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 to fall into the very generalizations that I am critiquing in other theorists of laughter, and trying to circumvent? (Halliwell also says that this is a problematically ahistorical endeavor: I am less concerned about that, for reasons that I hope will emerge in the course of this paper.) Moreover, how can one simultaneously write—or speak—about laughter and claim that laughter cannot be paraphrased?
Here, I explore a new approach through a philosopher whose work I did not use in the original book, Ludwig Wittgenstein—and specifically, through his Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein, I contend, will help me to [End Page 504] describe laughter—even if laughter is not what he is describing—and will warn against mis-description—even while insisting that misdirection may be fruitful.
It may seem eccentric to use a pre-eminent philosopher of language to try to talk about a phenomenon that (I argue) eludes language. But Wittgenstein's technique lends itself particularly well to an elusive subject. For he himself is constantly eluding, sidestepping, circumventing, starting anew. He famously writes, at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical …"7 When he re-embarks on exploring "the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition …" in the Philosophical Investigations, he writes, "the very nature of the investigation … compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction."8 Moreover, the arrangement of the observations is deliberately non-linear: "The same or almost the same points were always being approached afresh from different directions, and new pictures made."9 His technique throughout the PI is to propose a series of provocative problems without beginning to pretend to propose the answers.
There are more precise reasons to draw upon the PI than Wittgenstein's elusiveness. First: for the simple fact that, as Wittgenstein puts forward his problems and questions, he is incredibly careful to sustain a language of particularity. He never allows himself the lazy luxury of generalization; he is more likely to subdivide and question a leap of thought than to allow it to stand. So for the very precision of his language, he serves as an example.
Second, Wittgenstein is deeply skeptical of the relationship between language and communication. At PI 304, he is talking about what sense we can attach to statements about pain. He writes that the sensation of pain "is not a something, but not a nothing either!"10 In other words, it is not something that we can point to or put a finger on; but it is not nothing.
The conclusion was only that a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said. We have only rejected the grammar which tries to force itself on us here. [End Page 505]
The paradox disappears only if we make a radical break with the idea that language always functions in one way, always serves the same purpose: to convey thoughts—which may be about houses, pains, good and evil, or anything else yyou please.11
So if you say, "I am in pain," you are not describing or conveying a thought about pain. There is no functional distinction between the statements "I think I am in pain" and "I am in pain." So pain is not nothing—the sentence "I am in pain" is not meaningless—but nor is it a "something." You can see how we might substitute in laughter here and free it from the necessity of conveying meaning—of communicating something. We might allow it to function in multiple ways.
Third, the very idea of grammar, in a Wittgensteinian sense, may be particularly useful when applied to laughter. In a suggestive aphorism, Wittgenstein writes, "Grammar tells what kind of object anything is." The grammar of an object is (as I understand it) a description of the relationships in which that object stands to other objects. But "object" here (the word in German is der Gegenstand, "topic" as well as "object") is not to be thought of as something solid: it is anything of which one can speak. Later in the PI, it is applied to psychological states (PI 572). And in the initial statement about grammar, Wittgenstein supplements it with the parenthetical remark, "(Theology as grammar.)"12 Can Wittgensteinian grammar tell us what kind of object theology is? What about laughter as grammar? What are the relationships described in "she laughed for joy"? What about those in "silent laughter"? Does laughter itself—as Gegenstand—fit into this scheme, or only the word "laughter"?
