Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Laughter: antidote to a crazy world

A.N. Whitehead: note the smile
I've my usual Canberra Times column up today, 'Laughter: antidote to a crazy world'.

I'm looking into the philosophical value of laughter: as the only sane response to our own fallibility and smallness. A sample:
There is something very knowing in this laughter; something profoundly human. It is not spiteful mockery, though this too is part of what we are. It is, instead, a recognition of our imperfection: how easily and quickly our commonsense ideas and acts are undone by the world, including its babies. It is the buoyant equivalent of a sigh or shrug: a gesture at how rudely great and darkly wise we are.  
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, a reverent man if not a mainstream Christian, once remarked that he was suspicious of religious people with no sense of humour. In his book Science and the Modern World he elaborated:
Is it that nothing, no experience good or bad, no belief, no cause, is, in itself, momentous enough to monopolise the whole of life to the exclusion of laughter? Laughter is our reminder that our theories are an attempt to make existence intelligible, but necessarily only an attempt, and does not the irrational, the instinctive burst in to keep the balance true by laughter?' 
His point was not that we can laugh at every grief; that we ought to trivialise others' misery. Instead, Whitehead was noting something vitally important for anyone who reflects, and behaves thoughtfully: there is always more than we know, and more than we are. It is an expression of scepticism, fallibility and finitude: the recognition that we are limited, situated creatures.

3 comments:

Rolly Christian said...

Amen to that.

The creation of Great humor is being left behind these days. Artists like Cleese and Atkinson didn't need to drag out "new" rape jokes to be at the cutting edge of humor. Their constructions were timeless and for the most part fairly clean.

Innocence is a charming starting point from which to counter-pose real life and the folly of darker motives. Starting from a jaded position however doesn't have the same potential range of movement.

And therein lies many modern comics error of omission. Chaser Boys take note.

Claire Thomas said...

Interesting. I often wonder about the role of laughter in the quest to be 'taken seriously'. In academia, I often find that people can be suspicious about humour. Or assumptions are made about lack of rigour if laughter-inducing content is included. I think it has to do with competition. I'd be interested to hear what you think about that...

Damon Young said...

RC: I agree that innocence is a fantastic starting point for humour. But I suspect one cannot be innocent to write it well.

CT: The suspicion is real. Partly warranted, as slick jokes, for example, can hide clumsy arguments. But it's also fear that one's own certainty is broken by laughter. As I argue, laughter is the perfect response to fallibility and bafflement--some don't want to admit these 'failings'.