Humor and Humor and Humor and Chaucer
Graybill, Robert V.
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 3 (1986)
The dull are often overly earnest; the overly earnest are often dull. They deserve to be. Who cannot sparkle with wit cannot laugh at himself; who cannot laugh at himself can neither see nor enjoy himself. He merits whatever lugubrious fate awaits him. As the Greek dramatists of classical times observed, character is destiny. Tragic heroes, grave and serious and dignified, cannot see themselves or their world squarely because they are blinded by pious self-importance. Their preoccupation with the looming presence of self blocks the light. Their defense against admitting any error is to conceal themselves protectively in a cocoon of pious earnestness, out of or into which no one can see. A bored student asked, “Why do we have to learn all this stuff if we’re just going to die?” He was missing all the fun of living if he couldn’t be amused at the irony of this question. Irony is a form of humor, the recognition of which demands a distance from the subject, a perspective furnished by laughter. The student could not recognize irony because he was too near, just as he likely could not recognize his girl friend by an enormous close-up photograph of her left nostril. Humor would say that it is sometimes better to stand back. Judgment, perspective, objectivity, and irony all can function only from a disfance which is what humor provides. What is fun about life is the amusing knowledge that we will die. And it page 100 life does not last long, it should not be taken seriously.