Waiting on Humor
By Jan Inge Reilstad
He who has the courage to laugh is almost as much a master of the world as he who is ready to die.
I rarely remember jokes, but this is an exception: One day, a Norwegian called upon a doctor with a frog sticking out of his forehead. "What the hell happened to you," exclaimed the bewildered doctor. "It started as a pimple on my butt," said the frog.
I have since heard many similar jokes. The fact is that humor also has its own history with the best punch lines being twisted and turned on a fast-paced journey through the grapevine of different cultures and social classes; ending up being told in different ways or with a different twist depending on the place or person. We often forget, but we are all conscious or unconscious harbingers of life's humorous manifestations. We all draw from the same deep well of humor, which perhaps holds more sorrow than joy? After all, does humor not represent an aspect of man's will to overcome suffering?
An Intensive Study on the Primal Source of Humor
On May Day 2000 I rushed my significant other to the doctor, not with a frog sticking out of her forehead, but with a swarm of carnivorous streptococci devouring her thigh. We did not realize the gravity of the situation at the time, but I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, although I said nothing to her. Sandnes Emergency Clinic had told us it was just a bee sting and administered some penicillin. Fortunately, I did not believe the good doctor. The infected area had doubled in size in just 24 hours. A large black area encircled in red had formed on her thigh, and her fever ran as high as the kids' temperature every fall; about three degrees Centigrade higher than it should be in any human organism. We were therefore on our way to Rogaland Central Hospital to get a second opinion. Her infection value, normally about 10, was at 470 when we arrived.
The surgeons immediately removed the entire blackened area and some of the red. The following day, they re-opened the wound to check for streptococci in the thigh tissue. I had heard about the behavior of streptococci; persistent enough to render them impossible to get rid of, often resulting in surgeons cutting away more and more flesh. Just like Goofy trimming the hedge; always a little crooked until there is nothing left. But what was at stake here was not a hedge, it was her leg. And if the streptococci spread upwards, they would reach the upper body, which could not be cut away. I remember crying like a baby when they found the wound was clear. It was the same type of cry I had heard on the floor above when the kids had come flying into the delivery room by way of her womb; the complete and uncontrollable weeping over life's utter incomprehensibility. Tears that may well have been some essential form of laughter.
For one agonizing week, two tremendous battles raged inside my companion; one physical and one mental. The streptococci entered the bloodstream and reached the lungs. Breathing was a real struggle. Pneumonia. She was lying there like she was old and worn out, unable to take in enough nourishment, helpless. Seemingly unable to influence the battle between the antibiotics and the flesh-eating streptococci. Her immune system was practically non-existent; it took her three months to recover. I, together with the physicians and nurses, bustled about her bed swaddled in plastic from head to toe to avoid infection. It must have been an absurd spectacle. But for me it felt more real than almost anything I had ever experienced. I stayed up-to-date about the latest developments, talked with physicians and nurses, and communicated with the outside world. I watched patients coming to the intensive care unit, often with serious traffic injuries requiring immediate surgery; sometimes in the hallway outside our room because the surgeons could wait no longer. The outcome was never a tie. They always either won or lost; the patient either died or survived.
What struck me as I stood watching, was the intense dedication to and lust for life radiating from everyone involved. I thought to myself that I would have hired them in an instant, as there was genuine humanity in their professionalism. (In hindsight I see this as part of the nature of humor as well.) There was an iron will dedicated to life that I had never seen before. I experienced that the hospital, regarded by many as a portal to pain and death, really was a gigantic generator of lust for life. Gradually I saw that the patients limping around me, dressed in white or light blue on red or green floors while they gamely attempted to follow the arrows, were probably more bursting with life here, at the very fringes of life, than during their normal lives out in the familiar spring rain.
The other battle she could take part in; the battle between a tremendous lust for life and an intense fear of death. The few times she slept, she dreamt of dying. When she awoke, she was scared to death. My job when she was awake, was to tip the balance in favor of life. That is why I hold her the joke about the frog, which she had heard at least fourteen times before, but loves. If we are but a pimple, perhaps it doesn't matter all that much if life is squeezed out of us? I discovered that the sorrow I felt inside and the gusto for life I sensed all around me in the hospital, also gave me a sense of genuine professionalism. I performed as if I were an experienced actor, while more present in the here and now than ever. I have probably never been so quick-witted, so courageous, and so pathetic neither before nor since. But always with this manifest core of sorrow and caring. I used humor to light up her inner space between lust for life and fear of death, making sure that the lust for life would always win. Mediating between this double nature was an affirmation of life, I think, both for her and for me.
