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Gurdjieff’s Theory of Laughter

Chapter 2
Gurdjieff’s Theory of Laughter
By Sunthar Visuvalingam

Published with author’s permission from: http://www.svabhinava.org/hasy-abh/Thesis-2.html

  1. Though only a theory of laughter, and not of humor, it distinguishes between the binary-structured organismic variable (O) and its physiological resolution (R). O provides the basis of the most viable theory of humor even while preserving its link with laughter (R).
  2. R is the discarding of superfluous energy due to O: an unstable structural opposition between two sharply contrasting simultaneous impressions, positive and negative, of a single stimulus (S). It is not the particular contents—cognitive, affective or motor—but the binary structure of the mutual neutralization that determines O.
  3. R is pleasurable due to relief from tension and not due to amusement (as in humor); O may nevertheless have a painful element.
  4. Though the convulsion O may be unerringly registered by the subject, the constituents and even structure of O may remain unspecifiable.
  5. This laughter mechanism releases possibly pre-existing negative emotions through the negative component of O. Thus, culturally it is a ‘luxury reflex,’ simultaneously valorized for the relative freedom from fundamental biological instincts it provides and also devalorized for its necessary dependence on the same. Marks the ambivalent threshold between nature and culture.
  6. Laughter being infectious, R in another can act independently of S for one’s own laughter (parastha-hâsa). Similarly, another’s laughter induces one to perceive the real S in terms of O.
  7. The possibility and frequency of O’s occurrence is doubly determined: both by the effectiveness of the stimulus (S) and the subjective state of the individual (also his psychic constitution).
  8. Gurdjieff’s ‘behaviorizing’ theory of the psychology of the ordinary modern man is perfectly compatible with the traditional ‘psychology’ underlying brahmanical philosophy; just as the reversal of the ‘behavioral circuit,’ the finality of his system, is the counterpart of the ‘autonomy’ (svâtantrya)of the Trika ‘metapsychology.’ It is within this combined theoretical framework that humor-and-laughter,hâsa-and-hâsya, will be investigated in their universality.
  9. Hâsaclassified as a pleasant emotion despite the neutral character of O, because the resulting laughter (R) is pleasant.
  10. Reduction of Freud’s ‘comic of movement’ to Gurdjieff’s ‘laughter in the moving-instinctive center.’

Gurdjieff offers us a theory of laughter, independent of any state of amusement (= humor), that nevertheless distinguishes between laughter as a physiological response and the organismic cause of it, which he also calls “laughter.” This organismic variable (O), though not necessarily the same as humor, is shown to be a complex structure that is radically different from the visible laughter that results from it. Since his conception of O, though outlined in a most rudimentary and concise form, provides us the basis of the most viable theory of humor that we have been able to elaborate and immediately brings into relief some of the most conspicuous features of this humor-theory, we find it both convenient and opportune to begin with his succinct formulation of the structure of the organismic variable responsible for both humor and laughter. The passage on laughter is reproduced below in full and much of this thesis may be considered to be a systematic interpretation of his theory of laughter, its integration into a general theory of humor, and a sustained exploration of its consequences in various domains. We shall ignore his references to other aspects of his system such as his theory of yawning, of accumulators, centers, and so on, except insofar as they are relevant to our proper understanding of humor.

In addition to what he said about accumulators G. made some very interesting remarks about yawning and laughter.

“There are two incomprehensible functions of our organism inexplicable from a scientific point of view,” he said, although naturally science does not admit them to be inexplicable; these are yawning and laughter. Neither the one nor the other can be rightly understood and explained without knowing about accumulators and their role in the organism.

Laughter is also directly concerned with the accumulators. But laughter is the opposite function to yawning. It is not pumping in , but pumping out, that is the pumping out and the discarding of superfluous energy collected in the accumulators. Laughter does not exist in all the centers, but only in the centers divided into two halves—positive and negative (…). At present we shall take only the intellectual center. There can be impressions which fall at once on the two halves of the center and produce at once a sharp ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Such a simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ produces a kind of convulsion in the center and, being unable to harmonize and digest these two opposite impressions of one fact, the center begins to throw out in the form of laughter the energy which flows into it from the accumulator whose turn it is to supply it. In another instance it happens that in the accumulator there has collected too much energy which the center cannot manage to use up. Then every, the most ordinary, impression can be received as double, that is, it may fall at once on the two halves of the center and produce laughter, that is, the discarding of energy.

