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Bookmarks In a comment buried in the center of his Critique ofJudgment, Immanuel Kant explains why jokes are funny: Laughter ¿s an affect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing (§ 54). Jokes "must contain something that can deceive us for a moment. That is why, when the illusion vanishes, [transformed ] into nothing, the mind looks at the illusion once more in order to give it another try, and so by a rapid succession of tension and relaxation, the mind is bounced back and forth. . . ." If all this bouncing and agitation makes you tired, he says, it's also cheering and even healthy. To illustrate, the good professor tells a couple ofstories himself. One concerns an Indian who is having dinner with an Englishman in Surat. The Englishman opens a bottle of ale and the Indian watches all wide-eyed as the foam pours out. "What's so amazing in that?" asks the Englishman. "Oh, I'm not amazed at its coming out," replies the Indian. "It's how you managed to get it all in!" If you're tempted to read diis story with a Peter Sellers accent, go ahead, but Kant is at pains to deny that thejoke is merely a put-down, ethnic or otherwise; die humor, he says, comes from the incongruity of the Indian's tense gaze and our understanding of bottled brew—his tension becomes ours and then is transformed into nothing. Similarly, Kant goes on, in the case of an heir who arranges a solemn funeral for a rich relative. He's exasperated to find that things are going wrong with the mourners he's hired: "The more money I give them to grieve, the more cheerful they look." Talk about oldjokes—these two, at least in Kant's telling, are almost precisely two centuries old, since the Critique ofJudgment was published in 1790. Many readers otherwise familiar with Kant's ideas and the style of such works as the Critique ofPure Reason may be surprised that he tells these stories at all, let alone that they can still get a laugh. However, the Critique ofJudgment, the third and last of his great critiques, is replete with surprises of all sort. Where else in the literature of the eighteenth century will you find a discussion of the aesthetics of muzak (well, he calls it Tafelmusik)? Such music, Kant says, is hardly aesthetic; radier it is "a strange dring which is meant to be only an agreeable noise [at dinner] serving to keep the minds in a cheerful mood, and which fosters the free flow of conversation between each person and his neighbor, without anyone 's paying the slightest attention to the music's composition" (§ 44). He doesn't mention die supermarkets of Königsberg, but we get the point. 426 Bookmarks427 Or ecology: Kant says that in contemplating the beauty of nature, we love wildflowers, insects, and birds, and would not want nature to be without them, even if they provided no benefit (and maybe even inflicted some harm) to the human species (§ 42). Hejustifies our interest in preserving the wild realms of nature to which neither we nor any other human beings may ever have access. We don'tjust like nature for its form, we like it for its existence. We don't want an unspoiled Antarctica, we might say today, so we or somebody else can visit it: we want itjust to be there. Moreover, Kant claims, we would be offended by artificial flowers or mechanical birds stuck into some idyllic natural scene. He asks, "What do poets praise more highly than the nightingale's enchantingly beautiful song in a secluded thicket on a quiet summer evening by the soft light of the moon?" Yet if some "jovial innkeeper," unable to supply the bird, instead plants in the bushes a boy who cleverly imitates a nightingale, his guests will only be charmed by the scene so long as they don't know. Agreed, so far— but things slide over the top with the professor's insistence (comment, following§ 22) that birdsong is superior to human song. As one who will take Kiri Te Kanawa over a crow most any...


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pp. 426-434
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