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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Historical Perspectives

Many great minds have looked at laughter, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Darwin, and Freud, and yet laughter remains a bit enigmatic (Provine, 2000). Plato “frowned upon” laughter, and saw it “as weakening the character and confusing the mind” (Morreall, 1983, p. 102), and Plato feared laughter's power to disrupt the state (Provine, p. 13).

Aristotle said that “of all living creatures, only man is endowed with laughter.” Although Aristotle was wrong about this, since other creatures also seem to laugh, such as chimpanzees and possibly dolphins, Aristotle saw laughter as “man’s highest spiritual privilege, inaccessible to other creatures . . . . According to Aristotle, a child does not begin to laugh before the fortieth day after his birth; only from that moment does it become a human being” (Bakhtin, 1963/1968, pp. 68-69).  Laughter was thought of as a gift from the gods by the ancients, and was considered to have divine origins.  In a footnote, Bakhtin notes that the creative power of laughter was known not only to the Greeks and Romans but to the Egyptians as well, where according to Egyptian alchemists:

The creation of the world is attributed to divine laughter:
when god laughed seven gods were born to rule the world… when he burst out laughing there was light, he burst out laughing for the second time the waters were born, at the seventh burst of laughter the soul appeared.” (p. 71)

Thus, we could all be the result of a cosmic joke!  “Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning,” according to Bakhtin (1963/1968), who summarizes the renaissance view of laughter:

It is one of the essential forms of truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world; the world seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from a serious standpoint.”  (p. 66)

Bakhtin (1963/1968) also explains that laughter is a universal principle that heals and regenerates.  Appropriately, laughter is seen in this transformational light in Mary Poppins.  Tricks often accompany transformation, and there is a trickster side to laughter, too, revealing its disruptive and dual qualities.  Henri Bergson wrote a famous essay on laughter at the turn of the Twentieth Century and Hanson (2001), quoting Bergson, notes:

‘It is a transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disrupted . . .’ [Bergson] defined a situation as creative and comic if it belongs simultaneously to two independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely meanings at the same time.” (p. 60)

Syncronisitically concurrent with Mary Poppins, Koestler’s theory of “bisociation” in 1964 posits that the humor experience involves a sudden shift between, or combination of, different interpretive frames.  The set-up creates one frame of reality or interpretation.  The punch line achieves its humorous effect by suddenly shifting to another, equally coherent, but competing frame. (Glenn, 2003, p. 20) Laughter is also a primary frame maker for play, and has a metacommunication function, and can both ratify and bring about play.


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