There are joke books, books that theorize extensively on the nature of irony, books on the history of comedy, and so on. But there aren’t very many books that attempt to capture humor—probably because humor is as difficult a concept to pin down as human nature. So along comes Yale University Press to take a stab at it, and as skeptical as I was to take a look at Humour, I did so solely because it was written by literary critic, Terry Eagleton. In college I took an introductory course on literary criticism that changed everything for me, and the first properly interesting understanding of how Marxism operates in works of art was given to me in the form of a few pages excerpted from a book by Eagleton. The clarity of this work was stunning enough for his name to adhere in my memory for two decades.
About Eagleton, philosopher Simon Critchley has said, “If Terry Eagleton didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” which is quite funny especially since the only other decent book that I am aware of having tried and at least partially succeeded in wrapping its arms around the entire notion of humor is Critchley’s own On Humour (Routledge 2002). Critchley got as far as arguing that humor sheds light on our universal practices and also then has revolutionary power to criticize those same practices. Basically, humor brings us together and also tears us apart. It does two things at once and the things are in conflict with each other. Books on humor really only ever get this far because the theoretical path forward collapses into a series of less and less practicable contradiction.
Nevertheless, Eagleton’s take is delightfully valuable. Rather than forge a path forward on what humor should do, he just ambles along the roads much more often taken and points out all the lovely foliage on either side. Humour makes no argument beyond a survey of all the ways one can debunk some portion of all preceding theories of humor. This is so wise, because there simply cannot be a unified field theory on the subject. Humor is the heart of postmodernity in this way, and yet rather than tangle himself in the thorny gobbledygook of critical theory, Eagleton sets out merely to describe. I say “merely”, but this is an enormous undertaking for a book that runs under 200 pages.
Chapter One dissects the action of laughter. There are many types of laughter that may mean many different things. Chapter Two asks whether humor is mean. This examination of scoffing and mocking will turn our attention to the Greeks and to satire. The third chapter is on incongruities, which is primarily to understand irony with an assist from psychoanalysis. Then follows a chapter on history and a final one on politics, on the uses of humor in the past and future. Each chapter expresses its considerations in isolation from the other chapters, so it would be appropriate to excerpt the section most relevant to your fresh-faced undergrads. But the entire text really is quite comprehensive and would make a perfect starting point for introducing a cornucopia of topics around which to build a semesters’ worth of reading, research, writing, and discussion.
Eagleton has authored more than 50 books, and the result of so much practice is that he has put Humour together very neatly. Each sentence is short and comprehensible, and yet each sentence also seems to contain another new reference or idea. The text can be read quickly as rather funny in itself, or slowly to pick through the hidden depths that lurk behind each new example.
Perhaps the nicest thing one can say about a book like this is that it compels a reader to pick up some other books as well. Indeed, Humor would make a very good springboard for an extensive study of Bakhtin‘s work, or to go in a more directly literary direction, there is no shortage of cursory examples provided from a wide swath of canonical novels. Personally, I was most drawn to pick up Trevor Griffiths‘ dramatic stage play Comedians (1975), as Eagleton relied on it for several pages through the chapter on politics —a rare deeper dive within this book—and though his usage of it did stand alone, it also made me want to see the whole cloth from which Eagleton’s thinking was torn.
As a survey of all the questions pertaining to humor, Humour is a splendid introduction to the topic that ought to be used in universities everywhere. Professor Eagleton offers himself as a sturdy guide for this quick trip, neither so prude nor so erudite as to ruin our fun on the one hand, and on the other hand, neither so wild nor so cursory as to leave us quagmired in the academic jungle of postmodernity.