The phrase Black Humor has the broad meaning of poking “fun at subjects considered deadly serious or even taboo by some”2. This definition is simple, and yet embodies an important idea that is often lost in more complex definitions: the idea that Black Humor can actually be “fun”, and provoke laughter. This is not, of course, the only important aspect of the term, and I shall explore some of the other important defining features of Black Humor before moving on to discuss its use in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle3.
Many critics have attempted definitions of Black Humor, none of them entirely successfully. The most significant recurring features of these definitions are that Black Humor works with: absurdity, ironic detachment4; opposing moral views held in equipoise, humanity’s lack of a sense of purpose in the unpredictable nuclear age, the realization of the complexity of moral and aesthetic experience which affects the individual’s ability to choose a course of action5; and a playing with the reader’s ideas of reality6.
On their own these elements don’t make up what we understand as Black Humor. Combine all of these ideas with the generation of humor, particularly through incongruity, and as a method of releasing tension, 7 and I think that we are close to realizing the complexities of Black Humor. But perhaps the best definition of all comes from a Black Humorist – Vonnegut himself.
Black humorists’ holy wanderers find nothing but junk and lies and idiocy wherever they go. A chewing gum wrapper or a used condom is often the best they can do for a Holy Grail.8
What, then, are Vonnegut’s uses for Black Humor in his novel Cat’s Cradle? I believe he has three primary uses, which are: entertainment; furthering the novel’s themes; and raising self-awareness in the reader.
Vonnegut believes that writers can influence people’s ideas profoundly. In one of his many speeches he stated the following:
We will become influential when those who have listened to our myths have become influential. Those who are influential now are living in accordance with myths created for them by writers when they were young. It is perfectly clear that our rulers do not question those myths for even a minute during busy day after busy day. Let us pray that those terribly influential writers who created those our leaders’ were humane.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – Suppression and Silence in The Reeve’s Tale
Suppression and Silence in The Reeve’s Tale
Such comments as, “I pray to God his nekke mote to-breke” quickly reveal that the ver-bal game of “quite” involves much more than a free meal to the Reeve in “The Canterbury Tales” (I 3918). This overreaction, which grabs the attention of the audience and gives it pause, is characteristic of the Reeve’s ostensibly odd behavior, being given to morose speeches followed by violent outbursts, all the while harboring spiteful desires. Anger typifies the Reeve’s dialogue and his tale, which begs the question why. It appears to be a reaction to the Miller’s insults, but they are not extreme enough to provoke such resentment. He seem-ingly has no hesitation in articulating his bitterness, yet he and his story are as much marked by suppression as expression. Silence resounds as loudly as any noise in the Reeve’s Prologue and Tale. The reader is as puzzled by his utterances as the lack of them: his sudden sermon on death is matched by the quietness of two couples copulating in a small room of five, none of which are able to hear what the others are doing. The reality is that the behavior of the Reeve and the characters in his tale are not random or unaccountable. The Reeve is continually si-lenced by other pilgrims and himself, which is paralleled in his tale, and in turn suppresses his emotions, which leads to even more explosive conduct.
In order to appreciate the melancholic and serious temperament of the Reeve, it is nec-essary to view him in comparison to other characters, as Chaucer intended. The identities of the pilgrims are relative. They are characterized by their description in the General Prologue, but not fully developed until they are seen in contrast to the pilgrim they are “quiting.” As the Miller’s personality is developed by his dissimilarity to the Knight, so is the Reeve by the Miller. Therefore Robin’s enjoyment of life shows just how little Oswald receives from the same. For instance, the Miller’s large frame and excessive drinking show his delight in small pleasures. The Reeve, however, is “a sclendre colerik man” who controls his beard and hair (in opposition to the unruly strands that grow on a wart on the miller’s nose) as manipula-tively as the accounts of the farm on which he works (I 587). The Miller mastered the bag-pipes for entertainment in his spare time while the Reeve trained with more practical tools: “In youthe he had lerned a good myster: He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter” (I 614).