Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Literature. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 11 April 2021


  • Anca ParvulescuAnca ParvulescuWashington University in St. Louis


Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential study Rabelais and His World, a generation of scholars have thought of laughter as subversive—of norms, institutions, religion, gender. The literary canon, however, is ripe with situations in which characters refrain from laughing at certain objects.

Are we free to laugh at everything? Can we pick any object—whether a person, a thing, an institution, an abstract concept—and, through various strategies at our disposal, render it laughable? If art, often literature, is the space where we have historically put such questions to the test, have artists been free to squeeze a laugh out of any situation? Have there been any limits? These questions, in various historical iterations, may be as old as literature itself. So are their corollaries: What if one’s laughter offends or pains others? Who are the others a writer, a visual artist, or a stand-up comedian (and those imagined laughing alongside them) is willing to consider in their laughter? Assuming that laughter is one way we witness the formation of emotional communities, in what relation is the freedom to laugh to debates in political philosophy regarding issues of inclusion/exclusion and the dynamic between majority/minority?

The much-invoked but little researched “Western tradition of laughter” (which is highly diverse and contradictory and can hardly be said to constitute a unitary whole) has always had a restricted purview of objects of laughter.1 It has allowed laughter only in certain circumstances, at certain times, and in certain spaces. Of course, there have always been voices that claimed the right to laugh at everything, but these voices existed precisely because this was not the case. The assumption behind the aphorism invoked by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Nothing betrays one’s character more than what one finds laughable,” is that laughing at certain objects sometimes reveals problematic character traits.2 In other words, even if one may be free to laugh at everything, not all laughter is necessarily desirable. George Eliot rewrote Goethe’s statement, replacing character with culture: nothing betrays a culture more than what it finds laughable.3 The occasional but clear indictment of certain laughs—whether individual or collective—is as constitutive of the Western tradition of laughter as its Bakhtin-style celebration of laughter’s transgressive potential.4

As an antidote to largely rhetorical invocations of tradition in the service of the freedom to laugh (often confused with the freedom of speech), we need to revisit our complex and highly ambivalent historical relation to laughter. Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World traced a complex slice of this history. Quentin Skinner has recently taken up the project.5 Laughter: Notes on a Passion aimed to contribute to this intellectual endeavor, as did projects like Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.6 Other projects followed, like Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome.7 If previous work was largely inclined to describe laughter’s potential to shake things up—often against religious and religious-like dogmatic forms of seriousness—tracing a genealogy that called for the restraint of certain laughs, perceived at different historical moments to be problematic, offers another vantage point. The goal is not to endorse such moments of explicit or implicit attempts to restrain or censor laughter. Were such censorship deemed desirable, it would undoubtedly not work; we tend to laugh more copiously when we are told to refrain. The goal is to acknowledge the existence of these moments and ask how we assess them today, especially once we relate them to questions in modern political philosophy. Against contemporary claims to the novelty of the anxiety associated with laughter, it is important to acknowledge that a certain unease has, in fact, shadowed the West’s longstanding celebration of laughter, which has never been absolute. The freedom to laugh has its own convoluted history, distinct from the freedom of speech and often at odds with it.

Literature offers a rich archive for this project. Close attention to literary texts will not tell us how laughter functioned sociologically in Western modernity.8 Rather, literature is a site where various historical anxieties about laughter become legible. Literature offers us chronotopes of laughter in need of extended description. The task of the literary critic is to provide such descriptions.9 An engagement with three literary texts helps plot three distinct moments in this history.

Laughter between Friends

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quijote (1605, 1615), considered by many critics to be the first Western novel, serves as a most eloquent learning text at the beginning of this inquiry.10 Offering, in its own words, materia de grande risa, the Quijote functions as a nodal point of intersection for various early modern theories of laughter.11 How, then, does it answer the questions above?

