’We are very sorry, indeed, to learn what happened,’ said a BBC spokesman on hearing about the death of a Goodies fan while watching the show. ’He just laughed heartily and too long,’ said his wife. ’After 25 minutes of laughing he gave a tremendous belly laugh, slumped on the settee, and died. (He) loved the Goodies, and it was one of the best for a long time.’ (Guardian, 26 March 1975)
The man’s death was, no doubt, a great misfortune. But as the response of his wife might suggest, there was also something quite funny, and even appropriate about it. The word ’funny’ here is oddly ambiguous: how funny it is, after all, that a word (’funny’) should mean both ’amusing’ and ’strange’. The peculiar appropriateness of the death of this Goodies fan consists not only in the fact that it was a particularly good episode of the popular 1970s British TV comedy programme (’one of the best for a long time’), but also in the way it suggests a more general and perhaps more intimate link between laughter and death. When we say that someone ’died laughing’ or ’laughed themselves to death’ we are, in most circumstances, speaking metaphorically. What is funny (in both senses) about the case of the Goodies fan is that it involves a literalization of this metaphor. To take a metaphor literally (which can also be called ’catachresis’ or ’misapplication of a word’) is an example of a rhetorical device that is often very effective as a means of generating laughter. In this respect it would seem that the man’s death conforms to the conventions of comedy. But, of course, there is also a darker side to this, the side that involves ’funny’ in the sense of ’funny peculiar’. In other words, what this newspaper report also prompts us to ask is: why do we talk about ’dying with laughter’ or ’laughing oneself to death’? Why do we talk about actors ’corpsing’, in other words, of being unable to speak their lines because of a sudden fit of hysterical laughter? Are all these instances simply metaphorical? Is there something about laughter that, in a profound if ticklish way, puts it in touch with death? Let us leave these questions in suspense for a little while.
What about laughter and literature? We often think of literature as very (or, dare one say, ’deadly’) serious, especially if we are studying it. In part this is because (as we suggest in greater detail in Chapter 24) literature is linked to notions of the sacred, to a sense of hushed respect. But literature is also about pleasure, play and laughter. In this chapter we shall attempt to provide an account of some of the ways in which laughter has been theorized, down the centuries, and attempt to illustrate these theories in relation to particular literary texts. Finally, we shall focus on the idea of literature as a space in which the notion of seriousness itself, and the distinctions between the ’serious’ and ’non-serious’, are fundamentally unsettled, thrown into question, discombobulated.
There are few things worse than the prospect of trying to talk about laughter, or trying to define what is humorous. It is something of a lost cause from the start. It automatically seems to put us — if we dare risk a slightly risible analogy at this point — in the position of the frog, in the joke about the frog, the chicken and the librarian. A chicken walks into the local town library, goes up to the librarian’s desk and says: ’Bok!’ So the librarian gives the chicken a book. The chicken goes away, but comes back the next day, goes up to the librarian’s desk and says: ’Bok, bok!’ So the librarian gives the chicken two books, the chicken goes away, comes back the next day: ’Bok, bok, bok!’ And so it goes on, until the fifth day, when the chicken comes in and says to the librarian, ’Bok, bok, bok, bok, bok!’ The librarian hands over five books but then decides to follow the chicken, at a surreptitious distance, out of the library. The librarian follows it down the street, across the road and down a smaller street, then through an unbolted wooden door, down a passageway, into a garden, across the garden to a small lake, across a narrow bridge to an island in the middle, where the chicken puts the books down in front of a frog who says: ’Reddit, reddit…’
If there is laughter here it would be the result of a number of things. First, there is the ridiculous anthropomorphism: chickens do not go to libraries, librarians do not respond to chickens as if they were simply ’members of the public’, frogs do not read books. Second, there is the pleasure of recognition as we realize that the ’bok, bok’ of a chicken could after all be heard as a request for a book, or for two books, and that the croaking of a frog might indeed be construed as ’read it, read it’. Third, there is the sense of a so-called shaggy-dog story, the feeling that the story could go on indefinitely, that the chicken could, at least in principle, order up the entire holdings of the British Library. Bok, bok, bok … Here laughter would be linked to suspense, and more specifically perhaps to the hysterical effect of a potentially permanent postponement of a resolution. It is this which, in part, constitutes the comic force of a play such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). But by the same token, it would be what haunts or menaces every tragedy: comedy in this sense could be defined as the overturning of the tragic. But there is perhaps also, by contrast, something comical about the very corniness (so to speak) of the joke, its ’cheepness’ and groan-making quality. In this respect the joke relies on a certain surprise — the surprise of the punchline — and a certain recognition: you know that a punchline is going to come and what sort of punchline it will be, but you cannot tell exactly what it will be. There is a childlike pleasure involved in laughing at something at once surprising and familiar. Perhaps indeed, as Freud argues in his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), ’everything comic is based fundamentally on degradation [or “stepping down”] to being a child’ (Freud 1976, 292). Finally, this ridiculous little joke about the frog, the chicken and the librarian suggests something about the relations between laughter, reading and mystery. For perhaps what is also funny about the story is the implicit hyperbole whereby anyone (let alone a frog) could be expected to have read everything. In this respect we can never be in the position of the frog or — to put it more specifically in terms of our argument in this chapter — there is never a truly froglike position from which to provide a serious account of laughter. Any theory of laughter, we would like to suggest, is necessarily infected, undermined, displaced by the experience of laughter itself.
