April 1981: Dad humor gone too far? Ciro Jose Leon entered a store holding a three-foot stick, slammed it down on the counter, and declared this was a stickup. Bystanders intervened and held him until the police arrived. Leon was booked for investigation of armed robbery.
Kant and humor are, I'm guessing, two things most people wouldn't associate together. And after reading Clewis's book, their opinion on this subject may not change.
Clewis freely admits this. In his preface he notes that he was "once tempted to call the book Kant’s Humorous Writings: I Wish They Existed." He goes on to say, "Readers may find the jokes to be boring or even offensive. No promise is being made that the reader will find the jokes amusing."
But Clewis also insists that the book itself isn't a joke. Nor was his intent to lampoon Kant. As he describes it, while studying Kant he realized that the philosopher's work included occasional jokes. His curiosity aroused, he thought it would be interesting to collect these jokes together, as a way of understanding what Kant thought was amusing.
Each joke is accompanied by an illustration drawn by artist Nicholas Ilic. So it's very much a book geared for a general audience. (Admittedly, an audience who appreciates offbeat, erudite material). Personally I think it seems like a great coffee table book. But then, I'm strange that way.
I've reproduced two of Kant's jokes, as well as Clewis's explanation of them, below.
The Merchant's Wig
There was once a young merchant who was sailing on his ship from India to Europe. He had his entire fortune on board. Due to a terrible storm, he was forced to throw all of his merchandise overboard. He was so upset that, that very night, his wig turned gray.
This joke comes from the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), one of Kant's three Critiques. He contrasts this version with another version: the merchant's hair turns gray. But in that version, we listeners or readers become more concerned and involved. We empathize with the merchant and feel his pain more than in the first version. When it's just a wig, we are in a better position to find the story amusing. We hear the narrative as a joke rather than as descriptive speech, a real story about the world that can be either true or false.
Kant thinks that when we hear or read a joke as a joke, we need to be removed from the situation or story; we cannot have something at stake in it. He calls this disinterestedness, which turns out to be a key principle in his aesthetic theory and account of beauty. "Taste is the faculty for judging an object or a kind of representation through a satisfaction or dissatisfaction without any interest. The object of such a satisfaction is called beautiful." While the humorous is not the same as the beautiful, Kant thinks that our response to both of them requires a kind of disinterestedness. A notion of disinterestedness can be found in the writings of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) (1651–1713) and other eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists. Today the notion of disinterestedness remains controversial. Some theorists think that the idea can be better captured by the concept of absorbed attention or focus.
Happy Funeral Mourners
A man's rich relative dies. Suddenly he is rich. To honor his relative, the man wants to arrange a solemn funeral service. But he keeps complaining that he can't get it quite right.
"What's the problem?" someone asks.
"I hired these mourners, but the more money I give them to look grieved, the happier they look."
This is a second joke from the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Kant is using it to illustrate his incongruity theory of humor. When we learn that the mourners are happy because they are getting paid, he says, our expectation is suddenly "transformed into nothing."
The philosophical underpinning is that there are at least two levels of satisfaction at work: we feel sadness, joy, etc. (first-order satisfaction) and then can approve or disapprove of it using reason (second-order). A man can be glad that he is receiving an inheritance from a deceased relative, yet disapprove of his gladness. "The object can be pleasant, but the enjoyment of it displeasing."
The joke turns on something similar happening with the mourners. They are so happy that they are getting paid (second-order) that they are no longer able to look sad (first-order).
There is a similar anecdote in Plato's Ion, a dialogue about a professional reciter (a "rhapsode") named Ion, who aimed at moving his audience. Ion says that when he looks out at the audience and sees them weeping, he knows he will laugh because it has made him richer, and that when they laugh, he will be weeping about losing the money.
Lord Aberdeen (1847-1934) was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1886, and again from 1905 to 1915. He held the office of Governor General of Canada from 1893 to 1898. He also fancied himself something of a wit and allowed some of his jokes to be collected together in a volume titled Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen, published in 1929 by Valentine Press.
