Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Laughter and its Contradictions

Plato writes that we laugh at vice and its manifestation in self-ignorance. Through a dialogue he has Socrates discuss the superiority model we have reviewed in class by defining comedy as when the “soul experiences a mixture of pain and pleasure”. Furthermore he defines the ridiculous as evil and a vice. Then he goes on to define the three kinds of ignorance as imaginary wisdom, beauty and wealth as well as delusions which are ridiculous in the weak and hateful in the strong. It could be said that for Plato laughter is taking pleasure in another’s ignorance. Thus we feel malice and produce laughter from that very feeling.

Hobbes continues the discussion of the superiority model in Leviathan by writing that he sees laughter as derived from the “sudden glory” of comparing yourself to someone else you view as less than you because you recognize an existing imperfection in that person. Thus laughter is a sort of vain, self-congratulatory act of looking down on someone else. In Human Nature he writes that laughter is a joyless and witless experience in which “…men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated.” He concludes by saying that to be laughed at is to be “triumphed over”. With all of these considerations in mind, both Plato and Hobbes subscribe to the notion that in order to laugh there must be a target of the humor which leaves them at the losing end of the joke and the audience who laughs at their expense. These types of humor are what many of us believe to be unfunny and cruel according to our class vote. And perhaps it was critical responses such as these that began a movement against discriminating humor.

Kant explores the physical side of humor in his summation of the phenomenon of laughter. He sees laughter as a product of humor in which “representations of the understanding through which ultimately nothing is thought, which can give lively gratification merely by their changes”. Thus laughter is really only a healthy bodily function more than a function of the mind. The mind is preset to prepare itself for a joke though it never really soaks all of its meaning in. It is more of a physical or guttural response. Kant describes the feeling as an “affection that moves the intestines and the diaphragm, in a word, the feeling of health”. This is a sharply contrasting view to the two previous critics and it reinserts the fun and joy that are normally associated with humor. Not all laughter is meant to create a superior and a target inferior.

Kierkegaard explores the dividing line between comedy and drama as well as their common crux. He writes that the “tragic and the comic are the same insofar as both are based on contradiction, but the tragic is the suffering contradiction, the comical, the painless contradiction”. I found this to be an incredibly intriguing argument that is truly a statement on all forms of storytelling. I think all of us would characterize Hau’ofa’s work as comedy and yet there is some very somber material underneath the laughter. It is a nation where those in power are corrupt, hypocritical, or simply lazy. There are many who are poor and left with little opportunity. Especially dark material such as spousal abuse is even touched upon and yet the thread of comedy still ties together the whole piece.

Finally, Kolvenbach defines a Jesuit education as the sharing of our knowledge and love with the world through action rather than just empty words. For those of us close to graduation this theme could not be more relevant to our lives as we will be applying what we have learned to the world in the very near future. Now is the time to remain grateful for the education we have received and to show that we can and will continue the Jesuit tradition of being hands on with the community.

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