Tuesday, September 23, 2014

No Effect Without Cause: Understanding Laughter

            Today’s readings concerned themselves a lot with the physical aspect of laughter: what goes on in our bodies to make us laugh? Descartes explains that “Laughter consists in the fact that the blood, which proceeds from the right orifice in the heart…inflating the lungs suddenly and repeatedly…cause motion to the facial muscles…with this inarticulate and explosive voice that we call laughter.” He allows himself to figure out what specific bodily functions cause the production of a laugh. But Descartes points out, after establishing how we laugh, that what we laugh at may not be expected. Laughter makes us feel happy, yet we do not laugh at our joy/when we are happy. I thought this was an interesting point because he is completely right: I usually don’t laugh when I’m happy, I laugh when I’m sad or when I see something that warrants laughter, but not at my overall state of being content. This made me think about why do we laugh? This is a question that we have all repeatedly asked ourselves throughout the course so far. I would conclude that most of the time we laugh to mask uncomfortable situations, to understand incongruities, and to use as a mechanism to cheer us up.
            My mom once told me, and I don’t know how applicable it is to all people, that most comedians are depressed. They use laughter to bring the world joy and to make themselves less unhappy: laughter for a comedian is used as a coping mechanism to counter the depression that they actually feel. Robin Williams’ passing is a perfect example of this. He enchanted and amused multiple generations of people and yet his personal life was not as comedic as one may imagine or expect. Freud points out that “energy of repression is released in laughter.” Repressed thoughts, feelings, and emotions come out as laughter as a way to continually repress problems rather than deal with them: in very Freudian terms, the superego uses humor and laughter to protect the ego from getting hurt.
            But humor can be extended to not only cheer us up but to also help us realize that we are sad/upset because of incongruities in life that are pointed out by humor. Spencer argues that laughter is a perception of incongruity: we hear something that is incongruent, we recognize it’s wrong, and we laugh because of the way the incongruity was presented to us to make us aware. A great example of this, that I recently saw posted on Facebook, is the video made by black kids in Ferguson to address the issue of race in America. While this is done in a humorous way to make the viewer chuckle or smirk at least once or twice, it is definitely trying to promote a serious message that needs to be heard: presenting white America with the incongruities on racial perceptions in America.
            Now, where does Candide fit into all of this? Freud said “humor is not resigned it is rebellious:” humor shows us things we may not otherwise know about or care about. In the case of Candide, Voltaire is aiming to satirically address the problems in the world present during the time this book was published. The humorous moment when Pangloss states that he got a terrible disease, which Columbus brought from America, from kissing a woman, but it’s ok because without Columbus we wouldn’t have chocolate—when in reality he got syphilis and Voltaire is trying to comment on the disease and promiscuity of the time. Pangloss in the very beginning of the book states that there is “no effect without cause”—while this may not be applicable to all the terrible misfortunes in Candide it is helpful to understand what I’ve been talking about for the past two pages…the physical effect of laughter is not without a cause: the cause is usually because of understanding incongruities and protecting our egos on the long, tumultuous, journey of life.

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