Let us consider a couple of the basic theories of laughter. The first is the ’superiority theory’. It is succinctly and memorably formulated by the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes: ’The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly’ (Hobbes 1994, 54). We laugh, according to this argument, out of a sense of superiority — the ’sudden glory’ or ’conception of eminency’ in relation to the stupidity or weakness of others, or of ourselves at some point in the past. Thus, for example, we may laugh at the man who slips over on the banana skin, or we may laugh at Bottom, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because he is such an ass, or we may laugh with Swift at the small-mindedness of other human beings, for example in Book I of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).
The second theory is what we could call the ’nothing theory’ or the ’no theory’ theory. This may be illustrated by way of the Monty Python sketch in which a woman called Miss Anne Elk (John Cleese in drag) is interviewed because she is supposed to have a new theory about the brontosaurus. Miss Elk will not disclose her theory but seems instead concerned simply to say over and over again that she has a theory and that the theory is hers: ’[M]y theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine’. Chris, the interviewer (Graham Chapman), becoming exasperated, says: ’Yes, I know it’s yours, what is it?’ Looking rather nervously around the studio, Anne Elk replies: ’Where?’ (Monty Python’s Flying Circus 1989, 119) When Miss Elk does finally enunciate her theory it is truly bathetic — in fact, no theory at all:
Miss Elk Ready?
Miss Elk My theory by A. Elk. Brackets Miss, brackets. This theory goes as follows and begins now. All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end. That is my theory, it is mine, and belongs to me and I own it, and what it is too.
Presenter That’s it, is it?
Miss Elk Spot on, Chris. (119)
In more sombre and philosophical terms, the ’nothing theory’ or ’no theory’ theory is suggested, for instance, by Immanuel Kant’s proposition: ’Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing’ (Kant 1988, 199). Laughter is nothing more than the bursting of a bubble. When we laugh, according to this argument, we are laughing in a sort of ’absurd’ vacuum: ’merely’ laughing, with nothing to support us. In a compelling essay entitled ’The Laughter of Being’, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen suggests a radicalization of this Kantian formulation. Following the work of the French writer Georges Bataille in particular, he argues that ’[t]here is no theory of laughter, only an experience’ (Borch-Jacobsen 1987, 742). Moreover, this experience is of a decidedly ’funny’ sort — for it is an experience of, precisely, nothing. As Bataille puts it: ’[When I laugh,] I am in fact nothing more than the laughter which takes hold of me’ (Bataille 1973, 364, cited by Borch-Jacobsen, 744).
Let us turn from ’theory’ to consider some literary examples. Laughter is often dependent on the visual — and literature is full of instances of visual comedy. But laughter, at least in literature, is perhaps more fundamentally a matter of language. One of the greatest eighteenth-century English comedies is Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal (first performed in 1777). It contains numerous classic moments of visual comedy (characters in disguise, hiding themselves behind screens, being thrust hastily into closets and so on), but the comic power of Sheridan’s play consists above all in its language. This starts from the very title of the play — with its satirical implication that scandalmongering is something to be taught — and from the names of its characters — a woman called Lady Sneerwell, her servant, Snake, a gentleman called Sir Benjamin Backbite, and so forth. We could consider a brief exchange between Lady Sneerwell and Mr Snake on the subject of her ’superiority’ over other slanderers and scandalmongers such as Mrs Clackitt:
Lady Sneerwell Why truly Mrs Clackitt has a very pretty talent — and a great deal of industry.