You must remember that I am only giving you an outline. You must remember that both yawning and laughter are very contagious. This shows that they are essentially functions of the instinctive and moving centers.”

“Why is laughter so pleasant?” asked someone.

“Because,” G. answered, “laughter relieves us of superfluous energy, which, if remained unused, might become negative, that is, poison. We always have plenty of this poison in us. Laughter is the antidote. But this antidote is necessary only so long as we are unable to use all the energy for useful work. It is said of Christ that he never laughed. And indeed you will find in the Gospels no indication or mention of the fact that any time Christ laughed. But there are different ways of not laughing. There are people who do not laugh because they are completely immersed in negative emotions, in malice, in fear, in hatred, in suspicion. And there may be others who do not laugh because they cannot have negative emotions. Understand one thing. In the higher centers there can be no laughter, because in the higher centers there is no division, and no ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” (emphasis ours, and not the author’s).

(P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, pp.236-37).

Before proceeding further it would be useful to summarize all the distinctive features of this theory of laughter, then we can examine how they are related to each other and to other theories of humor and laughter.

1) Though not a theory of humor, but only of laughter, it distinguishes between laughter as a binary-structured organismic variable (O) and as the physiological resolution of O into an externally measurable response R. Even if O may have corresponding objective structures in the body (or in the stimulus), it is primarily something given in experience.

2) O is the simultaneous registering of a positive and a negative (“yes” and “no”) response to the stimulus S, which being of equal and opposing force cannot be resolved harmoniously into a single integrated experience of S. O is determined not by the particular contents of “yes” and “no” but by their structural opposition, resulting from a simultaneously positive and negative reaction to a stimulus.

3) The opposing impressions constituting O must be sharply contrasted, otherwise they would fuse mutually. Though simultaneous, they must remain distinct. The objective incongruity often held to constitute S is here itself internalized to constitute O, placing the focus on perceived incongruity.

4) O can be registered primarily at the level of thought (intellection), of emotion, or of motor/instinctive bodily response, but wherever it occurs, its fundamental dual structure remains the same. If produced on one level (“center”), there is nothing to prevent O from tending to reproduce itself correlatively on the other levels as well.

5) Laughter as response (R) is only the discarding of superfluous energies generated by this structure or, at most, released through the self-neutralizing mechanism constituted by the opposition internal to O. These energies, prior to their consummation in laughter, may have existed in a relatively undifferentiated state or in the form of other specific, especially negative emotions.

6) Pleasure experienced in laughter (R) is due to relief from this tension of superfluous energy that tends to become poison, and not due to amusement. It must, therefore, be distinguished from the amusement inherent in humor. But O itself is not pleasurable or, at best, both pleasurable and painful, for if one of its components is pleasurable, the opposing one will logically have to be painful in relation to it.

7) The laughter mechanism involves the release of negative emotions, which are closely related to the negative component of O, being either given vent to or actually generated by the latter. Thus, though laughter (R) itself is pleasurable, the mechanism (O) that generates it involves an element of pain or distress. Its stimulus S is not experienced as purely pleasant or purely painful.

8) Even if S tends to evoke two specific (opposing) emotions simultaneously, the convulsion O may discharge them as laughter even before they acquire sufficient consistency to be recognized by the subject as such or such particular emotion (like fear, aggression, sex, etc.). It is only where one component of O has already been evoked and reinforced before the opposing component comes into play, that the former can be recognized as being this or that specific emotion. Even then, it may not be possible to determine, apart from its positivity or negativity, what specific emotion the second component consists of. In short, though the presence of O may unerringly registered by the subject, the constituents of O may well remain unspecifiable.

