The first step toward a workable theory of laughter seems to me to be a necessary distinction between laughter and comedy. Though the two are often closely related, there is apparently no necessary or absolute tie between the genre and the effect. As Wylie Sypher says, "Comedy may, in fact, not bring laughter at all; and, certain tragedies may make us laugh hysterically" (p. 205; this same distinction is convincingly developed by Potts, p. 19 and McArthur, p. 36). Of course, the problem in Dickens is both simpler and more complex than this statement implies. While there are few of his novels to which the term comedy would apply at all as an adequate and total description, he was [8/9] preoccupied with traditional comic values and symbols: freedom, justice, rebirth, flexibility. Despite the fact, then, that few novels have the simple vision or clear direction of comedy, the terms of the genre are often relevant, even when they are treated with such bitter irony as in Little Dorrit. A discussion of the details of comedy can be postponed until the next chapter, however, since Dickens's first novel is one of the great English comedies and helps to define the genre.
One unavoidable issue, however, appears in most theoretical analyses of laughter and must be dealt with before a more general discussion can be attempted: the degree to which laughter expresses (if it does at all) hostility, aggression, the vestiges of the jungle whoop of triumph after murder, and other unpleasant impulses. The corollary to this issue is the debate over whether laughter is incompatible with sympathy, geniality, or indeed with any emotion. Roughly speaking, the dark-laughter theorists spring from Thomas Hobbes; the genial-laughter theories from Jean Paul Richter. Without retracing the steps of this very tortuous, often confused, and usually truculent argument, one can, I think, accept the reasoning of Arthur Koestler, which is based on the simple fact that nearly all the important writers on the subject have, [9/10] for hundreds of years, noted "a component of malice, of debasement of the other fellow, and of aggressive-defensive self-assertion . . . in laughter — a tendency diametrically opposed to sympathy, helpfulness, and identification of the self with others" (p. 56) I find this argument and the evidence given by the theorists cited above (see note 24) conclusive. The important point, though, is the relevance of Koestler's conclusions to our subject. Even if there is genial or harmless laughter, I think it is very rare in Dickens.
There are, of course, genial characters in Dickens and even sympathetic characters at whom we laugh. But there is no necessary contradiction. One of Henri Bergson's most important distinctions, which, if noticed, would silence almost all of his critics, applies here. After arguing that "laughter has no greater foe than emotion", he adds, "I do not mean that we could not laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity" (p. 63). The key phrase is "for the moment"; our ordinarily active sympathy is temporarily withdrawn in the process of laughing. And it is this moment of required "anesthesia of the heart" (p. 64) that Dickens manipulates so tellingly. It does no good, then, to cite Mr. Pickwick as a refutation of Bergson; Bergson has allowed for Mr. Pickwick. He admits the possibility of our affection and explains our derisive laughter in a brilliant essay that, though often attacked for its narrowness, has particular relevance to Dickens.
Bergson sees the basis of all laughter in the conflict of the rigid and mechanical with the flexible and organic; the key is "something mechanical encrusted on the living" (p. 84). He sees laughter as, above all, a "social gesture" (p. 73), the corrective by which society humiliates in order to preserve itself from the deadening effects of what Matthew Arnold called "machinery" — political, ideological, social, and psychological rigidity. Therefore, "we laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing" (p. 97) and, of course, at the converse.
This transposition of the functions of persons and things is, as Dorothy Van Ghent and others have shown, the basis of [10/11] Dickens animism, which is, in turn, one of the keys to his vision and his technique. It is also at the core of much of his most significant humour, and Bergson provides us with an extremely important means of approaching that humour. The long procession of mechanical humans and living things in Dickens suggests not only his typically Victorian position as revivifying artist, not only his vision of human beings fundamentally isolated from one another and from their environment, but also because of laughter as a rhetoric tool to enlist his readers in a protest against isolation and mechanistic dominance, and in support of imaginative, sympathy and identification with others. The fact that the reader is largely unconscious that his responses are being directed makes the rhetoric no less vivid or successful. Through his animism, Dickens continually uses laughter as a rhetorical support to thematic issues, and Bergson is assuredly the chief theorist of animism.
But there are other appeals to laughter in Dickens and other uses made of the reader's response to humour. Bergson's clarity and lucidity become simplistic if stretched too far, and one is forced to turn to more subtle and complex theorists, principally Freud. Freud's work on laughter, though by no means universally accepted, comes about as close to that position as any single statement reasonably could. More important, his concept of laughter is far more flexible and inclusive than most, and takes into account two factors in laughter that are often separated and treated as exclusive: the offensive release of aggression, hostility, or inhibition and the defensive protection of pure pleasure, joy, or play. Though the complexity of Freud's argument makes it extremely difficult to summarize (there is, however, a successful and extremely useful summary and clarification by Martin Grotjahn), a brief discussion is essential.
