EN 409: Humor Studies
23 September 2014
Laugher as a Release
As with many of the other philosophers we have studied so far, Freud, Decartes and Spencer all link laughter back to a bodily sensation or physiological phenomenon. While Decartes and Spencer rely heavily on their findings that closely relate to our bodily interactions that take place on an anatomic level, Freud delves a bit deeper as he centers his thesis around the idea of laughter serves as an “outlet” for our pent up psychic or nervous energy. Freud further explains that in “laughter situations”, there is a “saving of psychic energy which is summoned for a particular task, but then seen not to be needed for that purpose”(111). Similar to Kierkegaard’s philosophy—laughter as a way of coping with failed expectations-- Freud also makes this same point; Freud says that laughter occurs at a point where our expectations fail to meet our perception of reality: where our psychic energy is reassigned to a different “task”.
Interestingly, Spencer also attributes laughter to this mental gap or element of confusion. Specifically, Spencer explains that we laugh during moments when we encounter “incongruity”(99): when we are faced with an “unexpected contrast of ideas”(100). As a result of this incongruity—according to Freud and Spencer—we experience a build up of what Freud refers to as “superfluous energy”(111)—a nervous energy that our bodies eagerly seek to get rid of. Thus, we find that we are able to accomplish a release of this repressed “energy” through the act of laughing—we are given the chance to express the otherwise inhibited emotions or feelings within us under the guise of laugher.
After reading Voltaire’s Candide (now for the third time) I still find it difficult to identify blatant elements of humor throughout the text, however; after reading Freud and Spencer, it became quite evident that Voltaire’s authorial tone is wildly consistent with their “Relief Theory”—a theory that identifies laughter as an “outlet for psychic or nervous energy”(111). While we may not find Candide to be “laugh out loud” funny, we do find ourselves engaging in Voltaire’s sense of humor. As we witness Candide endure what seems to be a never-ending series of unfortunate events, we can’t help but question the plausibility of this occurrence within our own reality; we struggle to make sense of the narrative being casted before our eyes. We find it utterly absurd that Candide accepts Pangloss’s warped philosophy and perception of the world, and that he even goes so far as to use this ill- advice to guide and facilitate both his thoughts and his actions. Here, I felt that Voltaire’s use of the absurd resonates with Decartes’ philosophy, the notion that laughter is derived “from the fact that we find ourselves surprised by the novelty or by the unexpected encountering of such evil”(23). In this sense, then, we laugh in response to the presence of evil.
This reminded me of an episode from one of my favorite shows: Grey’s Anatomy. In one of the scenes, the four main characters are at one of their closest friend’s funeral—who has just tragically died in a car accident. During the funeral, one of the characters (Izzie) is shown with her hands over her face (as if she is sobbing), and soon after she is shown walking away from the ceremony to a more secluded area. Worried about her, Izzie’s closest friends also leave the funeral ceremony to follow her. However, as her friends attempt to console her, they quickly realize that she isn’t crying at all, but rather, she is hysterically laughing. Izzie’s laughter soon proves to be contagious as all of her friends follow suit and break out into uncontrollable laughter.
Just as Izzie and her friends laugh as a way of coping with the tragic death of their friend, we laugh as a way of coping with the tragedy we witness in Candide. Humor in this sense, then, becomes a “liberating element”(113); we laugh as a way of “discharging” negative energy—our saddest emotions. We also notice the function of form and content in both of these works. Namely, we laugh along with Izzie and her friends because we, too, are caught off guard-- not by the death of their friend, but, rather, by their reaction to that death. Similarly, as we read Candide, our laughter occurs at moments where Voltaire presents us with serious subject matter, but in a surprisingly nonchalant way. We, then, feel caught off guard by the casualness of Voltaire’s tone and engage in his humor. In both cases, we encounter humor as we experience a situation that plays out differently than we had initially expected.
Voltaire’s use of the absurd creates a sense of disruption for us as readers, on both a psychological and physical level. As we experience disorientation in our thoughts in tandem with the onset of our audible laughter, we are forced to confront the underlying motive behind our rather strange reaction to such great misfortune. Thus, laughter—once again—serves as a buffer when addressing tragedy, while also serving as a tool to bring about awareness through a fresh perspective.
(We also see this moment of awareness amongst the characters in Grey’s Anatomy at the closing of the “funeral scene”—at the conclusion of the characters’ laughter, we see that they are finally starting to come to terms with the loss of their friend.)
Grey’s Anatomy Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1SlbCxQjxY