Daniel Sibony

The Meanings of Laughter and Humour Publication date : February 25, 2010

“Laughter takes many forms: the nervous giggle, the hollow, otherworldly laugh, the forthright burst of laughter celebrating release, laughter at the grotesque. Then there is the laughter of resistance. In fact, all laughter is a form of resisting constraints, but only in passing because resistance is not its goal. Does laughter even have a goal? Vehement laughter, with pointed goals, is fake laughter. We do not laugh for something, we just laugh. Laughter cannot help us get rid of our shortcomings, but it can make us feel better — right away. Laughter signifies a certain freedom, a predisposition that no technique can lead to unfailingly. It requires a spark, an event, surprise and a host of other ingredients. Laughter is “over-determined” and when it erupts all these indispensable ingredients come together. But laughter also demands a certain form, without which the very thing that made us laugh leaves us cold. It requires the right note, a lightness of being, a certain rigor in an encounter in which one trips over oneself and one's doubles.

“Laughter is also governed by timing: if we have not planned to laugh, a joke or a scene may or may not provoke laughter. Sometimes there is a moment's silence: the interlocutor has not understood the joke, but as soon as he gets it he bursts out laughing. The moment's silence is the time it takes to enter the joke, or the game, but not to enter the realm of laughter. Laughter means we are in the sphere of chaos, at the frontier between two realities — our own where we would actually rather stay, and the other reality into which we would like to escape,” writes Daniel Sibony.

• Bergson has left posterity an analysis of laugher linked to a situation; Baudelaire concerned himself with the grotesque; and Freud examined the hidden sense of wit. Daniel Sibony attempts here to provide a complete reappraisal of laughter, in all its aspects and dimensions, bringing into play our relationship with ourselves and with others.

• From Woody Allen to such stand-up comics as Raymond Devos, from Abraham to the Marx Brothers, from direct, joyful laugher to the self-deprecating chortle, Sibony dissects laughter in it many forms, with a psychoanalyst's finesse.

Daniel Sibony is a psychoanalyst and the author of Don de soi ou partage de soi? (2000), Lectures bibliques (2006) and Marrakech, le départ (2009).