The Many Faces of Laughter


Recently, when I saw this photograph of President Roosevelt, I was reminded of how powerful laughter can be and how often we discount its importance and moral capacity.

In his insightful book The Morality of Laughter, F.H. Buckley writes:

The joy of laughter is both immanent and transcendent. It is immediate and unreflective, but reveals a deeper mystery that is at the same time present and absent. Laughter is imminent in the sense that it is directly experienced through intuitive comic norms and unites jester and listener in a bond of solidarity. But laughter is also an experience of conversion that reveals a hidden reality and gives us a new way of looking at the world. We are put in touch with secret and forgotten sources of joy, and what was previously great now seems unimportant.

Of course, laughter (particularly mocking laughter) has been condemned by classical authorities from Plato to John Chrysostom. Equally damning in his assessment, Thomas Hobbes considered laughter to be a “sudden glory,” which stemmed either from our derision at someone else’s folly or from our own self-congratulation. Buckley, however, reminds us that laughter is much more than this. It has many faces and many motives. Moreover, it is an essential expression of human nature, because it is both imminent and transcendent, belonging to both the body and the soul.

Two literary examples come to mind that illustrate the variety and potential virtue to be found in laughter.

First, in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, laughter becomes the expression of true lordship and justice. When the chief archangel (or oyarsa) descends from high heaven to aid humanity in their war against the devilish N.I.C.E., Lewis describes how it would feel to be in this being’s presence:

Before the other angels a man might sink; before this he might die, but if he lived at all, he would laugh … Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately; though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously. Kingship and power and festal pomp and courtesy shot from him as sparks fly from an anvil. The pealing of bells, the blowing of trumpets, the spreading out of banners, are means used on earth to make a faint symbol of his quality. It was like a long sunlit wave, creamy-crested and arched with emerald, that comes on nine feet tall, with roaring and with terror and unquenchable laughter.

Second, in The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien uses laughter to express a healthy kind of sorrow and longing. At the end of the book, the hobbits stand at the Gray Havens watching with heartbreak and despair their closest friends leave the world forever. As Gandalf, the elves, Bilbo, and Frodo board the ships, Tolkien writes:

But Sam was now sorrowful at heart, and it seemed to him that if the parting would be bitter, more grievous still would be the long road home alone. But even as they stood there, and the Elves were going aboard, and all was being made ready to depart, up rode Merry and Pippin in great haste. And amid his tears Pippin laughed.

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