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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF LAUGHTER
Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.
© 1913, 1919, 1923
LAUGHTER AND NOVELTY
Funny pictures, caricatures, cartoons, illustrations that so amuse our populace and are in such a demand in our newspapers, magazines, and reviews, political and social cartoons, like merry-andrews and clowns, employ various devices in their technique, all based on the fundamental principle: the deviation from the customary, the habitual, and the usual. The cartoonist, like the clown in our popular amusement places, plays on the fundamental principle inherent in every human breast: laughter and ridicule at what is regarded as deviations, abnormalities. The cartoonist makes the body small, the head inordinately large, the nose long, the chin protruding, the teeth like tusks. By disfigurements, distortions, deformations, defects, blemishes, and malformations the cartoonist manages to heap ridicule on persons and situations he wishes to revile. Variations from the accepted standard of the normal are regarded as defects, fit for laughter and ridicule.
The production of defects, like all artistic work, must appear as having independent value, not associated with any thing useful, but like all play, the enjoyment forms so to say a closed circle. The play is enjoyed as play, no matter whether or no it makes the observer better, wiser, or more successful in life. All those effects may come, but they are not directly aimed at by play and art.
The defects are regarded by the observer from a purely artistic standpoint, having deep subconscious associations with fundamental human sympathies and moral life. We laugh at other people; we ridicule their shortcomings and defects, because we regard them as being below the customary standard accepted in the particular age and class of society.
We can understand why new ideas, new views, new reforms are so pitilessly ridiculed. Custom is the soul of society. What deviates from custom is a laughing stock, a butt for ridicule. Aristophanes in his "Clouds" ridicules Socrates and the new-fangled ideas of the Sophists. The Jew, the Christian, the Mohammedan, and the various monotheistic sects ridicule one another; each one is the truth and salvation, each one regards the other as deviating from the custom and usage prevalent in that particular sect and faith. Even a Napoleon ridiculed the proposition of railroads. It was not long ago when people turned their noses at automobiles as being fit for upstarts only. The flying machine and similar radical changes and inventions introduced into social life have passed through the same process of ridicule. In our newspapers, which reflect the opinions and views of the crowd, of mediocrity, any new work, any new theory is held up to ridicule by the pen of the reporter, the pencil of the editor, and the brush of the pseudo-artist, the cartoonist. Instance, the sardonic laughter of the press over the discovery of the hook-worm, the "germ of laziness," in the South.
Changes, reforms in dress, in education, politics, industry, economy, art, and science, if such changes be not trivial, but radical, excite merriment in the public and their representative wiseacres. Guilds and castes, classes and professions are especially averse to the new. The new may prove a poisonous enzyme fermenting and transforming the whole social organization. The sect, the profession, the class are unconsciously inimical to the new-born change which is exposed to ridicule and is thus effectually suppressed.
Plato is aware of the fact that all novelties and reforms lend themselves readily to ridicule. Man is essentially conservative and is kept within the path of custom, as a planet within its orbit. In his "Republic" Plato says:
Not long ago since it was thought discreditable and ridiculous among the Greeks, as it is now among most barbarian nations, for men to be seen naked. And when the Cretans first, and after them the Lacedaemonians, began the practice of gymnastic exercises, the wits of the time had it in their power to make sport of those novelties. But when experience had shown that it was better to strip than to cover up the body and when the ridiculous effect which this plan had to the eye had given way before the arguments establishing its superiority, it was at the same time, as I imagine, demonstrated that he is a fool who thinks any thing ridiculous but that which is evil, and who attempts to raise a laugh by assuming any object to be ridiculous but which is unwise and evil.
We can realize the reason why all novelty is distasteful to man, especially if it is totally unfamiliar. Man is married to habit. Custom and routine govern his actions, his beliefs, his hopes, and his life. All barbaric and ancient societies are based on custom, which takes the place of law and is consecrated by religion. In fact, custom is religion. As Bagehot has pointed out long ago, the greater part of humanity at present, and formerly the whole of mankind, hated and despised novelty. Change is looked upon as bad and wicked; reform is immoral and ungodly. The greatest of evils, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, slavery, human degradation in all its atrocious forms, political and economical, are all consecrated by long habit and custom of ages. In fact, our law goes by custom and precedent, no matter how absurd. The same holds true in the methods of training the young. Man is a creature of habit, a slave of custom. What is unhabitual, uncustomary is irrational, absurd, and stupid, and hence, ludicrous.
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