Friday, January 13, 2012

sense of humor, sense of balance

The other day I got to thinking about humors. Not haha humor, but the four humors that became the underpinning of Greek and Roman medicine.. and then continued to dominate Western beliefs about the human body and sickness for 2,000 years.

In short, the theory was that when a person was healthy, his four humors (four different bodily substances - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood) were all in the appropriate balance. Thus, illness came from an imbalance; having too much phlegm, for instance, meant that your lungs would be clogged up. Turns out, that's true. But, further, the humors were thought to influence your temperament as well. The excess of phlegm not only meant having a cold, it meant being sluggish and even timid. An imbalanced person would permanently exhibit these qualities, thereby defining his personality in terms of his humors.

Now, what got me to thinking is our phrase "sense of humor." So-and-so has such a good sense of humor. Etymologically, there is a connection. The above phlegmatic person or person with a chronic imbalance of liquids in his body would be a sort of eccentric, an odd duck. As time passed, the word 'humor' took on this meaning of oddness directly. After more time passed, it came to mean someone who took note of the oddities of life itself and could comment on them in order to make others laugh. By the early 18th century, the word humorous was being used to refer to those with whimsy, whit, and a laughable take on life (i.e. a sense of humor), the word funny itself appearing about 50 years afterwards.

My students used to laugh at the antiquated existence of their favorite term, saucy (kids think they've discovered everything, but mine took delight in finding the word in Shakespeare...), but it makes quite a lot of sense when you consider the above history of humors. For example, a short take from George Eliot:
Tommy was a saucy boy, impervious to all impressions of reverence, and excessively addicted to humming-tops and marbles, with which recreative resources he was in the habit of immoderately distending the pockets of his corduroys.
So, saucy, this irreverent cheekiness, comes in the form of a word referring to liquids, and also, in older times, to a certain salty quality. Our language still reflects the long-standing (and now long debunked) belief in humors.

But, there is even more that remains. We do not just possess humor, we possess a sense of humor... the suggestion being that seeing what is funny in life requires some kind of balance, and moreover, an ability to consciously recognize that balance. In other words, I won't be able to appreciate the levity of a baby laughing at peek-a-boo unless I understand the heaviness of some other tragic or traumatic life experience... or I won't be able to appreciate it as much.

But there is another kind of balance to humor. I've reproduced H.W. Fowler's table -- which categorizes types of humor -- below:

Throwing light
Inflicting pain
Human nature
Words & ideas
Morals & manners
Faults & foibles
The sympathetic
The intelligent
The self-satisfied
Victim & bystander
H.W. Fowler, "Modern English Usage" (1926)

Self- justification
Statement of facts
Direct statement
Exposure of nakedness
The public
An inner circle
The respectable
The self

Much like the original humors having been 'discovered' after watching blood clot and separate into four distinct layers, the modern sense of humor (according to Fowler) is based on observation and motivated by a similar desire to discover. And does it surprise that our most common modern type is the sarcastic when we see that his audience is the victimized? For we too often see ourselves as victims and pass off responsibility like a disease when it is in fact a privilege (this topic to be explored in an upcoming blog.)

Funny is not just funny. Humor changes and reflects the culture in which it originated. Teenagers reading Shakespeare will understand the jokes that refer to universal human behavior, but not the ones that refer to quirks and practices of the times. There is an actual scientific difference, in terms of activated brain activity, between recognizing a joke and finding it pleasure-inducing.

Humor is part of the balance of life. Black comedy is popular because sometimes our only saving grace in times of tragedy is to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. To laugh at the heaviness sometimes physically counters it. As Winston Churchill said, "A joke is a very serious thing."

Thus, humor is part of the balance.. and part of our defense again the imbalance. Freud thought that laughter was merely a release of tension, but recent science suggests that humor enables us to violate the world and its rules. Thereby, we are back in control. We can say what we cannot do and we can imagine what will never be. Maybe laughter is our modern form of blood-letting. :-)


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