As we continue our study of humor we are this week given a few new theories of humor to add with those that we have already looked at previously. This week the theories come from Herbert Spencer, Rene Descartes, and Sigmund Freud, all clearly comedic geniuses. Herbert Spencer’s theory of humor was more biological than those of Descartes or Freud, and also tries to directly dispute the incongruity theory of humor as well. He refutes this by offhandedly mentioning that there is an “obvious criticism that laughter often occurs from extreme pleasure or from mere vivacity” (Spencer, 99) which clearly does not result from any sort of incongruity. Spencer’s theory can essentially be boiled down to the idea that something humorous is nothing more than a nervous excitation and that “nervous excitation always tends to beget muscular motion; and when it rises to a certain intensity always does beget it” (Spencer, 100). Descartes somehow takes the idea of laughter and somehow sucks all of the fun right out of it, by beginning with his biological definition of laughter (Descartes, 21-22), but states that laughter stems from three basic emotions, wonder, hatred, and joy (Descartes, 21). Descartes seems to simply expand upon the superiority theory of humor by constantly mentioning the importance of hatred in laughter. He states that “nevertheless joy cannot cause it except when it is moderate and has some wonder or hate mingled with it” (Descartes, 22). This is furthered by saying that that even something like scorn for another is actually just a kind of joy, and often causes us to laugh because of our “perceiving some small evil in a person whom we consider to be deserving of it” (Descartes, 24) which is likely why people laugh when something slightly negative happens to Donald Trump or Mike Pence. The final theory this week comes from Freud, who yet again, somehow manages to talk about humor while simultaneously being devoid of all humor. As is stated at the beginning Freud and Spencer are rather similar and both are classified as relief theories (Freud, 111) but he later states that humor is somewhat liberating and that there is always a rebellious nature to it, rather than one of resignation (Freud, 113).
These theories can be found in the other reading, which was Zora Neale Hurston’s “Polk County”. Now it must be said I did not find this play to be particularly funny, or even that entertaining for that matter, but there are definitely instances where these theories could be ascribed to the text. One of the first instances can be found when Lonnie begins describing what he’s seen women dreaming about saying that “they dreams about hatchets, and knives, and pistols, and ice-picks and splitting open people’s heads” (Polk County, 279) which is both a combination of the incongruity theory, simply because no one is expecting someone to state that women are dreaming of weapons and murder, but also part of Spencer’s theory as well. Each additional listing continues to build up nervous excitement and once we get to the end we invariable laugh because of all the pent up excitement. Descartes’ theory can be found during the standoff between Nunkie and the Quarter Boss. The Quarter Boss shakes down Nunkie and searches him the stage direction states that he “finds about a dollar’s worth of small change and transfers it to his own pocket immediately” and then follows it up by accusing Nunkie of “stealing honest people’s money too!” (Polk County, 284) which is funny for a few reasons. Up until this point Nunkie has been portrayed as someone of a shady character, one likely to trick others out of their money, so when this evil falls upon him, as Descartes would say, we laugh because we think in some small way he deserves what is coming to him. It is also funny because of the incongruity theory as well. This whole speech by the Quarter Boss is making him seem like some sort of moral superior, when he just steals the money from Nunkie, despite the fact that it was never proven that he won it from gambling. It is clear that even if the author may not have intended to use these theories in their works, they can nevertheless be found throughout.