The Morality of Laughter

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“Bravo! I’ll say nothing funny about it, for it is a superior piece of work.”
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“F. H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter is at once a humorous look at serious matters and a serious book about humor.”
Crisis Magazine

“Buckley has written a . ne and funny book that will be read with pleasure and instruction.”
First Things

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2005 Trade paperback New. Trade paperback (US). Glued binding. 240 p.

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Overview


“Bravo! I’ll say nothing funny about it, for it is a superior piece of work.”
—P. J. O’Rourke

“F. H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter is at once a humorous look at serious matters and a serious book about humor.”
Crisis Magazine

“Buckley has written a . ne and funny book that will be read with pleasure and instruction.”
First Things

“. . . written elegantly and often wittily. . . .”
National Post

“. . . a fascinating philosophical exposition of laughter. . . .”
National Review

“. . . at once a wise and highly amusing book.”
Wall Street Journal Online

“. . . a useful reminder that a cheery society is a healthy one.”
Weekly Standard

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From The Critics

“F. H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter is at once a humorous look at serious matters and a serious book about humor.”
Crisis Magazine

“Buckley has written a . ne and funny book that will be read with pleasure and instruction.”
First Things

“. . . written elegantly and often wittily. . . .”
National Post

“. . . a fascinating philosophical exposition of laughter. . . .”
National Review

“. . . at once a wise and highly amusing book.”
Wall Street Journal Online

“. . . a useful reminder that a cheery society is a healthy one.”
Weekly Standard

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472068180
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.08 (w) x 8.92 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Morality of Laughter


By F. H. Buckley

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2005 F. H. Buckley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780472068180

Laughter as Superiority

How much lies in Laughter: the cipher-key, wherewith we decipher the whole man!

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
What is lighter and more frivolous than laughter? And yet the most serious thinkers have puzzled over what makes us laugh. From Plato to Kant, philosophers have sought to define the risible, and even made jokes to explain their theories. Henri Bergson had a genuine sense of humor, and Freud's jokes (often Jewish ones) were delightful.

The shnorrer supplicates the Jewish philanthropic baron for money to take the 'cure' at Ostend, as the physician has ordered him to take sea-baths for his ailment. The baron remarks that Ostend is an especially expensive resort, and that a less fashionable place would do just as well. But the shnorrer rejects this out of hand. 'Herr Baron, nothing is too expensive for my health!'
Or, "This girl reminds me of Dreyfus. The army does not believe in her innocence."

But that was then. Modern scholars lack Kant's light touch, and laughter no longer is a subject of philosophic enquiry. One searches, almost in vain, through the pages of scholarly journals for any sign of wit, for writerstoday have little time for pasquinade, lampoon or satire. In learned reviews ridicule is thought in poor taste, and the young academic soon learns that humor is a bad career move.

The loss of a sense of humor has impoverished academic discourse, where nonsensical theories that could not survive the test of ridicule are now taken seriously. Before adopting a fashionable idea, we ought first to enquire whether it twigs our sense of humor. Now, if laughter usefully identifies nonsense, it warrants serious (well, not wholly serious) study. What is it that sparks our laughter? What do Menippean and Augustan satire, vulgar guffaw and polished laughter, have in common? What purposes might laughter serve, and when might it mislead?

In this book I stretch a few simple ideas as far as I can, to see if they break. That is the way in which ideas are tested—even the skeptic will admit that this is a useful exercise. Too often, scholars aspire to the condition of a judge: guarded, balanced, and impartial. The result is like an editorial in a sensible liberal newspaper, exquisitely fair and utterly predictable. If short on novel analysis, modern scholarship is safe, for it takes no sides and offends no one. It splits every issue down the middle, offering a neat little slice for everyone. The wonderful thing about such scholarship is that one needn't actually read it. It suffices to glance at the footnotes, to make sure that all the proper authorities are cited and in the proper order.

I shall takes sides, then, and argue that a superiority thesis best explains when we laugh. Laughter signals our recognition of a comic vice in another person—the butt. We do not share in the vice, for we could not laugh if we did. Through laughter, the butt is made to feel inferior, and those who laugh reveal their sense of superiority over him.

Superiority theories provide only one of the many explanations that have been advanced to explain laughter. In addition, there are incongruity theories, relief theories, hybrid and other theories. J. Y. T. Greig listed eighty-eight theories of laughter and comedy. However, I take the world to divide neatly between superiority and nonsuperiority theories, with only the former affirming that laughter always signals a sense of superiority.

Since they describe different aspects of laughter, nonsuperiority theories might overlap with each other and with superiority explanations of laughter. Superiority refers to status differences between jester and butt, incongruity to a mental puzzle, and relief to an emotional state; and there is no reason why we might not find all three elements in a single laugh. The butt's defect might seem incongruous, and in laughing we might feel a sense of relief that we are superior to a comic vice. So understood, nonsuperiority theories would not pose a challenge to the superiority account of laughter. For my purposes, therefore, a rival theory is one that denies laughter's need for a sense of superiority.

