Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Origins of Humour

Why do I like little hardback books so much? Is it the way they fit into my hand or in my pocket? I don't know...but I do like this little treasure that arrived from Profile books today...and it has pictures...and I rather like the sound of the topic: Stop Me If You've Heard This - A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt.

Ever since I read a little of Arthur Koestler's ideas on creativity, I have been interested in humour. He said that science, the Arts and humour all depend on a collision of ideas - but they collide in different ways. In science, one idea can combine with another to produce a better explanation of what is happening. For example in one model of an atom it is compared to a ball, and inside the ball is a tiny central round nucleus and electrons spinning around it in layers. Of course an atom is only like this to a certain extent, and as scientists discover more, the less useful this model becomes. However, the moment that such a suitable analogy occurs to a scientist, is the Aha! or eureka moment.

In the arts, I suppose a metaphor accomplishes a similar purpose, it describes things in a different light. But whereas in science the concept is a concise explanation; in the Arts there is a sense that it extends a concept to include more, often emotion. This is what Koestler called the Aaah moment. For instance I suppose I could say that 'his soul was as empty as an atom; a dense angry mass at its centre'.

So that was the idea behind the Aha and the Aaah moments, and Koestler postulated that humour was a variation on this theme - part of a continuum. According to what I remember, Koestler said that humour was a clash of ideas. There had to be an underlying logic, but then this was taken to an inappropriate extreme. So, taking the above example, I think that if I extend 'his soul was as empty as an atom; a dense angry mass at its centre,' with 'and all the kindnesses bestowed upon him fell towards it but were unable to settle; instead they were condemned to orbit, like so many electrons.' then it becomes humorous. At least in my opinion. The metaphor has been extended to such a ludicrous extent, it has become funny. Koestler called this the Haha moment.

Added later: Frank Wilson has a much better example here.

Looking in the index in this book I see no reference to Koestler, but just flicking through I see some interesting cartoons, so I shall look forward to reading this little book and finding out another viewpoint on how, when and why jokes are funny.

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Blogger Kirsty said...

I share your love of the small hardback. Often I think they are works of art in themselves. As well, there is something about the texture of the dust jackets and the kinds of paper that are generally used. They are made to last and are collectible.

I like your the way you used the atom as a metaphor for the soul, although I don't know if I found your extension humorous so much as deeply sad--all that kindness in orbit, never settling.

Anyway, I look forward to further posts on this book.

Wed Oct 08, 11:40:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Kirsty, reading through again, I don't find it funny either...Koestler had a much better example, I think I'll think about that some more...or maybe I'll come up with something after I've read this book. Maybe I'll be inspired.

And yes, I agree about the paper and the dust jacket. All these elements are important. Sometimes I order a book to read at the British Library. These are usually retained without their dust jackets and become something else entirely - an important part of their identity is lost.

Thu Oct 09, 07:51:00 am  
Blogger Gilles said...

…and it has pictures…

[…] and what is the use of a book”, thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”
I also love little leather-bound books.

Thu Oct 09, 08:30:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Mmmm, yes, Gilles, little leather-bound books, and those little notebooks...there's something so enticing about them...I think it's the way they nestle in the hand.

Thu Oct 09, 08:45:00 am  
Blogger Aditya Mani Jha said...

Try "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" by Mohsin Hamid.... apart from being a great read..... at a svelte 180 pages, it is very much a "small hard-bound"

Thu Oct 09, 05:39:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

But is it funny, Aditya?

Thu Oct 09, 05:50:00 pm  
Blogger Dave Lull said...

Jim Holt quotes Arthur Koestler in the Prospect column Speculations: "Heard the one about the three theories of humour?

Thu Oct 09, 08:42:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Dave - excellent link - how do you do it?

Thu Oct 09, 08:45:00 pm  
Blogger stu said...

I'm now trying to find something useful to do with the words 'this writer walks into a bar...'

Thu Oct 09, 08:53:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Go for it, Stu! Whatever you come up with, will be far better than I can do.

Thu Oct 09, 08:59:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew K said...

To quote from my own thought-piece, "Humour- Unravelling the Mystery."

The thing we have to remember is that without humour things wouldn't be funny. The two are inextricably linked. Can we find an underlying cause or causes which will help us understand and, hence, create humour?
Think of a fat man falling down a steep staircase; this is undeniably very funny. But why? The obvious answer would seem to be the mind's desire for order, and this situation satisfies such Euclidean motive on several levels.
The man is overweight-he has transgressed the law of optimum physical being, is in disorder, and deserves to be punished. What better way than falling down a stairs? But this is not all: by constrast, the mind also gets to savour absolute order in the form of gravity. The laws of science at the service of hubris, a wronged world righted. The combination of these factors is what makes the above so humorous and prompts the spontaneous bursting forth of laughter.
So humour would seem to ideally involve the unity of the particular and the universal in the portrayal of moral and natural order.

I've read some of that Koestler book, but I am inherently sceptical about logic or reason overly getting its grubby little hands on concepts like humour. Koestler claims that there is always aggression within humour, though it may be concealed. I'm not so sure. There is a kind of pure humour that is a revelling in being. Here Koestler seems to, as those overly enamoured by reason tend to do, place humour beneath reason by essentially viweing as rationally comprehensible in motive and substance. I think life, and humour as an element of that life, are more elusive.

Fri Oct 10, 03:33:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Humour lightens the darkest passages, doesn't it...and enhances happiness even further
To me, it's as essential as eating/drinking etc.
My family thrives on it.

Fri Oct 10, 06:48:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Andrew K: Interestingly, I did not find the idea of a fat man falling downstairs funny (but then I have never been fond of slap stick) - and yet various things that I have found funny, such as Frankie Boyle's performance on Mock the Week, I know other people would say goes too far and would feel appalled.

I think that is an important feature of humour - it is very much a matter of taste.

Back to your point, though - this article from the BBC seems to agree with you - we laugh when the order of the world is perturbed. It is a way of coping. But isn't that yet another application of logic to explain humour?

Sat Oct 11, 08:51:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Jan: 'Humour lightens the darkest passages' - nicely put, and often true.

(Though rich comic material (in the 'Carry On' sense) in itself, now I think about...

Sat Oct 11, 08:54:00 am  
Blogger Andrew K said...

My fat man falling down the stairs piece isn't, Clare, I'm afraid, or perhaps glad to say, meant to be taken seriously. I certainly don't think a fat man falling down a stairs is undeniably funny! It's all simply po-faced parody, & in parody Koestler is obviously right, there is a fundamental aggression. Though there's much more to the possibilities of humour than simply parody, with obvious targets, though I hope it doesn't seem pointed as it's something I wrote a good while ago, the piece is itself, as said, I suppose a satire on the 'scientific' analysis of humour in the first place, with my cod utilitarian compreshension of the 'function of humour.'

Sat Oct 11, 01:38:00 pm  
Blogger JL said...

Every person's sense of humour is different.

Sat Oct 11, 03:45:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, JL - certainly true. I think it varies according to culture, and also has varied throughout history too. Once, people used to laugh - really laugh - at puns, so I understand, now everybody seems to groan.

And yes, Andrew, I agree, there is an aggression in lots of humour - really a lot of it is poking fun at one group or another, and it is so easy to get carried away. The only 'safe' humour, that cannot offend, perhaps, is the self-effacing sort - but that becomes tiresome.

And yes, intellectual pretension is always ripe for a little lampooning.

Sat Oct 11, 04:15:00 pm  

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