would be uncanny to see one slide across the table, singing. Such would imply a contradiction. However, in Andersen’s fairy tales, “the world of reality is left behind from the very start,” and the repressed beliefs are adopted as the norm. Thus, not only is it possible for a teapot to talk, it’s normal. That dialectical tension (between the conscious familiar and the repressed strange) that would have existed in the real world unravels in the fairy tale.

***

Someone slipping on a banana peel is usually funny.

When is it not funny? Michael Clark, and others, would say when there is no contradiction or incongruity present. What incongruities does a person slipping on a banana peel usually present? The most obvious incongruity is that of the person’s intention and the actual outcome. The person doesn’t intend, and is perhaps not disposed, to slip and fall, so the fall presents an incongruity both for the person falling and for anyone who may be watching. What would make the slip and fall on the banana peel less humorous? Less contradiction, Kierkegaard says.

“When something that is in itself comical has become customary, and so belongs to the order of the day, it does not arouse attention…When we know that a man suffers from distraction [and clumsiness], we become familiar with it and do not reflect upon the contradiction.” In fact, the contradiction all but vanishes. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, it’s normal for the teapot to talk, just as it’s normal for the clumsy man to slip and fall. Without that dialectical tension, there is neither the uncanny nor humor. 

But what about the slip and fall from the perspective of him who slips and falls? If the man is not disposed to clumsiness, then certainly, upon falling, he experiences the same contradiction as a bystander. We wouldn’t expect, though, that he would find the slip and fall as funny as the bystander. Why not? What’s different?

Here Kierkegaard is not of much use. In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he talks of the “suffering contradiction” of tragedy and the “painless contradiction” of humor. But what makes one painless and the other suffering? His answer is somewhat circular.

I want to suggest one dimension of dialectical thinking (one given little attention in humor theory) that contributes greatly to how a contradiction is perceived: time. By time, I mean duration. Why does he who slips and falls on the banana peel see the resulting contradiction as tending toward “suffering”? One reason is that, on average, he has to think about the contradiction for longer than the bystanders who witnessed it. And if he was seriously injured in the fall, this will only increase the time he spends thinking about the contradiction. His thinking might even turn to brooding.

Humor, then, seems to prevail only when an incongruity is perceived for a short period of time. The longer you think about a joke, the less funny it is. This is one of the reasons why the explanation of a joke—which always takes longer than the joke itself—never gets the laugh the original joke did. Or any laugh at all. On the contrary, spending too much time immersed in the dialectic of a good joke can reveal what Simon Critchley calls “the black sun of depression at the centre of the comic universe.”   

In their essay “Belief and the Basis of Humor,” Hugh LaFollete and Nial Shanks use the term “flickering” to describe the dialectical movement between “belief sets” that occurs during a humorous situation. This flickering, they say, is “speedy”; however, duration doesn’t factor into their analysis at all.

***

If what I’ve said about humor and duration is true, then we need to consider the implications this has for ethics. On the one hand, as John Lippitt argues, humor can help us cultivate the virtues of self-recognition, self-knowledge, and self-transcendence. Being able to “inhabit” multiple “belief sets” is definitely a step in the right direction. 

However, it’s not enough. Humor is not enough. These other belief sets deserve more than just a “flickering” of our attention. They deserve critical, dialectical engagement, and this is no laughing matter.

 

The works I consulted for this post:

Michael Clark, “Humor and Incongruity”

Oliver Connolly & Bashshar Haydar, “The Good, The Bad, and The Funny”

Simon Critchley, On Humour

Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”

Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks, “Belief and the Basis of Humor”

John Lippitt, “Humour and Release”

John Lippitt, “Is a Sense of Humour a Virtue?”

John Morreall (ed.), The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor

Stephen CicirelliComment