The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief

I don’t know what to think of laughter anymore. I used to be happy with it solving so many issues, soothing so many cuts, but now I wonder whether it was only me all along just applying patches to the wounds. It would seem that humour is no laughing matter -or, rather, it’s the laughter itself that confuses the issue. And it’s not always fun and games that provoke it. There is a serious side to it as well. A guilt-ridden side.

Like most people, I suspect I have always taken the wonder of laughter for granted; it feels almost as delightful to witness as to perform. But it has not always enjoyed this role. I recently read Laughing Gods, weeping virgins, laughter in the history of religion, a 1997 book by Ingvild Selid Gilhus, a professor of History of Religion at the University of Bergen, Norway. I learned that laughter has evolved. She writes about a time when it was looked upon as sinful, or at least a tool used to maintain control by whatever gods a society honoured – it mocked or shamed disobedience.

Then in the medieval period, laughter was shunned as the secular body’s attempt to escape from spiritual control, escape from holding God foremost in one’s mind and it was suppressed with guilt. Of course, the occasional escape valve was necessary, so the church in France allowed laughter for the Feast of Fools and roles were briefly reversed, the lowly becoming powerful, the carnal spiritually acceptable.

A more interesting question, though, is why humour exists at all. Why do people laugh? Gilhus’ book only touched on its encounters with religions, and yet it seemed so much broader than that. We laugh a lot, it would seem -some studies suggest every 20 seconds in an average conversation. But studying laughter is fraught. As the authors, E.B. and  Katharine S. White observed, ‘Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.’

And yet, even bearing that in mind, there have been several theories that have attempted to explain laughter. One of them is superiority -we laugh when we think we’re superior to something. The purpose of the joke is to mock from a more exalted position. Freud had a say as well, feeling that we find something funny if had been repressed and then suddenly leaked out… I’m not sure how tenable that idea is, but Freud will be Freud, after all.

The theory that seems the most credible to me, however, is incongruity. This was championed by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his popular essay published in 1900,  Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. He realized that it was difficult to subject such a pleasurable and universal experience to any meaningful analysis -much as having to explain why something was funny, means that it probably wasn’t. But the incongruous is difficult, or impossible, to reconcile and the very attempt, in Bergson’s phrase, is something ‘mechanical encrusted on the living’. In other words, artificial when it shouldn’t  be, and the realization of this juxtaposition is ludicrous and therefore humorous. We’re trying to recognize ourselves in something that isn’t…

I’m not totally convinced by that argument either, and yet it may be that he is simply referring to what happens when we attempt to solve the incongruity. And I suppose it’s the very attempt to reduce the process to reasonableness that bothers me. So it’s more in the inept exercise rather than the success of the explanation that leads to the humour in the situation -the incongruity made manifest.

But Bergson dissected things even further, and felt that if too many emotional states were involved -sadness, fear, melancholy, and so on- they would interfere with seeing something as humorous -interfere with our ability at laugh at it. How then, to explain the comedy in Voltaire’s alleged deathbed response to a priest who was encouraging him to renounce Satan? “This is no time for making new enemies” was his reply.

And yet, laughter also ‘appears to stand in need of an echo’ according to Bergson. I came across a readable article in Aeon that summarized it more broadly. The essay was written by Emily Herring, at the time, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Ghent in Belgium:  Evolutionary theorists have hypothesised about the adaptive value of laughter, in particular in the context of social bonding… Most friends share ‘in-jokes’ that are meant to be understood only within the context of their particular social group, as do certain communities brought together by a football team, political opinions, or shared specialist knowledge… Our laughter ‘is always the laughter of a group’, as Bergson put it.’

Again, though, is he still dissecting a frog only to have it die? This is remains much too reductionist for me. Somehow humour lies in its spontaneity, its unexpectedness. When it is contrived, it may result in laughter, but is it the same animal…?

For some reason, the question takes me back to those days of innocence when my children were young and everything was new and fresh to them. They helped me see the world differently.

I remember one time when my son was fascinated by the reports on TV of continuing protest marches in some country or other. Although he was only about four years old and not at all clear about the reasons for the demonstrations, he was obviously fascinated by what he kept referring to as the ‘parades’.

“But actually, parades are different, daddy,” he eventually volunteered as he watched with fascination.

Thinking he had perhaps grasped the angst of the people protesting against their government, I asked him what he meant.

He looked at me as if to say that fathers could be so unobservant sometimes. “There’s nobody standing on the sidewalks watching them… Everybody’s walking in the street,” he added.

“They’re all protesting,” I explained, realizing he might not understand the concept.

