The kind of humor found in Catch 22 is significantly more dark and satirical than the kind of humor encountered in The Color Purple. This is not something that needs to be explained – it is clear that the authors have different goals for their novels and thus they use different styles of humor. However, as we have established, both authors are aware of the connection that humor builds between the reader and the content.
How is humor so effective? How does it work? Many thinkers have tried to unpack humor and figure out how it functions. William H Coles, a scholar from Utah presented a lecture on How Humor Works in Fiction a few years ago. He started off his lecture stating his definition of humor as ‘this monumentally complex subject that affects every human as regular, and as necessary, as a heartbeat’, and also stating that ‘the neat thing about all forms of humor is that they make us feel good.’ While his first statement is acceptable in that it acknowledges the complexity and significance of humor, his assumption that all forms of humor make us ‘feel good’ does not sound as agreeable. Laughter and smiling are definitely positive emotions, humor is often a contributor to both emotions, however, as we have discovered so far in both The Color Purple and Catch 22, humor can also be used as a mask for dark ulterior motives and critiques.
In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson argues that our response is always to laugh when we encounter ‘something mechanical in something living’, in other words, when we know something is not right. This is true of the excerpts I have discussed so far in this blog from both Catch 22 and The Color Purple. In each situation, the humorous element was identified in the line that stated something that is widely considered to be false or impossible, such as Colonel Cathcart’s request for prayers that don’t mention God or Celie’s belief that the Indians were ‘so nice’ to Columbus. Both of these humorous statements can be considered ‘intellectual contrasts’ or ‘palpable absurdity’ – they’re incorrectness is not hidden from the reader.
Although we can identify this much about these humorous elements, Bergson acknowledges that such subtle, simple lines can evoke such a response in readers. Bergson states “how, indeed, should it come about that this particular logical relation, as soon as it is perceived, contracts, expands and shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations leave the body unaffected? It is not from this point of view that we shall approach the problem. To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a social signification”.
As Bergson summarizes in this excerpt, humor is largely reliant on ‘social significance’, or, an understanding of what is normal and what is considered out of place in order to identify the critique that is taking place.