Sunday, April 8, 2012

Swallow's Nest

Swallow's Nest

Jokes and Follies

Baron von Stengel built an extravagant folly atop the Aurora Cliff – a chimera that was part Moorish fantasy, part Scots castle, and part optical illusion. In 1912 the castle that would be known as Swallow’s Nest appeared on its dizzying perch 130 feet above the Black Sea. To build it Von Stengel, rich from oil, had first demolished its predecessor, a timber cottage known as the Castle of Love. Was it the oil magnate’s sly wit, or the wit of his architect, Leonid Sherwood, that inspired the creation of one of the world’s best visual jokes?

To reach Swallow’s Nest, you climb 800 steps down to the base of the cliff, then steeply up. Glancing above you on a clear day, you see the castle set against the bluest of blue skies: a castle with a two-story tower and decorative crenellations, appearing now imposing, now inviting. As your magical destination shimmers before you, you climb alongside other tourists, many of them young Ukrainian couples with or without children. When you reach the top, as I did on my daughter’s arm, out of breath, euphoric, you see the joke at once. The castle viewed from a distance looms large; up close it is revealed to be a small replica, only 66 feet long by 33 feet wide. The joke is on you – and you will enjoy it one more time on the return ferry to Yalta, looking back up at the silhouette against the sky.

Exegi monumentum, boasted Horace: “I have raised a monument more permanent than bronze.” Exegi monumentum, wrote Pushkin, “I have erected a monument to myself.” Poetry, especially the high art of Horace and Pushkin, rightly lays claim to the permanency of a bronze statue. But Exegi monumentum, said the oil baron? What claim to immortality did he make with his fantasy castle, if not the claim of laughter? His is the claim of a prankster, one who raised a monument to whimsy.

Rarely monumental, jokes are typically quick and transitory. Jokes are far less often visual than verbal. Swallow’s Nest, surrounded by sea, with sky as its backdrop, high up in the air, is perhaps the world’s most atypical joke.

Freud, an expert on jokes as well as dreams, offered the considered hypothesis that jokes are formed in the unconscious. Jokes surface from the Netherworld of the mind after “a preconscious thought is given over for a moment to unconscious revision and the outcome of this is at once grasped by conscious perception.” (Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905, p. 166) The place where revision occurs is an underworld into which the half-formed joke-thought sinks. A joke is formed with “the sinking of a preconscious thought into the unconscious and its unconscious revision.” (p. 167)

Where then is the unconscious located, this part of the mind into which the preconscious thought sinks? When the unconscious is pictured metaphorically, its location is nearly always down below. Unconscious thoughts exist below the surface, at a depth, undersea. The metaphor of unconscious depths may be so prevalent because we think of the depths as a place of transformation.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,--ding-dong, bell.

The Tempest, Shakespeare, 1610
Ariel’s song

Like the fragments of a dream remembered, the thought that becomes a joke is transformed in the unconscious. Before writing his study of jokes, Freud’s work with patients had led to his discovery of how our dream thoughts are shaped by the two tropes that rule dream language: condensation and displacement. Freud deduced that a joke is formed – more quickly – but by techniques similar to those operating in the unconscious production of dreams. Through condensation (abbreviation, ellipsis, the part standing for the whole) or displacement (allusion, exaggeration, understatement, the representation of the opposite), the joke-thought metamorphoses into something rich and strange. Transformation like this can only take place full fathom five.

We may use the metaphor of unconscious depths because we believe that the unconscious mind contains hidden knowledge. Filtered light barely reaches far enough into the depths to illuminate our secret understanding. Our hidden knowledge is a valuable possession, a deep-sea treasure that glows with its own strange light.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Thomas Gray, 1751

Clarification of the meaning of our dreams can be gained by using the “mutilated and altered transcript” of our mental processes, the dream fragments that surface in memory, to deduce the intelligible, secret dream-thoughts hidden in the depths. (Freud, p. 160)

Feelings, like dream thoughts, like a joke taking shape, can be buried deep in the unconscious mind. When Billie Holiday sings about finding her lover “asleep/ In the deep of my heart”, we know that even as the singer wakes from her dream, the image of her lover remains intact in the unfathomed depths of her being.

