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  • Sivanth Adithya.N

LAUGHTER AND AUTHORITY: AN ANALYSIS

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

"To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter." - Hannah Arendt, On Violence (1970).


Painting: Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen (possibly) — “Laughing Fool” — (ca. 1500)



William Shakespeare said that “the eyes are the windows to your soul.” This is true up to a great extent. You can tell a lot about a person from their eyes. Eyes easily capture the hidden feelings, emotions, and thoughts of people.

One thing that I noticed during this pandemic period was that even if someone laughs while wearing a mask, we can easily discern from their eyes whether their laughter is genuine or not. Eyes reflect the soul. Laughter is medicine for the soul (but if you're laughing for no reason, you may really need medicine). I guess this is why laughter is so easily reflected in the eyes.



LAUGHTER AND SOCIETY

I think that laughter may have contributed a lot to the formation of societies. Man is a social being. We are complete only when we stand in relation to others. For successful social cooperation, the goals and aspirations of the members must at least be broadly similar. Laughter is a universal phenomenon found across all types of people. Shared qualities help us to see the world in similar ways. As a universally shared signal, laughter helps to create a feeling of kinship among all members of the human race. As Victor Borge wrote, "Laughter is the closest distance between two people". Also, we are naturally attracted to people who make us laugh. Humour is an avenue that leads the self to others and allows them to suspend the bitterness between them and laugh together in comrade spirit. A laugh can reunite a lot of broken relationships. An innocent laugh is enough to eliminate a lot of anger as it's difficult for anyone to resist the onslaught of laughter. Thus, laughter works as a social glue that brings and binds people together.




PHILOSOPHY OF LAUGHTER

Most major philosophers have commented on laughter, but very few have given it the detailed analysis it deserves.


“The best example that illustrates the connection between authority and laughter is the political philosophy of the man whose philosophy became the biggest source of inspiration for the authoritarian regimes that came after him.”

-Plato.


Plato, who argued for an undemocratic republic where the philosopher-king rules, said that in that ideal republic comedy would be banned for two reasons primarily—1) because it is deceptive mimesis. 2) because laughter is a passion and it may cause people to lose self-control.

He also argued that hilarious works should be kept away from people by censorship.


But Plato was surely aware of the potential of laughter's social utility. As written in 'Philebus', "however, the proper aim of comedy is to unmask ignorance and pretension, making it thus an important tool for furthering the moral aim of self-knowledge".


Plato's student Aristotle, as often, disagreed with him on the subject of laughter and humour too. Aristotle believed that the proper usage of laughter is a social virtue. He also believed that laughter, which is a bodily exercise, is quite valuable to health. Aristotle also wrote, "In a middle way between the excess of laughter (buffoonery) and its deficiency (boorishness) lies Eutrapelia, the 'true witness' characteristic of an honourable and free person".


Epictetus, who is claimed to have never laughed once in his life, had some harsh advice about laughter. In Enchiridion he wrote, "Let not laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor excessive". He also wrote, "Take care also not to provoke laughter; for this is a slippery way toward vulgar habits, and is also adapted to diminish the respect of your neighbours."


Epicurus, who could be described as the laughing philosopher, wrote; "At the same time we must laugh and philosophize, do our household duties and manage our business, and never cease proclaiming the sayings of the true philosophy."


The situation remained the same even till the time of Hobbes and Descartes mainly due to Plato's influence and the Bible's views about humour, which are based on the Superiority Theory, according to which the feeling of superiority lies at the heart of humour—either superiority over others or over our former selves. The superiority theory, though the right to an extent, cannot explain all types of humours.



Surprisingly, it was Immanuel Kant, the most mundane of all philosophers, who made a radical breakthrough in the theory of humour and laughter and put humour in a positive light. Kant's theory is now called ‘The Incongruity Theory’. In Kant's words; "In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh, there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind".


Kant provided some examples to illustrate his theory. One of them is; "A man's rich relative dies. Suddenly he is rich. To honour his relative, the man wants to arrange a solemn funeral service. But he keeps complaining that he can't get it quite right. What's the problem? someone asks. “I hired these mourners, but the more money I give them to look grieved, the happier they look."

In 'Ars Poetica', Horace gives a practical illustration of the incongruence theory—"If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight."



GANESHA AS THE SYMBOL OF HUMOUR


I think that even though many western thinkers have commented about humour and laughter, none of them has captured all the multifarious features and nuances of humour and laughter as comprehensively as the symbolism associated with the Hindu deity Ganesha.


