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What’s funny?

Máirtín Coilféir

An Greann sa Ghaeilge, by Malachy Ó Néill and Regina Uí Chollatáin (eds), Coiscéim, 183 pp, €10, ISBN 978-095651318

Thomas Hobbes understood many things, but laughter wasn’t one of them. Writing in the mid-seventeenth century, the English philosopher proposed in Human Nature that what moves us to laugh is seeing someone else’s misfortune or weakness and concluding that we are superior to them – that, or surprising ourselves with how excellent and witty we are. “For what is else the recommending of ourselves to our own good opinion, by comparison with another man’s infirmity or absurdity?” he asks.

We may answer that this is the kind of cackle we now associate with evil geniuses and sociopaths and it comes nowhere near a comprehensive account of what it means to find a person or a situation, diverse as they may be, laughable. Yet Hobbes’s account is one of the earliest meaningful engagements with humour in modern philosophy. Its forbears go back as far as Aristotle and Plato and even today it has resonance with certain types of comedy. (Notable here is the rise of “cringe” comedy, as seen in The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, which draw directly on the idea of mocking “another man’s infirmity or absurdity”, as Hobbes says.) The problem is that it leaves too much out. Even if we confine the idea to laughter and leave the wider concept of humour aside for a moment, Hobbes mentions nothing that could explain, say, a baby’s laughter at peek-a-boo or laughter at simple playground jokes such as: “What’s a pilot’s favourite type of crisp?” “Plane.” Assuming that we are now laughing, whose “infirmities” are the subject of our amusement? The pilot’s? The teller’s?

Hobbes’s idea has been challenged, of course, but the philosophy of laughter and humour over the last three hundred and fifty years has still largely been a case of getting it wrong or, at least, not getting it right enough. To give two big examples. Freud saw humour as a trigger for releasing excess nervous or psychological energy, which is eventually made manifest in laughter. And this is plausible in some instances. When a scary situation suddenly comes benign, for example, relieved laughter is often the result. But the idea that amusement always makes us build up energy by repressing emotions or by thinking, only for that energy to be discharged in staccato exhalations of breath, is improvable and suspect. Do we always have time to build up nervous or psychic energy when we laugh? What build-up of energy occurs when we’re tickled?

Henri Bergson’s theory, famous as it is, is similarly wanting. His idea was that the meaning of the comic lies in rational and emotional human beings acting in a ridiculously mechanical way. And laughter, he thinks, is a social corrective we have developed that can snap people out of acting like automatons. Again, this covers a reasonable amount of ground. Think of the passage in The Third Policeman where Mathers answers every question in the negative regardless of context, or of slapstick humour with people falling down and suddenly about-facing. But, like Freud and Hobbes, it doesn’t go far enough. To use an example already given, we can’t use it to explain our relieved laughter when a frightening situation suddenly becomes defused. Nor can we use it to explain our amusement on winning the lottery.

The truth is that it’s only in the last thirty years or so that scholars of humour have amalgamated and added to the three theories above in an effort to nail down a “sufficient and necessary condition” for funniness to exist. Until then, we were only getting small slices of the meaning of humour which fit certain contexts but not others. The same charge can be levelled against An Greann sa Ghaeilge, a recently published collection of essays and the first academic study of humour in Irish. The nine authors fill in huge gaps in a relatively untouched academic field – a notable achievement – yet we feel some of the finer points of humour aren't always accounted for.

The first line of the first essay may be a case in point. In his overview of various types of humour, Nicholas Williams opens with the comment, “Is rud spontáineach é an greann, rud tobann.” [Humour is spontaneous, sudden.] This is a commonplace in humour theories, found even in Hobbes, but how true is it? Do we not laugh, and genuinely, at jokes we have heard before? And how does this statement fit in with the history of Irish literature? Considering that a vast amount of literary humour in Irish has come down in manuscripts which were read, re-read, hand-copied, and passed on, one would imagine that the gags in such texts as Aislinge Meic Con Glinne were known to some of its readers before they began the story. Yet the fact that effort was made to preserve these stories suggests that they were still found funny even when the funny parts were anticipated by the audience. Some types of humour demand spontaneity, some don’t. This is the type of fundamental (yet tricky) issue we’d like to see teased out in a collection of essays on humour but, for the most part, such questions are dealt with but fleetingly in An Greann sa Ghaeilge.

