IN HIS FILM Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen's character, Isaac Davis, complains about the poor quality of the TV sitcom that he writes, exclaiming, "It's worse than not insightful: it's not funny]" The implication here, of course, is that being funny is better and more important than being insightful. This sentiment may seem to run counter to conventional wisdom (and indeed it is this incongruity that lends the exclamation its touch of humor), but upon further examination it seems to have merit--after all, to be funny requires insight, and that which is funny often provides insight; thus, being funny encompasses and surpasses being merely insightful. Moreover, according to Jewish proverbial wisdom, the presence of humor means the presence of understanding and self-criticism. And this seems to be a primary function of humor: to provide and provoke self-examination, self-understanding, self-criticism. Don't we laugh hardest at--and appreciate most--those books, movies, and comedians that are able to most deftly, most insightfully expose our faults, foibles, and failures? Recognizing this, then, the question becomes one of direction. Once humor has exposed our faults and we are faced with examining and criticizing them, what do we do? Where do we go? And does the humor itself, after exposing these faults, suggest any solutions?
Flannery O'Connor is an author whose use of humor has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. In her study of O'Connor's fiction, for example, Dorothy Walters notes that the "thrust of tragic intention against comic implication is of major importance." Walters observes that O'Connor asks, perhaps even forces, the reader to "recognize that the world is peopled by figures essentially laughable in their basic makeup and ludicrous in their typical life response." "Our initial reaction," Walters continues, "may be a superior grin at the spectacle of a world teeming with inanity. But, through our laughter, we are involved; and we are led to reflect upon the most serious questions touching the human experience" (25). In other words, O'Connor's humor is insightful, and provokes self-examination and self-criticism.
Walters's succinct and astute assessment aligns the source and function of O'Connor's humor squarely with the philosophy of Henri Bergson; and indeed, Waiters mentions Bergson twice in her study, though only briefly and somewhat superficially. Bergson's theories of laughter and humor have much in common with a long tradition of superiority theories--theories of humor that state, in essence, that laughter is condescending, we laugh at what is beneath us. But what sets Bergson's theory apart is his insistence that laughter serves a distinctly social function as a potential remedy for undesirable human traits. That is to say, while superiority theories of humor generally see laughter's function as primarily derisive--the response of a "superior" subject to an object's perceived inferiority--Bergson insists that the function is, more properly, corrective in nature. The distinction here is subtle but crucial: the former sees laughter as essentially alienating, while the latter sees it as essentially assimilating. As Walker attests, when O'Connor makes us laugh at a character's stubborn and foolish pride, "we are involved." Our laughter is turned inward, so that we are not merely deriding that pride, alienating it as something outside and away from ourselves; rather, we are shifting in our seats, making internal adjustments that, in effect, are assimilating. And perhaps this is why so many of those who write about O'Connor's humor have a tendency to characterize it as satirical because satire has as its essential quality the provocation of uneasiness in the reader, urging some sort of reform.
In this essay I will expand on this interpretation of Bergson's philosophy of humor and demonstrate more thoroughly its relevance to O'Connor's fiction, focusing on two of her stories in particular: "Good Country People" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find. …