In one of his most renowned paragraphs, Wittgenstein says: "A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably."13 But through laughter I am, in some sense, trying to get outside it. I am trying to think through laughter as Gegenstand: as something—or rather, not nothing—that may take its part in a grammatical description. [End Page 506]
Wittgenstein famously begins the PI with an extended quotation from the Confessions about an infant coming into language. He admired Augustine, and once remarked that the Confessions was possibly the "most serious book ever written."14
When my elders named some thing [Gegenstand], and according to that naming moved their body toward something, I watched, and I grasped that they called this thing [Gegenstand] the sound they made when they intended to point it out. This intention was revealed by the motion of their body: just as in the natural modes of expression of all peoples—those which emerge in the face and the expression of the eyes, and the action of the rest of the body, and the sound of the voice showing our attitude of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding things [etwas]. So as I repeatedly heard words put in their proper places in a variety of sentences, I gradually gathered of what things [Dinge] they were the signs, and once my mouth was trained to those signs, through them I uttered my desires.15
Cum ipsi (maiores homines) appellabant rem aliquam, et cum secundum eam vocem corpus ad aliquid movebant, videbam, et tenebam hoc ab eis vocari rem illam, quod sonabant, cum eam vellent ostendere. Hoc autem eos velle ex motu corporis aperiebatur: tamquam verbis naturalibus omnium gentium, quae fiunt vultu et nutu oculorum, ceterorumque membrorum actu, et sonitu vocis indicante affectionem animi in petendis, habendis, reiiciendis, fugiendisve rebus. Ita verba in variis sententiis locis suis posita, et crebro audita, quarum rerum signa essent, paulatim colligebam, measque iam voluntates, edomito in eis signis ore, per haec enuntiabam.(conf. 1.8.13)
"Augustine," observes Wittgenstein, "does not speak of there being any difference between kinds of word."16 It is as if language were composed primarily of a string of nouns, and the little words in between would take care of themselves. Eventually he says, "Augustine describes the learning of human language as if the child came into a strange country and did not understand the language of the country; that is, as if it already had a language, only not this one."17
This description Wittgenstein "corrects" with his notion of the language-game. The German word, das Sprachspiel, unlike its conventional English [End Page 507] translation, immediately proposes an aural context for the "language-game" through the cognate relationship of Sprach and sprechen. (In English, we have no such linguistic connection between "language" and "speaking"; we have even lost the connection made by romance languages between "language" and "tongue.") Similarly, the term Sprachspiel proposes a grammar of relationality that Wittgenstein finds lacking in Augustine—for a "speaking-game" is a game played between people, and the way in which they string together words in an individual instance constitutes a particular unreproducible moment in that game. Wittgenstein is trying to find a way to describe what language does that escapes ostensive definitions and escapes the preexisting picture of a language. How can one talk about coming into language without presupposing knowledge of a language? Or, more precisely, knowledge of how language works?
Wittgenstein clearly knew the Confessions well. Indeed, their influence on the PI is profound, though largely unspoken. And we may note that in his discussion of Confessions 1.8.13 he is being somewhat ungenerous to Augustine.18 Res, the "thing" named by Augustine's elders at the beginning of the passage, is far more indeterminate than Wittgenstein would have us believe. His translation of res shifts in the course of the passage from Gegenstand to Ding. But the sense is far closer to Gegenstand. Res, like Gegenstand, can be a topic of discussion or enquiry, not just a thing; it is certainly more susceptible to being a "not nothing." Similarly, appellare means to address or request, not just to name: to speak of naming makes the relationship between signified and signifier too concrete. In fact, an important development takes place in this passage. At first, the not-quite-infant Augustine is dealing with concrete nouns: he is watching and listening as people indicate objects, and learning how to use certain nouns for certain objects. But he proceeds to the far more sophisticated level of placing words correctly in sentences—and this is where the more expansive sense of res comes into play. Note that Augustine is describing the use of words in context, and always in encounters with other people. Language is a social tool; its use is developed in community, and in action.19 This seems far closer to the Sprachspiel than Wittgenstein admits.
Be that as it may, the Confessions passage that opens the PI is suffused with an intentionality that is part of what Wittgenstein rejects in this account [End Page 508] of language acquisition. A little earlier, Augustine writes that "with groans and random utterances and motions of the body I would intend to utter what my heart had perceived" (cum gemitibus et vocibus variis et variis membrorum motibus edere vellem sensa cordis mei), which is pleasingly non-propositional but still laden with purpose. Wittgenstein could, however, have started from a far more pregnant passage in Augustine's account.