That said, Williams’s account is one of the more informative in the book. He usefully splits humour in Irish language sources into nine categories which are sometimes taken up in the essays that follow. They are: aoir; exaggeration; grotesque; slapstick; irony; ridiculous words and names; and wordplay and macaronic speech (that is a mixture of Irish and another language, usually English). The categorisation itself may seem a bit arbitrary and Williams points out that types of humour can spill over into one another, which is what made early accounts of laughter and amusement so difficult in the first place. But he gives examples from an impressive range of sources, written and oral, early and modern, to make his point. He shows us seventeenth century slang for certain female body parts, giving us a fascinating glimpse into registers of the language since largely eroded. He also draws on interesting examples of humour based on Irish and English getting lost in translation, which is a theme taken up by a number of the authors in the collection. To a general readership, however, perhaps the most surprising aspect of Williams’s overview is just how lewd some of the pre-modern tales were. Under his discussion of anchúinseacht or the grotesque, for example, he gives the following passage from Aidhedh Ferghusa in which the king of Ulster, Fearghas, gets philosophical with the lady leprechaun Bébhó:

ingnamh lium ar sé in ball ferrda ina bfuilit secht nduirn ocus gan innatsa acht trí duirn gan a dhul trét chenn seachtar. ocus is uime sin do chuires mo lám ar do cheann. léig as alé a Ferguis ar sí: is mór ní súigios lesrach banscaile.
[“I was amazed,” he says, “that my male member, which is seven hands in length, does not emerge from the top of your head, since you are only three hands in height, and that as why I put my hand on your head.” “Take it away, Fergus,” says she, “great is the capacity of the female private parts.”]

Many readers of Modern Irish aren’t linguistically equipped to tackle older texts like Aidhedh Ferghusa without a guide. And since in-depth analysis on the workings of humour doesn’t really happen in An Greann sa Ghaeilge, maybe its biggest virtue for the non-specialist is this explication of pre-modern sources. So Roisin McLaughlin gives an impressive account of the aoir in Old and Middle Irish, what its effects were, who performed it and when it was considered valid. Even though the term aoir crops up in a number of essays in An Greann sa Ghaeilge, both McLaughlin and Williams point out that the main function of this native form of satire was not in fact amusement but censure. As a product of a logocentric society where the line between words and actions was often blurred, the aim was to “cut” the subject with language – aoir, the authors explain, is related to the Old Irish word áer, which means cutting or incising. In Old and Middle Irish this type of satire appears to have been rigidly codified and, because it is rather unlike any types of humour practiced today, a lot of what McLaughlin says will be news to those of us who can’t read her sources. We find out that drawing attention to a physical deformity in an aoir was subject to a fine; that one type of aoir involved heckling the poet or reciter as he made his panegyric to a patron; that women, foreigners and farmyard animals were used largely as terms of contempt in the tradition. Humour may be a universal human trait but it changes over time; the aoir gets us thinking both on the historical variations of funniness and on the aspects of it which remain constant.

Williams and McLaughlin keep their discussions broad, spanning large timelines and an array of texts. That’s not a bad strategy because they can appeal to the reader on a number of levels. Other essays in An Greann sa Ghaeilge seem a lot narrower, often focusing on one author or on one text. Nollaig Mac Congáil has a thirty-page essay on the author Séamus Ó Grianna (aka Máire, 1889-1969), which is chock-a-block with lengthy examples from Ó Grianna’s work. Many of the passages are indeed amusing, but aside from being separated into themes – Ó Grianna sneering at school inspectors, at learners of Irish, at other authors, at himself – not much is done to explain why they are important. The essay’s conclusion is that Ó Grianna had a (sometimes wicked) sense of humour and that it often made its way into his writing. If we already knew that Máire was a notorious crank there’s not a lot we can take with us to better understand humour in general. Séamas Mac Annaidh’s essay on Myles na gCopaleen falls into a similar trap. Myles is arguably the most important comic writer in the language, well-known and often discussed, but Mac Annaidh opts for a conversational, anecdote-heavy reading of his work which doesn’t shed much light on the subject at hand. The book itself arose from a conference held back in 2010 and this is one of the dangers of turning a series of talks into a collection of essays: the looser and lighter form of the talk doesn’t always translate well into print.

Jan Erik Rekdal and Seosamh Watson focus on Aislinge Meic Con Glinne and the poetry of Peadar Ó Doirnín respectively. Although the subjects of their essays are also quite specific they take more time to draw out the implications of the examples they give. Rekdal gives a comprehensive reading of the Aislinge and takes pains to make a distinction between irony and satire in his text, while Watson’s dissection of humour in Ó Doirnín’s poems serves as a useful introduction to his work as a whole. Micheál Ó Meallaigh discusses the commissioning of comedy programmes for TG4 in a piece which is brief but insightful as to that station’s modus operandi; Séamas Ó Catháin looks at some amusing Irish anecdotes in the context of The Types of the Irish Folktales and The Types of International Folktales, two important reference works which categorise those types of stories.

Of all the essays, though, Liam Ó Muirthile’s contribution comes closest to explaining why humour is important. He makes the tantalising point that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in particular, it became a means of resistance for the native Irish, a way of expressing identity in the face of the degradation and erosion that colonisation brought upon their culture. This is something we don’t hear a lot about in studies of humour. Amusement is often seen as a form of disengagement, a mindset akin to aesthetic contemplation that is completely opposed to any serious moral or political issues. That’s why the phrase “only joking” is so powerful: when we say it, we invoke the protection of humour and give ourselves the freedom to ignore the usual rules of decorum and ethics. Ó Muirthile here is saying the opposite, that humour could actually be a means of appropriating power from the political and cultural masters. How this would work though, and how meaningful would this type of power be when the social and linguistic structures that sustain it are crumbling down around us? Ó Muirthile doesn’t follow this up in any detail, but the thesis is certainly worth pursuing.

