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…

Can Anyone Laugh?

Frailty, thy name is woman, Hamlet said, upset about his mother’s behaviour. Perhaps Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had bad memories of the play. In a recent speech on moral corruption in Turkey, he is quoted as saying that : “Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness…. [The woman] will know what is haram and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.


She will not laugh in public? This part, at least, is so patently stupid that I wondered whether it hid a voracious appetite for literature and philosophy -some reference or other to something pedantic or arcane. He is reputedly well educated and intelligent; perhaps he was naively mindful of Nietzsche and his assertion that laughter is an escape from the prison of reason and logic, while also having the potential of expressing social conflict. Maybe Arinc is afraid that women may have reason to stir up social tension.

Too academic? Okay then, suppose he has read Henri Bergson who felt that laughter may eliminate eccentric behaviour because it derides those who deviate from social norms… On the other hand, maybe he hasn’t: I suspect this is a bit more of a Mobius strip than Arinc would like.

Well, there’s always Plato, who didn’t feel that laughter had much value for human experience and in fact may be malicious. He argues that laughter is a malicious reaction to the domination over a more unfortunate member of society, and those occasionally engaged in laughter are exposed to something base which should be avoided. (Many of these quotes are from Sewanee Senior Philosophy Essays:

But of course Arinc would then be cognizant of the various classical theories of laughter – the three most mentioned ones being: Superiority Theory which is the one advanced by Plato and which suggests that “all laughter is a response to the comical ignorance in others.” And then there is the Relief Theory engendered by stress or anxiety. Another would be the Theory of Incongruity which is a reaction to something unexpectedly inappropriate…

But these don’t seem to capture the thrust of his argument. Maybe he understood the impenetrable words of Thomas Hobbes: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” –although isn’t that just the Superiority Theory disguised by words..?

My own theory is that he was unduly influenced by the Wikipedia take on Herodotus:

For Herodotus, laughers can be distinguished into three types:[32]

  • Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability
  • Those who are mad
  • Those who are overconfident

Why not Wikipedia? It’s easily found, easily assimilable and, in a pinch, easily editable. And it would be simplistic enough to appeal to people who are only half listening to his speech. Who only half remember his words. Too bad he didn’t plagiarize the page –then he could have been exposed for more than just propounding a silly statement. But no, he decided to try on the philosophical garb of religious authority.

And yet, when I actually stop and think about what he said, I have an uneasy feeling that his comments were not steeped in philosophy –Western philosophy, at any rate. They seem to emanate from an assumption that women are beginning to assume a too prominent –too equal–  role in Turkish society. You note that he uses the term ‘haram’ to contain a woman’s actions. As I understand the term, it is an Arabic one of Islamic jurisprudence employed to designate any action forbidden by Allah, and referred to in the Quran as such.

Clearly I am not an Islamic scholar and may be way off the mark, but I cannot seem to find any prohibition on laughter –male or female- in my research. It doesn’t appear to be haram… So what is Arinc talking about? Occuring as it does in a speech for an Eid el-Fitr meeting July 28, it is not likely to be a simple off-the-cuff remark.

No, I suspect this was an ill-conceived, and terribly naïve attempt to curb the rising power of women in Turkey. It no doubt disturbs the sleep of those in power –those with vested interests in maintaining the archaic status quo. But by using the religious card, it is all the more abhorrent. That any religion –any culture, for that matter- would proscribe laughter for its adherents is itself ridiculous. Unbelievable. Risible…

At the risk of parsing the stereotype, let me return one final time to Shakespeare –this time to Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

“That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,                                                                                   If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”  

Listen up Arinc; the world is waiting…and laughing.