For once upon a time, as an infant, I did not even know Latin, and yet I learned by paying attention, without any fear and suffering, amid the endearments of nurses and the jokes of well-wishers and the happiness of playmates.
nam et latina aliquando infans utique nulla noveram, et tamen advertendo didici sine ullo metu atque cruciatu, inter etiam blandimenta nutricum et ioca adridentium et laetitias adludentium.(conf. 1.14.23)
Note the loving, playful context in which the acquisition of language takes place. Note too that none of the nouns amid which Augustine learns specifically designates words or language: blandimenta, ioca, laetitiae. Two of them, indeed, would more naturally suggest an action or a mood, and even ioca are not necessarily verbal. Then again, the infant is placed amid those nursing him and smiling upon him and playing with him. None of these images suggests volition or intentional communication: the infant is not coming into language as if it were learning a foreign language; it is encountering language as part of a fully embodied experience in the world. As in the earlier passage, language is developed in community; but it is not only language that is being developed, and the presumed obligation of language to convey thoughts, to communicate, is barely present in this account.
In its images of laughter and play, this second account of language acquisition puts the Spiel into Sprachspiel. It also, we might say, begins to produce a grammar of laughter. For what can we say of laughter, of jokes, of happiness? How can we point at something so evanescent? How can we name them? And yet here, as they are performed, they are provided with a grammar that gives the reader a sense of what they are. Again, each of these elements and actions is a "not-nothing"—but none of them is a something. Another indication of Wittgenstein's debt to Augustine, I think, is contained (fitly enough) in a parenthetical remark at the end of a paragraph late in the work: "(A smiling mouth smiles only in a human face.)"20 Here is Augustine's humanity and [End Page 509] his attempt to suggest not-nothingness. Here too the openness of function. What is communicated here? What is communicated by Augustine's nurses and playmates? Not something you can point to. But not nothing either.
There remains a fundamental difference between the thought of Augustine and Wittgenstein here, as O'Donnell points out in his commentary on conf. 1.8.13: that in describing the acquisition of language, Augustine takes for granted a coherent and pre-existing self that will learn to speak, where Wittgenstein emphasizes the way in which the self comes into existence in language.
Both the PI and the Confessions are playful works—and I say this in the full knowledge that Wittgenstein, as I have said, called the Confessions possibly the "most serious book ever written." We need here to expand a conventional translation of Wittgenstein's terminology. When we translate das Sprachspiel as "the language-game," we suggest a structured game that obeys certain rules; the rules of a grammar, perhaps. And yet the meaning of "play" seems at least as important. Wittgenstein periodically adverts to the structure of games, particularly of chess—but always to subvert them, to show how inadequately we capture a situation in language. The Confessions and the PI are, in fact, seriously playful. They both play around at the limits of language.21 Each is preoccupied with exploring a living grammar in the place of formal logic. Augustine lets in laughter at his description of coming into language. Wittgenstein, commensurate with his obliquity and misdirection, tends to let in laughter when one least expects it.
Why does this matter? For the purposes of literary studies, it matters because laughter points the way to an expanded interpretation of language and what language can do. And what it can avoid doing, for that matter. The not-nothing of laughter does not belong in a text but is suggested in the gaps and impossibilities and untranslatabilities of a text. Laughter proves nothing, solves nothing, does not even make sense.
Let me try to suggest what I mean through a reading of two texts. The second of these I shall draw, once again, from the Confessions. But for the first, I shall move backwards in time some 450 years, and try to look anew at a poem that most of us will have read in our first couple of years of learning Latin. It is by Catullus; and for the bold idea of juxtaposing Catullus and Augustine, I am indebted to Roy Gibson.22 [End Page 510]
Yesterday, Licinius, while we were at leisure, we played around a lot in my notebooks, since it suited to be flirtatious: each of us writing little verses played in this meter and that one, giving tit-for-tat as we joked and drank. And I went away fired up by your charm, Licinius, and your adroitness: food could not please me, sleep could not cover my eyes in peace; I was out of control, I rolled all over the bed, dying to see the dawn, to speak with you and be together. But once my limbs were worn out with the strain and lying limp on the mattress, this poem, darling, I composed for you, for you to glimpse my anguish.