It is well known that the highly transnational Quijote traffics in racialized representations of the figure of the Moor, reminding us of the West’s intimate, arguably foundational relation to Islamic cultures. In the autobiographical story-within-the-story “The Captive’s Tale,” Zoraida, an Algerian convert to Christianity, advises the Christian slaves she helps escape not to trust Moors: “They are all liars [marfuces].”12 This diegetic lying reinforces the structure of the novel, within which the narrator, who introduces himself as the book’s second author and stepfather, claims that the first author is an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli, and that the manuscript of the Quijote has been translated by a Moorish translator (morisco aljamiado).13 Since we are told that Moors are by definition unreliable—“it’s very natural for people of that race to be liars [mentirosos]”14—ubiquitous narrative unreliability takes over the Quijote.15 Everything the novel puts in front of its reader, including images of unreliable Moors (like those invoked by Zoraida) and Arabic words like marfuces used to describe unreliable Moors, comes from this narrative source, which is subsequently multiplied. (Carrasco becomes an author figure, as does Peter the Puppeteer, the Duke and Duchess, Sancho Panza, and, to some extent, the reader.)16 Lying authors tell stories about lying characters. Since “the author” cannot be trusted, the reliability of Moors remains an open question; they may be liars or not. Ironically, were the second author (not to mention Cervantes himself) to be held responsible for any given instance of racialization in the novel, he could point to the unreliable translator and his foils. The second author “merely” recycles and edits archival material, in an attempt to entertain his readers. Were his text to be thought responsible for the production and reproduction of racialized religious prejudice, in addition to invoking narrative ambiguity, he could always claim, “But it was only a joke!” We read and reread texts like Don Quijote because they dramatize questions and situations (in a transnational, cross-cultural framework and always already postsecular) that continue to inform the contemporary imagination.17 They hold this power over the imagination because they have played an important role in its creation.18

Having transformed himself into a knight errant, Alonso Quijano turned Don Quijote sets out on his first expedition, during which he plans to be properly constituted a knight, according to the rules of chivalry he has extensively studied. He soon arrives at an inn, which he mistakes for a castle, where an innkeeper, whom he mistakes for a castle warden, and two prostitutes, whom he mistakes for two beautiful maidens, welcome him. When faced with Don Quijote’s chivalry, the two women “couldn’t keep from laughing [tener la risa], which they did so heartily that Don Quijote was insulted [don Quijote vino a correrse].”19 “Frivolous laughter is pure stupidity,” Don Quijote chastises them, but his chastisement “made them laugh even harder, which made him still angrier [acrecentaba en ellas la risa y en él el enojo].”20 This is the first instance in which the novel frames a clash over the meaning and appropriateness of laughter. Just as there are multiple perceptions of a windmill or a basin, a burst of laughter can mean different things to different social actors. It takes three to laugh, Sigmund Freud would later argue—in this case the two women laughing together and the butt of the joke, Don Quijote.21 The burst of laughter pleases the first woman, her pleasure travels to her co-laugher, and it insults Don Quijote. The implied reader is a fourth actor: she knows Don Quijote is nutty and is possibly amused by the incongruence between the plane of reality and that of knightly idealism or, depending on whom one asks, madness. In another context, the novel proposes that laughter could be a reaction to madness: “Hearing all this, none of them could doubt he was a madman, so they began to roar with laughter [reír muy de gana].”22 In this case, however, the reader is not asked to identify with the laughter of the two damsels. To be sure, there is pleasure in laughter, and yet the reader is already charmed by Don Quijote’s madness, which yields its own pleasure and which the reader recognizes as a principle of artistic creation. After all, Don Quijote’s own narrative universe is the outgrowth of a certain kind of creative madness.23 If the reader hailed by the text laughs in this scene, which is not at all clear, she pauses for a brief second, oscillating between the promises of these two pleasures. It is this minimalist but structural pause that the episode foregrounds.24

Fig. 1. Don Quijote being knighted (1780). The illustration appeared in the edition of the Quijote published in Madrid by Don Joaquin Ibarra in 1780 (page 22). Newberry Call Number Y 722.C3478.

