- Review Essay:Toward a Hermeneutics of Laughter
For some time I have been preoccupied with finding a language for talking about laughter. In 2013 I published a book, The Laughter of Sarah, in which I tried to do just that.1 Starting from the laughter with which the matriarch Sarah in the book of Genesis greets the birth of her son Isaac (whose name itself means "he will laugh"), I explored its interpretations in early Christian exegesis as well as in midrash and in early Quranic exegesis. I then looked at the principal laughter theorists of the twentieth century—Bergson, Freud, Bakhtin, and Plessner2—and gradually built an argument that the western tradition had been unable to "hear" the laughter of Sarah, which I construed as a laugh of sheer delight. The laughter seemed always to be ignored, or allegorized, or displaced elsewhere: there was no sense of the embodied, spontaneous ebullition of delight that I took Sarah's laughter to represent. I then used a number of more or less contemporary feminist theorists to try to capture how I thought this laughter did function; Cixous and Cavarero proved to be particularly useful.3 I concluded that this laughter, being of its nature unstable, circumventing language yet somehow capable of communication, and being in some way out of time or untimely, called into question our familiar ontological and epistemological categories. How can we say that something so evanescent really is? And yet it does, in some way, exist. How can we be said to know it? And how does it impart knowledge? Yet again, something is conveyed when someone laughs. Finally, I concluded that listening to the laughter of delight challenged our conventional teleological readings of the world, our sense of time and ourselves moving forward to a particular goal: instead, it provoked a radical openness in, and to, the world in a given moment. [End Page 503]
But for all that, I still feel I was writing around, rather than through, laughter. Focusing specifically on Sarah's laughter hampered me. It was useful for charting the insights and failures and missed opportunities of an interpretative tradition. In principle, at any rate, it suggested a way of organizing and testing the myriad theories of laughter. But Sarah's laughter is already so remote even by the time it is enshrined in the Hebrew scriptures. It is already mediated and digested and translated. And that makes it a sorry argument for the immediacy of laughter. When Sarah says, "Laughter has God made me,"4 can we imagine her laughing? Or has that laughter already disappeared? What are we to make of these textual traces of long-ago laughter?
The simple thing that attracted me about the laughter of Sarah was that it seemed to be an example of laughter for its own sake. Laughter that leads nowhere, proves nothing, is very hard to find in the tradition of writing about laughter. Freud casts a long shadow here: laughter as an assertion of power or of submission gets most of the attention. And this, to be fair, reflects the bias of the ancient world too, where notions of laughter as deeply imbricated in the dynamics of power are far more often narrated than anything more benign.5
Yet laughter for its own sake seems to me to be the most interesting type of laughter, precisely because it is the most resistant to translation into other terms. Laughter that establishes some sort of relation with others without laying claim to it or taking possession of it.
My reconsideration of how to talk about laughter has been largely prompted by a particular review of my book. In a recent volume of the Journal of Late Antiquity, Stephen Halliwell gave a truly probing analysis of my ideas, interpreting with care what I was trying to do in the book but pointing out where it fell short.6 The principal problem that arrested him was a paradox that is arguably fundamental to the book. If each instance of laughter is unique, what can usefully be said about it? How can one then pursue some sort of transhistorical instantiation of laughter? Isn't this...