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: https://aeon.co/essays/for-henri-bergson-laughter-is-what-keeps-us-elastic-and-free 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…