The major part of Freud's work on laughter was published [11/12] in 1905 under the title, Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Here he first distinguishes between the technique and the tendency of jokes, and devotes the first section to an analysis of technique, mainly the details of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary which form the surface matter of jokes. In this long analysis, Freud finds the techniques of jokes similar to those used in dreams: condensation, displacement, substitution, and like disguises. This similarity between wit-work and dream-work establishes the connection to the unconscious which he explores in the second section of the book. This part involves an analysis of the matter or tendencies which lie at the core of jokes and which the techniques have partially and necessarily disguised. He begins with wit, that form of producing laughter which functions most like dreams, and shows that it originates in aggressive or obscene tendencies. The aggressive or obscene idea is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the wit-work (or technique) so that the psychic energy initially aroused can be safely relieved. If the joke is successful, the source of laughter in the teller and the listener is the same: "the economy of psychic expenditure" (p. 180), or in other words, the efficient use of energy previously needed for repressing the dangerous idea by removing the apparent danger and releasing the energy in laughter. In addition to the pleasure aroused from release, there is also play pleasure: the infantile and pure joy in nonsense, playing with words, and combating order. To summarize to this point, then, jokes can be analysed as to technique and tendency, though it is likely that the technique in most cases is mainly the disguise and the tendency the cause of the laughter. We laugh because we are permitted to express the energy from hostility or aggression openly; the release plus the infantile joy of word play account for the pleasure in laughter.
By far the least important and persuasive part of Freud's analysis follows, an account of our pleasure in the comic. Here Freud discusses the laughter at stupidity, the naive, caricature, repetition, and the like, explaining it as differing from wit in its psychic location (foreconscious rather than subconscious), [12/13] in its moving beyond words into action and behaviour, and in the fact that it is based on an explicit comparison of ourselves with another's limitations. The pleasure in this case is provided by the feeling of superiority, as Hobbes had said, plus a release of inhibition energies temporarily unnecessary in the face of such childish action. Freud remarks on his indebtedness to Bergson at this point, and Bergson is clearer and more satisfactory in this area.
Both wit and the comic, Freud argued, are incompatible with strong emotion (p. 371), which is one reason why they must be presented in a disguised form. In the final section of the book, supplemented by a paper published in 1928 ("Humour", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, cited as IJP) Freud discusses humour, which he describes as a way of dealing with pain. His best example of humour concerns the prisoner on the way to the gallows who remarks, "Well, this is a good beginning to the week" (IJP, 1). For the prisoner, this comment represents a way of combating pain by denying its province; it is the rebellious assertion by the ego that it is invulnerable (IJP, 2-3). More important, the pleasure for the listener is derived from an "economy of sympathy" (Wit, p. 374). We are prepared to respond with pity, but pity is found to be superfluous and the energy first called up for sympathy can be released in laughter. More generally, he speaks of the "economized expenditure of affect" (Wit, p. 371), in which the energies associated with any strong emotion are aroused, then shown to be unnecessary, and are thereby available for laughter.
Actually, Freud recognized quite clearly that his categories were analytical conveniences and that, in practice, wit, the comic, and humour were intermixed. For our purposes, the most important uses of Freud will be: the distinction between technique and tendency, and the general dominance of the latter as a cause of laughter; the dual pleasure source of laughter; and the concept of economy and its explanation of the way in which aggression, inhibition, and strong feelings of sympathy or fear can be turned into laughter.
This is the general outline, then, of the approach to laughter to be used here. It does not, of course, constitute a complete theory of laughter, and it is perhaps incomplete because it [13/14] concentrates almost entirely on the laugher to the exclusion of the means of evoking laughter. An appropriate (at least forceful) apology for both limitations is offered by Samuel Johnson, who chides "definers" of comedy for having fiddled with useless definitions of techniques of arousing laughter "without considering that the various methods of exhilerating [the dramatist's] audience, not being limited by nature, cannot be comprised in precept" (iii, p. 106)
To supplement, in a minor way, the arguments of Bergson and Freud, a few subsidiary points should finally be considered:
i. Laughter and order. One of the reasons laughter has always been identified in some way with the form of comedy is that their main impulses are similar: the restoration of order or equilibrium. Behind comedy lie the ritual pattern of resurrection (see Cornford; and Frye, pp. 212-15) and the movement to a new society; though the origin of laughter is not so clear, certainly one of its functions is the restoration of "social equilibrium" (this is the central thesis of Ralph Piddington). Paradoxically, the movement towards order is paralleled by an impulse towards freedom. Like comedy, which progresses "from law to liberty" (Frye, p. 181), laughter moves from restraint to release and from a world of mechanistic restriction to a world of childhood and play. Though we laugh always in chorus, either real or imagined, the society we create by our laughter is generally opposed to what we ordinarily think of as society; in the desire to cleanse the existing order of absurdity and rigidity, laughter is always dangerously close to anarchy. This is only a way of saying that laughter is a means of having it both ways: it reassures us of our social being (we are part of a chorus), but also, and perhaps more basically, of our own invincible and isolated ego. Even if we could always laugh at Falstaff (and Shakespeare makes it by no means this easy), we are not only rejecting him but also providing ourselves with a way of glorying in his display of the primacy of the libido. We are [14/15] preparing for the triumph of Hal, in one sense, but perhaps in another and deeper sense we have already experienced the triumph of Falstaff.
