The Marx Brothers

The Mystery of Laughter

On the occasion of his promotion at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, Franz Kafka is summoned to see its President. At the institute, Kafka gets into an uncontrollable laughing fit that makes him lose all composure and eventually sets off his two colleagues, who have also been summoned.

The reason for his mirth is the hilarious, pompous President of the insurance institute and his absurd, overblown speech: “So when he started jabbering on about some nonsense, waving his hands around, it was suddenly all too much for me, and I burst into loud and shameless laughter, with a gusto perhaps only seen in schoolchildren,” wrote Kafka on 28 April 1910 in a letter to his fiancée, Felice Bauer. Kafka leaves the meeting in a curiously ambivalent state – shaking with laughter and cringing with embarrassment.

Kafka’s letter is one of many texts about laughter studied by Davide Giuriato, a specialist in German literature. After all, humor is not just found in everyday life, but also between the covers of a book. Literature, too, makes us laugh – through comedy, satire and parody. And, like in Kafka’s text, it often becomes a subject in itself. The concept of laughter is one that is both familiar and mysterious at the same time. Sometimes we don’t know why we are actually laughing or what about. It bursts forth from us, sometimes in the most impossible situations.

According to a study by US neuropsychologist and laughter researcher Robert Provine, we only laugh for reasons of humor 20 percent of the time. Often, it is triggered by something quite different, like surprise, amazement, shyness, despair or embarrassment. “Laughing is a social behavior, a way of communicating,” says Davide Giuriato. “It expresses something, even if it’s not quite clear what.”

It’s a mystery that was even pondered by philosophers back in Ancient Greece. Aristotle pointed out that humans were the only living creatures that laughed. And in his dialogue Theaetetus, Plato recounts a humorous but thought-provoking story. It involves Thales, a natural philosopher, astronomer and geometrician, who falls into a well while gazing at the sky. A witty Thracian servant recognizes the comedy of the situation and jeers at him: “You want to know everything about the sky, but you don’t see what is right in front of your nose.”

Since then, laughter has been present throughout cultural and philosophical history as a kind of background noise. There is something irrational about it, which is perhaps precisely why it was a frequent source of contemplation for philosophers.

What ensued was a wide range of attempts to explain laughter. For Aristotle, humor was an act of superiority. We laugh at others and in so doing, rise above them. For philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, laughter is the expression of a moment of contradiction and incongruence – we laugh when something unexpected happens. This is the case when someone trips, for instance, or indeed when a philosopher falls into a well because he’s thinking too much. This sort of situation is the lifeblood of countless slapstick comedies, the likes of which have been filmed since the very start of cinema.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, believed that laughter and humor help us relieve tension. They act as a kind of release valve for when we are under a lot of mental pressure. “Each of these theories has its own merit, but none explain the phenomenon completely,” says Davide Giuriato. “Laughter remains a difficult concept to define, which is why it is still so fascinating.” By Roger Nickl

English translation: Andrea Hurley