I often get jealous of writers who are getting good press.  This week I’m jealous of Elif Batuman, a woman who’s younger than me and turned her graduate work in comparative literature at Stanford into a platform for public discussion of what’s beautiful and ridiculous in people’s obsessions with Russian books. 


She’s just come out with The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them. According to a story I read online, she first published in The New Yorker when she 29.  That was a dream that burst out beautifully: She had written an article for her university newspaper; someone at N+1 magazine asked her to write an article for them; and when The New Yorker editor David Remnick read that piece, he called Batuman up.


You can see she’s brilliant by reading some of her comparative literature PhD dissertation (click here) or by following her blog (click here).  Critics largely love her but can’t find the right grand comparisons: “If Susan Sontag had coupled with Buster Keaton, their prodigiously gifted love child might have written [Batuman’s book],” writes Richard Richard Rayner in the Los Angeles Times.  Batuman’s work “unfolds both comically and intellectually, as if Ms. Batuman were channeling Janet Malcolm by way of Woody Allen,” adds Dwight Garner in The New York Times.  “Batuman has some of Dickens’s gift for vivid characterization, and her sharp wit and sly tone are reminiscent of Twain and Thurber,” says Charles Matthews in Stanford Magazine.  So she holds the world inside her.  I’m in love with her (go ahead and see her pictures here). 


One reason I’m hurting with envy is that Batuman looks like she’s having fun.  She’s very funny.  She has the wild creativity that grows when you think your creativity is worthwhile.  She builds sentences as if she’s playing games, describing one of her classmates as “a genial scion of the Kennedy family who always wrote the same story, about a busy corporate lawyer who neglected his wife” and about one of her boyfriends, coming off of a plane, who looked “as philosophical and good-humored as Snoopy.”  Batuman writes her blog from what sounds like a humble, cozy home, where she hangs out with her “intern,” who you only know is her cat if you’re ironic like she is.  “Dear readers!” she writes one morning on her blog, “I’ve been really delinquent with [my blog].  You must all have thought I was either dead, or not thinking anything. In fact, I’m writing a book!”  (It’s hard to convey how funny Batuman is when I’m hunting for quotes with my envy.  Take my word for it.)


My Batuman stalking this week has gotten me thinking about humor.  I’m thinking about two types of humor.  On one side is the humor that comes with confidence.  When I was online dating a few years ago, I had to fill out a questionnaire that asked “how will your date know when you’re happy?”  I answered, “When I’m funny.  When I’m relaxed, I get funnier.”  I think that’s often true for people: spontaneity fuels humor.  It’s when you’re not cramped with worry, envy, or self-rebuke that wit stirs about.  Batuman is uncommonly smart and still finds enough peace with herself to toss out oddball ideas.


On the other side, I think there’s a stiffer or more defensive side to humor.  That is, I think we’re often funny when we’re defending against emotion (not feeling open to the world, or not at peace with the world, or not free).  For instance, I also find that I try to be funny when I want to avoid thinking about something.  As I’ve written before, I’m in training to be a psychologist--which means that I sit through too many meetings in which fellow psychologists “process” some event, which means talking about the emotions behind the emotions behind the emotions that caused something to happen.  On days in which I find this “going deep” to be too far going, I blurt out something I think is witty, like “that’s just what my boyfriend said to me!” or “that’s when it got really hard!” (witty in the right context).  These are sentences that shut conversation down when I’m tired.  A joke can be an attack on experience: “I’m not going there.  I’m too witty for it.”


I’m thinking humor’s strange, almost magical—the moat on either side of boredom.  We're really funny when we're more suprising than our ordinary selves.  Sometimes I’m funny when I’m open and hover above cliché.  Sometimes I’m funny when I’m defended against conversation or cliché.  In either case, humor is tied to creativity: a vacation from or fight with the mundane.


How do you best define humor? Do you believe humor is tied to creativity?

Have you read Elif Batuman yet?  (I've been stalking without having read the book yet.)


Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎02-19-2010 01:05 PM

I think we just received our copies of Batuman's book....but I've been stalking the reviews online.  I really want to read it (and it's a Discover pick).


I'll have to think on the humor definition but I do think that creativity in humor is necessary - what makes things funny are the comparisons of people/places/things that are odd and it does take some ingenuity to make that comparison amusing rather than tragic.

by on ‎02-19-2010 02:21 PM

Elif Batuman's book hasn't hit my to-be-read-pile, yet.  Never heard of her until today.  I'll think on it. 


I read about four pages of her dissertation, and yes, she's one brilliant young woman....and I loved how she can work her way, in increments, around all the angles of a subject and word.  I've never heard the writing of a novel described in this way.  Although, our relationship to the moment and essence of time and space, reminded me of VW, and her thinking approach to this subject. 


And one of the things I've always loved about you, Ilana, is how you can write, and find and define, the indefinable!  Or at least I can't define these things!   And I find, just your approach to this subject, and other subjects that are deeper than the average bear, simply humorous, in itself.   I just picture you scratching your head..or doing whatever..as you write. No, I don't laugh at you or your writing,  I love it,  I take you very seriously, it's just my quirky brain that "sees" humor in the strangest places.  Before I say, or write something, a picture image bounces around in my head!  I can't stop it.  And as you say, it lightens the deepness of a situation.  You just don't want to hurt someone in the process, by using them as the center of ridicule.  The other sides of dark humor.