I distinguish between positive and normative theories of superiority. Part I defends a Positive thesis, which asserts that in laughing we signal a personal sense of superiority over a butt. The Normative thesis, which I examine in part II, makes the further claim that laughter communicates a true superiority, and that the butt is indeed inferior. I do not say that laughter's message of superiority is infallible. That would obviously be too strong, since the inferior may laugh as well, and rival groups may trade off laughter against each other. Nevertheless, our laughter contains valuable information about how to live. While the comic muse might at times mislead, we should still attend to her message. She is light and playful, but when ignored takes a most effective revenge.

The Positive and Normative theses are intimately connected. Were the Positive thesis false, it would be difficult to argue that laughter signals valuable standards of conduct, as the Normative thesis asserts. If laughter signals a true superiority, it must be because (1) those who laugh think themselves superior, and (2) they are right to think so. How could we pretend that our laughter derides the butt unless we think him inferior? But even if some laughter did not signal superiority, the Positive thesis might still account for the rest, and such laughter might signal the true superiority of the Normative thesis.

Superiority theories are incomplete, for they do not account for the sociable side of laughter. If relations of dominance were all there was to it, then why are jokes so often associated with feelings of solidarity and community? The answer is that laughter means something very different for the listener who laughs along with the joke than it does for the butt. Like Janus, laughter has two faces: from one side it smiles amiably at a listener; from the other it smirks at a butt who is ridiculed. The wit proposes a joke to the listener, who may either accept it by laughing or reject it by silence. By laughing the listener accepts a tie of solidarity—a lien de rire—with the wit. In this way laughter's superiority may coexist with a sense of sociability. The sociability thesis explains the relationship between wit and listener (see chap. 13), while the superiority thesis explains the relationship between (on the one hand) wit and listener and (on the other) the butt.

To test these ideas, self-examination suffices. We need simply ask ourselves what we find risible. In place of the philosopher's thought-experiment, I substitute the joke-experiment. My method, like that of Matthew Arnold, is to give fresh and free play to our sense of humor, suspending heavy seriousness to look candidly at the lightness and nastiness of laughter.

I adopt an introspective perspective because I see the study of laughter as a branch of literature or philosophy, not neurology or medicine. I offer little by way of scientific evidence for the Positive thesis. There have been interesting electroencephalogical studies of laughter that employ PET scans and MRI technology, but they are beyond the scope of this book. Nor do I distinguish between humor and laughter, though I am mindful that others have done so. Such studies identify laughter with its accompanying physiological processes. What they do not do, however, is identify the risible. Indeed, they tell us nothing about the things at which we laugh. They do not even tell us what laughter is, for the personal experience of laughter is quite different from the physiological events that correlate with it. Suppose that our laughter were found to be correlated with a particular neural event X. It would still be perfectly meaningful to say that X occurred and to deny that anything funny happened.

The reader must also look elsewhere for a sociological examination of laughter, or for psychological tests of risibility. Empirical studies have their place, and do support the Positive thesis. In evaluating laughter, however, we may always second-guess empirical studies. We might pay graduate students to listen to Seinfeld and observe them for smiles and guffaws—but what if they lack a sense of humor, and laugh? If we needed a second opinion, we would be like the wine snob in Mordecai Richler's Joshua Then and Now. One night Joshua breaks into the oenophile's house and carefully washes the label off every Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margaux. Then he places each bottle back where he found it and leaves. Later he meets the forlorn wine snob. "But what does it matter," Joshua says. "You can still tell the difference, can't you?"

Because laughter rests on a normative foundation that tells us how we ought to behave, my intuitive approach is something more than empirical psychology writ small. Empirical tests have no place in normative disciplines such as laughter and ethics, whose claims can neither be proven nor disproven. Though 90 percent of the subjects of a psychological study might laugh, I may still say, "That's not funny!"

Normative questions are not resolved by telephoning randomly selected people at dinnertime. The moralist does not rest his arguments on an appeal to popular sentiments. To say that a thing is wrong is very different from saying that a majority of people condemn it. Indeed, to say something is wrong is to mean that it is wrong whatever others might think about the matter. So too with aesthetics. We do not fault John Ruskin for failing to ask Venetian tourists what they thought of John Bellini. To insist on polling data about beauty is to move the discussion from aesthetics to demographics. Polling data can tell us what people value, but not what is valuable; what is thought beautiful, but not what is beautiful; what people laugh at, but not what is risible.

It is a precondition to ethical and aesthetic discourse that universal standards of morality and beauty exist. Someone who says "That is immoral but that is simply how we feel about things over here" shows that he does not understand how moral discourse works. And what is true of ethics and art is true of humor as well. Like ethics, comedy is a normative discipline that enunciates standards of behavior. And like art, comedy is a branch of aesthetics. The difference, as Aristotle observed, is that art is the study of beauty and comedy of ugliness (Poetics 1449a).

Hobbes and Bergson

The Positive thesis has been advanced by a surprising number of philosophers who agreed about little else. In the Philebus, Plato argued that the pleasure derived from comedy was based on malice and our enjoyment of others' misfortune. Aristotle also proposed a superiority explanation, defining the risible as a mistake or deficiency. So too, in Descartes's dualist account of the passions laughter is produced by either a bodily impulse or a mental process, but in either case reveals one's sense of superiority to a butt.

