Terry Eagleton on humour

Terry Eagleton’s new book, Humour (2019), is going to prove to be indispensable reading, and one of its great strengths is the sustained analysis of the psychoanalytical mechanisms underlying humour. Using Freud’s insights into the capacity of humour to release ‘the psychic energy we normally invest in maintaining certain socially essential inhibitions’ (11), Eagleton develops his own account of comic relief with both sensitivity and verve. He notes how jokes can release us from the psychological strain of the exhausting effort of maintaining social norms or ideals (decency, concern for others), allowing us to be ‘free from having to maintain a reputable moral front’ and thus able to ‘reap the delectable fruits of being openly crude, cynical, selfish, obtuse, insulting, morally indolent, emotionally anaesthetised and outrageously self-indulgent’ (14). Eagleton’s recognition of the psychoanalytical economics of humour thread throughout the book; thinking about the detachment evident in much stage comedy for instance, he notices that ‘[f]aced with a comic stereotype we can conserve the energy we would need to invest in savouring the intricacies of a realistic character, and so can discharge it in a chuckle or a snigger’ (52). And in discussing the comic theory of superiority, he argues that even in ridicule there is a solidarity with the failings on display, which explains the mental relaxation offered by ‘any cavalier display of moral weakness’ (58), as the display of folly ‘allows us a certain vicarious easing of psychic pressure’ (57). The willingness to spell out in affective and psychological terms the efforts involved in sustaining social reality, and thus the profound relaxation offered by humour, is deeply satisfying.

Humour. Terry Eagleton. New Haven: Yale, 2019. 178 pp.

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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