Anyway, back to light humor.


I used to be the clown of the party...then one day I lost that clownishness, that carefree personality that always got me through, and what people liked about me.  They never saw my serious side, and I never showed it.  I think, in subtle ways, only known to the subconscious, humor can be used to hid behind.


That one day, when I lost that humor, is the day I cried.  The day went into weeks, and months....I was lost, when humor went out of my life.  That's when I knew I needed help finding it, again.  I've always loved lyrics to music, but when I started to write them, and writing poems - poetry was something I'd never done before, I knew there was another side to my self.  I had to find it.


The trick to all of this, these two sides, is joining them with some sense of knowing that they belong together.  I can't live in this world without both sides.  That's what makes my self whole.  As I've, in past discussions, talked about therapy, I was told (yes, I had to be told) I had a nice sense of humor.  One thing my therapist liked about me, once I found and defined what humor was, and what it means to me (or others) to use it.


Ilana, you've described it perfectly.  But, it's not something that I, myself, put work into, to use, at least any more.  It just bounces off of people around me, who share that same sense of lightness, the fun side of life.  I throw caution to the wind, and just let it happen.  It is just like that creative side, you can't think about it, you just let it be.  I can't surround myself with deep thought, all the time.  It makes me boring to be around, and boring to myself.  I can't be around silliness all the time, it pushes me too far off balance.  That's the case:  To balance yourself, by surrounding yourself with all kinds and types of creative thinking people and literature.  I come here to get my fix, just like all of us who read you, Ilana.  Or just like you do when you "envy" that other person, and read them.   I just don't use the word "envy", or "jealousy".  You see something you need, and you pursue it.  How easy was that for me to say?  You tell me.





by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎02-19-2010 03:19 PM

thanks for the vivid images and words, Kathy

by on ‎02-20-2010 10:51 PM

Talk about being influenced!  I read this blog/board yesterday, being serious in my thoughts/post, and the next thing you know I get down-right silly-nuts today!  Come to the Kingdom of Wordsmithonia, to our Winter Festival, and see what it means to loose your manic-mind!  You want "Vivid images"...I'll give you your monies worth!

by on ‎02-21-2010 11:19 AM

I've tried to calm my brain a bit, since I posted that outburst of thought here, last night.   I'd been on the boards all day, yesterday, and drinking caffeinated tea.  I'm supposed to be off caffeine, but I ran out of decaf...you get the picture?  I was a tad bit wired!   And then I got caught up in a frenetic-kinetic group of posters on one of these boards. I had to sort out the stream of consciousness of one person, to make heads or tails out of what was trying to be said, and what I'm suppose to say to it.  It becomes a guessing game, whether it's supposed to be humorous, or if this is just the way that person's brain functions...it's too messy for me, and makes me work to think about humor.  I do like to banter back and for, that's fun, but not in this case. (I don't want to get too detailed).  But it did make me think about how I needed to focus, to turn The Kingdom board around.  With no one participating, it's been difficult trying to get it active for participants to respond.  I still may not have done it, but it was fun trying.  I can be a one woman show, if I have to be.  Of course, you would never guess that by how much I post here!  Ha!


I've thought back to what you'd said, Ilana, about creativity.  I like what you said: ...."humor is tied to creativity: a vacation from or fight with the mundane."  I like "flights of fancy", but, again, I've never really connected humor to creativity until you brought it up.  I figured, you either have humor, or you don't.  I know a lot of people who don't particularly have much of a sense of humor, if at all....just the "mundane", run of the mill, human being.  Neither good nor bad, that's just who they are.  I like humor, and I like being around people with humor, because it makes me feel good/well.  In thinking of this well being, I think about how much we need it in our lives. 


This past year hasn't been my best year...physical well being goes hand in hand with mental well being.  As I try to balance my serious side with my humors side, I've tried to reason why some of my creative energy has been lost this year, as well.  Being tired, being worried, or hurting in some way, certainly drains those good feelings.  These thought processes are wired so intricately, that you really don't think about how humor works, you just know when you've lost it.


When I woke this morning, I mulled this over with my usual visuals.  I thought about how a bullet is projected.  I pictured what goes into the make-up of that single little thing.  In simple words, it's made up of a conical piece of lead, a mixture of powder, and a firing pin.  But unless that bullet in put into a firing mechanism that works, it's basically worthless.  But even the mechanism that fires it has to be triggered in some way.  Your finger, a chain reaction to the hammer.  Anyway, that was my visual for the morning, how this piece of metal goes through the air, is not quite as intricate as the brain, but if any one of these elements is missing, it doesn't fire.


Humor is definitely a beautiful thing.  It's probably the most important thing we should be looking at.  In my ongoing reading of that book by Dr. Jamison, Exuberance,  she talks about humor and joy, in that its importance should pertain in therapy, and how it's over-looked, because the concentration is on the problems, and not what is missing in these people's lives that may be needed to counter those physical/mental issues.  I pick this book up, and put it down, in-between my reading of novels and other books. I find I need the analytical and thought provoking things in my life, just as much as the light-hearted things.  As I was thinking of this, this proverb popped into my head, and reading it's history, I found interesting: 


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,
All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy


Its meaning is that without time off from work, a person becomes bored and boring.

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