Monday, January 30, 2017

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Neutrality of Time

While preparing to write this literary analysis, I put myself in a situation that connects to not only the theories of humor we discussed in class, but also the ideas presented by Thomas Hobbes.  In class, we agreed that comedy can be a combination of tragedy and time, because many of our memories that we laugh at are ones that were painful when we experienced them.  As I prepared to write my literary analysis, I opened my folder to discover that the excerpts I had printed out and taken notes on were nowhere to be found.  I spent twenty minutes, frantically running around my apartment, opening every folder and notebook I had.  I even pulled my mattress off the bed frame to make sure I had not dropped the paper under my bed.  I finally found my papers lodged in the back of a binder I use to organize papers for a club.  My roommates immediately laughed as I screamed in frustration.  Their laughter in that moment was in line with one of the sources of laughter explored by Thomas Hobbes.  He writes, “Also men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated” (Hobbes 20).  He believes that laughter is caused when one person witnesses the tragedy or folly of another, and the person laughing realizes that they are superior in some way.  My roommates laughed at me because they recognized that they were more organized and not stressed about losing their schoolwork.  Their laughter in this moment was not malicious, but it could be construed that way by an outsider.  This is closer to the kind of laughter discussed by Hobbes and Plato.  Hobbes views laughter as something triggered by feelings of glory for oneself, especially when faced with the failings of others.  Plato echoes this sentiment in his dialogue between Protarchus and Socrates, stating, “When we laugh at what is ridiculous in our friends, our pleasure, in mixing with malice, mixes with pain, for we have agreed that malice is pain of the soul, and that laughter is pleasant, and on these occasions we both feel malice and laugh” (13).  Plato and Hobbes provide explanations of laughter that provide a darker view of humanity.  Humor, in their minds, is rooted in the pain and conceptions of inferiority in others.  This makes laughter an expression of malicious intent rather than an expression of exuberance or joy. 
            Immanuel Kant and Soren Kierkegaard present ideas on the sources of humor and laughter that are less rooted in malice than the ideas of Plato and Hobbes.  Kant believes that laughter is a lower form of pleasure than the appreciation of art, but he does not attribute it to malice.  Instead he states that laughter is connected to absurdity and the undermining of reason.  He states, “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing” (Kant 47).  This theory of comedy also relates to the idea in class that humor can come from the reversal of expectations.  When something is expected to turn out in one way and ends up with completely different results, people often laugh because their expectations are met with absurdity.  This is employed quite often in Tales of the Tikongs, where Hau’ofa constructs an entire fictional society based in absurdity, often flipping the reader’s perceptions of people of faith through the impious behavior of the people of Tiko.  They live in sin, but believe they are still morally safe because they repent every time they sin.  This also connects to Kierkegaard’s ideas on comedy.  He writes, “The comical is present in every stage of life…for wherever there is life, there is contradiction, and wherever there is contradiction, the comical is present. The tragic and the comic are the same, in so far as both are based in contradiction” (Kierkegaard 83). He places less emphasis on the absurdity of the outcome, but he still acknowledges that comedy comes from contradiction and what is unexpected.  Contradiction’s relation to comedy makes sense in light of the idea that tragedy is also tied to comedy.  Being able to laugh in the face of sadness is, in itself, a form of contradiction.  Tragedy is thought to bring sadness and despair in the people who experience.  Laughter, which is often an expression of joy, defies the expectation of sadness.  The combination of laughter and tragedy connects back to the ideas of Plato and Hobbes, but Kierkegaard has a different focus on tragedy.  Unlike Plato and Hobbes, he does not focus on the idea that tragedy must reveal a defect in another person to produce laughter; he believes that tragedy and laughter are essentially connected in their structure.  This is an intriguing way to expand upon the ideas of Plato and Hobbes because Kierkegaard does not depict human beings as malicious when they experience laughter.

            Malicious intentions and feelings of superiority are the basis of Plato and Hobbes’ theories on humor, but they also serve as a basis for injustices.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham Jail when he was imprisoned for participating in demonstrations against segregation.  His words come from his frustration in the world around him; he hated the cruelty that came with segregation and racism, and wanted to speak out to bring about change in his society.  One interesting view that Dr. King offers is the perception of time.  One of the arguments that people opposed to his movement use is that more time is needed for change to take place, because time is a force of change.  Dr. King refutes this, saying, “It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.  Actually, time is neutral.  It can be used either destructively or constructively” (4).  This is observation is important not only in matters of social justice, but also in matters of comedy.  When discussing social justice, time, especially time that has already past, can often be deeply connected to injustices.  For example, when looking to the past, there are countless things like slavery and genocide that have happened and cannot be reversed. Dr. King is right to say that time can be constructive and destructive.  As time passes, action must be taken to change the social problems that already exist, otherwise they will be perpetuated.  Time cannot stop injustice on its own.  This is why Fr. Kolvenbach emphasizes the need for Jesuit universities to shape students to become agents of change in the future.  He states, “The students need close involvement with the poor and the marginal now, in order to learn about reality and become adults of solidarity in the future” (Kolvenbach 15).  Using time effectively requires taking advantage of the present, learning from it, and using that knowledge to shape the future.  Dr. King is correct to say that time itself cannot bring about necessary change to the injustices that exist.  Ideas without concrete action cannot truly take shape.  The idea of having to actively use time to create change in the world also relates back to one of the formulas for comedy that we discussed in class: comedy is tragedy plus time.  To be able to look back at something that was tragic in the moment and find comedy of it in the present requires careful use of time.  If a person does not use the time after their tragedy in a constructive manner, working towards healing, they will not be able to recover from the tragedy.  This can make the pain from the experience fester and overtake the person.  Healing and finding comedy in the past can help a person grow as a person, especially since they will be able to recognize past mistakes to prevent them from reoccurring in the future.  This is similar to the ideas of Kolvenbach and King because it emphasizes that time must be used constructively when looking at the past for change to take place that improves the future. 

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