INCONGRUITY IN GANESHA

Ganesha is a being who was not born (he was created by his mother) but was killed and then brought back to life. Ganesha's image is a composite of four animals—human, elephant, mouse and serpent. He has an elephant’s face with a broken tusk, huge belly, four arms, riding on a mouse. His skin has been depicted in many colours like white, red, orange-red, golden-yellow, blue, blue-green etc. Basically, Ganesha is a single being and at the same time, he is an ensemble of several beings.


Kant and many other philosophers and psychologists after him were of the opinion that incongruence is the basis of laughter. It's clear from what's aforementioned that Lord Ganesha is the best representation of incongruence. Even his very incongruent appearance incites laughter within us.


IMAGINATION IN GANESHA

Ganesha, who is the product of creation, with all his incongruent features definitely excites our imagination. I think that one could make a case that humour facilitates imagination and creativity.

Both humour and imagination work by linking apparently incongruent elements that don't go in accordance with conventional expectations. Both of them break the existing frames through which we view the world and enable us to view things from new perspectives. Also, both humour and imagination exhilarate us and provide reasons to live. As Francis Bacon said, “Imagination was given to us to compensate for what we are not; a sense of humour was given to us to console us for what we are".

The chief example of this is the immensely creative and humorous Dr. Albert Einstein himself, who once said, "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves". Other than his famous formula E = mc², Einstein also created a less renowned, but quite humorous, formula for success in life—"If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play, and z is keeping your mouth shut."


HAPPINESS & OBSTACLES IN GANESHA

Ganesha is the God of happiness and the remover of obstacles (he is also known as 'Vigneshwara' and 'Vighnaharta', meaning the 'lord of obstacles' and 'remover of obstacles' respectively). Laughter has both these qualities too. Laughter pours happiness into the sombre mind and helps to eliminate or face obstacles and difficulties in our lives. There are no places that laughter cannot penetrate.


TEMPORALITY IN GANESHA

The Trishul (Trident) on Ganesha’s forehead symbolises his control over time, (past, present and future). The mind naturally projects itself into the future as the future holds possibilities, and we should make prudent choices from these possibilities to navigate through life for a better life than the present.

We fix our hopes for the future based on the thoughts stored in our minds. Humans have an instinctive aversion towards uncertainty as it may pose threats to our existence. We crave certainty and security. We hope for a certain future, but due to our limited knowledge, the future is, up to a great extent, unpredictable and thus uncertain to us from the perspective of the present. Uncertainty creates anxiety and excessive anxiety reduces our focus, concentration, increases confusion, distractibility, forgetfulness, fuzzy thinking and thus clouds our judgments and reduces our ability to make prudent choices. Laughter helps to reduce our stress and thus helps us to make more prudent choices. Thus, in a way, laughter and time are connected here. Laughter relieves us from the chokehold of the uncertain future.


All these features of Ganesha, individually and collectively, symbolically convey a lot about humour and laughter.



LAUGHTER AND AUTHORITY

Authority, by its very nature, doesn't want people to laugh. When we laugh we are free and authority wants to suppress freedom. One of the chief characteristics of the nature of authority is that it wants to be unquestionably recognized and obeyed. We cannot allow this. Authority should be questioned and scrutinized and should only be allowed when it can rationally justify itself. Otherwise, the authority would turn arrogant and tyrannical.


Laughter and humour are very effective tools for keeping power in check. However, unfortunately, due to Plato's galactic influence on Western intellectual history, virtually no major thinker after him gave laughter and humour the much-needed importance they deserve.



Depiction of Diogenes looking for an honest man.


The Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was a master of exposing and ridiculing double standards and hypocrisies by his odd and humorous lifestyle, exemplifies the power of humour.


Diogenes used to carry a lamp in Athens in the daytime. When the Greeks asked him why he was carrying a lamp during the daytime, he said that he was looking for an honest man, but could only find frauds and hypocrites everywhere.


The encounter between Plato and Diogenes is also interesting. Plato declared that a human was a featherless, bipedal animal. Diogenes' response was that he brought a plucked chicken to the Academy and declared, 'behold, I have brought you Plato's man!'

As a result, Plato and his posse were forced to revise their definition of a human to a 'flat-nailed featherless biped.'


No wonder Plato called him 'Socrates gone mad'. Groucho Marx put it more appositely, 'Humour is reason gone mad.'


