I’m in Hue now. This morning Lan’s friend (now my friend) Tran Thu Mai took me to a beautiful pagoda in the mountains northeast of Hue, then on a tourn of the Nguyen court’s citadel, where many of the palaces and temples have been beautifully restored. After a brief rest and cool down at my hotel, I took a walk around the city on the south side of the river. Only mad dogs and Americans go out in the early afternoon sun of Hue, but I went slowly and drank lots of water as I walked. I came back with my clothes soaked through with sweat and gratefully absorbed the hotel’s air conditioning for a couple of hours before heading out for dinner. Went to a little neighborhoos place Mai recommended for pho, then wandered to a sort of western style cafe where they have American movies on a big TV with Vietnamese subtitles. They turn the sound off on the movies and play western pop music, most of which is a generation or two recent for me to have heard it, but the have very good taste and it’s a weirdly enjoyable place to have a drink and bend one’s mind around the cultural complexities of globalization.
I’m not big on biological reductionism when it comes to the arts, especially when the evolutionary biologists start talking about the “evolutionary value” of this or that cultural practice, making up their little just-so stories. But I was intrigued the other day by this article describing the way the brain processes jokes. It occurred to me long ago that a lyric poem and a joke share certain structural similarities — ones Michael Theune could no doubt elucidate in detail — but in simplest form, the punchline, the payoff, the turn or the pivot that surprises. So here we have the human brain, which loves pattern and repetition, music:
This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life’s offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. “The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination,” said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. “From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear.”
But the joke, which the brain also likes, depends on variation and timing and detail:
Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. “Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another,” said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” “What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.”
In poetry, then, one is forcing the brain to operate on more than one level. In an older paradigm — that of the left and right hemispheres of the brain — it was possible to imagine something similar going on: the left hemisphere’s interest in and control over meter and pattern combining with the right hemisphere’s interest in novel arrangements. The physiology is of course much more complicated that the metaphor, but the metaphor is still suggestive. Poetry integrates different kinds of cognition, even kinds that might seem to be in conflict with each other.
A good joke or a good poem has a ground of pattern against which a specific path is picked out and that path has turns and surprises concealed in it, sometimes using the camouflage of pattern to conceal itself until the right moment. Question: What does the surprise — the punchline — yield in terms of knowledge? Insight? Understanding? Can a punchline or a surprise be empty?
Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.
Leonard Cohen gave his first US concert in 15 years the other night down in New York. I don’t really go to concerts any more, but this is one I’d have tried to go to if I had been just a bit closer. (Cohen will be up this way, in Ottawa in late May, but I’ll be in Vietnam.) Anyway, I’ve been a fan for many years — Cohen writes great songs and performs them with a hint of self-deprecation that I find very attractive. Like his fellow Canadian Neil Young, Cohen can write the occasional rhyme so awful that it’s unintentionally funny and he can be bathetic on occasion, but his best songs imply narratives or settings without fully specifying them in a way that is genuinely mysterious. There is also a kind of existential joy in the midst of Cohen’s usual gloom that creats a satisfying sense of irony in his work. NPR is going to make some of the songs from the concert available starting today — I’ll have to be satisfied with that.
*Neil Young is much the worse offender in this regard, but rock is more forgiving than Cohen’s folk / cabaret mode, which puts more emphasis on the words.
I wonder what it would be like to be one of those people who sleep soundly virtually every night of their lives. I never have, not since I was a kid. Last night, though, I slept deeply & almost continuously. The extent to which sleep, or my waking relationship to sleep, has directed the currents of my life is extensive. When I think of my childhood, for instance, I often think of lying awake, sometimes in fear of night noises, sometimes listing to rock & roll on a tiny transistor radio under my pillow. Nine volt batteries were expensive and an eleven year old boy needed to hoard their power, deciding on a particular night whether to sip or binge.
Via Scott McLemee’s blog Quick Study, some trenchant social criticism from Neil Young: