; charset=UTF-8" Causes of human laughter

A Plumbline in the Wind

The world is going to the dogs, but I refuse to learn to bark

Psalm 119:82 My eyes fail with watching for thy promise; I ask, ‘When wilt thou comfort me?’

A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

Causes of human laughter

9 November 2008 · No Comments

Nothing like making a mistake to provoke comments, I guess. My last post but one has aroused a remarkable amount of comment, including a reply from the author of the original Facebook comment that stimulated the post in the first place. Whether my error is to be attributed to purity of heart, as Julie charitably suggests, or to gross naïveté, as is more likely, it leads to some interesting observations.

First of all, why is it that words for what is supposed to be the great act of love are used as expressions of hostility? Cher, in her original comment, was playing on this incongruity. Of course, she didn’t say, “You are being made love to, and it isn’t even fun”–this would not have conveyed her meaning. Since I have had the totally undeserved good fortune of being married to a woman who actually loves me, I have been able to learn that the marital act can be a source of great joy, as well as an expression of passion and a physical satisfaction. However, there must underlie the use of the coarser terms for this act a sense of imposition upon an unwilling partner, even of rape, which I honestly cannot imagine bringing much joy, or even fun, to either party.

Secondly, I think my excursion into the gardens of etymology (which I find delightful, but I recognize it’s not to everyone’s taste) means that I have contempt for fun, in the more innocent modern sense of the word. Now there may be those who think I am just a serious fellow who never has fun and never made a joke in his life, and they are entitled to their opinion. But even if I never do have fun myself, I wouldn’t want to stop others from doing so. I did want to show, however, that the origin of the word indicate that “fun” can suggest other things that are not so innocent: mockery, dishonesty, even madness.

In The Screwtape Letters (ch. 10), C.S. Lewis makes a fourfold distinction in the “causes of human laughter.” Screwtape, as a devil, hates two of them: Joy, because it is a heavenly good, and Fun (the word is used in the innocent sense), because it is a human good. The causes of laughter of which a skilled tempter may make use are the Joke Proper and Flippancy. The less desirable sources of the word “fun” are what Screwtape finds the useful aspects of the Joke:

Cruelty is shameful–unless the cruel man can represent it as practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man’s damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a joke.

My daughter recently induced me to watch several episodes of a television program about an office in which one character–who is portrayed as rather stuffy and officious and a bit of a fool–is constantly the butt of cruel and demeaning jokes and pranks. She could not understand why I, who have been in my time the object of bullying and mockery, did not find this funny, and indeed found it painful.

It appears to me that the type of joke that Screwtape praises is more and more pervasive in our culture, together with the cause of laughter he considers “best of all”–Flippancy. The flippant person never needs to make a joke, because “among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made.” Flippancy does not bring joy–rather it kills it. The flippant person belittles everything and everyone, corroding every human relationship. It is the use of the word “fun” in the service of flippancy that I was most addressing in my earlier post. Most of what passes for humor in today’s discourse is nothing but flippancy: the assumption that someone is ridiculous without giving any reason for it. You can’t argue with flippancy, and one must be exceedingly brave to stand up against it. And if you do, you get the ultimate put-down: “You’re no fun!”

I must agree with my dear friend “Metanous” in preferring joy, and particularly the joy that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, to any human pleasure, even fun. (I suspect the fun I have with my wife, or in playing with small children, or in singing good music, partake somewhat of joy as well.) What joy I will have in seeing my faith held in contempt, my Church persecuted, vice glorified, many good works destroyed because they will not conform to political correctness–not to mention seeing so many people whom I have loved joining with the persecutors–that I cannot say. And yet–

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, and the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pt 4:12-17)

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