Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Critchley, Simon. On Humour. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Critchley's book has probably become one of the most-cited overviews of the topic of humour. He traces the three prominent theories of humour: superiority, relief and incongruity, along with descriptions of laughter from classical through to recent texts. His chapters deal with topics ranging from the question of whether humour is particular to humans, the body and humour, Bergson's notion of the mechanical and laughter, ethnic humour, the idea of humour as creating community and Freud's theories on humour. Much of the book simply and concisely outlines discussions that have occurred around these topics. For instance, in his chapter on ethnic humour, Critchley suggests that ethnic jokes reveal the repressed anxieties of the teller (75). In humour, Critchley argues that we align and differentiate ourselves with communities, both in ways we find pleasurable and positive and in ways we find uncomfortable.

Critchley offers Freud the last word on humour, focusing his final chapter on his late essay "Humor," in particular. The chapter moves from laughter and humour to a discussion of the smile. He writes, "a smile is the mark of the eccentricity of the human situation: between beasts and angels, between being and having, between the physical and metaphysical. We are thoroughly material beings that are unable to be that materiality. Such is the curse of reflection, but such also is the source of our dignity. Humour is he daily bread of that dignity" (109). The chapter finally closes with Beckett, a playwright whose humour is often not at all risible and whose smiles are rife with a range of emotions and negations. He concludes, paraphrasing Beckett between his hyphens,

For me, it is this smile—deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation—that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yes, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness. (111)

It's interesting that Critchley moves away from laughter at this moment and towards the smile. I think his focus on laughter (and smiling) stems from his interest in the bodily experience of humour, but the study of humour (as opposed to its physiological response) precludes distinctions between smiles and laughter (or smiles as laughter as this concluding quote seems to suggest) as evidence of humour's occurrence or as part of its analysis. I'm not sure that the smile in this case indicates a laughter at unhappiness, but does indicate the linkage between affect and humour, or the notion that humour acts as a microcosm of our affective relation to our existential situation. Moreover, privileging wretchedness as greatness seems a potentially problematic move without further analysis or support, though it's a provocative idea.

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