9) Culturally, laughter is affected with both a negative and a positive value; what Koestler calls a “luxury reflex.” It is a positive index of culture insofar as it indicates a relative freedom from the tyranny of fundamental biological instincts like aggression and fear. But insofar as it necessarily depends on these instincts, which are essential to its mechanism, it is devalorized in practically all traditional societies, being associated with lack of emotional culture, with base characters. Yet, wherever its links with R, hence with the discharge of negative emotions, is minimized, the structure of O may lose this negative connotation. This is the case, as we shall see, with humor which is based on O.

10) Laughter R, being contagious, is essentially a parasympathetic efferent reaction (“instinctive and moving center”). Thus where one’s laughter is occasioned by another’s laughter, without the latter’s stimulus being perceived, the other’s laughter R acts as S for one’s own laughter R without the intervention of O. The effects of the convulsion, normally dependent on O, are produced independently of O. Where the stimulus of the other’s laughter is perceived at the same time as the laughter itself, the latter reinforces one’s tendency to react to the original stimulus with O (and laughter). In short, the constant association of O with R, allows R to induce one to perceive S in terms of O. Thus when I see my wife laughing while looking out engrossed at something through the window, I too rush in anticipation to the window already bracing myself for laughter.

11) O and R may depend as much on the temporary inner state of the subject as on the stimulus S. Our normal attitudes governed by serious purposivity may inhibit the registering of O to particular stimuli. But when we enter the clown-show, we are already predisposed to “let ourselves go” and “to see double” as it were, and the same stimuli may now provoke O and the release of tensions. This indeterminacy renders problematic any empiricist project of measuring the effects of the stimulus of O through the magnitude of the laughter response (cf. the citation from Humor and Laughter, p.81, on p.59 of this thesis).

The psychology of the ordinary “mechanical” man (the pashu of the Tantras) is conceived by Gurdjieff in a manner very similar to the modern behaviorists, which is again very close to the psychology implicit in the philosophical systems of non-tantricized Hinduism: “The scheme made explicit by the Nyâya—Indian philosophical system constructed in order to found and expound logic—is accepted more or less tacitly by all the Brahmanical systems: action is conceived as a sort of response of the subject to a stimulus coming from outside. There is invariably the sequence: knowledge à desire à inclination to act. There is no action which is not preceded by a desire, and the latter is never the desire to act, but the desire for an object, for a precise result that is known to be good for oneself. The knowledge which engenders the desire is often a perception.” Indeed Biardeau has very well expressed “the manner in which Brahmanical philosophy conceives the human psychism: a set of organs destined to passively transmit external data to the âtman and to in this way evoke mechanically in him, starting from these data, desires that will push him to act, a sort of reflex arc passing through consciousness. The ‘interior’ of man is destined only to feel, to enjoy what is furnished by the world….” In fact, Gurdjieff carries this analysis to the point of doing away the notion of self-âtman altogether. But just as the aim of Gurdjieff’s Method is to break this “behavioral circuit”by “making a self,” that is, by acquiring a will that is autonomous and a capacity to do that is independent of external stimuli, so too is the whole perspective of “brahmanical psychology” reversed in the “metapsychology” of the Tantric systems like the Trika. The latter are orientated towards the permanent acquisition of an autonomous Will (svâtantrya)  and the truly creative activity that flows spontaneously from it. In this process of reversal the pashu (“creature”) is transformed into a pati (“Lord”). But, for the present, it is the behavioral model that is of relevance here.

The desire provoked by the external stimulus is two-fold: the desire to obtain (îpsâ) or the desire to avoid (jihâsâ), which find their most obvious manifestation in the emotional response to the stimulus, a response that is so ingrained in human nature that it becomes practically identified with the perception of the stimulus itself. “Man, in the normal state natural to him, is taken as a duality. He consists entirely of dualities or ‘pairs of opposites.’ All man’s sensations, impressions, feelings, thoughts, are divided into positive and negative, useful and harmful, necessary and unnecessary, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. The work of the centers proceeds under the sign of this division…. This is the duality in which proceed all the perceptions, all the reactions, the whole life of man. Any man who observes himself, however little, can see this duality in himself” (Ouspensky, op. cit., p.281). The Nyâya epistemology in fact defines the knowing subject (pramâtr) and his activity (pravrtti) in terms of this fundamental duality which is taken for granted. “One is immediately struck by the fact that it never is a question of knowing purely and simply things in themselves; or rather, and to speak a language that is closer to the Indian experience, the objective knowledge of the real is the knowledge of things insofar as they are affected in relation to us with a certain index of positive or negative value” (Biardeau, CPBC, p.66). Since our emotions towards things are part of our knowledge of them, and immediately affect the latter with a positive or negative index allowing the organism on the biological level to react appropriately and immediately without the intervention of the intellectual center which is generally too slow, therefore these emotions too are divided into pleasurable (sukhâtmaka) and painful (duhkhâtmaka) categories depending on whether they involve a primarily positive (attraction) or negative (aversion) reaction to their respective objects. The two-fold division of the permanent emotions (sthâyi-bhâva) in Indian aesthetics is as follows:

