IV - 12.5 Giambattista Vicos Theory of Laughter
Laughter proceeds, as Giambattista Vico remarks, from a suspension in the significant continuity. This condition be it peril or safety or moodiness [lability] characterises mans mind, who by nature knows nothing (whose actions are not commanded by an infallible instinct) and he is condemned to apply his reason to the analysis of causal series and to the differentiation of levels of reality which, furthermore, he is not always capable of doing, as he can be distracted by negligence or infirmity. For him who intends to remain serious, there is the annoyance of the sudden irruption of another chain of causes in the explored field of necessity. On the other hand, there is liberation and distraction for him who looks for an excuse for diversion. Neither the serious man, notes Vico, nor the animal laughs. In fact they follow, without every wandering from it, whether by conscious restraint or naturally semantic series, sensory occurrences or instinctive stenotypes. Laughter closes the path of truth by intoxicating reason with an almost animal-like drunkenness. For one of reasons peculiarities is to discriminate, to weigh without respite, essential differences in the perceptive continuum and not to abandon itself to phoney, superficial or formal resemblances.
In effect, brute beasts cannot laugh. Their understanding, which is at any moment is singular, separately attached to single objects: each of these objects is dismissed from their mind and replaced by the next one that occurs to them. Consequently, animals, to whom nature refused the power to laugh, are totally deprived of reason. But laughter is born from our infirm nature, which blinds us and makes us choose evil in the guise of good; and so from our explication of the essence of laughter we can draw this conclusion: Men who laugh are placed in the intermediary position between serious, austere men and beasts [
] Serious men do not laugh because, with much seriousness, they are only attentive to one thing [
] and do not let themselves be distracted by another one. Beasts do not laugh more, but it is by other means that they are, themselves, absorbed by a single thing [
] that another one touches them, another one towards which they themselves turn. Since the attention that they bring to a thing is very weak, people who laugh let themselves be easily distracted by another thing. As for the scoffers, they are further away from serious men and, more so than all the others, they resemble animals. In effect, they degrade and corrupt by using the very appearance of truth, by the effort that they impose on their mind, by abusing truth which is unique and upright: they deform it and twist it.
Witty remarks are formed by a weak and tiny imagination; this imagination can sometimes collect simple and blank terms, sometimes it only brings them together and unites them by their outside appearances [
] sometimes finally by presenting the mind with absurd or abstract facts that it wasnt expecting. It thus becomes frustrated by the expectation and surprise. It thus follows that the fibres of the brain, who had been prepared to receive the right and fitting object and which are troubled by the presence of this other object that they werent expecting (at all) are agitated. Their trouble and the movement that this trouble engenders is propagated from the trunk to all the branches of the nervous system; thus the whole body finds itself being shaken and man ripped from his normal state. (Scienza Nuova, 1744)
Whilst the pleasure of the truth is a result of the effort of an analysis which discovers different essences under similar appearances or essential resemblances under an apparent diversity, laughter spontaneously bursts forth when the trick of similarity or of false recognition is revealed. Comedy, which exploits this fraud, a real trap that has been held out to the human mind greedy of objectivity, causes a violent and reckless pleasure which makes men, whose mind is ordinarily healthy, insane, immerging in laughter all the reason that they possess." This is thus why:
poets, in their fables, in order to express this sort of duplicity depict people who laugh, which they place halfway along the path between man and beast as satyrs. The consequence of this, is that the divine treasures of truth always remain closed off to the scoffers who are deprived from possessing the divine treasures of truth by their perverse nature; and when they applaud themselves, by ridiculing true and serious things, the word of divine wisdom falls on them: If you become a scholar, you will be so for yourself. If you choose to be a scoffer only you can bear the shame. (id.)
Joubert in fact gives us an illustration of the violence of laughter which reduces man to an infra-human register when he delights in creating (op.cit. p. 211) the bestiary of the involuntary imitations which the vocalisation of laughter gives rise to.
There are those of you of whom we could say that when they laugh, they are like whistling birds [geese]; or others who are like grumbling goslings. There are those of you whose moaning resembles woodpigeons or turtledoves in their widowhood, others like the barn owl, one like a guineafowl and another like a peacock. Others sound like the cackling of chicken, (for the) others we would say that its (like) a neighing horse, a braying donkey, a grunting pig or a yapping, choking dog.
There are those who retain the sound of badly-oiled carts, others when its stones being shaken in a bucket, others a cabbage hotpot boiling: others have other resonances besides the little face and the grimace which in its various forms is more diverse than anything else.
Shaken by convulsions, spasms and jolts; on the verge of either blacking out, being asphyxiated or swooning; incontinent, unsuitable, forbidden, stupid, speechless [ooh! Im not sure I havent said the same thing twice
] such is the one who laughs... in this state where man appears to lose his humanity.