“Is that why they keep bumping into each other with their elbows?” he said, and smiled knowingly.

I had to laugh, but was it humour I was reacting to, or his awareness of the seeming incongruity of their actions? And did the distinction actually matter? Maybe innocent detachment – and unexpectedly naïve observation- is really how it all starts…

Words, when there aren’t any

Here’s a thought: What are you thinking – right now? Can you describe what is happening inside your head at any moment you are asked? If you can, is it in a decipherable stream of words… or in something else? And, further, if it is something else, then how could you ever describe it in words?

When I consider such a subject, I find that I am reminded of the Buddhist koan that asks the disciple to imagine the sound of one hand clapping. It is an endless labyrinth in which it is also too easy to think of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he describes what is inscribed on the entrance gate to Hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But you see what is happening already: a flight of ideas, some of which can be described in words after the fact, and yet the journey -and indeed, the destination- are fluid, and wordless. Much like watching a Fellini film in a darkened movie theatre, and then emerging, confused, into a noontime street outside where different rules, different realities apply.

It happened again, didn’t it? Right now -the activity inside my head somewhere… I have just attempted to describe it in words, and yet there weren’t any while it was going on… But nonetheless it was happening. If we can remember them, dreams can be like that sometimes, can’t they? Wordless, and yet often transcribable; there is usually an emotional overlay, and yet is it just that when we emerge into the daylight reality we struggle for descriptors if we are asked to remember. Is consciousness merely the translator, hired for the job?

I suspect these ruminations are not common in our everyday lives that expect to be able to explain something -everything?- when asked. It is, after all, the mandate of Science to subject the world and everything in it to scrutiny. But can we ever hope to describe our interior machinations in words, if the world in there is not primarily verbal? If journeys inside are not even always pictorial? Evocative? Is there even a language that does not depend on features we would characterize as consciously recognizable? Translatable? Can we, in other words, understand our minds? We all want to, don’t we…?

Despite the fascinating venue, even deciding where to start any such attempt eluded me. There was an article in a BBC Future article, that started me wondering again, though:

Kelly Oakes, a freelance writer for the BBC, starts out by suggesting, ‘Interrogating what’s going on inside our own minds doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult task. But by trying to shine a light on those thoughts, we’re disturbing the very thing we want to measure in the first place.’ She goes on to describe the attempts of the psychologist Russell Hurlburt at the University of Nevada to get around the questions we ask about our inner thoughts which obviously prompt us to translate the inner activity into words -and hence reporting more as inner speech than is actually the case. So, he uses a technique he calls Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) which involves carrying a device that beeps randomly but only occasionally throughout the day. That is the prompt to tune into whatever was in your mind just before the beep. At the end of the day, you are debriefed and are expected to describe ‘what form it took: words, pictures, an emotion, a physical sensation, or something else.’ And, not surprisingly, it varies.

It’s not ideal, I suppose, but it does attempt to characterize something evanescent and amorphous and translate it into meaningful categories. But even if we were to concentrate on one form of activity -inner speech- there are still imponderables that have to be sorted out.

Is it an inner dialogue, or monologue? Indeed, how could it be a dialogue with only one brain involved? Or, for that matter, to whom would a monologue be addressed? Maybe Freud, with his Ego, Id, and Superego divisions of the unconscious was on to something…

But, Oakes mentions a description written by someone after they had recovered from a stroke, that is both existentially chilling, and yet also helpful in understanding some of our inner processing: ‘After neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor recovered from a stroke she suffered aged 37, she wrote in My Stroke of Insight [my italics] about what it was like to experience a “silent mind” without inner speech for several weeks: “What a daunting task it was to simply sit there in the centre of my silent mind…’ It wasn’t just the absence of words that was occurring, it was the absence of anything. Although I haven’t read the book, I assume that her mind was also empty of -what?- pictures, emotions, sensations -even identity. So maybe you either get everything -the melange- or nothing.

I find that a really sobering thought, for some reason. That in our brains -our minds– the way we process input from the outside –or activities happening on the inside- is more a jumble than a formula. I’m sure it doesn’t actually work that way, but just like it’s difficult to accurately render a poem, a metaphor, or a Weltanschauung into a different culture and language, there are similar problems in translating the inner language into the outer one we need to use.

In our constant quest to understand, and master the unknown, I sometimes wonder if we expect too much of our questions. But maybe that’s just my outer voice that speaks -the one that translates for the me that lives inside. How do I know if it’s even on the right path?

Perhaps it takes a poet to interpret what’s really going on. My mind drifts to the words of Kahlil Gibran: For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.