The Highest Laugh

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) - Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) – Johannes Vermeer

Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.

For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.

In Simon Critchley’s essay superb  On Humour he writes,

For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”

Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

This theory of a superiority of humour  fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Still not available on Lovefilm, but I am so very eager to watch Tom and Viv, which highly questionably “pins the Eliots’ train wreck of a marriage almost entirely on Viv’s hormones and drug use”.

Spotlight on Jane Bowles’ Plain Pleasures (1966): outstanding post on writer Dennis Cooper’s blog – “her small oeuvre is distinguished by its quality and innovation.”

Yet another wonderful Paris Review interview, this time with Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.

Close-Up on Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray: An interview with French actress and filmmaker Marie Rivière.

The Most Beautiful Perhaps – review of Quentin Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup De Dés.

From Monoskop, a download of Sherry Turkle’s highly absorbing Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, an old favourite.

From Michelle, one of my favourite reviewers, a review of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

A wonderful, informative post about American poet Tina Darragh.

I’m looking forward to Simon Critchley’s new book, co-authored with his wife, the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster, The Hamlet Doctrine. This brilliant interview from The White Review discusses The Tragic and its Limits.

From HTMLGiant, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s great essay on the long take.

Katie Roiphe’s column on Ian McEwan is arguably better than reading her subject’s novels. “Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth reveals the deepest ways in which men misunderstand women.”

Open Culture offers up Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Intimate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spotlight.

Richard Kovitch’s review of Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G Ballard 1967 – 2008. Richard quotes Germaine Greer’s so very accurate pronouncement that, “JG Ballard is a great writer who has never written a great novel.”

How about going on a chronological journey through every Woody Allen film?

A short story: The Confessions of Helen Westley by Djuna Barnes.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

The unshackled cultivation of Rimbaud

Unsettling collection of photos of life in a 1938 psychiatric hospital

“Ridiculously beautiful locations are tough…”

The Paris massacre that time forgot, 51 years on

The TLS try to classify the ‘unclassifiable’ Clarice Lispector

Guy Debord’s letters (1957-60)

English translations of all 12 journals of the Situationists

Collection of photos of the uprising and general strike in May 68 in France

“Katie Kitamura has earned comparison to great writers like Nadine Gordimer and Herta Müller.”

Melville House is republishing Mary Maclane’s ‘I Await the Devil’s Coming’

Surrealism and the Literary Imagination: A Study of Breton and Bachelard

AM Homes is a ‘social arsonist’ (as opposed to an anti-social arsonist?)

Simon Critchley – 8 part series on Martin Heidegger & Being and Time

“if I can’t have womb tanks I don’t want your revolution.”

Read the first chapter of César Aira’s new novel, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

LInks of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Rebecca Solnit elegantly explains ‘mansplaining’.

Byung-Hun Min’s expansive grayscale landscape photography.

Anneleen Masschelein on Dylan Trigg’s The Memory of Place: Flesh World: On the New Uncanny.

A Conversation with author and architect, Suad Amiry.

Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film.

Ingmar Bergman’s sensual Summer films and the transience of youth. Seasonal Disorder by José Teodoro.

Waggish post: On Georges Dreyfus’ 15 years as a Buddhist monk & Buddhist scholasticism: The Sound of Two Hands Clapping.

Simon Critchley, Atheist Religious Thinker on Utopia and the Fiction of Faith.

The wonderful Rebecca West, an interview from the BBC archives.

Face to face with JG Ballard, interview from the BBC archives.

Sven Birkerts’ brilliant essay on Sebald’s Vertigo.

Jacques Derrida: The Last Interview. [PDF]

Brian Dillon: reading Barthes throughout his formative intellectual years.

The Imaginary Museum: Collecting Paul Celan.

Brilliant interview with Simon Critchley:’On Philosophers, Violence, Humour and Tragedy’.

How to begin reading Gilles Deleuze.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

One of my favourite photographers, Hiroshi Sugimoto, shows his cabinet of curiosities.

As Thomas Jefferson advocated, each generation must create its own constitution. Hardt and Negri’s Declaration [full].

Owned and Operated (Full Documentary) | The Zeitgeist Movement Official Blog.

