Monday, May 16, 2011

Literature and Humor

It’s easy to see how Shakespeare’s Hamlet could be Jesus’ secular contemporary. Next to Jesus, he’s the most cited figure in Western consciousness. “A vision that is everything and nothing, a person who was (according to Borges) everyone and no one, an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”

I wish someone would say that about me. I think we all feel that way inside. We want to create something that uniquely expresses the deepest part of us, the same part of us we want to share with the world. Our own inner brilliance, a quality that seems invisible to onlookers. I often wonder why so many people miss this in themselves and others. How you could look at a person and not instantly recognize their unique individuality. I suppose if you can’t see it in others, you can’t see it in yourself since we only recognize in others what we recognize in ourselves.

The jokes that convey truth, no matter how convoluted we make it, seem to me the funniest, the easiest to laugh at out loud. From puns to paradoxes, Hamlet’s universality is that he seems to make them all.

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (1.2.180-181). Hamlet bitterly jokes that the real reason his mother’s marrying so quickly after his father’s death is so she can save money by serving the leftover funeral refreshments to her wedding guests. 

A horrible thought, an even horribler thing to say, and still a most horrible thing to observe. But the indifferent observer laughs.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is laced with the same irony and parody Shakespeare brilliantly portrays through his characters. Vonnegut clearly intends his reader’s to laugh, but not from a mere playful frolic through human foibles. He prefers a critical stance toward subjects, a sobering exploration of the dangers inherent in the combination of human stupidity and indifference – problems in society that can only be mocked by humor.

I suppose you could find humor no matter where you look if it’s inside. The ease of technique in exploring humor often makes it seem frivolous, but the more you explore, the more you find humor pervades. It parallels situations across the entire landscape of being human and rests within the delivery of a punch line. 

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