Thus laughter both confirms and denies society and is, from a social viewpoint, implicitly subversive. It moves towards a coalition, but it is a coalition of joyful people dedicated to freedom and play; order is, at best, secondary. Who could imagine the wonderful social group assembled at the end of Pickwick — Mr. Pickwick, the Wellers, Tracy Tupman, Snodgrass, Winkle, the Wardles, and the rest — really constituting a society that would function at all? Every reader of the novel has imagined just that, and our conviction is a testament to the ambiguity of laughter: its paradoxical movement towards both order and freedom. The freedom is potentially absolute, but the order is deceptive: the world of Stiggins and Serjeant Buzfuz, which is to say the world of law and organized religion, is rejected in favour of the world of Tony Weller and Bob Sawyer. Laughter confirms society, but strictly on its own rather deceptive terms.
ii. Laughter and the grotesque. Though this very complex subject can only be touched on here, the grotesque is present in one form or another in most of Dickens's novels. It generally concerns itself with the demonic aspects of existence or, more generally, with a perception of "the terrors and absurdities of internal and external traps". [Spilka, p. 243; Spilka's treatment of the grotesque in Dickens is extensive and rewarding] In one sense, whether or not we laugh depends on the relative strength of "the terrors and [the] absurdities", but more important is the nature of the power given to the ego to resist the terror or dismiss it. The funny grotesque is a form of what Freud called "humour", and its most consistent manifestation in Dickens comes from the sense of estrangement evoked by his animism (discussed above). The most important, though rather obvious, point to make is that there is a balance involved: that our laughter moves close to the desperate or the hysterical as the balance shifts to terror and that we may dismiss the threat with our laughter now, only to have it reappear a few pages later, all the stronger for coming on us in our presumed safety. [15/16]
iii. Vulnerability and immunity provided by laughter. As the last sentence suggests, laughter provides a kind of immunity which may become a special kind of vulnerability. Laughter implies the sort of commitment which is so complete that it is unable to avoid rebuffs; it assumes complicity and sanctity and is therefore especially vulnerable to attack, as anyone knows who has had his own laughter met with icy stares. Having released the energies ordinarily used to guard our hostilities, inhibitions, or fears, we are especially unprotected if the promised safety which allowed us to laugh proves to be illusory. Imagine the fat old man who slipped on the banana peel being suddenly identified as our brother, now seriously hurt; the custard pie containing sulphuric acid; the train really hitting the funny car and killing the Keystone Cops. These are extreme examples, of course, and Dickens's technique is much more subtle, but one of his more successful tactics involves just this sort of combined immunity-vulnerability which laughter creates and which makes us so open, even if just for an instant, to the deepest attacks.
iv. Laughter and the narrative. The preceding arguments all imply a more orderly and complete kind of analysis than is possible outside the restricted world of the joke: the ordinary Dickens novel contains perhaps five thousand jokes. But even if one were to analyse each one of these (God help us), there would still remain the other appeals to humour: images of funny faces and absurd postures, conventional funny situations, and the like. Discussing all of these would still leave one of the most important causes of laughter unaccounted for: the cumulative effect. This can take many forms, from the snowball technique, in which one laugh makes us more ready for another, to the chuckle of anticipation which comes when we sense that Mr. Micawber is in the wings, about to make another entrance. Our memory builds up associations which can act reflexively and set us laughing without apparent local cause. Dickens appeals to this reflexive laughter most obviously in his use of tags to accompany so many character (it is also possible to view the tag as a form of caricature and thus a kind of insult which appeals to our unconscious sense of superiority; see Grotjahn, p. 49) [16/17] But the problem is still more complicated: our laughter is conditioned not only by memory but by anticipation of the future. course of the narrative. The expectation of a happy ending can induce a mood of comfort or euphoria particularly suited to laughter; conversely, the anticipation of a sad or frightening ending makes us seize all the more readily on nearly any excuse to laugh. There is also the whole area of tone to account for, since it helps to create and sustain a certain mood. Finally, one must obviously just assume (there is no way to prove it) that the text examined does, in fact, provoke amusement, internal or external, and that a smile or chuckle, internal or external, is at least related to a fully fledged laugh and involves the same tendencies (see Darwin, pp. 206-9, for the most authorative arguments on this subject). At any rate, the term laughter will be used generally to describe the many manifestations of amusement.
Last Modified 10 March 2010