Tuesday, December 15, 2020

'It Increases as More Partake'

“Laughter is what economists call a social or public good, since my pleasure from laughter does not detract from that of those who laugh along with me. Just the opposite, since a joke asks to be retold and the retelling increases the pleasure all around. The miracle of laughter, like that of the loaves and fishes, is that it increases as more partake.” 

So writes F.H. Buckley in The Morality of Laughter (2003), and my experience confirms his observation. When I hear a good joke or encounter anything I find amusing, my instinct is to share it with people I’m certain will share my enjoyment. That’s a quality I look for in friends. Their enjoyment becomes mine all over again. A sense of humor is a notoriously idiosyncratic thing; paradoxically, it is also highly social.


Last weekend, Joseph Epstein published “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” in the Wall Street Journal. Epstein has a little fun with the incoming first lady’s use of “Dr.” as a title, though she is not a medical doctor. It’s a common affectation among academics. I’m shielded from its more gratuitous uses because I work for my university's engineering school, and rarely encounter this little vanity among engineers, scientists and mathematicians. The practice is common in the humanities, where egos battle like pit bulls for dominance and sport.


At least since Juvenal and Martial, pretentiousness and other forms of snobbery and pomposity have been classic targets of humor, satire and plain old ridicule. I had never heard of Jill Biden before reading Epstein’s column. I assumed the president-elect had a wife but I knew nothing about her. By Epstein’s standards, the column was modestly amusing. I didn’t laugh out loud, which I often do when reading him. In the larger body of his work I give it a B-. He briefly outlines some aspects of academic snobbery as I understand them. Then I learned his column had triggered tantrums in certain quarters and I remembered the other ongoing pandemic – humorlessness. My reaction was to send him a joke told to me by a computer scientist some years ago:


A woman screams, “Doctor! Doctor!”


A passerby replies, “I’m a doctor. How can I help?”


“It’s my husband. He’s had a heart attack.”


“I’m a doctor of philosophy.”


“Help, doctor. He’s going to die.”


“We’re all going to die.”  


If you don’t get it, that’s fine. Jokes shouldn’t require footnotes. It’s funny or it’s not. I like it because it suggests the obliviousness to common humanity I’ve seen among so many academics. Such professors are less absent-minded than self-absorbed.


Abraca said...

I have to admit that article from Mr. Epstein disappointed me somewhat–a bit of an unworthy topic for him with a weird display of unreality towards how the prefix Dr. has been used. Which reminds me about the most important thing when making a joke...who are you telling it for? The best kind of comedic performance is one that doesn't rely on semantics or contemporary politics–the best form themselves from the natural stupidity of creatures who have the wonderful ability to laugh at themselves. I think that ties in to your point at the end–and it's one where I couldn't agree more!

Thomas Parker said...

I must say that I was floored by the hysterical overreaction to Epstein's mild jibe - it was the equivalent of using an h-bomb to dispose of a flea. Just what are these people so afraid of?

Tim Guirl said...

I've been reading Joseph Epstein's delightful essays for 35 years, ever since I chanced on his essay about E.B White in Commentary magazine. Boxer Muhammad Ali famously described his fighting style as "float like a butterfly, sting like bee." Epstein's writing style, not to put too fine a point on it, is to "float like a bee, sting like a butterfly."

-Z. said...

The Epstein article was an amusing little assay at pretention popping. That the wild-eyed reaction to it was so overwrought suggests there's a lot more work to be done in that field, particularly aimed at a certain puffed-up set of the expensively miseducated.

Tim Guirl said...

With all the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over Mr. Epstein's squib in the WSJ, perhaps this will stir some interest in actually reading him.

Cal Gough said...

One of my concerns about Epstein's essay is that his not-very-disguised or tone-deaf or privileged perspective will dissuade readers from his other work rather than pique their interest in what things Epstein has to say on other, more important subjects. I read with intense enjoyment most of Epstein's essays, despite his evident obliviousness to the harm caused by others who share his insensitivity toward gay people. His "jokes" (i.e. sarcastic or semi-snide references to them) reinforce stubborn prejudices against gay people. It grieves me to feel obliged that I need to warn friends of mine who've never read Epstein that they're going to encounter this disappointing streak in his otherwise excellent writing. At least in this case Epstein wasn't poking fun at a female of a different genetic makeup than his own. It's the cheap-shotiness of these sorts of comments of Epstein's that make me squirm. Epstein claims his reading has made him a more mature, generous person, but I reckon we all have our stubborn blind spots, even our best writers. He isn't the first writer whose social conditioning and class and gender privileges (yes, Patrick, those are actual things) have made me squirm when I read him, and he won't be the last. Still, I suppose it's inevitable that one will be occasionally disappointed in one's literary heroes: I guess that's the price I can sometimes pay for elevating certain writers into a personal pantheon instead of setting for the more realistic posture of being happy that I've merely found a mostly-congenial fellow-journeyer who's more articulate than most. In any case, I'll always be grateful to you for pointing me toward Epstein's essays, and I look forward to every collection of them he publishes. His recent foray into anti-pompousness among academics, if that's what it was supposed to be, strikes me as just one of his rare essays that misses the mark. He might have written one about how refreshing it'll be to have an educated, caring person living in the White House for a few years, but instead he chose to write about/joke about a prominent person's preferred/conventional form of address instead. The frequent misogyny among the male section of the chattering classes, and the weariness of its victims/targets displayed in their reactions to that insensitivity, might account for the alleged "overreaction" his essay ignited.