I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep
In the deep of my heart dear
Darling I hope
That my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you
How much I wanted you
Gloomy Sunday

“Gloomy Sunday," Rezso Seress, 1933

When a joke takes shape, the unconscious, whatever its location, seems to provide access to hidden knowledge. Freud explains how jokes crystallize in the unconscious: “a joking allusion…emerges without my being able to follow…preparatory stages in my thoughts.” (p. 168) Indeed, the moment in which the joke is propelled to the surface, surprising us with its meaning, is the tiniest of eureka! moments, a brief moment of inspiration. A joke is often a type of involuntary verbal imagery retrieved by chance.

A joke has quite outstandingly the characteristic of being a notion that has occurred to us ‘involuntarily’. What happens is…we have an indefinable feeling…which I can best compare with an absence, a sudden release of intellectual tension, and then all at once the joke is there–as a rule ready-clothed in words. (Freud, p. 167)

* * *

What words did the hypochondriac have engraved on his tombstone?

“I told you so.”

* * *

If you haven’t already smiled at the hypochondriac joke, thinking about why it’s funny won’t make you smile. Nothing ruins a joke faster than a logical explanation. Yes, in the case of the hypochondriac, death provided vindication through the inevitable illness; beneath the humor of the vindication is the truism that we all die eventually. But talking about a joke isn’t like telling or hearing it. Telling and 'getting' a joke involve putting together incongruous ideas. Our enjoyment of jokes depends on alogical thinking. For this very reason, books about humor, like Freud’s book on jokes, or Henri Bergson’s book on laughter, are rarely funny.

* * *

The great humorist Charles Dickens married a rather slow-witted woman. One evening at a party Dickens told a joke that elicited much hilarity from everyone but his wife. She was silent at the time, and indeed, Dickens heard little from her the next day. But that night, working in his study, Dickens heard his wife upstairs, rocked by sudden uproarious laughter.

* * *

Timing is at the heart of humor. Unlike dreams and moments of personal inspiration, telling a joke is a shared experience. Clusters of neurons must spike in the brains of the teller of jokes and his audience so closely in time that the telling and hearing of the joke feel almost simultaneous. The story about Dickens may be untrue, but if it’s well told, we laugh ruefully about the time lag between Dickens’ telling of his joke and his wife’s getting it – an ominous sign of their incompatibility.

Certain types of brain damage make it difficult for people to understand jokes. In the 1990s, researcher Mark Beeman of the National Institutes of Health studied patients who sustained severe damage to the right hemisphere of the brain. Although they retained a high degree of language proficiency, Beeman observed that, “Some of these patients couldn’t understand jokes or sarcasm or metaphor.” (Lehrer, Jonah, “The neuroscience of Bob Dylan’s genius,” The Guardian, April 6, 2012)

Noting that patients with injuries to the right hemisphere had difficulties with maps as well as jokes, Beeman inferred that the right hemisphere of the brain may be involved in finding subtle connections between apparently unrelated concepts. If jokes are formed in the unconscious ­– the place where the ‘involuntary’ onset of humor gains momentum – and if jokes are understood in the right brain – should we conclude that the unconscious is located in the right hemisphere of the brain?

Perhaps though, in consideration of the controversies surrounding cognitive mapping, and in consideration of the complexities of neuroscience, it makes more sense to limit this inquiry, and simply to ask whether, in the case of jokes, unconscious processes may be located in the right brain.

Beeman theorized that while the left hemisphere of the brain deals with denotative language, the right hemisphere deals with connotation. Metaphors and other figures of speech are formulated and understood through the right brain process of seeking connections between unrelated ideas. Is the right brain also involved in quickly finding the incongruous ideas that result in a joke? While the equivalency: unconscious = right brain may not hold for all mental phenomena, it appears to be valid for jokes.

