Last & Least
Benefits of Literary Humour
Dr Binoy Barman
US human beings desire to remain cheerful. One of the great sources for fun is humorous literature, which include comic, nonsense rhyme, witty poetry, humorous fiction and burlesque comedy. Literature of such kinds is popular among readers of all ages. Though usually presented in a light tone, such literature may depict serious issues in real life. For example, satire is a serous kind of literature, replete with laughter evocation on the surface while dealing with social malady.
I have always been curious to know why people are drawn to humorous literature. What are its benefits? People take readily to humour because they find the outlet to the ills of society. In fact, its benefits are numerous. It has benign effects on human body and mind. When a reader reads something humorous, his body responds to it with a particular hormone secretion filling the mind with a pleasant feeling. Many physicians believe that laughter is good for health and can enhance longevity with its soothing effects. It is said to be an effective antidote to cardiac problems in particular. Constant gloomy mood is a threat to health, which may be avoided with reading humorous literature. That is its practical benefit.
Many researchers have recounted the benefits of humour in physiological, psychological and sociological terms. Lynn Z. Bloom presents a detailed list of the benefits of humorous literature in the Lexington Reader, which we will consider in this article. Firstly, humorous writing can celebrate joy. Secondly, humorous writing can depict memorable characters. Thirdly, humorous writing can provide comic relief. Fourthly, humorous writing can call attention to the paradoxical, quixotic, bizarre and unpredictable aspects of human behaviour. Fifthly, humorous writing can also provide an opportunity for acts of daring, defiance, and even revenge. Lastly, humorous writing can be a form of social commentary or social criticism, designed to bring change and reform.
According to Bloom's analysis, the first benefit of humorous literature is the joy derivable from it by the reader. If anybody reads the poems of Sukumar Roy in Bangla or Lewis Carroll in English, he/she is sure to experience pleasure. Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam also created remarkable humour in their prose and poetry.
The second benefit points to the creation of memorable characters. Humorous literature is full of such characters, which amuse readers in their leisure hours. We can cite the examples of Gopal Bhar and Nasiruddin Hojja, who will always be remembered for their comical acts. Some characters are remembered for being the victim of humour. For example Pondit Moshai by Syed Mujtaba Ali. Pondit Moshai is not a humorous character himself but he evokes humour when he is seen to fail to adjust himself to modern social, economic and educational norms. Readers laugh to witness his predicaments as they feel pity for him. In English literature, the phenomenon can be exemplified by the characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer created by Mark Twain.
The third benefit mentioned by Bloom is comic relief. Human life is inextricably beset with scores of problems. Reading of humorous literature can save people from pervasive grief in life. It is a temporary shelter far removed from bitter reality. Books of jokes by Kushbant Sing or Hanif Shangket soothe and recharge our minds. The poetic witticism of Spike Milligan and Billy Collins offer great comic relief. The pent-up suspense is suddenly released through bursts of laughter.
The fourth benefit is said to be an awareness of 'paradoxical, quixotic, bizarre and unpredictable aspects of human behaviour'. Paradoxical is the poetic statement like “The child is the father of the man” as told by William Wordsworth; or “Death, thou shalt die” as told by John Donne. Quixotic is Edward Lear's old man in whose beard different kinds of bird build their nests, or the young lady whose nose is so long that it reaches her toes and she has to hire an old woman to carry it. Banoful's short stories are crisp readings as they have unpredictable endings on par with societal accidents.
The fifth benefit is facing the daring. Gulliver takes the readers to adventures to exotic places. Putting Gulliver and Lilliput side by side, readers derive a ludicrous picture, not missing a potential danger in the encounter of the two parties. Defiance and revenge dominate the episodes in a fantastic way. As presented in many fictions, fool's rush to the place where angels fear to tread evokes a feeling of laughter. “Hati ghora gelo tol, mosha boley koto jol” type of bragging also counts as jocular literature, as this is found incongruent with reality. Jasimuddin's folk tales present many such instances. The lady admirer in the short story “The Luncheon” by W. Somerset Maugham undertakes a daring project i.e. exploiting writer in feast. The writer feels intimidated with the consequence of entertaining, which could hardly be circumvented.
In Bloom's account, the last benefit is social reform. Alexander Pope mocks at the lolly pop ladies of his time because he wanted them to shun vanity and behave with sobriety. Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to point out the economic disparity existing in society, in the hope of intervention of the politicians. The beast characters in “Animal Farm” amuse us with their squabbling. But that is not the purpose of George Orwell's writing. He criticises the Russian totalitarian politics and seeks for freedom and equality in the system of governance. The comedies of Aristophanes, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw are not simply the accounts of the follies and foibles of human figures but the revelations of truths about human nature. Hutom Pechar Noksha by Kali Prasanna Singha and Buro Shaliker Ghare Ro by Michael Modhushudon Datta are two important satires that were projected to bring about reforms in nineteenth century Bengali society.
Humour is not a light affair as it is normally thought. Rather it is a serious matter, which merits profound investigation. Philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Arthur Schopenhauer, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Hobbes, Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer employed thoughts in humour. They attempted to analyse the phenomenon with rigours of contemplation, which gave rise to different theories such as incongruity, superiority, relief and play. These theories explain, from different perspectives, why and how humour takes effect in discourse. These days, there are many institutions and projects that are dedicated to research on humour. The International Society for Humour Studies is one such example.
Joke is not a joking matter after all. Humour is a subtle thing and for creating and enjoying it, one needs to have a sense of humour. Lacking the requisite susceptibility to experience humour is a great deficiency in human character.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)