Sincronía Winter 1996

Etymologies of Humor: Reflections on the Humus Pile

Stephen W. Gilbert
Depto de Letras
Universidad de Guadalajara

In Ernest Kurtz’ latest book, The Spirituality of Imperfection [1], he suggests that the words "human," "humility," and "humor" all share a common Indo-European root, ghôm, best translated by the English word "humus." I find the notion intriguing, and agree completely with Kurtz’ analysis of the relation among these four words. However, he concentrates almost exclusively on the spiritual awareness that is available to us as we contemplate the relations between humanity, humility and the life process of vegetable rot. He skips rather lightly over what humor is doing in this rather odd context. I suspect he has not read Mikhail Bakhtin. And, indeed, I find no references to Bakhtin in Kurtz’ otherwise extremely valuable bibliography.

I’d like to share some reactions to Kurtz’ understanding of the spirituality of imperfection. And then, a little later on, reflect as carefully as I can on what I understand of the spirituality of humor and its relation to humus.

Perhaps I should take a brief moment here to make sure we all understand what humus is. The very best humus is a careful combination of rotting vegetable matter. Kitchen garbage is an excellent contribution, and Autumn leaves always appear to play an important role. The kitchen garbage, in a rather thin layer, set up a composting process, hastened if it was covered with a (slightly thicker) laver of leaves. That’s about it. I have heard it argued, at great length, that the humus pile (as it is known) should be constructed of wood, half below ground level and half above. That the slats should be spaced to allow a certain amount of air to circulate through the humus pile. Not everyone agrees with this. Some hold that the wood slats should be flush, to prevent circulation of air. Some even argue for a construction of chicken wire to assure even greater circulation of air.

I have actually known only one great authority on the proper construction and composition of the humus pile. That authority was my father, a Unitarian minister and a gardner. One of my greatest sorrows is that I didn’t come across Bakhtin until after my father had died. I would greatly have enjoyed sharing particularly the Rabelais and the Dostoevsky books with him. However, the point is, that Dad really did have a fine sense of what the humus pile meant to his garden. He tended both carefully. And only half jokingly did he suggest to my Mother that the humus pile would make a fitting and proper final resting place for his remains. He often referred to it as the "humanist pile," unaware, I am sure, of the etymological seemliness of his small witticism.

However we might construct our own humus pile, if we are fortunate enough to have the space and the garden which might require it, we can benefit ourselves by reflecting on the insights offered by the apparent etymology of the words human, humor, and humility. According to Kurtz, the all have the same root – the ancient Indo-European ghôm, (humus.)

Humility is easy enough, at first glance, to connect to its Indo-European roots. One is hard pressed to imagine anything more humble than humus, an elemental reduction of vegetable matter to its most basic form. But consider the functionof humus, and how instructive that might be in our considerations of the meaning and practice of humility. If we think of humus as humble, and recognize how helpful it is to the new growth in a kitchen garden, we are unable to equate humility with poverty, need, or lack. It becomes a fecund, generous willingness to serve.

We are getting closer to the wisdom sometimes hidden in etymology. And closer, perhaps, to an insight into our own humanity. If the word itself is related to something which some would consider the end of all living matter, then our etymology would be, rightly I think, disturbing. The naming of our humanity at least should reflect something of our deepest understanding of what it is to be human. Surely the commonness of our end, what we have in common with all other living things, is reflected in this etymology. But I also feel that the etymology, the relation between humus and humanity touches on what is best about us. Our ability to give without expectation of reward, but with the confidence that our giving is a valued contribution. The knowledge of the rightness of unconcerned giving, complete willingness to contribute to the ongoingness of life, seems combined as well, with the knowledge that a certain style of material perfection is possible. The knowledge that we end as matter that continues to be used, that is, in fact, recycled purposefully, can be cause for great comfort. And for great laughter.