In reality, the jokes aren't all that bad. However, they are liberally sprinkled with Scottish dialect, which can make them hard to understand. Also, their subject matter is often quite dated.
But judge them for yourself. I've collected together some examples below.
A young man had occasion to move from where he had hitherto lived, to another district. He had been associated with Presbyterians in his former abode, but it occurred to the clergyman of the Episcopal Church in the neighbourhood that the young man might suitably be invited to become a member of that Church. This was accomplished; but not long afterwards it transpired that he was about to join the Roman Catholics. On hearing this a friend of the Rector, who, like himself, was a keen curler, remarked, "Man, you've souppit him through the Hoose."
You probably failed to get that joke. I certainly had no clue what the punchline meant. Here's an explanation by John Finnemore (who wrote the intro to the 2013 edition):
in curling, you want to sweep the ice enough to get your team's stone to the target, or 'House', but not so much that it overshoots. Meanwhile, the Presbyterians are an extremely low church denomination of Christianity; Catholicism is of course a very high church; the Episcopalians are somewhere between the two. By encouraging the new arrival to join his church, only to lose him to the Catholics, the Rector has metaphorically swept him through the House … or souppit him through the Hoose!
More jokes (easier to understand):
A lady remarked to a former Bishop of London on one occasion 'Oh! Bishop, I want to tell you something very remarkable. An aunt of mine had arranged to make a voyage in a certain steamer, but at the last moment she had to give up the trip; and that steamer was wrecked; wasn't it a mercy she did not go in it?'
'Well, but,' replied the bishop, 'I don't know your aunt.'
A certain Scot was not very well, and the doctor was called in. On making enquiries the doctor found that the man was mainly depending on farinaceous food, living, as his wife admitted, on "porridge and milk and whiles brose and tatties," so he said: "I think your husband should take some animal food; it will brace him up."
The wife seemed rather dubious, but replied, "Well, I suppose he micht try."
"All right" said the doctor, "I had better call again in a few days to see how he does."
And sure enough, in due course, the doctor arrived and on asking the wife how the new diet was suiting her husband, received the following reply:
"Weel, he manages middlin' well wi' the neeps; and whiles the linseed cake, but oh! doctor, he canna thole the strae!"
('he canna thole the strae' = he cannot stand the straw)
In the Scottish Presbyterian Churches there is a plan whereby a minister who, through advancing years, finds the burden of his charge too heavy, can be partly relieved by the appointment of what is known as an "assistant and successor."
In this way an element of permanence is secured for the assistant or colleague, since, humanly speaking, it is only a matter of time when he will have full charge, and the full stipend, such as it may be.
I remember that the late Dr. Marshall Lang, who was a Moderator of the Church of Scotland, and latterly Principal of the University of Aberdeen, when speaking on a subject which included the above arrangement, said that he had heard of an elderly minister who once said to his "assistant and successor:" "I suppose, my young friend, you are 'thinking long' for my dying?"
"Ah, no, sir," replied the younger man, "you must not put it so; for it is your living that I desire."
Dauvid: "I didna see ye, Sandy, at the Kirk on Sabbath."
Sandy: "I noticed that, when I was takin' up the collection."
A young man arrived unexpectedly at the house of some friends in the country. Could they put him up for the night? Well, they were about full—but, yes, there was one room still vacant, so he could use that. In due course the visitor was conducted to his room, the hostess remarking — "After we had taken the lease of this house we found that one of the rooms was supposed to be haunted; but I daresay you are not superstitious about that sort of thing." "Oh, well, no," said the visitor, "I don't trouble about such tales." When alone, he surveyed the room. It seemed to him to be rather a gaunt sort of place and somewhat chilly. He began to ruminate as to why such a rumour as he heard should have existed, and he decided that in case there should be any humbug of any sort he would place a small pistol, which he always carried in his dressing-case, by the bedside. Soon he fell asleep; but in the dim, grey light of early morning he awoke, feeling far from comfortable, and soon espied at the foot of the bed the appearance of a hand, in upright position. This seemed uncanny, and after a few moments he reached for his pistol, and then said very deliberately, "Now, I am no coward; but if that hand is not removed when I have counted three, I shall fire-One, two, three—Bang!—Oh!!" And ever since that morning one of the toes of that man's right foot has been missing.
