COLUMNIST: Fred Dennehy


What 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.

Rudolf 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 too

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.

Fred Dennehy is a practicing attorney specializing in commercial litigation and a member of the Council of the New York Branch of the Anthroposophical Society



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