Things have since returned to normal on the home front. She can live with some lymphedema and poor drainage in the afflicted leg. The weight has long since been lifted from my heart, but the imprint is still there. This imprint is also the heart of humor, I think. The glow of humor is crystallized from the pressure of sorrow.
Jokes, Comedy and Humor
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud maintained that in our more dreary daily grind, we often use humor to let off steam from our own eternally boiling kettle of life. Or to be more precise; humor is an expression of a crumbling lust for life in our oh so adult and well-adjusted masks. In Freud's opinion, the object of this lust for life constantly driving us is to reach the euphoric feeling we remember from our childhood and can no longer naturally reach, domesticated creatures of habit that we have become. Children do not regard anything as comical, are unable to tell jokes, in fact do not need humor at all to be happy with life.
Freud said that jokes, comedy and humor constitute a type of mental activity that we engage in because our childish happiness has fled, with the reason being the development of our mental activities. To some extent, we have become much too adept at thinking. We are able to brood over life and death in ways that can naturally lead to pessimism and a passive attitude. Freud' theory was that these kinds of thoughts would gradually become pent-up inside us. Man may reflect on his own death from a fairly young age, while animals probably do not reflect on anything at all, even though they instinctively relate to death by protecting themselves when danger is sensed. However, at some point a cat senses that there is something wrong with its body, and instinctively creeps off to some hidden place to die. This is not the way of the human being after a long life of reflecting over death and having developed technology (both hardware and software) to avoid it.
Freud's point is that without jokes and humor, adults would be far more dominated by fear of both life and death, which could in turn result in a longing for death. Jokes, he concluded, may be regarded as a reclaiming of the lust for life in the face of a life lived with too many inhibitions. Comedy is a restoration of the lust for life in the face of a life starved for imagination. While the humorous lust for life, in his opinion, is the spark rekindled on the ruins of a closed off emotional life.
In Sweden, the frog joke has turned into the following pig joke: The Swede on his way home from the market was carrying a pig under his arm when a passer-by stopped and asked where he had gotten hold of it? "I won him at bingo," replied (of course) the pig. This type of humor is classic, and contains many essential elements of a good joke. This is also a type of humor I especially associate with comic strips, not least the humor in Larson's strips. I remember one four-frame strip where Larson did not include any text at all: In the first we see a herd of cattle walking upright on two legs in the field. In the second they lower themselves down on all four and graze. In the third a car passes by. In the last frame, the car is gone and the cows are back up on two legs, obviously discussing while gesticulating with their hoofs.
I think Freud would agree that a significant characteristic of all three jokes, is that they bring man down to the level of the animals, or the opposite; bring the animals up to our level. They are personified while we become animalized. Of course, the use of images; how the linguistic rhetorical registry is applied, is also essential for the nature of humor, as it is for all literary expressions. The result is that lust for life is created precisely through such surprising turn of events that give rise to comical notions of man as less dignified, more in tune with nature and less in line with various restrictive culturally based norms. The jokes play on mythology, another reservoir for the subconscious according to Freud, through their metamorphic perspective. In fact, the first joke actually has a theory that mankind descended from frogs, not apes.
On Black Humor and Cancer Humor
In a welfare society such as ours, most of us are probably blind to the power of humor. We either reduce humor to beneficial social-democratic health or to the most superficial laughter. In this context it is worth noting that it was not until the 18th Century that humor was associated with such a concept as laughter. Up until then, humor was mostly tied to a person's character and attitudes.
Think of black humor! This is an extreme form of humor, in which the grim reaper = death itself is the topic. This aims for the heart of the illness, suffering or death. It is a way of rendering harmless what we fear most by taking the bull by the horns. By stating things as they are no matter how cruel or difficult the unkind yoke of reality evaporates and is replaced by the laugh of life. This type of humor is based on the notion that you are what you think: If you are afraid of being bit by dogs, you will be bit. If you are afraid of making a fool of yourself, you will behave like a fool. If you are afraid to die, you will die. This is the opposite of the old tragedies, in which hubris; pride vis-à-vis the gods, is the central ethical motif for the tragic ending. Often, the death of the tragic hero is caused by his hubris. The champion of black humor on the other hand, lives quite happily while the grim reaper knocks to no avail. Thus, black humor is akin to truth; you usually hear it from children and drunks. One day my mother-in-law took one of her grandchildren to visit her husband's grave. After they had meditated in front of the grave for awhile, the child said: "Oh, well, Grandma. It won't be long before you're lying here too." The little tyke was just being honest, and has no idea what a wonderful boost this was for his grandma's lust for life that day. Humor is about being reborn in this manner.
