This troubled world of ours, almost unrecognisable, helped us create a myriad causes for weeping.
Our lives have become so adrift in a vast, unfeeling universe we are being dehumanised, slowly but surely.
“Our life has become so mechanised and electronified,” lamented Hungarian writer Laszlo Feneki, half a century ago. How astounding, how precise.
Mechanisation is not the only way to dehumanise life. Man has created countless other means to diminish his humanity, far grimmer, far worthier of weeping.
If coronavirus is indeed man-made, it has crowned his woes, ravaging lives willy-nilly, reducing him to a robot, following orders from Big Brother.
How can we make it all bearable? We need some potion, an elixir to preserve our sanity.
What better elixir than humour?
“If I had no sense of humour, I would long ago have committed suicide,” said Mahatma Gandhi.
How grateful must we be that we do have a sense of humour? Everybody does.
It is not distressing if it has a genetic component. Researchers have linked it to certain variants of the 5GHTTLPR gene, but no matter, it is a trick that can be learned. By mastering the art of living it is inevitable that from time to time we see things through a humorous light. It is a critical life skill and it can be taught.
How tragic to lack a sense of humour. It is not just the ability to laugh, we all do, but while there is a parallel between humour and laughter, they do not always have a one to one correlation.
Previous theories assumed that both were almost synonymous, but psychology has been able to scientifically and empirically investigate the supposed connection.
In 2009, Diana Szameitat conducted a study on the differentiation of emotions and laughter. The study discovered different laughter types varied with emotional dimension. Humour therefore, is defined by the cognitive processes which display laughter. It can encompass a multiplicity of negative as well as positive emotions.
Humorists are distinct from comedians.
A humorist is an intellectual who uses humour as a commentary on life be it in writing or public speaking. A comedian is a show-business entertainer whose business is to make people laugh.
The connotation between “humour” as opposed to “comic” is said to be that of response vs stimulus. Additionally, humour is thought to include a combination of wit and ridiculousness. The more you know humour, the more you are demanding in fineness.
To find humour in the grimmest circumstances is not only a survival tool, but a supreme act of creativity. If you have ever attended an Irish wake, you would hardly be aware they are mourning the death of a dear one.
Defining humour is no easy task. The distinguished writer E B White, used this comparison, like a joke, “It can be dissected like a frog, but the thing dies in the process.”
That did not stop psychologists from trying to find out what it is and where it comes from. They came up with three theories: the relief theory, a way of letting off steam; the superiority theory — laughing at others misfortunes, (already espoused by Aristotle); the incongruity theory, when contrasting ideas mingle.
Our conclusion is that it is indefinable. Similar to a joke, the best way to explain it is to destroy it.
It is difficult to say what type of subject is humorous. It depends on a host of relative variables: culture, geography, intelligence, and appeal. Lost in translation, humour does not travel well and cannot be as effective among those with different expectations.
Naturally there are universal forms of humour, the Chaplinesque style that is visual, poignant, funny and ridiculous. Basically human, all respond to it, but undoubtedly cultural differences can be a barrier.
The neuro-science view is that it is rooted in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. It engages a core network “of cortical or sub-cortical structures, involved in detecting and resolving incongruity, (mismatch between expected and presented stimuli), and the amygdala key structured for reward and salience processing”.
Among its many benefits of easing tension, relieving anxiety, removing boredom, rejuvenating the aged, building relationships, diffusing negative emotions, scientists have discovered a relationship with a healthy immune system, of both mind and body — just what the doctor ordered.
Sig A, a type of antibody that protects us from infections is significantly increased with humour.
There is also a spiritual view, that “Humour is a gift of God” — an unexplainable mystery, very much like a mystical experience.
“Gelatology” is the study of laughing and laughter and its effects on the body from a psychological perspective; fancy that.
It would be remiss if discussing humour, not to mention the British sense of humour, famous worldwide. It carries a strong element of satire aimed at absurdity of everyday life. Deadpan delivery, with innuendo, sarcasm, intelligence, wit and parodies on everyday life, it travels effortlessly and has gained international popularity.
From Chaucer to Jonathan Swift, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, humour flows like a fountain from the British tongue. Just looking at actor Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr Bean, evokes laughter.
Their comedy series Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and many more can illicit laughter no matter how often they’re viewed. Their intellectual nature survives.
German Comedy is for Germany; American comedy is seen on Saturday Night, and Egyptian Comedy flies faster than a rocket. It must be a Gift of God.
“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humour to console him for what he is.”
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.