Snake True, madam, and has been tolerably successful in her day. To my knowledge she has been the cause of six matches being broken off and three sons disinherited, of four forced elopements, and as many close confinements, nine separate maintenances, and two divorces. Nay, I have more than once traced her causing a tête-à-tête in the Town and Country Magazine, when the parties perhaps had never seen each other’s face before in the course of their lives.
Lady Sneerwell She certainly has talents, but her manner is gross.
Snake’ Tis very true. She generally designs well, has a free tongue, and a bold invention; but her colouring is too dark and her outlines often extravagant. She wants that delicacy of hint and mellowness of sneer which distinguishes your ladyship’s scandal.
Lady Sneerwell You are partial, Snake. (1.1.10—26)
We can imagine the comic possibilities of the characters’ gestures and appearance, but what is most comic is in the language itself — in the satirical observation on what it means to be ’tolerably successful’, in the incongruity or absurdity of evaluating who has the more beautiful ’sneer’, in the snaking sibilance of Snake’s last sentence, in the playful truth of Lady Sneerwell’s final remark.
The play called The School for Scandal is, then, fundamentally wordplay. Indeed, we could say, literature in general has to do with wordplay or — to use a more technical-sounding term — with paronomasia. This is in part what makes it potentially subversive and disturbing. Could there really be a character called Snake? Or a woman called Lady Sneerwell? What kind of world do they belong to? Literature is a matter of linguistic as well as social scandal. It poses a constant challenge to the realms of so-called ’good sense’ and represents an affront to what could be called the ideology of seriousness. Paronomasia is indeed so originary a dimension of literary works that one is tempted to agree with the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (1938) and say: ’In the beginning was the pun’ (41). Even Shakespeare becomes open to criticism on this front. Literary critics may not have much of a reputation for being amusing — but critical indignation at Shakespeare’s soft spot for the ’quibble’ (or ’pun’) gives rise to what we think is one of the funniest paragraphs in the history of literary criticism. Here is Samuel Johnson’s fascinating and irresistible paragraph from his Preface to Shakespeare (1765):
A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it. (Johnson 1969, 68)
It is perhaps difficult not to find the ’dignity’ and ’profundity’ of Johnson’s ’disquisition’ amusing: he quibbles about quibbling in terms as extravagant as any in Shakespeare. In the process he also delightfully intimates what is often so compelling about such wordplay, namely its playful mixing of sex and death: the quibble is the apple of Shakespeare’s I, the obscure object of desire, at once ’barren’ and ’the fatal Cleopatra’.
We will now consider another, rather different kind of literary work, Geoffrey Chaucer’s ’The Miller’s Tale’. This is the story, set in Oxford, about the superstitious old carpenter John, his beautiful young wife Alisoun, and their handsome lodger, Nicholas. Along with a rather absurd rival called Absolon, Nicholas is after the young wife. Chaucer’s tale recounts, with superb comic concision, how Nicholas persuades John that the end of the world is coming, in order to distract him so that he can get into bed with the old man’s wife. John ends up with a broken arm, but Nicholas finally fares worse. That same night, Alisoun has already humiliated Absolon: he craves a kiss from her and she agrees, but in the dark Absolon finds himself kissing her arse, not her mouth. When Nicholas tries to repeat this jape, and indeed embellish it with a thundering fart, he receives a burning hot poker up his bum. In order to try to convey what makes Chaucer’s ’The Miller’s Tale’ one of the greatest comic poems ever written we could point to the visual comedy of John the Carpenter up in the rooftop cutting the cable and crashing down, convinced that the flood is coming and that he’ll be safe in the ’kneeding-tubbe’ that will be his mini Noah’s ark. This fall might be seen as a literalization and structural equivalent of the fall of the tragic hero. In this respect comedy is not the opposite of tragedy but the same, viewed from a different perspective. While we identify with the tragic hero or heroine, we stand apart from or above the comic victim. Chaucer’s poem, then, offers a clear example of the Hobbesian motif: we laugh because we are not stupid like John the Carpenter. The carpenter falls. We remain where we are, superior, riding high.
