How do Guy de Maupassant's "The Uncomfortable Bed" and Robin Taylor's article "The Double-Edged Sword of Humor" contrast images of humor and laughter with images of fear and danger?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Taylor's article title lays out the contrasting sides of humor as a double-edged sword. Her article illuminates her title's imagery: humor can uplift and comfort and, when flipped around, humor can expose that which is worst in humanity.

Taylor describes the uplifting side of the sword of humor as the "Swiss Army Knife of human expression." There may be some temptation to confuse the two images--the double-edged sword and the Swiss Army Knife--because they are both sharp, piercing bladed instruments. Nevertheless, Taylor's Swiss Army Knife imagery is separate from the double-edged sword imagery. The Army Knife image sets humor (the uplifting side of humor) up as the crowning achievement of humanity just like the Swiss Army Knife is the crowning achievement of a certain class of tools: everybody can use and benefit from a Swiss Army Knife in any and every kind of need, especially in emergencies. This is the good side of humor: that which can and does save us and elevate us in any and every kind of need.

   [H]umor is transcending. It sets us apart, elevates us and leaves us humble, compassionate and eminently more lovable. It is the Swiss Army Knife of human expression.
   Humor consoles the bereaved, uplifts the despondent, eases us over the hard patches.

The flip-side of the double-edged sword produces fear and danger, both for the wielder of the blade and the receiver of the point of the blade. In other words, as police and bodyguards surround them, the artists, editors and writers at the French satirical weekly use the dangerous side of the blade of humor to unseat the corrupt, to lambast the greedy, to expose the vicious and to unhinge the arrogantly proud in order to contribute to a better society, but that side of the double blade may also unleash that corrupt viciousness against the cartoonist, the editor, the writer.

   Flip it around, and it exposes hubris, greed and viciousness, and knocks a deserving so-and-so off his high horse.
   But humor can also wound the one who wields it. It's not so easy to slice up the bad guys without picking up a few nicks yourself.

It is important to note here that, while Taylor fully understands and correctly evaluates the function and role of satirists and lampoonists like those at Charlie Hebdo (i.e., Charlie Weekly: a pun on the Peanuts character Charlie Brown), she does not agree with some of the objectives or functions of such dangerous humor. She suggests what is needed instead of ridicule is self-motivation to use our desire to do better to bring ourselves to rise above selfishness, intolerance, violence and fear:

   But it is not less God, or fewer values or less culture that we need, but less ridicule, less jeering and less sneering at each other’s ways. Particularly at those beliefs that represent each society's desire to be, and do, better.
   Because while foolishness might render us laughable, it is seeking to rise above our selfish, intolerant, fearful and violent impulses that can transform us into noble, even beautiful creatures.

Double-Edged Sword

To return to the double-edged sword of humor as represented in Taylor's article and Maupassant's short story, in both, the central figure's own actions ironically brought about the fate they were focused upon. For the Charlie Hebdo personnel, they were focused on fanaticism, corruption and violence and it was those things that brought them to their end. For the narrator of the short story, he was focused on the afflictions of being victimized by a practical joke and it was ironically because of his focus that he was the victim of harm.

One of the most interesting parallels between the article and story is that in each, it is stated that the central figures needed the humor and laughter that eventually turned against them. The Charlie Hebdo people couldn't resist the challenge of satirizing the worst among us: "Sitting around the office thinking up funny ways to make mad people madder ... it was edgy and fun. They couldn't resist baiting the bull, or didn't want to resist." The central character (the narrator) of the short story felt the same about practical jokers: he didn't want to do without those who play practical jokes: "My friends were fond of practical joking, as all my friends are. I do not care to know any other sort of people."

The painful truth is that, in each work, the principals' own choices and interests set the stage for their suffering. [While in ways it is trivializing to compare massacre to bed, valet, and breakfast, the same essential principles are work in each piece of writing.]

Humor and Laughter, Fear and Danger

In Taylor's article the presence of humor and laughter is in the very existence of Charlie Hebdo, they cartoon and write to satirize through witty humor and laughter. The presence of fear and danger is in the reality of their need for body guards, police guards and investigations, attacks against their office and, ultimately, against their persons.

In Maupassant's story the presence of humor and laughter is in the friends' good humor and high spirits during the day, in their hilarity of laughter at night and in their jocular amusement as they take him to his bed chamber, then linger giggling in the hallway. The presence of fear and danger is in the narrator's real dread, his sleeplessness, his imaginings and the repulsion they trigger in him, also in the danger he inadvertently creates for himself (and the butler) by moving his mattress to the center of the floor:

I searched in my memory for all the practical jokes of which I ever had experience. And I did not want to be caught. Ah! certainly not! certainly not!

Though both pieces of writing cover very different sorts events, especially since one was real while the other was a representation of fiction, the appearance in both of the double-edged nature of the sword of humor is well represented, with the additional image of good humor, uplifting, elevating humor (humor on the non-dangerous edge of the double blade) as an irreplaceable Swiss Army Knife.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Isaac Newton's Third Law of Physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; indeed this seems to be true in both "The Uncomfortable Bed" and "The Double-edged Sword of Humor [Satire]." In Maupassant's story in which the author characteristically ridicules the foibles of human nature, the main character's paranoia about a simple practical joke possibly being played upon him--"I heard laughter and whispering in the corridor. Without doubt they were spying on me."--causes him some physical injury, not to mention embarrassment:

The precautions I had taken in closing the shutters and going to sleep in the middle of the room had only brought about the interlude I had been striving to avoid.

In the reference to the Charlie Hebdo shootings, editorialist Robin Taylor suggests that the biting satire against the Islamists invited the reaction of the massacre that followed. While there has always been a certain amount of risk to caustic and political satire (Voltaire, for example, was exiled from France for his criticisms), the reaction of the Islamists was no Newtonian reaction. Nevertheless, there was certainly risk involved that could have effected some danger. The fictional reaction was reasonable; the real life one was not.