Thursday, October 11, 2012

Laughter Is Unique To Man

François Rabelais (c. 1494 - 1553) devoted his life to humorous writing. This doctor and former monk's motto was "Le rire est le propre de l'homme" ("Laughter is unique to man"). 

Despising superstition and the rigid scholastic teachings of the university, especially the Sorbonne, Rabelais published his works in the vernacular - the language of popular 16th century French culture - in order to reach a broader audience. Rabelais' large-scale creativity and inventiveness inspired a verve and a vigor that would never again be matched after the cult of bon usage took over a century later. 

The rise of the printing press coincided with the rise of vernacular languages over Latin. Protestants preferred vernacular to Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. During the 16th century, much activity was spent on giving French rules and standards - Rabelais ignored those. 

During the golden age of France, the time of Louis XIV, three-quarters of French people could not speak french fluently, if at all. Rabelais, Corneille, Descartes, Racine, Montaigne and Molière, French literary icons, wrote French with the undefined spellings of their century and in the spirit of their time - in vernacular or what would be considered casual discourse. 

Why at a time when convention was considered the highest ideal would a man dedicate his life to writing what at first appeared to be pure nonsense? 

What traits must Rabelais have exhibited that would result in such lighthearted literature? To assess the behavior, attitudes, feelings, and/or habits Rabelais might have exhibited, we can look to Craik (Craik, Lampert, and Nelson 1993, 1996; Craik and Ware 2007) for humorous personality type considerations. This community-oriented analysis may shed light on Rabelais, the man and humorist, in addition to Rabelais, the odd literary figure, whose work very few can read in original text. 

The following styles of conduct, as presented by Craik et al (1996), might portray Rabelais' everyday style of humorous, social interactions: 

I+.Socially warm humorous style
  • Maintains group morale through humor. Has a good sense of humor. 
  • Uses good-natured jests to put others at ease. 
  • Relative to other traits, displays a noteworthy sense of humor. 
II+.Reflective humorous style
  • Is more responsible to spontaneous humor than to jokes. 
  • Uses humor to express the contradictory aspects of everyday events. 
  • Takes pleasure in bemused reflections on self and others. 
  • Appreciates the humorous potential of persons and situations. 
III+.Competent humorous style
  • Displays a quick wit and ready repartee. 
  • Manifests humor in the form of clever retorts to others' remarks. 
  • Enhances humorous impact with a deft sense of timing. 
  • Has the ability to tell long, complex anecdotes successfully. 
IV+.Earthy humorous style
  • Delights in parodies which others might find blasphemous or obscene. 
  • Has a reputation for indulging in coarse of vulgar humor. 
  • Relishes scatological anecdotes (bathroom humor). 
V+. Benign humorous style*
  • Finds intellectual word play enjoyable. 
  • Enjoys witticism which are intellectually challenging. 
  • Enjoys limericks and nonsense rhymes. 
  • Enjoys exchanging topical jokes and keeps up to date on them. 

Rabelais' writing was wildly exaggerated and improbable, indicating that he was not socially awkward when it came to humor but instead humorously adept.  

The differences between positivism and cynicism are often a result of the lack of importance an individual places on humor and social cohesiveness. On the other side are the negative aspects of the humor traits listed above: 

I-. Socially cold humorous style
  • Smiles grudgingly.
    Responds with a quick, but short-lived smile. 
  • Is a ready audience but infrequent contributor to humorous anecdotes. 
  • Has a bland, deadpan sense of humor. 
II-. Boorish humorous style
  • Imitates the humorous style of professional comedians. 
  • Recounts familiar, stale jokes. 
  • Tells funny stories to impress people. 
  • Is competitively humorous, attempts to top others. 
III-. Inept humorous style
  • Reacts in an exaggerated way to mildly humorous comments. 
  • Laughs at the slightest provocation. 
  • Spoils jokes by laughing before finishing them. 
  • Laughs without discriminating between more and less clever remarks. 
IV-. Repressed humorous style
  • Does not respond to a range of humor due to moralistic constraints. 
  • Is squeamish about "sick jokes." 

Everyday humorous behaviors are indicators by which we can recognize the behaviors of others as well as ourselves. We can also interpret this personality trait from a person's work (literary, research, cinematic, etc.).

The divide is transparent: People who tend toward positive humor reflect a tendency to use humor to promote good will and social interaction, whereas people who tend toward negative humor traits typically avoid or are aloof regarding mirthful behavior. These people have a knack for making others feel awkward or dampening social moods with the proverbial wet blanket. 

For those who are unfamiliar with Rabelais' work, Douglas Adams' 1980 satirical creativity in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy amuses readers with alien hitchhikers in much the same way Rabelais amused 16th century readers with tales about Gargantua and Pantagruel, the father and son giants who went off on extravagant adventures. Using humorous devices like irony and exaggeration, he, too, exposed and criticized people's vices through unconventional or foreign concepts that appeal to the uprising minority of any given age. 

Rabelais' comical imagination was masterful as it was psychedelic. Popularizing expressions that made people laugh (andouilles - sausages; quintessence and dive bouteille - divine bottle), it would take the elite (who generally read in Latin) 10 years before they realized it was they who were the "butt" of Rabelais' fantastical stories. 

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