Monthly Archives: October 2013

~ On Laughing at Life’s Absurdities

“Man is the only animal who enjoys the consolation of believing in a next life; all other animals enjoy the consolation of not worrying about it.”            ~Robert Brault

Laughter is so quintessentially human.

Hyenas may sound like they are laughing, but that is just us anthropomorphizing as always, trying to see ourselves in everything.   Thus, while scientific studies have shown that certain species emit laughter when tickled1, human laughter goes beyond a mere physiological response to stimuli.    “Although nonhuman primates laugh, human humor seems to involve more specialized cognitive networks that are unshared by other species…. A sense of humor—especially adult humor—requires cognitive mechanisms that may not be present in other species.”1

So while there is some basis for laughter in other animals, a sense of humor appears to be unique to human beings.

But why?  What about our existence makes laughter so necessary?

Interestingly, I only seriously pondered this question while teaching Hamlet, arguably one of the most famous tragedies in all of literature. Towards the end of play, there is a scene where a gravedigger sings as he tosses skulls about, making puns about the living and the dead, seemingly unfazed by the evidence of human frailty and impermanence that surround him.  This attitude sharply contrasts with the depressed prince of Denmark’s who is somewhat disturbed by the gravedigger’s irreverent humor.

Studying this scene led to an interesting question: why did Shakespeare decide to include this bit of comedy in what is otherwise so obviously a tragedy?

And while there are many possible answers, I found the most compelling argument to be that this is Shakespeare demonstrating humor as a healthier reaction to the absurdities of life, and specifically in this play to the awareness of one’s own mortality, than depression or inaction, which is how Hamlet deals with death.

Because life and in particular, death, is just that – absurd.   It is hard to digest the ridiculous fact that one moment we are here – living, breathing, feeling; a whole network of neurons making meaning out of the meaningless – and then in another moment, we are gone.   Poof.  No return.  No proof of anything after.

Writer and philosopher Albert Camus explored this harsh reality.   He proposed that there are several possible reactions when confronted with life’s absurdities:  like Hamlet is for the majority of the play, we can be defeated by it (depression or suicide); or we can invent stories that help us cope with it (religion); or we can be courageous and keep striving for goodness and greatness regardless of the potential futility of our struggles.

Or in other words, we can laugh in the face of death.   We can find humor in what should be an utterly humorless subject and thus prove that we are not undone by our awareness.   We can choose to be brave by chuckling, giggling, and guffawing even though we are creatures that live day after day, knowing that each one may be our last.  As beings who ponder the purpose of our existence and its finite nature, we need laughter.  It is a way of giving the Grim Reaper a big fat middle finger, an act of defiance, a refusal to submit to the absurdity that is life.

This defiant aspect of humor is thoroughly explored in Rudolf Herzog’s book Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany.  In it, Herzog demonstrates how the German people found what little voice they had through humor.   For example, there’s the one about Hitler and Göring standing on top of the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on the Berliners’ faces. Göring says, “Why don’t you jump?”

When a woman told this joke in Germany in 1943, she was arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to death by guillotine.   While I’m sure she didn’t consider her little joke an act of sedition, the fact that by 1943, 1192 people were executed for similar offenses demonstrates the subversive power of humor.

Jokes are not merely something to be dismissed; they carry a weight, a spirit of resistance that those in power fear.   To find humor in the difficulty, the unpredictability, and the unfairness of life is a form of rebellion in itself.

Yet, some people might argue that this type of humor is not always a good thing, that to laugh at poverty or war or cruelty is to downplay or distract from these serious issues.  But this criticism assumes our entire existence consists of jokes, which unfortunately it does not.    Comedy is only a momentary reprieve from reality.  It is merely a pressure valve, necessary for venting the vapors of sorrow that might otherwise suffocate our existence.

This is exactly the sensation I experience when watching The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.    Both force me to face the idiotic action (or inaction) of our government and the bigotry and ignorance of human beings without wanting to cry in frustration or hopelessness…or at least they help me to laugh through the tears.   Similarly, a show like the new Ricky Gervais series, Derek, helps me to confront aging, dying, and mental disability, subjects I would otherwise be likely to avoid, with humor and grace.

And in this way, we are lucky.  Because even though life can be painful and filled with injustices and hardships, human beings will always have humor to help them cope.

Works Cited

1Bering, Jesse. “Rats Laugh, but Not Like Humans.” Scientific American.  A Division of Natural America, Inc. 22 June 2012. Web. 23 October 2013. <www.scientificamerican.com>.

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~ On the Greatest Art Form

“Poetry is superior to painting in the presentation of words, and painting is superior to poetry in the presentation of facts. For this reason I judge painting to be superior to poetry ~ Leonardo da Vinci

Artistic endeavor is the hallmark of humanity.  From early cave paintings to jewelry wrought from stones, humans have sought to adorn their world, to find some form of external expression of who we are and how we feel.   This expression is intimate and personal, an extension of its creator.  Yet, at the same time, it is also disconnected from the artist.  Art is something greater than the individual; it’s communal, requiring interpretation by an audience to have meaning.   For this reason, art is both subjectively created and received.

This is why determining the greatest art form is a bit like choosing a favorite child; each has its own strengths and weaknesses and under normal circumstances you would never choose one over the other.  To lose one, regardless of your preference, would be devastating.  So, for the sake of this post, I’m going to make it a Sophie’s Choice* situation.

Before I start to make people angry by dismissing their preferred form of human expression in favor of another, let’s narrow the playing field.  While art can be an extremely broad term, encompassing everything from landscaping to architecture to graphic design, in order to keep this essay reasonably short, I am going to limit this theoretical competition of the arts to a few categories.

Let’s start with the culinary arts and fashion design.  Both try to elevate the mundane and the everyday.  They take staples of human culture – food and clothing – and attempt to infuse them with greater meaning and purpose.  After all, I’m pretty sure the first humans could not have cared less about the pairing of wild boar with river water or about the fit of their animal skin coverings.  Fortunately, as people evolved, so did these everyday art forms.  Now one can sit down at a restaurant and hear a detailed description of a Cabernet or walk down the street and see a myriad of cuts and colors in the clothing of those who pass by.  Yet, while I am grateful that these flourishes can make the ordinary extraordinary, these art forms are limited by the body.  A delicious meal may make my taste buds grateful to be alive, but it will not cause me to ponder the nature of living.

Similar limits impede other forms from reaching the level of transcendence that the greatest artistic mediums do.  For example, both athletics in general and dance in particular display wondrous feats of the human form.  They allow the body to be both the artist and the art, the paint brush and the canvas.  One cannot help but marvel at the remarkable control and grace of a ballerina or the explosive speed and vigor of the athlete.   Their mastery over the human body inspires the audience, makes them feel awe for the all too fragile corporeal form.   Yet, these mediums lack an intellectual element.   Yes, a ballet may tell a story and yes, a championship game be suffused with as much drama as a novel, but they lack language.  And language, our ability to express what our synapses – firing a million times a minute – are saying, is essential to the greatest art.

And song** has that.  Like dance and athletics, it is an art form that relies on an agile body to succeed, whether it be through the strumming of a guitar or the vibrations of the vocal cords.  Yet, it also has words.  Words, words, words.  For this reason, song has been described as modern poetry, an evolutionary offshoot of The Iliad or Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.   Like poetry, it is a condensed form of thought, providing small slivers of insight that can embed themselves in our skin.  And when story and sound collide in a masterpiece, these slivers stick with us.  With only a few notes, song can transport us to a time and place in our past.  Song can connect us with others as we sing together.  It can be our sole comfort and companion when are alone.  And when the music is great, it as though an invisible hand has struck a chord inside our soul.  Yet, ultimately, music is a visceral art form, which is why we find ourselves tapping our feet or whistling a tune without even realizing we are doing it.  And thus, we love songs more for their rhythm, their tempo and timbre than for the story they convey and the words they use to do so.  In fact, sometimes we love a song in spite of its lyrics, the melody triumphing over the message.   Because of this failing, song falls short of other artistic mediums.