Image courtesy of The World of Don Quixote

As the scene develops, the innkeeper/castle warden decides to officiate the knighthood ceremony. He directs one of the women to assist with Don Quijote’s sword: “which she did with great poise and tact—of which a great deal was needed, to keep from bursting into laughter [para no reventar de risa] at every step in the ceremony.”25 This structure is repeated throughout the novel, and it becomes a major narrative device in the second book of Don Quijote. Various characters make believe, indulging Don Quijote’s madness and idealism (and combinations thereof), only to turn to the side when he is not watching and laugh a corrective, presumably empirical laugh among themselves. These scenes share the structure of the theatrical aside, whereby the reader both follows a dramatic scene and witnesses the reaction of some characters to it. Throughout Don Quijote, some characters are on the brink of laughter, which they curb for a while, only to then side-laugh behind Don Quijote’s back. One of the many illustrations of the scene literally positions the two damsels in Don Quijote’s visual blind spot, the hand-to-mouth gesture a not very successful attempt to hide one’s laughter (Fig. 1). As in the case of the theater, although the aside attempts to establish a special relation with the reader, the latter is never simply complicit with it.26 Rather, the reader faces yet another level of narrative complexity, which she experiences as a dilemma.

Once Sancho Panza enters the novel, donkey and all (in an intertextual relation to the donkey-riding Islamic comic character Nasreddin Hodja), he becomes the embodiment of the empiricism represented by the two damsels in the first inn episode. The reader knows Don Quijote is mad because Sancho sees something different than Don Quijote does in any given situation. The famed relationship between Sancho Panza and Don Quijote can also be described, however, through their respective laughs at each other. What sets them apart as a couple, arguably one of the most credible (affectively speaking) couples in the history of literature, is the way they laugh—or do not laugh—at each other.

In chapter 20 of the first volume, having spent a pitch-dark night in fear of a terrible banging noise the cause of which they could not discern, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza realize that they have been frightened to death by the sound of a fulling hammer (used in cloth making). Sancho Panza proceeds to make fun of Don Quijote’s unwarranted heroism: “His cheeks were puffed up, and his mouth stuffed full of laughter [la boca llena de risa], obviously ready to burst with it.”27 Once Don Quijote joins in the merrymaking, Sancho “let the dam break so heartily that he had to jam his fists into his sides, to keep from exploding.”28 The excessiveness of Sancho’s laughing (there are four wild waves of laughter) irritates and angers Don Quijote, who whacks Sancho with his lance, prompting the latter to proclaim that “I was just joking [me burlo],” followed by “I admit that I carried the joke too far [yo confieso que he andado algo risueño en demasía].”29 In the next episode, when Don Quijote mistakes a barber’s basin for Mambrino’s helmet, Sancho is on the brink of laughter again: “Sancho couldn’t keep himself from laughing [no pudo tener la risa], but, remembering his master’s anger [cólera], he at once stifled it [y calló en la mitad della].”30 Sancho stops in the middle of his laugh and, from then on, keeps himself within the horizon of Don Quijote’s warning. For the rest of the novel, he often laughs or is about to laugh, but he quickly remembers that his laughter offends Don Quijote. Sancho refrains from laughing because of his growing fondness for Don Quijote. The more he empathizes with his madness, the less inclined he is to explode with laughter. This premise is amplified by the fact that other characters in the novel laugh copiously at Don Quijote. As Sancho completes his apprenticeship in chivalric matters under Don Quijote’s mentorship and becomes more and more like Don Quijote himself, the laughter of the other characters is directed at him as well. He, however, often abstains.

