Laughter

One is tempted to say: in laughter there announces itself an anthropodicy which no one has yet succeeded in verbally articulating. It has often been urged upon a suffering humanity that we limit the Conditio in/humana’s dominion over us by simply laughing at “the way of the world”. Where human beings laugh they declare their existence to be, even if only for a moment, something other than a total failure. Laughter thus resembles a “God of the moment” who announces the unattainability of Paradise.  

But how can the Conditio in/humana be “laughable”? Let there suffice, as an answer to this question, what Helmuth Plessner writes in his “Laughing and Crying”: “To the extent that sympathy or disgust does not prevail as, for example, at the sight of the crippled or the sick, every emancipation of what is usually instrumental,whether physical or not, has a comic effect. Exaggerated ceremonial, mechanical bureaucracy, hybris, which substitutes human regulation for nature’s are laughable. What is decisive here is not ugliness, which repels us, or irrationality, which irritates us, but stiffness and the want of life.” (Plessner, Laughing and Crying. A Study of the Limits of Human Behavior, Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1970, p. 82) If this reflection of Plessner’s holds true, must he not laugh loudest who comes to understand that human beings tyrannize other human beings unnecessarily inasmuch as, generation after generation, they act in such a way that progeny of theirs begin to exist?  

 

Dohm, Hedwig (1831–1919)

The topos of distancing oneself from the Conditio in/humana by laughing at it, in its entirety inclusive even of one’s own death, is a topos which we encounter again in Hedwig Dohm, who – on her own deathbed, no less! – composed a small piece of writing whose protagonist achieves a demise of a certain grace by laughing herself to death over the divine >Experimentum mundi:

“And the dying woman laughed scornfully when it occurred to her that the creation of creatures destined from birth on to become just food for worms or, in the case of the cremated, a handful of ashes, was perhaps only a joke on the part of the cosmos or some experiment of God’s!

Did human life, then, have any sense to it at all? No, no, a thousand times no. It is either a grotesque plundering or a will to self-destruction. Laughable, then, too was all the pointless trouble that the universe had given itself to bring about the emergence of superfluous bipeds like ourselves. One could truly laugh oneself to death over it!

And indeed she laughed. And laughed on without stopping, loud and louder still until she choked on her own laughter.” (Hedwig Dohm, Auf dem Sterbebett, in: Der Missbrauch des Todes)

 

Carefree Laughter

One notices the carefree laughter of children and signals to those present to be silent and attentive whenever it occurs. Could it be, then, that one is fully aware of how life’s various sorrows will soon render fewer and fewer the occasions for this laughter as light and spontaneous as birdsong? But if so, why did one bring these children into the world at all, since one knew how very short that phase of their lives would necessarily be in which they would be capable of such carefree laughter?

 

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