Mimetic Laughter

outsideSupper1Laughter 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.

 

Marriage of Figaro

I watched Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro while in New York this week, and was impressed with the deep insights into mimetic desire this opera offers. (cf. Human See, Human Want) The opera centers on Count Almaviva’s desire for his servant Susanna who is betrothed to the count’s servant Figaro. For all of his roaming for women, the Count seems not to have desired Susanna until Figaro desired her and wished to marry her.

Meanwhile, Marcellina, a servant of Dr. Bartolo, wishes to marry Figaro and Dr. Bartolo, wishing revenge for Figaro’s helping the count marry Rosina when he himself had desired her, supports his servant’s claim based on Figaro’s unpayable debt to her. This triangle becomes farcical when it turns out that Figaro is Marcellina’s son begotten by Dr. Bartolo himself, who had done with his servant what the count wants to do with Suzanna.

The adolescent servant Cherubino provides a comical mirror image of the count in that he also desires all women, especially the countess, the only woman the count does not desire. This infatuation does not make him a serious rival to the count, but he becomes entangled with Rosina and Susanna’s plot against the count.

The count only shows any desire for his wife when he believes (mistakenly) that she is desired by another. In Act 2, he believes Cherubino was flirting with his wife and was hiding in the closet (which he was until Susanna helped him escape). When it is Susanna who emerges from the closet, an uneasy forgiveness ensemble ensues that foreshadows the opera’s finale, but then unravels when the gardener complains about somebody (Cherubino) jumping into the flower garden.

The abortive plans of Act 2 to trick the count come to fruition in the last two acts where Rosina and Susanna disguise themselves as the other and so entrap him so that the count has no choice but to drop to his knees and ask his wife’s forgiveness, which se freely gives.

The disguises and mistaken identities throughout the opera dissolve the characters into the indifferentiation of mimetic desire. At a deeper level, Mozart’s music weaves a unity out of the passions of all these characters so as to unite them in the mimetic desires, a unity transcending the class differences of the characters and creating a vision more subversive than the play by Pierre Beaumarchais used by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.

The noble forgiveness scene is as fragile as it is beautiful; a fragile fleeting vision that can be blown away by the next breath of mimetic desire.