It is well known that in the second book of Don Quijote, the two protagonists are invited to the estate of a duke and duchess. The latter have metaleptically read the first book of Don Quijote and are “determined to indulge his madness and go along with whatever he said, dealing with him as a full-fledged knight errant for however long he might stay with them, with all the formalities set forth in the books of chivalry.”31 What ensues is a series of plays within plays, with the duke and duchess, assisted by their steward, as directors of a series of mini-plays featuring Don Quijote as unwitting comic hero. Don Quijote becomes what film scholars call a nonactor—he plays himself. When Don Quijote and Sancho Panza do not see them, the duke and duchess and their entourage laugh on the side: “The duchess was dying of laughter, seeing Sancho’s anger and hearing Sancho’s words”32; “The duke and the duchess were choking of laughter, hearing all this.”33 Disimular la risa becomes one of the novel’s main activities, for example: “the duke and duchess hid their amusement”34 and “to keep their laughter under control required a good deal of tact.”35 Words like “amused” and “delighted” complement the literal “laughter” in drawing attention to the mechanism of the laughter aside. In William Hogarth’s well-known engraving (Sancho at the Magnificent Feast, Brooklyn Museum), one character covers his mouth with the tablecloth in order to camouflage his laughter.

The contemporary reader—negotiating her reading in relation to the novel’s implied reader—may be tempted to think of the duke and duchess’s side laughter as having the function of a laugh track, clues in the text as to when the reader should laugh (or, as Slavoj Žižek, would have it, when the text does the laughing for us).36 This is 17th-century La Mancha, however; there is no culture industry, and there are no laugh tracks. The situation is highly ambiguous. We know from the knighting episode that Don Quijote is annoyed by the laughter directed at him. Burton Raffel translates vino a correrse (feeling beside oneself, often accompanied by blushing or other facial expressions) with “was insulted.”37 John Rutherford translates it as “Don Quixote flared up.”38 It helps to remind ourselves that, etymologically, an insult indexes a physical leap, an injurious attack or assault (OED). In other words, an insult has a bodily dimension—one gets hurt; one feels pain.

Raffel’s translation (“Don Quijote was insulted”) is especially prescient if one takes into account the fact that laughter in Don Quijote is often explicitly connected with physical pain. One of the most famous scenes in the novel remains the blanket tossing of Sancho Panza. Having taken on the anachronistic rhetoric of chivalry, Sancho Panza refuses to pay for his and his master’s lodging at an inn. As a form of punishment, he is tossed in a blanket: “They began to bounce him in the air, having fun with him as if he were a dog at carnival time.”39 Hearing his squire’s cries, as Don Quijote hurries to the scene, the narrator interjects: “He saw Sancho rising and then falling through the air so lightly, and so rapidly, that had his anger permitted, I think he would have had to laugh [si la cólera le dejara, tengo para mí que se riera].”40 Note that however amusing the scene may be, other emotions (anger, or cólera, the same emotion Don Quijote experiences in relation to the laughter directed at himself) interfere with Don Quijote’s impulse to laugh. The reader of the novel is often placed in the structural position in which Don Quijote is in this scene. One would laugh, if only other emotions would not overwhelm the laughing desire.

The reader trained in the Western tradition of laughter, anchored in an Aristotelian definition that includes the warning that the funniness of a situation should exclude pain, is torn. Laurent Joubert glossed Aristotle’s definition for the early modern period as “something ugly or improper, yet unworthy of pity or compassion,” or, in an extended formulation, “What we see that is ugly, deformed, improper, indecent, unfitting, and indecorous excites laughter in us, provided we are not moved to compassion.”41 Is there something to pity in this scene? Is there anything that prompts compassion? The acknowledgement of pain (itself in need of historicizing) would presumably automatically trigger pity (one of the so-called ethical emotions), which in its turn would put a dent in the impulse to laugh.42 Given other conditions, Don Quijote would have to laugh. (Note the use of a strong conditional: si la cólera le dejara, tengo para mí que se riera.) Under the circumstances, he refrains. The relationship between Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, their emergent friendship, is cemented by their reciprocal willingness to sometimes abstain from laughter directed at one of them. Friendship is a minimalist form of political alliance; the willingness to sometimes not laugh with the laughter directed at a friend may well be needed in order to form symmetrical, horizontal relationships more generally.43

