Humoring the Professor

I’ve come to the shocking conclusion that I have been taking myself too seriously. In fact, the level of seriousness with which I have been examining my case is so completely out of whack that the PMLA has gotten in on the gig of reminding me to chill out.

The PMLA, for the uninitiated, is the journal of the Modern Language Association (PMLA=Publications of the Modern Language Association*), which is one of the behemoths, er, major professional groups for literature and composition professors, grad students, and “unaffiliated” scholars. MLA is most infamous for it’s meat market interview process, which–and I am not kidding with the next remark–most often take place in hotel rooms.

And you wondered why your English profs were so daft, didn’t you? What would you be like if the major interview location afforded you a seat on a bed and a view of the toilet?**

As a result, we tend to take ourselves very seriously, since, well, no one else will do it for us.

But, PMLA was kind this month in reminding me of the humor of my situation in an article entitled “What’s So Funny About Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” by Paul Cefalu. As an OCD-type myself, I was immediately drawn to the article, and damn if he doesn’t manage to pull off a relatively literary study of comedy and OCD.

For context, I should point out that my OCD (look! mine!) manifests in two very specific ways. First would be a focus on symmetry. If I touch one side of my neck, I am compelled to touch the other side with approximately the same amount of pressure for the same amount of time. If I am not careful about the matter, the process of scratching the left side of my neck can become an affair of considerable effort. On really bad days, I can’t knit because the needles are held differently in the hands; I also shouldn’t (but do) grade, as the paper touching my right wrist*** will inevitably stop the grading so that balance can be sought. Then there are the sidewalk cracks…oy.

The second manifestation appears as compulsive thoughts: I get stuck on ideas, people (um, Hi Duff!), images, songs, and I have to do something–usually write–to get the thoughts under control. Occasionally, I unwittingly scare people with this particular manifestation; I’m sure that more than one object of my affection (I hate the word object with reference to humans) of the people in question has considered me a candidate for stalkerdom. I’m not, though. Just occasionally stuck…like a broken record. (Yeah, that’s it. Call me the Vinyl Queen. No, wait, don’t.) One might argue that my parenthetical remark habit (my first thesis director certainly would have, had he thought about it in this way) is part of this particular quirk–I explain (and digress) to a rather, um, silly degree.

As I have suggested before, my drinking appears to be related as well, since I was nothing if not compulsive about it.

Cefalu’s argument is pretty simple: the humor of OCD is born of irony: “If a master trope explains the uniquely disjunctive experience of OCD, it is irony. Not only is there something fundamentally ironic about the extent to which obsessives with OCD concentrate on tasks that they believe to be ridiculous, but compulsions, usually orchestrated to relieve underlying obsessions, tend to worsen the motivating obsession, and the victim gets caught in a ritualistic loop” (47).

I am so adding to the subtitle of this blog: “Occasional feakouts, Ritualistic loops…”

Humor, he suggests, is so often borne of incongruity, that OCD can’t help (ha! It’s compelled!) but to be a part of the humorus considerations of a culture awash with images of assorted neuroses. OCD is funny because it makes no sense (even to the obsessive), but the actions continue nevertheless–even after acknowledging the foolishness. He notes, following Alan Wilde, that there exists a difference between modernist and postmodernist irony insofar as “modernist irony recognizes but desperately tries to overcome incongruities, [while] postmodern irony unheroically and skeptically accepts them” (47). Quoting Wilde, he continues “Postmodern irony…is suspensive: an indecision about the meanings or relations of things is matched by a willingness to live in uncertainty” (qtd. in Cefalu 47). He concludes, however, that while the symptomology of OCD is indeed the very stuff of humor, the depictions that we have access to are, in the main, merely depictions of OCD-like symptoms, and not the underlying guilt and frustration that accompanies the clinical condition; thus, one might suggest, even in this logical and available source for humor, we tend to take the easy way out.

But for the last part of his argument, which is one of the most frequent complaints in literary studies–>that “they” aren’t doing/showing/examining/whatevering something authentically****, I rather like the analysis because it pulls literature back into the real world, which it does, after all, attempt to reflect (however inauthentically it may do so). Too, the analysis takes theory, which has all but killed literary studies, and positions it within the familiar and concrete (well, OCD and concrete is probably not exactly accurate, is it?), which makes theory more functional–a good thing, says the comparatist who has watched her discipline all but abandon literature over the years.

In thinking about the remarks about postmodern irony, I see a correlation with my own world. Certainly, I recognize that my compulsions can be troublesome, but they are also, for the most part, really freaking funny and I’m willing to live with the oddities. The guilt is most often associated with wanting to talk about people and ideas that make others uncomfortable, and I have learned how to stop myself for the most part (usually–another way academia is a good place for me–few barriers to discussion).

So, back to making fun of myself and taking a lighter view of the world…which is way more fun that being serious in any event. Maybe I’ll get back to that whole analysis of 80s glam videos…

What would I do without PMLA?

*How’s that for creativity?
**I did not “do” MLA (nor vice versa); I was fortunate enough to be hired by the college I had been an adjunct for. So, no toilet view for me. Thankfully.
***Here’s a gloriously odd example: initially, I typed “left”–then changed it to “right” because I had already written about the left side of my body. Someday I will write a post in which I strike through such changes rather than deleting them outright. That should be a fun one to read.
****Kindly bear in mind that I came of age during the height of 80’s glam, so I tend to take a dim view of notions of “authentic.” Art depicts and is understood through perception and judgement, two faculties that like to pretend they know and experience “the authentic,” but do not, hence the ease with which I laugh at Romantic writers who searched for the voice of the “common man,” whilst living in the country by the lake or adopting another image as needed to play the part. I could get started on rock-n-roll image on this, but I’ll refrain for now.


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