LI is finishing up the 13th chapter of our novel – hurray! And so, at such a solemn moment, we’ve been contemplating the spirit of comedy. Yes, we know there are giants’ footsteps, here, and we tread, comparatively, with a munchkin’s size 7. Still, when you are working on a fictional, comic account of an attempted rape, you think, why am I trying to make this funny, as well as, why is this, or not, funny?
When in need of help, I always go to an expert. Or so I’ve been instructed by the Reader’s Digest and the Poison warning label on insecticide cans. So I decided to look up the current research on comedy. This took me, bien sûr, to recent issues of Humor: the international journal of research in humor. I am just catching up with the 2002 issues. As the readers of HIJRH are well aware, literary comedy is not where your average humor researcher majorly focuses, especially when there are all those holes in the correspondence between threatening facial expressions of chimpanzees (barring teeth) and ritualistic smiling ceremonies of the Ainu. Or the like. I reluctantly scrolled through articles that would instruct me, with statistics, about the compatibility or incompatibility of husbands and wives reflected in a humor metric, and an article about the function of jokes in a medical context, to give my undivided attention to Salvatore Attardo’s reading of Wilde’s texts in Humorous Texts: a Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Or, at least, the cheat sheet, Christie Davies’ fine review. Any man who is willing to go mano a mano with Oscar, as Jr. Bush said to his Dad one humid Georgetown night, is all right with us. Davies begins his review by summing up Attardo’s achievement:
Perhaps the most significant innovation to be found in Attardo’s work
is the introduction of the idea of the ‘jab line’, and his use of it to discuss
texts in terms of particular con.gurations of jab and punch lines. In a
joke, an entity that must end with an uproarious punch line in which
the unexpected is suddenly revealed, the humorous jab lines thrown out
en route to the punch line are of secondary interest but in a longer
narrative it is essential to consider both the nature of each jab and the
pattern and sequence of jabs that make up the humorous text. Attardo
applies his method to a number of well-known humorous texts including
Voltaire’s Candide, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey and Lord
Arthur Saville’s Crime by Oscar Wilde in an innovative and illuminating
It turns out that he not only applies his method, but uses it to quantify. Quantifying the density of the jab lines in Oscar Wilde is a perversity that even Wilde never dreamed of – but seriously, ladies and germs, we are interested io the ways and wherefores of this mapping of laughs. As we had already learned from the sociobi articles in the HIJSH, the evolutionary theory of laughter right now couples it to tickling. And tickling is something like jabbing. So we had a vague sense that we were being carried smoothly down the currents of the finest scholarship. Here is Davies to elucidate:
“Let us take for example a line from Wilde’s description
of the people attending Lady Windermere’s reception in which ‘‘a perfect
bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima donna from room to room’’.
Attardo notes the humorous script oppositions of bishops/prima donna,
normal/abnormal, shows that they are in proximity and that the bishops
are being targeted and wonders whether there are further jabs here based
on alliteration and whether in addition stout is opposed to beautiful. Yet
to this reviewer the humorous thrust of the passage appears quite different
with the key opposition being between spiritual and carnal. The
bishops are in a bevy a collective term more usually applied to birds or
animals than to clergymen (who are not beauties either) and are in keen
sexual pursuit of the prima donna whom they follow eagerly from room
to room presumably in the hope that there will be an episcopal score.
The stout prima donna far from being a stereotypically fat and repulsive
opera singer is for them buxom and zaftig, a Junoesque beauty with all
the allure of the stage. What did the bishops say to the actress? Yet if
Salvatore Attardo and I see different jabs in different places and interpret
the jabs differently, how is the problem of the observer to be resolved?”
Indeed, Davies’s question does intrude, rather, the bothersome subjective. The image of these bishops, with their Episcopal skirts, one presumes, flying about, following a prima donna of a certain rotund and orotund quality – dare one dare the sexual proclivities on display, here? -- seems, to us, indicative of some dysfunction at the heart of the world. Nietzsche asked if there were any scientific truths that could only be apprehended through laughter – a profound question. Perhaps the whole evolution of sex is one. In Darwinian terms, could there be a more severe failure in the signals of sexual ornamentation that, presumably, play in the background of every animal pursuit?
Attardo, at least, is happy with his own analysis; not least because, given the distribution of jab lines, he can then plot their density. There’s a small glitch here – as Davies points out, the thinning of jab lines in the text corresponds to his sense of where the text is funniest, when one might expect a thickening of jab lines. Surely there is a Zen koan lurking here about clapping at a jab line with one hand or something. Like someone who thinks the funniest jokes are those that nobody laughs at, Davies is obviously a party pooper.
But I share Davies sense of humor, which is why I am such an unsuccessful player on the world stage.
Anyway, this got me thinking that I’d like to share one of Thurber’s letters to E.B. White. It concerns E.M Foster’s Abinger Harvest. Thurber particularly liked the essay on Howard Overing Sturges, a minor belle-lettrist now best known for being Henry James’ friend. Thurber writes:
Writes Foster, in all seriousness: Stugis… wrote to please his friends, and deterred by his failure to do so he gave up the practice of literature and devoted himself instead to embroidery, of which he had always been fond.’ It’s a way out, all right.
Then, further on: “I once went to Sturgis’ house myself – years ago… My host led me up to the fireplace, to show me a finished specimen of his embroidery. Unluckily there were two fabrics near the fireplace, and my eye hesitated for an instant between them. There was a demi-semi-quaver of a pause. Then graciously did he indicate which his embroidery was, and then did I see that the rival fabric was a cloth kettle-holder, which could only have been mistaken for embroidery by a lout. Simultaneously I received the impression that my novels contained me rather than I them. He was very kind and courteous, but we did not meet again.’”
Now, in my opinion, Thurber underestimates Foster, whose whole oeuvre is devoted to undermining seriousness and the deathly pall it casts on life. On the other hand, notice how Thurber reading Foster creates the Thurber in Foster -- the embroidery surely would fit not only fit into a Thurber story, but existed, perhaps, only to be put, later, into a Thurber story. At least, that is what Mallarme would have said, if he'd been born in Columbus Ohio, too. But we have to ask, how would our inestimable Professor Attardo explain Foster’s letter? Who let the jab lines in?