Read the Verso Books edition of Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Full text of the main essay.

“The novel has become a quaint, emotively life-changing, and utterly marginal phenomenon.” Simon Critchley on contemporary art.

Improvising the Future: Theory, Practice, and Struggle in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Towards a New Manifesto.

She’s a Punk Rocker UK is a wonderful documentary by and about punk rock women.

Let’s take heart from some remarkable examples of resistance to mafia capitalism from around the world.”

Post-Aristotelian Philosophy.

The Paper Architecture of Aleksandr Brodsky and Ilya Utkin – wonderful drawings.

Profile Of A Writer: Borges (1983).

Bookshelves of a creatives (Minor apologies for this link, but according to Favstar, it is the most popular link I ever tweeted.)

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Problem of Motivational Force


The mistake of most moralists has always been to consider man as an essentially reasonable being. Man is a sensitive being, who consults solely his passions in order to act, and for whom reason serves only to palliate the follies his passions lead him to commit.

Collected Writings
[via Simon Critchley: The Faith of the Faithless]

How do we speak of God-without religion


“We are moving toward a completely religionless time,” where even those who honestly describe themselves as religious “do not in the least act up to it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge
[via Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless]

Simon Critchley’s Impossible Objects

As I wrote in my last post, Simon Critchley is a philosopher eager to communicate his ideas to people outside the academy. He considers philosophy ‘a way of relearning to look at the world’. I read Critchley’s books because they offer insight and  a way to read philosophers I find more opaque (for example Derrida, Blanchot, Levinas). He encourages me to explore more deeply the recurrent themes that have exorcised thinkers since Plato.

This book, Impossible Objects, if you haven’t read Critchley, is a primer to his dominant themes (to date): mortality and nihilism, the ethics of deconstruction, neo-anarchism, humour and tragedy and secular faith. During the course of the nine interviews that make up the book, Critchley riffs on Wallace Stevens, Beckett, Kafka and the epiphanic discovery of Can’s song ‘Halleluhwah‘. If you have read Critchley I imagine you need no encouragement to obtain this book by whatever means are your habit.

The Education of Grown-ups

Impossible Objects is a collection of interviews with philosopher Simon Critchley, whose work has appealed to me for several years. His approach to philosophy is pragmatic and mostly comprehensible to those outside the academy. In the interview entitled Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not, Critchley states,

I want to state that, at the level of method, I don’t want to make a huge distinction between philosophers and human beings. I think philosophy is the theoretical elaboration or elucidation of intuitions that are common to human beings. Philosophy just makes that manifest through a certain discipline of reflection. So philosophy, for me, is a way of relearning to look at the world, a world that is familiar to us, that we know, that is shared by all human beings. I think that when people are at their best, when they are thinking, reflecting, cogitating, then they are doing philosophy. So I don’t see philosophy as an academic exercise. If I did, I think I’d slit my wrists and go sit in a bath and die like a good Roman. For me, philosophy is an activity of thought that is common to human beings. Human beings at their best. Or, to use the phrase of Stanley Cavell, “Philosophy is the education of grown-ups.”

Socrates would have applauded the idea that philosophy should be approachable. I’ve been fascinated by philosophy since I was a Kierkegaard-obsessed teenager, but there are texts that are inaccessible to a lay reader. I recall being thrilled by Sartre’s Being and Nothingness though there was much in that wonderful book that was beyond me. That didn’t stop its formative influence. I’ve been less successful with Kant and Heidegger and long given up on Hegel.

I keep looking for a way into Derrida’s work, of whom Critchley says,

I think Derrida is simply the most intelligent philosopher that I have ever read or heard; his capacity to develop thinking, improvise thinking, assimilate concepts, and generate new ideas is absolutely extraordinary. I think he is exemplary as a philosopher. He’s a bit like Miles Davis in the 1960’s.

Nicholas Royle’s Jacques Derrida comes highly recommended, and will be my next step towards Derrida’s writings.

The first interview in Impossible Objects is a discussion that focusses on Critchley’s first published book, The Ethics of Deconstruction, which opens up an ethical reading of Derrida through the work of Levinas. Fascinating as it is, without prior reading of Levinas (and Habermas), much of the discussion meant little to me.