The first prologue to Don Quijote promises the reader a good laugh, but this is not the same laugh laughed by the duke and duchess and their entourage or other characters laughing behind the two protagonists’ backs. When Sancho Panza takes on the governorship of the island the duke and duchess offer him, the author addresses the reader: “And so, my dear reader, we will let our good Sancho make his departure in peace, and with the sun smiling down upon him: you can look forward to a couple of bushels chockfull of laughter [dos fanegas de risa], which will be yours once you hear how he managed his new responsibilities, and, in the meantime, turn your attention to what, that very same night, happened to his master—and if this does not make you laugh, surely it will at least spread your lips in a monkey grin [risa de jimia], because Don Quijote’s doings always deserve to be welcomed either with wonder [admiración] or with laughter.”44 Laugh, the author advises; laugh as much as you can. In fact, indulge in “bushels chockfull of laughter.” But your excessive laughter comes at a cost.45 In fact, you, “dear reader” [lector amable], can welcome Don Quijote’s adventures with laughter or with wonder. Laughter, of course, contains an important dose of wonder [admiración], but the author offers wonder as an alternative to laughter. Which one will it be for you, “dear reader”? The choice is never easy, and, of course, one may very well wonder at one’s laughter.

Henri Bergson, whose 1900 essay on laughter is credited to have offered one of the most influential theories of laughter, would have us laugh at Don Quijote, who comes across as eccentric. According to Bergson, we (a majority) punish eccentricity (necessarily a minoritarian position). We laugh at Don Quijote so that we bring him back into the fold (the ending of Don Quijote does just that, which is why it is depressing).46 Unlike Bergson, however, who coupled his theory of eccentricity with the assumption that laughter brings about an “anesthesia of the heart” (which would presumably neutralize anger or pity in these examples), Cervantes dwells on the emotional confusion associated with laughter.47 There is both identification and disidentification with various laughs in Don Quijote. The novel thus creates a reader who is a selective laugher. This is a reader uncomfortable with the class-inflected jeers of the duke and duchess. This is a reader who has no problem filling Don Quijote’s shoes when Sancho is tossed about in a blanket. It is also a reader who takes pleasure in laughing at other points in the novel, when no character in the text is laughing. Indeed, one often feels inclined to laugh at the spectacle of the duke and duchess, their laughable pretense at theatrical sovereignty.

The Quijote announces, from its first prologue, that its project is to make readers laugh: “See, too, if your pages can make sad men laugh as they read, and make smiling men even happier [el melancólico se mueva a risa, el risueño la acreciente].”48 Yet these various scenes reveal that the novel teaches its “gentle reader” about qualitatively different laughs. The novel flags some situations as making for laughs that one is asked to wonder at—laughs at other people’s pain, superior laughs, cruel laughs, often ugly laughs. There is certainly a “freedom to laugh” in the Quijote, but it is to be used selectively. The prologue to the first book famously mocks what it takes to be the widespread gullibility of readers. The book assumes that its own reader knows better than to do what he is told—laugh because a cruel, spoiled duchess does. Other emotions—anger at some form of injustice or empathy with the physical suffering (the “insulting”) of others—often work to restrain laughter, which otherwise is encouraged to reign supreme. Laughter marks a certain confusion of the emotions; it involves, in Joubert’s words, “the contrariety or battle of two feelings.”49 There is certainly an impulse to laugh at the pain, suffering, or fall of others (Thomas Hobbes’s hypothesis), but when given a chance to put the various emotions involved in relation (in other words, given a temporal lull, however brief), laughter is often restrained or minimized.50 This, then, is what “our tradition” offers us in one of its inaugural texts, “the most canonical of all novels,” in María Rosa Menocal’s words. “As readers,” Menocal concludes, “we are in the end faced with the choice embedded in the novel itself: Do we use this great story to forget history or to remember it?”51

