Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Laugh the Pain Away

After reading the philosophies of Freud, Spenser and Descartes, I began to reflect on my own opinion of the true nature of laughter, separating it from humor as a physical entity of its own. I came to the conclusion that I consider the essence of laughter in the physical sense to emerge in uncontrollable laughter. Whether it be due to an uncomfortable situation, inside jokes with a friend, or from a line in a book or movie, sometimes laughter is just insuppressible and even unwarranted, and you just can’t explain what exactly is so funny. On the other hand, sometimes laughter is an uncontrollable release of other more complex emotions we didn’t even know were lurking within us. In these cases when laughter is a purely physical and inexplicable reaction, the theories of Spenser, Freud and Descartes dive in to explain this natural human response. I had always believed that laughter and comedy went hand in hand, but the philosophers we read this week shed new light on the complexity of the “muscular excitement” that is laughter.

In part two of the work of Descartes, he explains the physiological actions and effects of laughter, which he describes as “explosive” (22). I thought this word choice perfectly suited the concept of uncontrollable laughter, which explodes forth from a person with power and passion. Spenser says these “muscular movements…occur independently of the will, or in spite of it, illustrat[ing] what physiologists call reflex action” (100). I find this to be especially true when I get the case of the giggles. I can be walking in the quad remembering something funny that happened, or simply catch the eye of my friend during class, and the giggles begin in an “uncontrollable discharge of energy” (Spenser 104). And once I realize how crazy I look laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason, I laugh even harder. Is this latent nervous energy that I’m releasing? I don’t feel like I’m nervous in any of these situations. When I looked up the word “nervous” online, I found the definition “highly excitable” on that seemed to fit well with the idea of laughter as an energy release. But is it merely the Relief Theory that causes this? Does humor (and all its many facets) trigger the release? Or is it a hysterical response to something unnamable within us?

Sometimes people laugh so hard they cry, or cry so hard they laugh. As we discussed in class, sometimes people laugh to deal with grief or in response to stress, or even about something sensitive to strengthen the bonds of relationships. Sometimes it might just be to strengthen ourselves in the face of hardship. Whatever the case, there is some overlap of emotion that occurs in laughter, that is more than a release of nervous energy or the pleasure of superiority. It draws something form the very core of us and our deep and sometimes unconscious feelings, and I don’t think this is something that can be fully explained scientifically or otherwise. Freud touches upon this when he talks about laughter as liberating. He states that the super-ego tries to “comfort the ego by humor and to protect it from suffering” (116). This explains how laughter has a tendency to express and even assuage pain. Maybe the release of energy that the philosophers describe is actually a defense mechanism for self-preservation. I’m not saying that this is always the case. I think the qualities of humor we have discussed, that induce laughter from incongruity, superiority, and the comic in general, are separate from the idea of laughter as releasing energy or as stabilizing the torrents of emotion within us. I realize now how multifaceted laughter actually is, and it might make me think twice about what’s really going on inside of me next time I get the case of the giggles.

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