In 1993, Beeman conducted an experiment to explore the problem-solving functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. He and research partner John Kounios found that while the left brain activity of conscious analysis created a predictable route to problem-solving, unconventional problem-solving in the right brain often led to insight. (Lehrer, The Guardian, 2012) The insights galvanized by right brain activity turned out to occur at a precise location in the brain, and to have a dynamic describable in terms of neurological process.

Beeeman and Kounios discovered the following correspondences. Insight, the erupting of the answer into consciousness (the what), is preceded by a sudden burst of activity in the brain. This brain activity takes the form of a spiking of gamma-wave rhythm (the how) – the highest electrical frequency in the brain – thirty milliseconds before inspiration strikes (the when). Gamma-wave rhythm is thought to accompany the binding of a neuron network poised to enter consciousness (the why). The spike in gamma-waves can be observed in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) on the surface of the right hemisphere of the brain (the where).

If researchers have yet to determine what happens in the brain when someone tells a joke, it is more than likely that they will one day describe that neurological process and pinpoint the precise location in the brain – perhaps the aSTG  – where jokes are made. Drawing on Beeman’s discoveries, author and journalist Jonah Lehrer gives a descriptive account of inspiration as experienced by an artist: inspiration is preceded by frustration, and is initially felt as coming from a source outside the self. (Lehrer, The Guardian, 2012) Lehrer’s behavioral description of inspiration resembles, in certain ways, Freud’s account of joke telling. The artist’s frustration is perhaps an extended version of the indefinable moment of “absence” in Freud’s description that is followed by “a sudden release of intellectual tension”. The artist’s sense that inspiration comes from the Muse may be a grander version of the joke teller’s feeling that the joke has occurred to him ‘involuntarily’.

Freud didn’t know from neurons, but he knew from jokes. His behavioral account of joke telling and his comprehensive, literally analytical, understanding of the operation of joke techniques in the unconscious provides a basis for thinking about the similarity of jokes and psychological events like inspiration. Does a spike in gamma-wave rhythm precede the emergence of a joke? If so, how many milliseconds before a joke erupts into consciousness? Does a joke-induced gamma-wave spike happen in the gyrus, or in some other place in the brain? It might be challenging to test joke formation experimentally, but it would be revealing to see how closely experimental results correlate with Freud’s inferential schema.

"Freud died on the eve of World War Two, and hasn't written a word since."
Robert Young, Voices: Psychoanalysis, 1987

My daughter organized our seventy-two hour trip to Yalta, which we reached on the cruise ship Shevchenko (named for a poet, of course). Because we were due back in Odessa shortly, we prioritized our tour site wish list. Tanya’s number one priority was to climb the steps to Swallow’s Nest; after that came Livadiya Palace and Chekhov’s house. My priorities were first, to visit Chekhov’s house and the Chekhov Museum, second, to tour Livadiya Palace and third, to survive the 800 steps to Swallow’s Nest. Neither of us especially wanted to experience the heights of Ai-Petri, a mountain overlooking the Black Sea. But when we arrived late on a Friday afternoon, a trip to the top of the mountain by taxi was the only option for that day.

And it turned out to be wonderful: the spectacular views, the horses running free, the Tatar hamlet at the top, and the small restaurant where they cooked meat on an open fire and served borscht and grass tea.

From the top of Ai-Petri we saw the Crimean coast surrounded by the churning sea. Back down the mountainside at the foot of Ai-Petri stood the Alupka Palace where Winston Churchill was lodged by Stalin during the Yalta Conference in 1945. There the elder statesman fretted about being away from the center of things, and very likely got off his game. The Livadiya Palace, where the conference was held, housed the apartments of the frail Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other members of the American delegation. When not attending conference sessions, Churchill languished in his coastal villa. There was nothing to be done, of course. Stalin was the host. The joke was on Churchill, and then on Poland and Eastern Europe. But no joke is big enough for that folly.




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