Laughter is one of the more pleasant things in life, but is it just a frill? In his book The Phantom of the Ego,” Nidesh Lawtoo discusses the importance Georges Bataille attached to laughter for the emerging consciousness of a newborn child. Laughter is one of the first things a baby learns in imitation of a mother, father, or other caregiver. So it is that laughter comprises the first bond a newborn child makes. Interactions with babies may seem silly, something to be transcended with intellectual maturity and so we don’t value laughing with babies.
At its best, laughter is spontaneous and infectious. How many times do we laugh without knowing why, just because other people are laughing? When children are laughing helplessly as part of playing, happiness spreads to everyone around them. We don’t want to be left out of the joke, even if we don’t know what it is. Just think of some of our best times when we laughed with family and friends with no other reason than we were together and we got caught up in laughter.
There is a darker side to laughter, however. Actually it is a darker side of us and our mimetic desires, rather than a darker side of laughter. Often laughter is used to wound others, to score points against others, to put others down to lift ourselves up. Almost as soon as they learn how to speak, small children use laughter in this way. School playgrounds are filled with this sort of thing. Children learn all this from their elders, of course. Just as they imitated the spontaneous laughter of those around them as infants, they imitate the cruel humor that surrounds them as they grow older. Unfortunately, children usually learn this mode of laughter through being shamed by adults who think ridicule is a good way to train children for the hard knocks of life. Laughter continues to be a bond between people, but it is a bonding at the expense of someone, a butt of jokes, a victim.
When he discourages laughter as a sign of pride, St. Benedict certainly had this darker side of laughter in mind, although it is possible that he had a blind spot for the value of spontaneous, bonding laughter. Certainly, when laughter is a put-on act to gain attention, it is the opposite of spontaneous and it is a prideful act, an act seeking to dominate by drawing attention to oneself at the expense of others. I discuss this at length in my book Tools for Peace.
We get so habituated to using laughter as a weapon instead of a bond of love that we hardly know what the latter is. One way back is to use the wit we acquire to learn to laugh at ourselves and help others laugh at themselves. At its best, a comedy does just that. In Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” discussed in an earlier post, laughter is used as a means to overcome mimetic triangles and tensions and bring reconciliation. Shakespeare does this sort of thing masterly in comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “As You like It.” In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare sets a trap for the unwary, leading us into joining the persecution of Shylock before unmasking this derisory laughter for what it is.
Life is too serious and awesome a thing to be left to sourpusses who always want to be on top of somebody else. We all need heavy doses of spontaneous, selfless laughter shared with others.