Humour as a safety valve
A contribution by FELIX M LARKIN to the “Members’ Musings” feature in the Kildare Street & University Club’s special weekly online newsletter during the COVID-19 lockdown, 9 April 2020.
Many of us – whether cocooning, or just observing “social distancing” rules – have been exchanging jokes and cartoons via the electronic media in recent weeks in an effort to cheer one another up. It is a worthy activity among friends, and it reflects one of the three classical theories of humour.
The first of these is superiority theory – humour as derision or mockery, with a victim as the butt of humour. The second is incongruity theory – humour as a response to the illogical or unexpected. The third is relief theory, which posits that humour serves to release tensions. It is that final one that is relevant to our present circumstances. Humour by this reckoning is a form of therapy. It is, in the words of the celebrated classicist Mary Beard, “the emotional equivalent of a safety valve”.
The literary critic Terry Eagleton likewise uses the metaphor of a “safety valve” in a recent study of humour. He writes that humour “provides a safety valve for ... subversive energies. In this sense, its closest parallel today is professional sport, the abolition of which would no doubt be the shortest route to bloody revolution.” Humour, in other words, turns our discontents and anxieties into a joke, and thus serves to reconcile us to our fate.
Perhaps because of our troubled history, we Irish have a fine tradition of humour. We are a naturally irreverent people. Swift is the pre-eminent exemplar of this , but the late Professor Vivian Mercier has argued that the “Irish comic tradition” is the central one of Irish and Anglo-Irish literature and can be traced back to oral Gaelic roots in the ninth century. He identified the elements of this tradition as “a bent for wild humour [and] a delight in witty word play”. It continues right down to the present day, through Wilde and Shaw, to Roddy Doyle.
We can trace it too in cartoons, from the iconic images published by the Freeman’s Journal and United Irishman newspapers in the 1880s, through Dublin Opinion in the first half of the twentieth century, to Martyn Turner in the Irish Times today. Anyone interested in the history of Irish cartoons might like to read an article by me on this subject published in the Irish Times on 26 June 2019.
I will give the final word to Martin Rowson, one of the best of contemporary British cartoonists. Writing about his own particular brand of humour, he says that “satire in general and cartoons ... exist because we need them – to contextualise the greater hideous, often horrific absurdities of reality into a manageable and therefore controllable format which might then also make us laugh and thus feel better”. In short, humour is a safety valve – and no matter how bad things get, let us hope that we never lose our capacity to laugh at whatever life throws at us.