For such a famous joke, its origins remain a mystery. Some have hypothesized that it came from vaudeville, but the earliest known written accounts are from the mid-1950s, which might suggest Borscht Belt humor from the Catskills resorts popular at the time. One of the early published versions, though not the first, came in a 1955 collection of jokes by Random House founder Bennett Cerf.
Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi says that the best version he’s heard involved violinist Mischa Elman. As the story goes, Elman was walking from Carnegie Hall toward his hotel following a rehearsal. He wasn’t happy with his playing and had his head down. Two tourists who saw his violin case asked him the question. Without looking up, he replied, “Practice.”
“He was impish enough and known for his sense of humor to come up with it,” says Francesconi.
They also sent a camera team out to ask New Yorkers how to get to Carnegie Hall:
During the 1930s, a genre of cruel jokes became popular known as "Little Audrey" jokes. The short jokes were usually pretty macabre, involving various fatal events happening to people. They also featured the catch phrase that Little Audrey "just laughed and laughed".
In rare cases the bad stuff happened to Little Audrey and then people laughed and laughed at her.
One day Little Audrey and her mother were driving along when all of a sudden the car door flew open and Little Audrey's mother fell out. Little Audrey just laughed and laughed, 'cause she knew all the time that her mother had on her light fall suit.
Little Audrey and her grandma were standing on their front porch watching the men pave their street. There was a cement mixer, a steam roller, and all kinds of things to watch. All of a sudden grandma saw a quarter out there right in the middle of the street. She dashed right out to get it, but just as she picked it up along came that old steam roller and rolled her out flatter than a sheet of theme paper. Little Audrey just laughed and laughed, 'cause she knew all the time it was only a dime.
Little Audrey was playing with matches. Mama said, "Ummm, you better not do that." But Little Audrey was awful hard-headed; she kept right on playing with matches, and after a while she set the house on fire, and it burned right down to the ground. Mama and Little Audrey were looking at the ashes, and mama said, "Uh huh, I told you so! Now, young lady, just wait until your papa comes home. You certainly will catch it!" Little Audrey just laughed and laughed. She knew all the time that papa had come home an hour early and had gone to bed to take a nap.
Little Audrey was standing on the corner just a-crying and a-crying, when along comes a cop, who said, "Little Audrey, why are you crying?" And Little Audrey said, "Oh, I've lost my papa!" The cop said, "Why Little Audrey, I wouldn't cry about that. There's your papa right across the street leaning against that bank building." Little Audrey was overjoyed; without even looking at the traffic she started across the street. Along came a big two-ton truck that ran over Little Audrey and killed her dead. The cop just laughed and laughed. He knew all the time that that was not Little Audrey's papa leaning against the bank building.
Thanks to the recent movie The King's Speech, King George VI is now best known as the king who stuttered. But apparently he also occasionally told jokes. Several of them are reproduced below. They're not bad, for a royal. [Milwaukee Journal — Apr 25, 1937]
[In response to a speaker who was praising him in extravagant terms]. "I am reminded," he said, "of the woman who went to her husband's funeral service. The couple had never got on well together, but the minister devoted his long sermon to a panegyric of the husband's virtues. So glowing a picture did he paint that the widow completely failed to recognize her late husband. 'Milly,' she nudged her friend and whispered loudly, 'is there another corpse about?'"
There was a petrol dump where men sent a canary down into the empty tank to see if the atmosphere was safe for them to go down and clean it out. One day the foreman saw a man walking about in the bottom of the tank before the canary had been let down. "Hey, what are you doing there?" he yelled. In all seriousness the man below shouted back: "I'm just seeing if it's all right for me blinkin' canary."
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.