But we must at the same time acknowledge that all of this is in a sense only happening in language, as something being narrated. And indeed the comic force of ’The Miller’s Tale’ is very specifically linguistic. It is not only a matter of the brutally eloquent account of John’s cuckolding, or the satirical portrayal of Absolon’s fashion-conscious, prancing character, or the bawdy language of pissing and ’letting flee’ monumental farts. It is also, and most crucially, that the whole story seems to be structured like a joke condensed from or into the single word, ’water’. The whole text turns on the double signification of ’water’: for Nicholas it’s a screamed request for an anodyne to salve his sizzling arse; for John it signifies that the flood is upon them. The two parts of the story are explosively assembled in the wordplay or paronomasia around this single word:
The hote culter brende so his toute,
And for the smert he wende for to dye.
As he were wood, for wo he gan to crye—
’Help! water! water! help, for Goddes herte!’
This carpenter out of his slomber sterte,
And herde oon cryen ’water!’ as he were wood,
And thoghte, ’Allas, now comth Nowelis flood!’
He sit him up withouten wordes mo,
And with his ax he smoot the corde atwo,
And doun goth al…
[The hot poker burnt his bum so badly he thought he was going to die of the pain. Like a lunatic he cried out in woe: ’Help! Water! Water! Help, for God’s sake!’ Hearing someone madly cry ’Water!’ the carpenter started out of his sleep and thought ’Oh no! It’s Noah’s flood!’ He sits up like a shot and cuts the rope with his axe, and everything gives way…]
The visual comedy of the fall (whether from the roof in Chaucer, or on a banana skin in The Simpsons), and the accompanying emphasis on high and low, seems to have a ’funny’ counterpart in the terms of rhetorical figures and tropes. Thus what creates laughter in a text is often either hyperbole (exaggeration) or litotes (understatement). Some examples of hyperbole would be the sorts of comparative metaphor for which Raymond Chandler’s work is celebrated. In The Little Sister (1949), for instance, we encounter the gorgeous Miss Gonzales who, Marlowe tells us, ’smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight’ (70), had a ’mouth as red as a new fire engine’ (158) and who proceeds to make ’a couple of drinks in a couple of glasses you could almost have stood umbrellas in’ (70). Correspondingly we are told of a man wearing ’sky-blue gaberdine slacks … and a two-tone leisure jacket which would have been revolting on a zebra’ (84) and a police lieutenant called Maglachan who ’had a jaw like a park bench’ (167). Litotes, on the other hand, is a pervasive trope in Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729), a text which also illustrates the fundamental, if in many ways disturbing, power of irony as a comic dimension of literary texts. A Modest Proposal works by understatement and irony. It modestly (or litotically) proposes that a solution to poverty and population management in Ireland might be the killing of small children, then selling and eating them.
Outside of literature, we might say, it is possible to entertain perfectly serious ideas about laughter, about jokes, comedy and humour. Thus Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (Freud 1976) is an illuminating work, not only for the similarities it reveals between the structure of jokes and dreams (and by implication, therefore, the structure of works of literature as well), but also for the basic and in some ways disturbing truth it offers as regards the nature of most jokes. Freud argues that jokes tend to be sexist, ’dirty’, violent, racist: they transgress social taboos and (momentarily) ’lift’ repression. But literature, conversely, might be defined as the space in which the seriousness of Freud’s or anyone else’s claims are ironized, satirized, parodied or otherwise put into question. For literature is the discourse that is, perhaps more than any other, concerned with questioning and unsettling assumptions about what is serious and what is not serious. Such a questioning and unsettling is often associated with ’the postmodern’. Postmodern works such as the plays of Samuel Beckett, the poetry of John Ashbery or the fiction of David Foster Wallace present a disquieting, irresolvable mixture of the serious and non-serious, tragic and comic, macabre and laughable. This uncomfortable mixture, however, might also be seen to be at play in Shakespeare’s tragedies, for example, or indeed in Chaucer’s ’The Miller’s Tale’, which ends with a scene in which everyone is laughing but where it is no longer clear what kind of laughter it is or who is laughing at what or whom. As we have suggested, the study of literature is in various ways policed by a kind of ideology of seriousness. There is a strong tendency to accept the rules, to adhere to boundaries and categories, to say: the study of literature is a serious affair. Or to say: X is a serious text or a serious moment in a text, whereas Y is not serious. No doubt in the context of the novel, ’realism’ has been and in many ways continues to be the very embodiment of a certain ’seriousness’. But the postmodern prompts us to ask various questions in this respect: how seriously, for example, should we take ’realism’ or ’reality effects’ in literature? What does seriousness imply or assume? Who are the police and what is the nature of their authority?