For many years, I worked for the Norwegian Cancer Society at the Cancer Society's Care Center in Stavanger. I have seen the patients' enormous need for everyday life, being able to smoke without being considered crazy, being able to laugh at themselves and their misery. The Stavanger-based clown and humorist Per Inge Torkelsen was one of the first to understand this. He started to make fun of cancer patients at a time when many still believed cancer was contagious, something you had to avoid like the plague and most patients loved him for this. Real laughter is when a torrent of laughter pours from a cancer patient straight from the well of his or her own misfortune. This laughter is a channel leading to the soul, a channel to great humor. I have seen how important comprehensive medical pain management is for being able to live a satisfactory physically life with illness, in line with contemporary humanity. But I have also seen how important the force of really humane humor is for neutralizing the fear of death with lust for life in other words, being able to laugh at yourself in the two-fold mirror of life and death.
A Few Words on Norwegian Humor
The Norwegian climate and landscape have resulted in much humor. The philosopher Arne Næss was once asked why he started climbing. He answered: "I was not the one who started. It's just that everyone else stopped." This may be interpreted as a comment on us having stopped playing like children in an inquisitive manner with a daring, boundless energy. But also as us descending from the more playful and long-limbed apes. Arne Næss is the type of person that just might stick out his tongue at people. This is an outburst of feeling of a kind too many Norwegians have decided to outgrow (while still hoping to feel more!).
Among the Norwegian comic strips, I have to mention one particularly literary one: Fredrik Stabel. A generous cartoonist and writer of the strip the Norwegian Nitwit Society (Norsk Dusteforbund) in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet for many years. His best strips have been published in a book, which the Government really should give all Norwegians as a Christmas bonus. It's a good idea for how to spend at least a portion of the Norwegian State's Petroleum Fund set aside for future generations. Everything in the book is worth quoting, but I will make due with Of Great Importance. It is about a society where sticking out one's tongue or laughing, in other words; showing feelings is a nuisance that children must learn to avoid at an early age: Anyone not able to maintain a fixed smile in everyday life is moody, goes the old saying. It may well be true. On the other hand, there may be people that (for some reason or other) really are moody. (We may like it or not, but that's how it is.) Enough already. In order to help these unfortunate souls, the author Diderik From Jr. has just put the finishing touches on a great new invention. This time it is a new sign in the sign language that will spare the facial muscles and make it possible to smile by way of a sign!! (Finger sign.) It is believed that this invention (method) not only will be important for saving marriages, but also for international cooperation. Especially during the period August 20-24. On behalf of the Norwegian Nitwit Society, President Darwin P. Erlandsen.
No matter, it is probably no longer the case in Norway, as it was for the Norwegian author Johan Hermann Wessel in the 18th Century, that you have to run away to Denmark in order to be merry. (Even though the ads still say: "It is wonderful being Norwegian in Denmark.) He had read the comments of Tormod Koldbrunaskald about the Norwegian climate: Frozen smiles, hollow laughter come easy / in our climate where a talent for rejoicing / suffer the same fate as a daisy / in Labrador and Ellesmere Island
Four Ancient Humors and Omens of New Ones to Come
Many have contributed both good and amusing discourses on the nature of humor. Freud is one of the great ones who examined the phenomenon using a scientific and psychological approach. The earliest history of medicine provides us with another theory on humor with psychological implications. The term humor comes from the Latin humor, which means wet or moist. Hippocrates, a pioneer of medicine, introduced the theory of the four bodily fluids, which in turn was contingent upon the four human humors. The basis for his theory was the theory of the four elements: The choleric (temperamental) has too much yellow bile (fire). The melancholy (sad) has too much black bile (earth). The sanguine (frivolous) has too much blood (air). And the phlegmatic (staid) has too much mucous (water). In both poetry and comedy, melancholy has often been emphasized as an important source, not least through the clown and the fool. Thus, many have proposed that humor may be regarded as the frivolous side of melancholy. The concept of humors also inspired an important characteristic of all poetry and literature; its ability to provide typical and often revealing or compromising images of man's behavior and conduct. This way of thinking is a fundamental element in literary Realism, as well as in a less fundamental and more (?) refined form today.