Hesterno, Licini, die otiosimultum lusimus in meis tabellis,ut convenerat esse delicatos:scribens versiculos uterque nostrumludebat numero modo hoc modo illoc,reddens mutua per iocum atque vinum.atque illinc abii tuo leporeincensus, Licini, facetiisque,ut nec me miserum cibus iuvaretnec somnus tegeret quiete ocellos,sed toto indomitus furore lectoversarer, cupiens videre lucem,ut tecum loquerer simulque ut essem.at defessa labore membra postquamsemimortua lectulo iacebant,hoc, iucunde, tibi poema feci,ex quo perspiceres meum dolorem.(Catullus 50.1-17 [ed. Mynors, OCT])
Laughter is nowhere explicitly mentioned in this poem that is, in some ways, simply about writing a poem. And yet laughter—as an expression of joy, and as something that bubbles round the limits of language—suffuses it. The connection with play is instantly established—lusimus, repeated three lines later as ludebat: the activity goes nowhere, it is not "worthwhile," it is pursued for its own sake. The two companions are on holiday, otiosi. The setting is one of joking and drinking, per iocum atque vinum. The poem is spangled with elusive words that indicate playfulness, wit, charm—delicatos, lepore, facetiis, iucunde. In this poem about writing a poem—about writing this poem, in fact—there are no words for words. We have, it seems, reached the limits of writing. The closest we get is versiculos, and that is undone a few lines later by its aural association with versarer, "I tossed about." Similarly, lecto seems to pun on the past participle of the verb for reading, until that echo is in turn undone, rendered absurd, by the diminutive form lectulo. The simulacrum of the poem is, in fact, consistently aural, with the mention of meter immediately underscored by the playful repetition modo hoc modo illoc, and with the [End Page 511] desire of the poet coalescing around the need to speak with Licinius, not to write to him, even as (ironically) he resorts to his notebooks.
Most importantly, this is a poem about nothing. Or rather, it is not about something. There is no there there. We can say, it is about a poem, but the claim turns back on itself, because the poem is about itself. And yet, the poem is not nothing. It displays the qualities it narrates, the charm, the elusiveness. There is almost nothing you can point to. No firm image endures once it is over. And yet it has happened, an ebullition of delight for its own sake. Perhaps we can, then, invoke the hermeneutics of laughter.
Now I return to the Confessions and a passage that is, at first sight, utterly remote from laughter. But remember how Augustine has portrayed the process of coming into language; it is relevant here because he is yet again coming into language, not—as Wittgenstein charges him—like a child in a strange country, but like someone who truly cannot grasp the notion or structures of language for the thing he is trying to interpret. Augustine is commenting on the second verse of Genesis, "And the earth was a formless void." He cannot understand the notion of formlessness.
And if my voice and my pen were to confess to you everything that you have unknotted for me on that problem, what reader will hold out long enough to grasp it? But that will not make my heart stop giving you my honor and my song of praise for these things that it cannot adequately say in words. For the very mutability of mutable things contains all possible forms into which mutable things are changed. What is this mutability? Is it the soul? The body? The semblance of a soul or body? If it could be called a "nothing-something" and an "is-not-is", I would call it that.
