Pushcart 2013: Andrew Hudgins, “Helen Keller Answers the Iron” (Non-Fiction) from Kenyon Review, Spring 2011

Though I’d rather have been one of the boys who could smack a baseball solidly with a bat, my talent was telling jokes. I was fascinated in them as mechanisms—machines made of words, to use William Carlos Williams’s definition of poetry. I tinkered with them as obsessively as other boys enjoyed taking apart radios, jack-in-the-boxes, and frogs to see what was inside. In bed at night, walking home from school, sitting in church, I sharpened the details of jokes, changing the settings, naming the characters after kids in my classes, and altering elements that had flopped the last time. I didn’t even have to try to memorize jokes. After I heard a joke, I, like an elephant, never forgot.

What is this thing called “funny”?

It’s a question that’s been examined from many angles. Neuroscientists are trying to find it in the brain. Psychiatrists might talk about the play frame. Psychologists are trying to crack the humor code. Linguists have amazingly complex theories (as linguists are wont to do). Isaac Asimov wrote a science fiction story, “Jokester,” to trace the origins of jokes. Comedian Chris Bliss looks at it as a Philosopher’s Stone. Andy Kaufman said he never told a joke in his life, yet he was hilarious.

Now it’s a poet’s turn.

And what a turn it is, starting with the elephant jokes of his childhood:

Elephant jokes mock logic, deliberately deranging the senses of sense. They are an adolescent intellectual’s version of spinning around till you fall down… the sneerers were declaring themselves serious people, nonlaughers. It’s useful to know who those people are.

Traditional riddles are difficult, but fair. But the echt elephant jokes deconstruct riddles. They are so arbitrary that you have to know the answer to get it, which is here only reminiscent of being a student when the teacher asks one of those questions you couldn’t possibly know the answer to, a question whose whole purpose seems to be to make you admit your ignorance. Answering the unanswerable question for his listener, the joke teller is a teacher correcting a dim-witted student.

Most of his analysis is more or less what’s been said before: humor is a defense mechanism, a way to look at what’s scary without being overwhelmed by it. And yes, he moves on in adolescence to jokes that are likely to be more offensive: dead baby jokes. Helen Keller jokes. But for him, they were not just a way to shock the thin-skinned, and not just a way to approach frightening material; they were also a path to self-definition: “I was beginning to see in myself the power to harm awfully and the power to be harmed awfully.”

He also learned about volition:

But by disgusting ourselves, we boys were assuring ourselves we’d never do something just because we could imagine it. Basic as it seems, the point was important to me because in church I sat through many sermons that, quoting Jesus, assured me that to think something was the same as doing it. All that stood between thinking and doing was volition – as if volition was nothing!

He sees the “sick” jokes as a way for him to learn discretion: the times, places, and company in which these jokes might be told. The guys at school, who’d think he was tough. The girls, who’d cringe. Mom and dad? Not a chance. Dad, because, well, he was Dad. Mom, because she’d lost a child. That’s a kind of empathy, I suppose. I doubt he learned empathy from jokes, but he sees it as part of the practice.

He did eventually share a somewhat less “sick” joke with his mother; adolescence is all about testing limits, and Hudgins used jokes. It worked out well in that case: “…it was an illicit pleasure to discover that we could laugh with one another almost like adults, just for the pure joy of laughing.” And later, he learned how to shut it down when it wasn’t funny any more.

The sick jokes – dead baby, Helen Keller, and mutilated-boy jokes – mock human frailty. They became popular when we boomers were, as adolescents, starting to grasp that our bodies weren’t invincible and our lives would have a terminus, even if we couldn’t yet see it over the horizon. And we, some of us, had to toughen our minds to that knowledge.

As I read this, I thought of The Onion‘s recent tweet controversy. It isn’t just adolescents who step over the line sometimes.

The Onion apologized; so does Hudgins:

Now I’m nearly appalled at my callousness. Any joker has to be worried about the truth behind Goethe’s chilling judgment that “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” But I’m only nearly appalled because I remember what I was thinking then. I could have been Helen Keller. I could still be Charles Woods.… By telling the jokes, I sneaked up on acknowledging that life was harsh, unfair, and temporary – and that my time in the world was unlikely to culminate on a positive note. By laughing at cruelty and fate, you could pretend to be superior to it, and yet what fueled the laughter was the absurdity of laughing: nothing tames death. So you might as well laugh, brother, and strengthen your mind against your own vanishing.

At first, I didn’t buy his apologia. A racist joke, even in the guise of an elephant joke, is not borne out of fear of racism, but rather, at best, out of fear of people of a particular race, of “others”; the joke does not lessen that fear, it merely objectifies and further distances the “other” and legitimizes stereotypes. Laughing at Helen Keller ridicules her for her otherness, and puts a stamp of approval on that attitude. Even a kid has a sphere of influence, and developing a sense of who can “take it” and who can’t, is simply one more way, a very subtle, unconscious way, of dividing people into “us” and “them.” This apology sat wrong with me.

But it led me inward. I repeated an offensive joke once. I got called out on it, by people I respected. The person who told it to me was standing right there, looking appropriately offended. Whether it was because it was something she told me in private, never expecting it to be repeated (and what that in itself said about me as a confidant; did I seem like someone who would accept this as ok? Or was I just that trustworthy to keep a secret?), or whether it was because she was just siding with the “good” guys in case I had any ideas about pointing to her and saying, “She told it to me!”, I’ll never know. I just learned something about using my own judgment that day. As well as something about friendship. Hey! I just wrote my own apologia, just like Hudgins. I did something wrong; I was being mean. We learn from our mistakes. That’s exactly what he’s saying, in fact.

I enjoyed the essay. I see sincerity. And, as embarrassing as it might be, I found a lot of it to be funny: the image of the little boy, the awkward adolescent, trying to be tough. I still don’t get Helen Keller jokes. The running in circles joke, though, that’s another matter.

My advice: read this essay when you’re alone. Unless you want everyone to know you still laugh at elephant jokes.

Addendum: It is truly by coincidence that this appears on April 1. Honest, it was the next non-fiction piece in order. Ok, maybe I did choose to put this in for Monday instead of the fiction piece…