In his work On Humor, the Italian Nobel Prize Laureate Luigi Pirandello mentions that the physicist and scientist Copernicus was one of the all time greatest humorists without being aware of this himself. The reason, says Pirandello, was not the fact that he dismantled the machinery of the Universe, but that he dismantled man's arrogant notions of the Universe with himself at the center. Thus, I argue that humor must rather be viewed as a form of moral activity on behalf of our unfathomable existence. Humor is never pure entertainment in the manner that comedy and buffoonery may be. A humorist does not necessarily laugh often, and if he does, he often laughs in places where others do not. A humorist leads a critical and visionary life, secure in the knowledge that as stated by the Norwegian author Einar Økland in collection of essays Instead of Novels or Humor life is suffering, decay and death.
The thinking that combines elements, humors, and bodily fluids is still very important within some fields, such as astrology, as well as in some religious concepts. More worrisome, however, is the fact that many reasonably intelligent people in today's high-tech world actually believe in the notion that our new-found knowledge of genetics will ultimately help us unlock the secrets of mankind and our psychological makeup. Faith in the future in a bittersweet embrace of technology will not likely result in much more insight into the character of man than Hippocrates theory did. Scientists who believe they can locate the gene for humor must be raving lunatics and should not be shipped off to Svalbard, but to Mars.
The ancient fragments of the early philosopher Heraclitus, however, are in a different league altogether. They still hold a lot of wisdom. This is fragment no. 111: Disease makes health comfortable and good, hunger satiety, weariness rest. However, in the realm of philosophy Nietzsche is undoubtedly the one most often associated with the relationship between humor and illness. He is called both the Philosopher of Suffering and the Great Affirmer of life. All his life, Nietzsche suffered from physical illness, finally also turning insane (most likely as a result of syphilis). In spite of this, his entire philosophy is one grand attempt at an optimistic affirmation of life here and now. He was willing to reexamine all values, especially values that indicated that life really was something that took place somewhere else, as he often found in science and Christianity. Nietzsche felt that suffering often was regarded as punishment, a monstrous and incorrect notion, rather than as a potential source of joy, as was the case for the Ancient Greeks.
Nietzsche later used the concept Amor Fati as a key postulate in his philosophy. It means: Love fate. No matter what it has to offer. So easy and yet so incredibly difficult. In books such as The Gay Science he provided fabulous aphorisms for understanding the possible nature of humor: Even laughter may yet have a future. I mean, when the proposition the species is everything, one is always none has become part of humanity, and this ultimate liberation and irresponsibility has become accessible to all. Perhaps laughter will then have formed an alliance with wisdom, perhaps only gay science will then be left. For the present, things are still different. For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet become conscious" of itself. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.
Is that our hope? Humor is nevertheless a way of moving, a way of being moved in other words; a way of thinking. Good humor lights up the space where the lust for life is always in danger of being invaded, and is therefore incredibly strong. The place where the fear of death may have intensified into a longing for something else, something beyond. Life is like a waiting room. Humor is Godot. We are all waiting on humor. The most concrete physical space for this type of humor is probably the hospital. Literature, including of course comic strips, is probably the only man-made product that can cultivate and retain the imprint of this humor. The rest is just laughter or oblivion. When all else is forgotten, there's always somebody able to spread a little humor. I once came across this line in an obituary:
passed away peacefully, sense of humor intact. What more can you ask.
Jan Inge Reilstad
Jan Inge Reilstad is a man of letters living in Sandnes. He is the editor of the Internet magazine Localmotives www.localmotives.com which has published a special issue on humor. He also works as a freelance writer and critic.
Beckett, Samuel: Mens vi ventar på Godot, Document Forlag, Oslo, 1991.
Bronken, Per: Aldri vi deg glemme vil
, Ex Libris, Oslo, 1996.
Cuddon, J. A.: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Penguin Books,
Freud, Sigmund: Vitsen och dess förhållande till det omedvetna, Daidalos,
Heraklit: Fragment 111, her fra Niels Henningsen (red.): De første græske
filosoffer, Det lille forlag, Fredriksberg, 1994.
Nietzsche, Friedrich: Den glada vetenskapen, Bokförlaget Korpen, Göteborg, 1987.
Ovid: Ovids forvandlinger, Centrum, København, 1989.
Pirandello, Luigi: Om humor, Pax, Oslo, 1995.
Stabel, Fredrik: Snarere tvert imot, Cappelen, Oslo, 1996.
Økland, Einar: I staden for roman eller humor, Det Norske Samlaget, Oslo, 1993.
Wessel, Johan Hermann: Kierlighed uden Strømper, Gyldendal, København, 1985.