What does laughter mean? What is the basal element in the laughable? The greatest of thinkers, from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this little problem, which has a knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation.
The comic spirit has a logic of its own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its madness. It conjures up visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group. Can it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human imagination works, and more particularly social, collective, and popular imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it not also have something of its own to tell us?
Laughter is, above all, a corrective.
It is the result of a mechanism set up in us by nature or by our long acquaintance with social life. It goes off spontaneously; it has no time to look where it hits. Laughter punishes certain failings somewhat as disease punishes certain forms of excess, striking down some who are innocent and sparing some who are guilty. An average of justice may show itself in the total result, though the details, taken separately, often point to anything but justice.
In this sense, laughter cannot be absolutely just. Nor should it be kindhearted either. Its function is to intimidate by humiliating. Now, it would not succeed in doing this had not nature implanted for that very purpose, even in the best of men, a spark of spitefulness or mischief. Here, as elsewhere, nature has utilized evil with a view to good. We have seen that the more society improves, the more plastic is the adaptability it obtains from its members; while the greater the tendency towards increasing stability below, the more does it force to the surface the disturbing elements inseparable from so vast a bulk.
Such is also the truceless warfare of the waves on the surface of the sea, whilst profound peace reigns in the depths below. The billows clash and collide with each other, as they strive to find their level. A fringe of snow-white foam, feathery and frolicsome, follows their changing outlines. From time to time, the receding wave leaves behind a remnant of foam on the sandy beach. The child picks up a handful, and, the next moment, is astonished to find that nothing remains in his grasp but a few drops of water, far more brackish, more bitter than that of the wave which brought it. Laughter comes into being in the selfsame fashion. It indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life. It instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find that the substance is scanty, and the aftertaste bitter.
Adapted from Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Green Integer, 1999), first translated into English in 1911.