  • Painful (duhkhâtmaka): anger (krodha), sorrow (shoka), fear (bhaya) and disgust (jugupsâ)
  • Pleasurable (sukhâtmaka): love (rati), enthusiasm (utsâha), surprise (vismaya) and laughter (hâsa)

The classification of hâsa here as sukhâtmaka, notwithstanding the dual character of O (laughter as organismic variable) as the mutual neutralization of îpsâ and jihâsâ (“yes” and “no”), is easily explicable by the fact the laughter response R is pleasurable and is often eagerly sought for, through the very mechanism of O. But this does not mean that stimulus itself of O is experienced as wholly desirable. From this point of view, it may be suggested that hâsais actually a weak sukhâtmaka-sthâyin and a parallel may be found in the dual planet Mercury in astrology which, though governing humor (hâsya), is classified as the weakest benefic planet instead of neutral.

Here the objection may arise that Indian psychology has no place for such a double and contradictory perception of a stimulus as in O, for the mind (manas) has been postulated precisely to account for the non-simultaneity of the perceptions produced by the constant contact of the sense-organs with their respective objects (Biardeau, CPBC, pp.112-13). We doubt the relevance of this objection, for in O it is not a question of apprehending and reacting to two different stimuli but of the attention being focused on a single junctional stimulus, bridging two contradictory fields of perceptual organization and orientation, giving rise simultaneously to two opposing reactions. It would make no difference if this simultaneity of the twin-response were conceived of as a rapid oscillation instead. This is how Koestler, for example, justifies his theory of bisociation (= dual and simultaneous association). “It may be objected that we can neither give our attention to two independent subjects at a time nor correlate two independent contexts, as the term bisociation implies…; the psychologically trained reader may reassure himself by not taking the expression “simultaneous” textually, but as referring to a quick oscillation of the bisociated concept between its two contexts accounting for the presence of both (…) in consciousness” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, p.37).

The positive or negative nature of the emotional response colors the perception itself (instinctive center) and determines the motor reaction to it (moving center) and the mental constructions elaborated around the stimulus (intellectual center) and therefore all these correlated centers, along with the emotional center, may be conceived of as having a double aspect intrinsic to them, at least insofar as they are the mainsprings of all worldly transaction and endeavor. With these preliminary clarifications, we are in the position to critically evaluate the relevance of Gurdjieff’s theory of laughter to the conception of hâsya in Indian tradition.