Another example is Cervantes' hysterically funny novel 'Don Quixote'. It is a great social commentary, a mordant mockery of the unrealistic chivalric romance and the Renaissance belief in man's unlimited possibilities which implies that 'a man can do all things if he will', to quote the Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti. The novel exposes this belief to be a hilarious illusion. Likewise, humorous movies like V for Vendetta (2005), Office Space (1999), Borat (2006), and Dr. Strangelove (1964) all portray the truth in humorous ways.


LAUGHTER AGAINST AUTHORITY

George Orwell was right when he wrote that every joke is a tiny revolution. In order to make progress, we need to keep power in check because unchecked power leads to corruption and tyranny. So, unleashing these little revolutions against those in power is a mark of a healthy democracy.


As said above, laughter can penetrate everything. There is comedy even in tragedy. When the authority is unjustifiable, the goals of the people are not aligned with the goals of the authority and thus people cannot wholeheartedly accept the 'truth' imposed from above. Thus the authority and the people are not compatible with each other and the 'truths' imposed by the authority will be incongruous with the needs and aspirations of people. Such a society will be unnatural and incongruous. This, I think, is why there's comedy in tragedy. This is probably why memes are so popular. Even in tragic news, memes best capture the incongruity of the situation.


The most nefarious authoritarian of the 20th century would be Adolf Hitler. The greatest comedian of the twentieth century would be Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin made the satirical masterpiece "The Great Dictator" (1940) to mock Hitler and lambasted Hitler, Nazism and anti-Semitism. Hitler banned the movie in Germany, but he arranged the movie for private viewing and watched it twice.



Thus humour and laughter are hostile to unjustifiable power structures. They easily expose the incongruity and unnaturalness of the situation. The following joke which was circulated during Hitler's time clearly shows how laughter exposes unjustifiable authority—'All classes are now abolished: decency, reason, prosperity. All that remains is the state of emergency!'


Another one is about Guernica. Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso which depicts the horrendous Nazi aerial bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

The Nazis hated Picasso because his artistic style was not in accordance with the Nazi ideal of art. A Gestapo officer saw a photograph of Picasso's painting Guernica while he was searching through his apartment and asked Picasso, "Did you do that?", "No," Picasso replied, "You did".


Our ideas, beliefs, moral values, all get refracted when viewed through the prism of humour. Humour problematizes the normal and calls into question conventional values and norms. Humour and laughter subvert the official order. Friedrich Nietzsche clearly understood this subversive potential of laughter. He realised that laughter could free us from the strict and rigid conventions of society and thus it breaks new ground for the transvaluation of all values. Emphasizing the value of the laughing spirit in countering the exhausting burdens of society, Nietzsche wrote—"What hates the mob’s blether – cocks and all the bungled gloomy brood – praised be this spirit of all free spirits, the laughing gale that blows dust into the eyes of all the black – sighted, sore – blighted".


The most important feature of humour is that the person who listens to humour becomes vulnerable. You cannot laugh and remain stiff at once. When you laugh you are weak. Humour strips down all that's wrapped in respectability to vulnerability. It provides space for a little revolution to erupt. So, humour and laughter have subversive and revolutionary potentials and this opens doors for progress and freedom. Bayard Rustin urged people to 'speak truth to power'. I would add, 'speak it humorously if possible' as it is the best joke. As Bernard Shaw said, 'My way of joking is to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world'. When you speak truth to power, it's important to make power laugh because when you make people laugh, they’ll listen to you and you can humorously tell anything to power as one cannot take revenge while giggling.


It must be kept in mind that laughter in itself is not freedom. Rather it is a source of liberation. Laughter takes men from a lower level of freedom to a higher level of freedom. This may explain why Jesus Christ, who initially possessed absolute freedom, is said to have never laughed. At the point of absolute freedom, where there are absolutely no restrictions left, there is no more room left for liberation and thus laughter has no role to play.

If this is true, then we wouldn't need to laugh in the state of perfect freedom. Thus, laughter could be used as a thermometer that marks the distance between our current level of freedom and the ideal perfect freedom. As Mark Twain said, "The secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow; there is no humour in heaven".


Humour shows us the incongruity of our situation. It helps to reduce the power of authority and humour's affinity with imagination helps us to imagine better possibilities for the future and humour helps us to make more prudent choices to achieve those better possibilities and thereby liberate ourselves into higher levels of freedom, and freedom is, in a sense, power. Democracy means the power of the people. Democracy is the governmental expression of freedom and equality. The end of democracy is the freedom of the people. I think that from what's said so far, we can safely conclude that humour and laughter are the cheapest tools available for checking the tyrannical tendencies of authority, and their importance as the liberators of mankind is invaluable.







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