et si totum tibi confiteatur vox et stilus meus, quidquid de ista quaestione enodasti mihi, quis legentium capere durabit? nec ideo tamen cessabit cor meum tibi dare honorem et canticum laudis de his quae dictare non sufficit. mutabilitas enim rerum mutabilium ipsa capax est formarum omnium in quas mutantur res mutabiles. et haec quid est? numquid animus? numquid corpus? numquid species animi vel corporis? si dici posset "nihil aliquid" et "est non est," hoc eam dicerem.(12.6.6)
Trying to talk about formlessness, Augustine resists the tempting solution that Wittgenstein implicitly mocks in the PI: "Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit."23 [End Page 512]
He rejects the notion that formlessness is either a soul (animus) or a body or some sort of extrapolation from one or the other. In a Wittgensteinian stretch of the possibilities of language, he calls it nihil aliquid or est non est. Remember again Wittgenstein's observation on pain: it "is not a something, but not a nothing either!" I am not suggesting that laughter bubbles under the surface here in the way it does in the poem by Catullus. But the delight in the unspeakable—what cannot be spoken—is vividly present. Augustine declares the limits of his voice and his pen, or at least of the patience of his readers; and yet, he says, "that will not make my heart stop giving you my honor and my song of praise for these things that it cannot adequately say in words." This wordless joy, the delighted disinterested praise of God (Augustine uses the word gratis), is the animating force of the Confessions. It suggests the presence of unforced laughter—the laughter of delight—even when laughter is not literally narrated in the text. That is something that is very hard to describe. And yet it is fundamental to the texture of the Confessions, to the relationship of the Confessions to God, and to Augustine's attempts to sketch what a God beyond substance and beyond language might even be. Is laughter here, in some way, the materiality of God's creation, the unformed formlessness? It is Wittgenstein who helps to move us toward speaking what might be going on. Or at least, who helps us to think about the ways in which our speaking fails us.
8. "[Die] Natur der Untersuchung selbst … zwingt uns, ein weites Gedankengebiet, kreuz und quer, nach allen Richtungen hin zu durchreisen." PI, Preface. I use Anscombe 1958 for Wittgenstein's German, but translate the Latin myself.
9. "Die gleichen Punkte, oder beinahe die gleichen, wurden stets von neuem von verschiedenen Richtungen her berührt und immer neue Bilder entworfen." PI, Preface; I change Anscombe's "sketches" to "pictures," presuming their connection to the "logical picture."
10. "Sie ist kein Etwas, aber auch nicht ein Nichts!"
11. "Das Ergebnis war nur, daß ein Nichts die gleichen Dienste täte, wie ein Etwas, worüber sich nichts aussagen läßt. Wir verwarfen nur die Grammatik, die sich uns hier aufdrängen will./Das Paradox verschwindet nur dann, wenn wir radikal mit der Idee brechen, die Sprache funktioniere immer auf eine Weise, diene immer dem gleichen Zweck: Gedanken zu übertragen—seien diese nun Gedanken über Häuser, Schmerzen, Gut und Böse, oder was immer." PI 304 (Anscombe 1958, 102).
13. "Ein Bild hielt uns gefangen. Und heraus konnten wir nicht, denn es lag in unsrer Sprache, und sie schien es uns nur unerbittlich zu wiederholen." PI 115 (Anscombe 1958, 48). Compare the "logical picture," das logische Bild, of Tractatus 2.18-2.21 (Pears and McGuinness 1961).
15. I have inserted Wittgenstein's own translation of res each time the word occurs.
17. "Augustinus beschreibe das Lernen der menschlichen Sprache so, als käme das Kind in ein fremdes Land und verstehe die Sprache des Landes nicht; das heißt: so als habe es bereits eine Sprache, nur nicht diese" PI 32 (Anscombe 1958, 15–16). This thought seems to be continued at PI 207. See also Wetzel 2013 on the child's estrangement, and on this passage as signaling Wittgenstein's own Confessions.
18. Indeed, Burnyeat 1987 suggests that the removal of the earlier part of conf. 1.8.13 is a sort of misdirection on Wittgenstein's part, in which he accepts Augustine's problem of how the mind teaches itself but tries to provide an answer in "naturalistic" rather than divine terms.
19. Compare Tractatus 4.002: "Everyday language is a part of the human organism and is no less complicated than it" (Die Umgangssprache ist ein Teil des menschlichen Organismus und nicht weniger kompliziert als dieser: Pears and McGuinness 1961, 34).
21. The PI expands on the hint in the preface of the Tractatus: "It will … only be in language that the limit [of thought] can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense" (Die Grenze wird … nur in der Sprache gezogen werden können und was jenseits der Grenze liegt, wird einfach Unsinn sein: Pears and McGuinness 1961, 2). See also Tractatus 6.42, on the impossibility of putting ethics into words.