This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s beloved form of expression, painting.   While there are subtleties of hue and dimension that can be a language of their own, while a great painting can tell a story both with what it depicts and what it does not, to say we don’t have better means of doing both these things via film and television would be like insisting on riding a horse rather than driving a car to work.  Still, great painters have a way of reflecting back the world to us in a new light; using form and color to strike the eye in such a way that a fully embodied idea is placed in the mind without words.  And much of what is great about cinema and its more commonplace cousin, television, is derived from the same principles as painting.

Perhaps ten years ago, I would have argued that film is the greatest art form with drama (aka plays) a close second.   While film lacks the electricity, the immediate give and take between audience and artists of the stage, it has greater freedom and flexibility of expression.  Film uses our innate desire to put together a narrative, showing us pictures that we piece together in our minds and weave into a story.  It also unites many of the other great art forms under one banner, to achieve the same mission.  Music, language, costume, setting, movement – all interwoven to create the most powerful story.   And that is why, when done well, a great film can be life-changing; it is why, even though we may say we prefer the novel to the movie, we still long to see how cinema has brought our favorite stories to life on the big screen.

Until recently, television was the inferior sibling to cinema.  It was common in the most derogatory sense of the word, serving as the stepping stone for artists aspiring to work in film.  But that has all changed.   With higher budgets and an increasingly talented field of actors, writers, and directors, television can now do exactly what films do without the same limitations that film has.   Unlike a movie, a television series has the length of literature, taking its time to develop the characters and the story in a way that a two hour film cannot.  Moreover, with the abundance of cable channels, television has been allowed to take risks.  And all great art requires risk, the willingness to innovate and experiment, to fail.  And like a great novel, where you can forgive the errant paragraph or a rare, poorly worded phrase, television has the luxury of length, where mistakes are diluted rather than concentrated.

One of the dangers of television is its passivity.   Unlike literature, which forces engagement and thought in the reader due to the very form it takes, television has the ability to lull the audience into the complacent state of the observer.   And so, despite the heights it has recently achieved, television will always have to work to overcome its negative connotations, its perception as the “idiot box” or the “boob tube.”

Even more importantly, television, along with ALL art forms, must prove its worth in the face of the practicalities of life that art often distracts us from.  After all, perhaps if art didn’t exist we might focus more on our real world problems.  We wouldn’t be able to, by simply turning on the telly, block out the inane antics of Congressmen abusing their power or the idiotic laws that allow governments to become more and more corrupt.   Moreover, with all the money spent on the creation and the consumption of art in our world, we could easily feed the hungry and increase the standard of living for all human beings on this planet.  In fact, it can seem absurd that the film industry spends billions of dollars each year, often to make very terrible films, or that someone would pay millions of dollars for a Picasso whilst children are dying all around the world.   Yet, what sort of world would those children live in without art?

In the end, human beings are not practical.  We are emotional creatures.  We need to be inspired.  We need something to give our lives meaning and value.  To connect us with each other.  To motivate us to live and work for something greater than ourselves.  To find beauty and hope in an often brutal and indifferent world.   And that is what art does. That is why art, no matter what the form, will always be inextricably human.

*Sophie’s Choice is references a story in which a mother is forced to choose which child will be sent to a concentration camp and which will be saved.

**I realize that song falls into the broader art category of music and similar comments could be made about other art forms mentioned.  Again, for the sake of brevity and due to interconnected nature of many artistic mediums, I have arbitrarily chosen to discuss some of them as separate entities while including others within various other forms of art.  I have also omitted several great art forms, so sorry in advance if I neglected your favorite J.