makes something funny? If you have ever been put in the wretched
position of having to explain why you were laughing, you know that
humor is irreducible. Trying to analyze it violates it. Because
it lies at the very source of language, what provokes laughter resists
explanation through language.
Steiner, perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of definition, took a
phenomenological approach to the subject in a lecture delivered
in Berlin in 1910, entitled “Laughing and Weeping.”
Steiner saw (as did Socrates in the case of comedy and tragedy)
an intimate relationship between laughing and weeping. Laughter
usually manifests as a series of staccato exhalations followed by
a long inhalation. Weeping is the polar opposite, a series of broken
inhalations followed by a long sigh. These processes are expressions
of what Steiner observes as the astral body -- the bearer of emotions
such as pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, terror and amazement.
In the experience of laughter, the astral body -- using Steiner’s
terms -- withdraws from the physical and expands, expressing an
“inner liberation” of the spirit, while in the case
of weeping it “presses in” toward the physical and contracts
in a gesture of “inner strengthening.”
Steiner’s picture points us to what may be a surprising recognition
-- that laughter is an experience of the spirit. Readers of spiritual
writings who squirm impatiently at the repeated use of this word
-- “spirit” -- that is rarely explained, can look to
their personal experience for a sense of the meaning. If they look
hard, they will find that the experience of laughter, like the experience
of a new idea, is easier to understand as a becoming than as the
thing that becomes. It is not so easy to talk about, though, because
verbs are conspicuously clumsy when they try to act like nouns.
Laughter brings about what Owen Barfield, referring to poetry, calls
a “felt change of consciousness” -- something that takes
place transitorally, like the flickering electric current when a
coil of wire moves across the lines of force in a magnetic field.
Laughter marks our transition to a different sphere, a sphere without
rules, alien to definition. Suddenly we are someplace where nothing
is fixed and everything can turn into something else.
The experience of laughter differs from that of poetry because it
has a specific directedness -- a looking down from above or, alternatively,
from the periphery to the center. The moment of laughter consists
of our attentiveness witnessing the object self, levity’s
experience of gravity. It is a lightning flash, a sudden “seeing”
of the everyday world for what it is -- a world of old thoughts,
finished forms and repetitive circles. For an instant we cease to
identify with our bodies and see them as the distorted mirror images
of our higher selves. This accounts in part for the rich tradition
of physical humor, of slapstick, in our culture.
Laughter marks the first stirring of escape from the ego. The feel
of that transition -- its freedom -- is at once what Rudolf Steiner
terms the “expansion of the astral body,” what Barfield
calls a “felt change in consciousness,” and the aesthetic
distance we enjoy in the best stage comedies. The misfortunes of
the protagonists of comedy do not disturb us, because at the same
time we are witnessing them we are feeling liberated from the traps
and patterns that have occasioned similar misfortunes in ourselves.
Verbal humor, too -- the unexpected answer to the riddle, the deflating
punchline of the joke, the double entendre phrase, the pun -- which
invariably depends upon the quick juxtaposition of the brilliantly
clear and the opaque, derives its life from this feel of emergence.
And the playing out of the absurd, in its implicit comparison of
the ordinary world with an imagined one, allows us to see, from
a momentarily higher perspective, the preposterous patterns of our
everyday perceptions and behaviors.
Why is all this fun rather than pathetic? The suddenness of the
transition is crucial, because laughter is a “quick”
experience in every sense of the word. Comedians understand this
on a gut level and use it; when we “get it” all at once,
in a rush, we laugh louder. This is why timing is so important in
comedy. But it’s more than just speed. It’s direction
Steiner’s polarity is illuminating here. Like laughing, weeping
is universal. It is possible to imagine a humanity without comedy
or tragedy; it is not so easy to imagine a humanity without laughing
and crying. And if we contemplate the source of weeping -- the core
experience of pathos -- something very close to Steiner’s
polarity suggests itself. Like laughter, it is born out of separation.
In pathos we see what could be but isn’t, what we would be
but are not, and the distance between the two worlds manifests as
longing, from below looking up. Laughter is the look of earth from
heaven and weeping is the look of heaven from earth.
Dennehy is a practicing attorney specializing in commercial litigation
and a member of the Council of the New York Branch of the Anthroposophical
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