Saturday, October 19, 2013

It is forbidden to laugh in the kingdom of death: Three Instances

The woman's (assumed) hysterical laughter. The stoic calm of the donkey. The slapstick nature of the dilemma. The cartoonish Aesopian elements all combing to create a fundamentally humorous situation. But exactly what makes it so funny is the concern here. Jokes and humorous incidents like the donkey and the overloaded cart share with music modal difficulties related to language. Chopin's famous "explanation" of piece of music by playing it again. Koestler's bisociaton assists with the deconstruction in a philosophical sense:

"[Humor] is the perceiving of a situation or idea in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference or associative contexts."

But this still has a long way to go to get to the humor of the donkey and the cart. The words pile up desperately, trying to unravel the strange and ridiculous response in the sound of laughter. Why do we make this sound? So close to cries of pain. What is this ululating primal, wheezing noise coming out of our mouth? Why is it so contagious? What is it about pain, the uncomfortable situations of others, that brings it about so readily? Why is the suspended donkey so funny? And why is it funnier to hear someone else laughing over it?

Certainly the pressure of being, of the daily endurance, in this world is relieved through laughter. Hydraulic metaphors come immediately to mind. Laughter as a means of "letting off steam". Nietzsche claimed:

"Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter."

There is evidence that man is not alone here. Animals exhibit a curious perplexity about the world at times that indicates a sort of proto-laughter. Dogs quizzically turning their heads. Horses neighing and nickering. Dolphins squealing and clicking. Monkeys howling and panting. Perhaps it is all anthropomorphic conceit: the overburdened donkey's hee-haw seems all too human until it dies of a heart attack in the traces. The point here is that, contra-Nietzsche (although I believe his statement to have been rhetorical and not without a measure of irony), man did not "invent laughter".

"Indeed, Provine maintains that almost all mammals laugh in this way—”If you tickle a rat, it laughs; we just can’t hear it.”

By contrast, “the human ‘ha-ha-ha’ chops up an exhalation the same way speech does,” Provine says. If you digitally remove the “ha” sound from a human laugh the way Provine has in a recording studio, you hear a long exhalation or sigh. This extended sigh may be our most primal existential defense mechanism, controlling our breathing in ways known to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Decoupling the laugh from respiration—so that we can giggle instead of pant—was a crucial evolutionary moment, Provine postulates, because it enabled the vocal control that allowed us to make all kinds of other “fancy sounds” needed for speech.

To reach that moment, though, Provine believes we needed to begin walking on two legs, taking pressure off the thorax, since four-legged mammals must synchronize their strides with their breath. The enhanced vocal control facilitated by this shift required “restructuring” our nervous system, adding cells to the area of the spinal cord that controls respiration and bulking up the part of the brain that coordinates these cells and facilitates speech and comprehension." 

It is interesting to imagine laughter as a vestigial byproduct of evolution or an epiphenomenal ghost in the machine. At the same time, the quality of our humor (the language here is riddled with outmoded paradigms) is central to our well-being. Without laughter, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, life would seem to be a mistake. Again, what is this strange behavior?

Milan Kundera, in his Jerusalem Address, states:

"There is a fine Jewish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. Inspired by that adage, I like to imagine that Fran├žois Rabelais heard God's laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel. It pleases me to think that the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God's laughter. 
But why does God laugh at the sight of man thinking? Because man thinks and the truth escapes him. Because the more men think, the more one man's thought diverges from another's. And finally, because man is never what he thinks he is."

The Vision of God Laughing by B. Jones

Most often, when God enters the discourse, laughter is forbidden. The puritanical Protestant stands in caricature. Laughter as sin. Jesus never laughed (or danced, for that matter - earning Nietzsche's distrust). Many would have it that to laugh is to mock God, to even defy him. So the simple and closed minded wear their countenances with grave and stern decorum.

Enter Quixote, Gargantua, Falstaff. Laughter is overabundance of energy, of will, of spirit. Even so, unbridled it can lead to ruin. Rites of passage remark this with revelatory implications. To be able to laugh at death, to know how, when and where to laugh at death, even with death, is the key to our meaning.

"Interdiction of laughter also occurs in ritual, namely, in the rite that represents the descent into the kingdom of death and the return from it, namely, the initiation of youths at the onset of puberty. In spite of a huge literature, data on initiation are very sparse, since this rite is a deep secret. Nevertheless some things are known. In Boas's extensive study of the social organization and secret societies of the Kwakiutl tribe are two brief mentions of the fact that during the rites the initiates are forbidden to laugh (Boas 1897, 506, 642). P. W. Schmidt gave a more detailed picture for one of the islands of Oceania. The last act of the ceremony is an attempt to make the youths laugh. They line up in a row. "Now there appears a young woman dressed in men's clothing; she behaves and speaks like a man. She carries a spear with many spearheads and a burning torch and she walks along the line of boys. If none of them laughs she reaches the end of the line, but if someone laughs, she rejoices and goes away without finishing her walk. The boys have been warned of the man-woman and instructed not to laugh. If someone laughs his father says to him, 'Now we won't receive any gifts.' (Schmidt 1907. 1052). 
In light of the data given above this case also becomes clear. It is forbidden to laugh in the kingdom of death. The whole rite of initiation is a simulation of death. The one who laughs discovers that he has not been fully cleansed of earthly things, just as a shaman in the kingdom of death gives himself away as alive by laughter. Note also that the one who laughs does not receive gifts: he is considered not to have passed the test (we cannot go into the phenomenon of travesty although it is not accidental here). [...]
If the facts set forth here are indeed based on one single concept of laughter, they can explain some other facts that at first glance seem baffling, for instance, laughter accompanying death a classic example of which is so-called sardonic laughter. Among the very ancient people of Sardinia, who were called Sardi or Sardoni, it was customary to kill old people. While killing their old people, the Sardi laughed loudly. This is the origin of notorious sardonic laughter (Fehrle 1930, 3), now meaning cruel malicious laughter. In light of our findings things begin to look different. Laughter accompanies the passage from death to life; it creates life and accompanies birth. Consequently, laughter accompanying killing transforms death into a new birth, nullifies murder as such, and is an act of piety that transforms death into a new birth." [ emphasis mine ]

- Theory and History of Folklore, Vladimir Propp

Note in the examples below when laughter is inappropriate, taboo, how powerful it becomes. Also contagious. It is difficult to not laugh. Even with repeated viewings, knowing what to expect, laughter still arises as a natural reaction. Why? On the most immediate level, a report of a man chopping up his wife and another man with a high-pitched voice (in another language no less) are not occasions for humor. Both instances are charged with laughter. The killer's staring face, the man's unexpected voice and the laughter it occasions in the reporter and interviewer. Then in us, watching. Why are we laughing?

Following Kundera, the less we think and the more we laugh, the closer we get to God. But this is an enlightened laughter conscious of the pollution of "earthly things". What does such laughter sound like? Jesus on the Cross looking upwards with a grim smile. The Buddha touching the earth after the moments of temptation. Lao-Tzu at Han Chou Pass giving the gatekeeper a small book of writing.

All fascinating, revealing, mysterious, and transformative. 

"De resurgentibus dicitur, quod ridere no soleant."

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