Another point he briefly makes and which merits discussion is the place of ribaldry in Irish literature. We saw a passage from Aidhedh Ferghusa above where Bébhó sheds some light on leprechaun biology. This kind of raw, often sexually explicit, comedy in ancient texts has had a huge influence on contemporary understandings of what Irish language literature is and what it should be. Recent overviews of the short story and of poetry in particular often highlight the rise and fall of such humour in literature, thereby helping to define certain literary periods according to how legitimate crude comedy was at the time. So we get a thesis that runs something like this: ribaldry in literature goes all the way back to our early tales and runs unbroken for more than a thousand years until the end of the manuscript tradition in the late nineteenth century. It’s a particularly organic form of humour in the language, continuing unbroken in the oral tradition and surviving even today in the work of the traditional Gaeltacht poets. As regards the written word, however, it becomes taboo and is ignored when the Gaelic Revivalists embark on their mission to forge a new Irish literature at the turn of the century. Along with oppressive Catholicism, the Victorian mindset gets the better of us and we forget how important this part of our cultural heritage is. It is only with the group of free-wheeling bohemian writers who came to prominence in the seventies, often associated with the Cork-based journal INNTI, that ribaldry regains its rightful place in literature. Nowadays its all the rage. One of its substrands, Rabelaisian has become almost a buzzword in Irish literary criticism, a term that draws a line from the oldest stories right through the trauma of colonisation to Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche in the eighteenth century, on again to modernist giant Máirtín Ó Cadhain and onward still until we arrive at the healthy, liberated letters we enjoy today. According to this timeline, the reinstatement of humour becomes a re-appropriation of native cultural values which were on the verge of the abyss. It bridges a literary gap and reconnects us to more authentic aesthetic forms. Humour is a very serious business.

Contemporary literature isn’t discussed in An Greann sa Ghaeilge but Ó Muirthile does draw attention to the status of ribaldry and his remarks are worth quoting:

Tá an claonadh ionainn anois a mheas gur traidisiún tíorthúil, easurraimeach, gáirsiúil, leathgharbh, amháin nó is mó, atá i ngreann na Gaeilge, ach freagraíonn an greann Gaelach d’iomlán réimse na mbríonna a bhaineann leis an bhfocal greann freisin, ó humour go greann Dé nó grá Dé, atá níos gaolmhaire ina cháilíocht le greann Búdaíoch nó luath-Chríostaí, an greann úd nach scairteadh gáire a thoradh i gcónaí, ach meangadh anama, nó bualadh bos na leathláimhe.
 [We have a tendency now to think that Irish language humour is only, or mostly, earthy, irreverent, bawdy, rough around the edges, but in fact Gaelic humour covers the whole range of meanings that the word greann has, from [the English] humour to greann Dé or God’s love, which is nearer in quality to Buddhist or early Christian humour, that type of humour which doesn’t always lead to a burst of laughter but to a smiling of the soul, or a one-hand clap.]

So is this spectrum the same in all languages or is there such a thing as Irish humour, a type of amusement conveyable only through the syntax and aesthetics of Gaeilge? Ó Muirthile mentions loosely getting a peek at an aigne Ghaelach [the Gaelic mind] through humour and the notion pops up again in Séamas Ó Catháin’s and Micheál Ó Meallaigh’s. Any definition of ethnic humour is obviously problematic but the book as a whole gives us interesting material to build cases for and against. On the one hand we have the aoir and the tradition of the barántas, which was an entertaining cross between poetry and local news reporting in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. We could argue that these are distinctly native literary forms, moulds through which a specifically Irish type of humour was produced. On the other hand, as we move through history and through the essays in An Greann sa Ghaeilge we get a sense of humour as something which is at the centre of cross-cultural exchange. A number of the authors draw attention to the comedy created by the language shift from the seventeenth century onwards, the things lost and gained in translation as Irish-speaking and English-speaking characters interact with one another. An example from Séamas Ó Catháin’s essay:

Bhí fear ar an aonach agus bhí cráin mhuice aige. Tháinig ceannaitheoir go dtí é. Bhí a bhean, Sádhbh, in éineacht leis an bhfear.
   “How much for the sow?” a deir an ceannaitheoir.
   “Ná bac le Sádhbh,” a deir an fear, “ach ceannaigh an mhuic!”
[A man was at the fair with a sow. A buyer came up to him. His wife, Sádhbh, was with the man.
   “How much for the sow?” says the buyer.
   “Never mind Sádhbh,” says the man, “buy the pig!”]

Humour here is at the interface of cultures, in some ways highlighting their common ground and in other ways suggesting their (fundamental?) difference. There must be similar jokes in almost every language in the world. Anywhere there’s linguistic conflict, there’s humour – Hobbes would appreciate that. But how humour in Irish may be different from humour in any other language and why it’s important in the first place: those questions remain unanswered. An Greann sa Ghaeilge lays down an admirable foundation for humour studies in Irish; now it must be built on.

9/09/2013

 

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