Before we terminate this chapter on Gurdjieff’s theory, it would be useful to underline the relationship between his ‘laughter in the moving center’ and Freud’s category of the ‘comic of movement’ here itself, for we shall not return to it again while criticizing Freud’s own categories of the comic. No doubt, where the moving impulse is determined or colored by a specific emotional motivation the positive or negative character of the former will correspond to that of the emotion itself. But many forms of perceived movement in others, like the comic movements of circus clowns, are able to produce laughter in us without there really being a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ component in the above sense involved. Freud explains the comic of movement in terms of what he calls “ideational mimetics.” When thinking or speaking, the ideas we entertain are constantly emphasized by involuntary automatic gestures and slight muscular contractions of the eyes, etc., which often serve to communicate verbal ideas like those of largeness, smallness, distance, height, etc. The contents of our ideas are accompanied by an ideational mimetics that requires varying degrees of expenditure of nervous energy. The perception of others’ movements also necessarily involves such ideational mimetics in the form of the harmonious coordination of the two complementary vectors that ensure the coherence of this perception. In the first place, we make a certain expenditure of energy in “trying to understand” the movement by putting ourselves in the place of the person making the directed movement; there is expenditure through automatic empathy with him. But at the same time, we make an independent estimation, also automatic, on the basis of the aim of the movement and the nature and distribution of the objects towards which it is directed, as to the scale of expenditure required. In doing so we disregard the person being observed and inwardly behave as though we were ourselves trying to accomplish the objective of the movement. Normally, that is when the magnitude and direction of the perceived movement is adequated to its external objective, the two modes of processing the movement fuse indistinguishably and reinforce each other to constitute the perception of an intelligible movement. But “if the other person’s movement is exaggerated and inexpedient, my increased expenditure in order to understand it is inhibited in statu nascendi, as it were in the act of being mobilized; it is declared superfluous and is free for use elsewhere or perhaps for discharge by laughter” (Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, p.254).  In laughing at the clown’s extravagant movements, “we are laughing at an expenditure that is too large” (ibid., p.249). Going on to examine comic nonsense, where the other person apparently makes a mental effort that is too meager to accomplish the aim as compared to what we would ourselves have expended if directly confronted with the task, Freud concludes that in reality either of the two vectors may be exaggerated or reduce in relation to the other, and all that is essential for the comic effect is that there should be a sharp difference between the two which can provide the surplus energies to be released as laughter. “The comic effect apparently depends, therefore, on the difference between the two cathectic expenditures—one’s own and the other person’s as estimated by ’empathy’—and not on which of the two the difference favors” (ibid., p.255). So too the comic may take place in our own movements alone when there is a quantitative disproportion between our expected and real efforts, such as when we almost fall over when we make a strenuous effort to lift a seemingly heavy weight only to discover that it is made of wax. Freud refers to Theodore Lipps and others to support his claim that “quantitative (and not qualitative) contrast is to be regarded primarily as the source of comic pleasure” (p.259).

Koestler has, however, ably criticized Freud’s analysis as an attempt to reduce qualitative factors to purely quantitative ones. Each of the two complementary vectors contributing to the integral movement or its perception may be considered an independent field having its own coherence. One field consists of the ideational miming of all the complex combinations of muscular tensions, movements and compensations in bodily balance, etc., seen to be adequate to the goal, whereas the other field consists of the same but this time as induced by empathy or through false expectation. The momentary juxtaposition of the two fields and the impossibility of both being operational at exactly the same time results in the unusable energies of both fields being expended as laughter. It is not a question of mere subtraction of the total energy of one field from the larger total, for laughter may occur even when they are quantitatively equivalent but qualitatively different. “In the great majority of comic patterns the ‘gain’ of the redundant energy results from the intersection of fields which differ in the quality of their operators and not in their quantitative scale. It is not a case of energy becoming redundant because there was too much effort, but because it was a type of effort which does not fit the situation. Freud’s attempt to reduce differences in the quality of the behavioral patterns involved in a comic situation to differences in quantity leads to quite absurd results” (Koestler, Insight and Outlook, p.426; for the concept of operative fields see the following chapter III, pp.87-88).  Since in all these processes involved in the comic of movement, there are no deliberate intellectual assessments involved, the ideational mimetics relegate the laughter to Gurdjieff’s ‘moving center.’ What really matters is not the facility with which we are able to pigeon-hole each component into some absolute ‘yes | no’ categories, but the fact that they stand in a mutually incompatible, if not diametrically opposed, relation with each other. Neither impression is inherently indigestible, it is only their juxtaposition that is so.

Though this ‘laughter in the moving-instinctive center’ is certainly effective in the vidûshaka’s incongruous displacement of his limbs (anga-hâsya) , we shall not devote further attention to it as it does not shed any specific light in elucidating his symbolism and function. All that we intended to demonstrate was that even this humble category of the comic conforms rigorously to Gurdjieff’s bisociative theory of laughter.

[This concludes the complete text of chapter II on “Gurdjieff’s Theory of Laughter” ]