Laughter and meaning

I am punching away at my dissertation and just finished, for the second time, a brilliant book by a German theologian, Karl-Joseph Kuschel. Its called ‘Laughter: A theological reflection‘. He sets out limits to what Christians should laugh at, and how to conceptualize God’s laughter. The first part of this post relates to the interesting metaphysical and hermeneutic under-argument in the book. From there the second part takes it to an understanding of proper laughter.

The starting point of the book analyses Umberto Eco’sThe Name of the Rose‘ which the author holds up as a post-modern piece of art, used by Eco to absolutise laughter. Kuschel says of our times that ‘there is no longer such a thing as the truth about God, and an attitude of irony, parody and laughter about everything under the sun has taken its place.’ (p.127)

On the contrary, using Ecclesiastes and Job, Kuschel shows that there is precedent for Godly men to face and articulate the problem of existence and meaning but end their work by staying loyal to the calling God has given each of them, laughing with him rather than laughing without limit. Kuschel seeks to articulate the limits of laughter, making true laughter an act of, and with restraint.

But the bigger question, the problem of meaning and how laughter relates to meaning, language and the relationship between the sign and the signified is opened up well in this work. Kuschel argues that for Eco the sign and what it signifies, and the relationship between many signs has lost significance in the grand narrative (that of course can only be constructed). The responses, the therefore or the how shall we then live is most consistently embodied in ironic, cynical laughter; laughter without restraint. Thus it is either uncontrolled laughter or an existence of nothingness/emptiness that are left as options for Eco’s two heroes.

ITAR-TASS 76: MOSCOW, RUSSIA. JUNE 22, 2009. Artist Vojo Stanic attends the opening of his exhibition entitled «Tender Logic of Easy Absurdity» at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Igor Kubedinov) Photo via Newscom

In the story both the hero’s are quite correctly fighting against the tyranny of the inquisition or the absurdity and apocalyptic outlook of the Benedictine monk, two embodiments of those that would seek to absolutise Truth. However, Kuschel believes, contra Eco, that more than simply brute truths (facts) can be known, and therefore and even perhaps because of the correct ordering of laughter, we can and must laugh and Know (yes with a capital) God.

Equally, laughing with God means that we, as those who believe truth can be known, don’t then become the inquisition, seeking out heresy and quenching it by force, nor will we shy away from laughter like the dire apocalyptic Benedictine might. Rather, we embrace a laughter of joy and trust, and thus laugh with God, just like Sarah did after Issac was born. As Kuschel reminds us, ‘Issac’ means the laughter of God. (Before she was pregnant, Sarah laughed at God because she did not believe, because of her age, that she could have children. God laughed at her because he knew how silly her misguided laughter was since he knew what would happen.)

Moving this discussion to a parallel in my life, at Church we are currently being taught 1 Corinthians. The passage which recently came up, the significance of which jolted me with excitement, was where Paul problamatises Eco’s beliefs about knowledge. For those of you inclined to look for terminology, I think Paul is using critical realism at its best:

“Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.” (1 Cor 14:10-11)

Five jesters perform a merry dance, perhaps an early version of the English Morris Dance. Entitled 'Danse de Fous' - copy of a miniature from a 13th century manuscript. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) What St. Paul is doing is stating, or perhaps re-stating something which must be obvious to anybody who has had a conversation, or shared a joke with somebody from a different culture and language background. It is hard to talk across cultures, but even though there are all sorts of languages, each of them has meaning, non of them is without significance. Knowledge is relational, language and conversely laughter shows how that relationship works itself out. This is something Eco would not deny, yet somehow the question still lingers.

And back to Kuschel: So what then does laughing with others look like, if we want to laugh with God and our neighbor, but do not share the same language and culture? Kuschel’s answer is that we don’t laugh down. So we never laugh from a stance of cultural superiority that lacks grace. Rather we laugh with those who are in pain and who suffer oppression, we laugh with them because the last recourse–their and our last recourse, is to laugh. Above all, we seek to understand in relation, so that we might laugh.

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5 Responses to Laughter and meaning

  1. Phil C says:

    I need to read this through properly.

    But I noticed this: “the sign and what it signifies, and the relationship between many signs has lost significance” – pun intended? 🙂

  2. Lauri Moyle says:

    Indeed, why not.

  3. Kyle says:

    Hi Lauri,

    I’m enjoying the posts. Still trying to get my head round this one though.

    I thought you might be interested to know I came across this book mentioned in another blog post. It’s here:

  4. Tomas Profant says:

    I do not remember the book really and when I was reading it I was not aware of the differences between enlightenment and post-modernism. It may sound strange since Eco is a postmodernist, but for me the book represented a typically modernist victory of reason over the dogmatic church. I understood laughter there as liberating and the book from Aristotle is constructed as some kine of ultimate Truth (just as the Bible), which is to be found. The Truth is laughter. But this is a very modernist thought (as I think Eco would agree) and I would argue that laughter is just another sign in the world of signifiers and signified. It is simply another form of expression, indeed a very useful one for critique, but it is not and cannot be the final significant as the word God or Civilization are according to many in this world. There is no ultimate Truth in God just as there is no Truth in reason or in laughter. Therefore, the depiction of laughter as a single book capable of revealing The Secret is, in my mind, misinterpreting the way post-structuralists would understand it. Myriads of laughs are cases of everyday power struggles in Foucauldian sense and as such can be just as oppressing as they can be liberating, depending on the interpretation we give them. Sometimes we need to laugh at laughs and sometimes we need to laugh at laughs laughed at laughs…

    • Lauri says:

      Thanks for the response Tomas. As always a delight to read your thoughts. I have to get back to you but I will. I am finishing my MA Thesis, which anticipates some of what you are saying and hopefully responds to it.

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