Laughter can be joyful and friendly, but it can also – for example if people laugh at someone else – be damaging and degrading. This effect can be seen by looking at an episode in Russian history. In the 1930s, Russian literary critic and scholar Mikhail Bakhtin was exiled to Kazakhstan by Stalin because of his alleged membership of a counter-revolutionary group. Bakhtin found himself in a situation that was really not at all funny. But he nevertheless immersed himself in work and developed his theory of the carnivalesque, which became a pioneering book on the culture of laughter in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Bakhtin analyzed François Rabelais’ 16th century parodic romantic novel cycle which tells the story of two giants, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The researcher was thrilled by the bawdy gutter humor, the cursing and the base jokes in Rabelais’ books. Rabelais’ novels portray a carnivalesque, upside-down world – those with high status are at the bottom of the pile and vice versa, and the power relationships are turned on their heads. “For Bakhtin the ordinary people are revolutionary because they are not afraid,” says Sylvia Sasse. “By laughing they show that they do not accept the ruling hierarchies.” Bakhtin contrasted a culture of laughter with a culture of seriousness. “The latter is represented by church and state, which see laughter as a threat to the existing power balance,” says German literature scholar Davide Giuriato.
The Soviet powers-that-be hated Bakhtin’s study. It’s true that in the 1920s in the Soviet Union there had been blasphemous processions against the church, in which obscene songs were sung and the pious were taunted. But such activities were sanctioned by the state. It was quite a different matter when the state itself became a target of humor and derision. Bakhtin’s book was perceived as a threat, it’s publication was prevented and it was rejected as his doctoral thesis.
When Bakhtin’s study Rabelais and His World was published in 1965 – almost 30 years after it was written – it was a literary sensation and provoked many debates. The book was on the one hand celebrated as “a subversive act against the officially proscribed public happiness in times of terror”, while on the other hand Bakhtin was criticized for failing to recognize that humor could also be a radical tool of power and terror. “Examples of this abound, and not just in Russian history,” says Sylvia Sasse. Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) for example had mini-carnivals staged for his private enjoyment. The czar would dress up as a jester and one of his underlings would play the master. The jester would then make fun of the “master” and finally have him beheaded for being bad at his job. “The czar did that for his own pleasure and at the same time demonstrated his total power,” says Sasse. “He made it clear that he was still in charge, even during the game.”
Stalin also used laughter as a specific instrument of power in the 1930s. At show trials members of the public were enlisted to mock alleged opponents of the system. After those on trial had presented their invented confessions, they were subjected to complete humiliation. “That is a form of laughter used as terrorism,” says Sylvia Sasse. “It emphasizes the complete powerlessness of the political opponents.”