Although the connection between humor and humus is perhaps a little more elusive, Bakhtin may be of some use in clarifying things. Readers of Bakhtin have by now realized that finding appropriate citations is easier with this philosopher than with many others. He repeats himself so frequently, and so eloquently, that finding the "right" quote is sometimes no more than a matter of paging carelessly through the text at hand. Speaking in Rabelais and His World of the aesthetic which informs Rabelais’ great work :

...the images of the material bodily principle in the work of Rabelais (and of the other writers of the Renaissance) are the heritage, only somewhat modified by the Renaissance, of the culture of folk humor. They are the heritage of that peculiar type of imagery and, more broadly speaking, of that peculiar aesthetic concept which is characteristic of this folk culture and which differs sharply from the aesthetic concept of the following ages. We shall call it conditionally the concept of grotesque realism. [2]

In grotesque realism...the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal....As such it is opposed to severance from the material and bodilyts of the world ; it makes no pretense to renunciation of the earthy or independence of the earth and the body. [3]

The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance....The material bodily principle is a triumphant, festive principle, it is a ‘banquet for all the world.’ [4]

The above comments merely establish Bakhtin’s conviction that the physical, material, bodily abundance of life provided carnival with much of its impetus and text. The impulse to laughter, so constant a part of medieval carnival life, and so noticeably absent from official celebrations (which often go under the name of "festival,") is also closely related to the lower bodily stratum :

The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract ; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity. [5]

And once Bakhtin has hit on the centrality of degradation to the aesthetics of grotesque realism, the rest becomes clear. The horror with which the 18th century reacted to Rabelais (and, we should recall, to Shakespeare as well), and the difficulties that critics of the 20th century have had in keeping "Rabelais" from flying apart in their hands :

Degradation and debasement of the higher do not have a formal and relative character in grotesque realism. "Upward" and "downward" have here an absolute and strictly topographical meaning....Earth is an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) and at the same time an element of birth, of renascence (the maternal breasts)....Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth....To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth take place. [6]

The humus pile, for example.

We do not laugh at the bringing low, the debasement and degradation of the higher. This is far from carnival laughter, and certainly far from the spiritual laughter that I find reflected, or at least gestured towards by the etymological relations between human, humor, humility and humus. We laugh from below, in allowing the degrading power of the lower bodily material stratum its full force, recognizing and accepting it for what it is, democratic, final and irrevocable. Joining with it, feeling for a moment at one with its power – of course the response is laughter. And the laughter is divine. It often appears to be laughter at the human, from a divine perspective. Croilus laughs from the eight sphere. Critics often hear a sardonic, cynical tone to his laughter. They are twentieth century critics. Mozart laughs, and a twentieth century director and actor can’t match his laughter with the divine perfection Mozart himself is able to hear in his music.

Divine laughter is helpless laughter. The recognition that all social constructions are but frail, weak, and finally ineffectual in face of the inevitable regenerative force and movement of the material life force, located ridiculously (ridiculous only when you think about it) in the lower bodily stratum, calls forth an irrepressible belly laugh.

And of course it is healthy. Not only purgative, but a humbling realignment with the force for life that laughs at the meager attempts of human authority to impose its own order on things. The ordering principle of the universe will never be found in the laws promulgated by Senates or Congresses of Deputies ; it will be found as you turn, on a Sunday afternoon, the humus pile you’ve been tending gently during the Fall months, in preparation for Spring planting. Turn the the humus gently, please, maintaining the layers of leaves, kitchen garbage, (and perhaps a little ash from the fireplace), allowing the composting process to move forward in its own rhythm, and at its own pace. You won’t be able to hurry it along ; and you can’t slow it down much, either.


[1] Kurtz, Ernest. The Spirituality of Imperfection : Storytelling and the Journey to
, (Bantam, 1992).

[2] Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World, (tr. Helene Iswolsky, University of
Indiana Press, 1984, p. 18)

[3] Bakhtin, p. 19

[4] Bakhtin, ibid.

[5] Bakhtin, ibid.

[6] Bakhtin, p. 21

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