Notwithstanding the forerunners, the superiority thesis is most closely identified with Descartes's contemporary, Thomas Hobbes. The Hobbesian theory of laughter was based on a highly reductionist account of human action. We are prompted to action by our appetite for pleasure and aversion to pain. Nothing else counts, and good and evil are merely the names we give to things that please or displease us. The ability to procure the good or avoid the bad is "power," and among the passions Hobbes accorded priority to the search for power. "So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse striving of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in death."

For Hobbes, power was power over other people. "Power simply is no more, but the excess of the power of one above that of another." Possessing power over others is glory, and the sudden realization of that power produces laughter. It is a "sudden glory," a cry of triumph that signals our discovery of superiority to a butt, "and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves."

The Hobbesian account of motivation is thin, as we value a good many things besides the desire for relative status—how we rank compared to others. However, status is obviously very important to us. We are concerned not only with absolute status—our wealth, intelligence, and so on—but also with how we compare with others. Our sense of contentment might even depend more on relative than absolute status. A man on the dole might live like a prince when compared with fifth-century nobles, but as his principal reference group is his contemporaries he may burn with resentment. Tertullian has left us with a striking vision of relative preferences. One of the particular joys of Heaven, it seems, will be the ability to peer down from on high and observe the sufferings of the sinners in Hell.

Relative status is greatly affected by ridicule. Even those who deny that the wit signals his superiority will admit that the butt is made to feel inferior. Relative to the wit, the butt is degraded; relative to the butt, the wit moves up a notch. The butt knows this, of course, and that is why he resents the joke; and it is not a great stretch to assume that the wit sees it the same way, as the Positive thesis asserts. Speaking for butts everywhere, Hazlitt said that our humiliation is the wit's triumph.

The leading modern statement of the superiority thesis is Henri Bergson's Le rire. Bergson defined the risible as a rigidity (raideur) of body or character. For the anglophone, this might at first seem a quirky Gallic hommage to Jerry Lewis. By rigidity, however, Bergson meant something more than a physical clumsiness. Instead, rigidity served as a metaphor for a want of suppleness in any aspect of life.

Consider the simplest of butts, the man who clumsily slips on the ice. He falls because he sought to walk after his grip gave way. A more agile man might have kept his balance by standing still, but the butt lacks the alertness to change gears quickly. So down he goes, to our great amusement; and in him Bergson saw the very type and model of all our laughter. The butt who cannot navigate the obstacles erected by social customs is like the man who cannot navigate a patch of ice. Both are comically inadequate to the dexterity society requires of us. They are marionettes, whose actions are circumscribed and mechanical.

Like machines, their actions follow a determined program. They keep on walking when their feet have left the ice, and that is why we find them comic.

By following a single program, said Bergson, the comic butt is a machine man. Our actions are risible to the exact extent that they remind us of a mechanical thing, and the most amusing people are those whose actions are least human and most mechanical. They have betrayed their nature, and for their gran rifiuto merit our deepest scorn.

The machine man is inadequate to life's complexities. He trusts in his rules and ignores the more reliable guide of experience, like the man in Molihre's Critique de L'Icole des femmes who likes the sauce but wants to check it against the cookbook recipe. He takes a single principle and absurdly extends it beyond its reasonable scope, where erudition turns into pedantry, polish into slickness, and solidity into dullness. He is the miser who takes frugality to the point of vice; the gourmand who becomes a glutton; the health Nazi. (In Germany, the Fascists goose-step, notes John O'Sullivan; in America they jog.)

The rigid butt might usefully be contrasted with the tragic hero. An Othello or a Macbeth is an integrated, whole person, for all his flaws; the machine man of comedy is defined solely by his vice. Euclio and Harpagon are one-dimensional, cardboard characters, whose only feature is their avarice. Aristotle noted the difference in his Poetics: comic characters were stereotypes, while tragedies were usually based on well-known and developed mythic figures. Bergson made the similar point that, unlike comedies, tragedies seldom bear the name of the vice portrayed. Molihre's The Miser is a comedy about avarice, but Othello was not called "Jealousy." Calling a play by the name of a vice tells us that the principal character is not a whole person but only a caricature, and this invites our laughter.

Plays sometimes hover between comedy and tragedy until the protagonist acquires a complex character and the impulse to laugh is stifled. Until the end of act I, we do not know which King Lear will be. It becomes a tragedy only when the mad king acquires wisdom and moral grandeur through an ability to see a universal message in his fall. Before then, the play might have taken a different turn and been called "The Foolish Father." Similarly, Falstaff is too complicated a figure to be truly comic. "Thou compound of sense and vice," apostrophized Samuel Johnson, "of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested." Like Johnson, we have no choice but to love Falstaff, and his fall is tragic when he is killed off in Henry V.





Continues...

Excerpted from The Morality of Laughter by F. H. Buckley Copyright © 2005 by F. H. Buckley. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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