Laughter can both liberate and mystify. It can be diabolical. It can be at once offensive (laughing at sexist or racist jokes, for instance) and inoffensive (it was ’only a joke’). It can be cruel, a means of exclusion or of exerting power over people (’then she just laughed in my face’). But it can also be joyous, a means of sharing and of confirming one’s sense of ’social community’. As Freud observes of jokes: ’Every joke calls for a public of its own and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity’ (Freud 1976, 203—4). Laughter can be undecidably ’real’ and ’unreal’, ’genuine’ and ’false’. It can be tiring, it can have you on your hands and knees. It can be uncontrollable, as if with a life of its own. In the engulfment of uncontrollable laughter we lose a sense of who or what we are. We can feel ourselves reduced to nothing. Every pretension to mastery or superiority collapses and dissolves. Laughter starts to wash away our identity. It is this obliteration — when one is truly engulfed in laughter, when one is nothing but this laughter — that perhaps gives laughter its strange intimacy with death.
For two classic accounts of laughter and the comic, see Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1921) and Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1976). Freud also has a short but extremely interesting essay on the nature of humour (in Freud 1985d). Bergson’s essay is reprinted in Sypher, ed., Comedy (1956) which also reprints George Meredith’s eloquent ’An Essay on Comedy’ (1877). Barry Saunders’s Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History (1996) is an accessible and thought-provoking account of the anti-authoritarian powers of laughter. Glen Cavaliero’s The Alchemy of Laughter (2005) is an engaging exploration of laughter in literature from Henry Fielding to Samuel Beckett, while A History of English Laughter: Laughter from Beowulf to Beckett and Beyond, ed. Manfred Pfister (2002) comprises an enjoyably eccentric gathering of essays, on writers including Chaucer, Milton, Sterne and Joyce. On laughter in more classical vein and on the strange disjunctions as well as continuities of its history, see Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome (2014). On eighteenth-century comedy and what he calls ’the fragility of sympathy and the dubious joys of laughter’, see Simon Dickie’s Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century (2011). John Morreall’s Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor (2009) fails, of course, to live up to the comprehensive claims of its title, but contains numerous stimulating critical questions and reflections. Likewise, Simon Critchley’s On Humour (2002) is an informative and entertaining little book, dealing in further detail with many of the topics discussed in the present chapter. Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation (1964) contains some engaging and thoughtful material on ’the jester’ and the nature of laughter. On quibbling in Shakespeare, see M.M. Mahood’s Shakespeare’s Wordplay (1957) and, especially in a sexual context, Eric Partridge’s classic Shakespeare’s Bawdy (2001, first published in 1947). For an account of Chaucer in a similar vein, see Thomas W. Ross (1972). For a wide-ranging and challenging collection of essays on puns and wordplay, see Jonathan Culler, ed., On Puns (1988a). For a varied collection of essays on comedy from a historical perspective, see Cordner, Holland and Kerrigan, eds, English Comedy (1994). Borch-Jacobsen’s complex but excellent account of theories of laughter, ’The Laughter of Being’, appears in a ’Laughter’ special issue of Modern Language Notes (1987). Of particular interest in the same issue are Samuel Weber’s ’Laughing in the Meanwhile’ (1987) and Jean-Luc Nancy’s ’Wild Laughter in the Throat of Death’ (1987); see also Nancy’s interrogation of his own question ’Is it possible to be in the presence of laughter?’ in ’Laughter, Presence’ (1993). From a feminist perspective, see Gray, Women and Laughter (1994).