Given the centrality of the Quijote to the Euro-Atlantic canon of writing on laughter, it should not come as a surprise that other texts follow suit. A century later, at the peak of the French Enlightenment, at the very heart of “Western modernity,” one of the texts that brilliantly captured the Enlightenment’s inherent contradictions, Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew (1761–1772), gives voice to the character referred to as Me/Moi expressing his ambivalence toward laughter: “As I listened to him describing the scene of the procurer seducing the young girl, I found myself torn between two conflicting emotions [l’âme agitée de deux mouvements opposes], between a powerful desire to laugh [l’envie de rire] and an overwhelming surge of indignation. I was in agony [Je souffrais]. Again and again a roar of laughter prevented my rage bursting forth; again and again the rage [colère] rising in my heart became a roar of laughter.”52 This agony/suffering repeats in nuce the tension between the two characters, Moi and Lui (and arguably between the Enlightenment and its monstrous other). The latter’s job is to laugh and make others laugh; the former laughs, too, but he also often refrains. The text never settles on a position between the two. When it ends with the sentence “He who laughs lasts laughs best” [Rira bien qui rira le dernier], “he” is a most ambiguous deictic; it is not clear at all who the winning “he” is. To be sure, the text is not generous to the figure of the philosopher, whom the encounter with Lui reveals to be hypocritical and often epistemologically and ethically at a loss. But while it satirizes the philosopher (votre dignité me fait rire, Lui announces), indeed while it satirizes his moral rectitude (his indignation), for which Moi does not have a firm anchor in the brave new world of a self-declared secular Enlightenment, it does not dismiss him.53 The agony of oscillating between laughter and other emotions remains in force.

Like the Quijote, Diderot’s Nephew circulated as an always already translated transnational text, traveling back and forth across Europe (from France to Russia to Germany to France) and participating in the creation of a transnational literary culture. In this culture, the aphorism “He who laughs best laughs last” has always been highly ambiguous, a game with no clear winners. In fact, given how much the two protagonists love to chat and given that “He who laughs last” risks ending the conversation, it may well be that he who laughs last does not laugh at all.

Laughter and Disability

If Don Quijote flags various moments in its narrative as making for ambivalent laughter while nonetheless strongly advocating the freedom to laugh, other texts in the literary canon more straightforwardly condemn certain kinds of laughs. The English 18th century is one site to which one can turn for a series of such condemnations. Largely responding to Hobbes’s superiority theory (the idea that laughter is a sign of superiority when faced with the fall of another), a number of 18th-century writers display their unease with laughter.54 One example is Frances Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).

In this epistolary novel, as Evelina is writing to her adoptive father, she tells him about various forms of amusement fashionable in the London high society into which she has just transitioned. One such amusement is a staged foot race within which two poor eighty-year-old women are paid to compete against each other. The race, orchestrated as a freak show, is meant to settle a bet between two rich young men. Evelina describes the scene: “Though they seemed very healthy for their time of life, they yet looked so weak, so infirm, so feeble, that I could feel no sensation but that of pity at the sight. However, this was not the general sense of the company, for they no sooner came forward, than they were greeted with a laugh from every beholder, Lord Orville excepted, who looked very grave during the whole transaction.”55 During the race, the two women are injured and fall, are revived with wine, and are then forced to continue the race. The company continues to laugh.56

Evelina is a novel invested in ridiculing various restrictions on laughter. At the very beginning of the novel, its young protagonist is told that it is not appropriate for women of a certain class (Evelina is upwardly mobile) to laugh.57 The novel satirizes this interdiction. In the footrace scene, however, the laughter of the company at the expense of two old and disabled women (“so weak, so infirm, so feeble”) who are made to run until they collapse (they literally “fall”), to the cheers of a drunken party, is condemned. Evelina does not claim the freedom to laugh in this case. The surest evidence against laughter’s appropriateness, her suitor Lord Orville, the embodiment of gentlemanly ideals, does not laugh either. The latter’s gravitas is itself often ridiculous, but this scene dramatizes it as the required moral and polite attitude.

For a long time in the Western world, it was fair game to laugh at the old and the disabled.58 Their bodily idiosyncrasies were considered funny. The rich, the powerful, and the purportedly beautiful laughed. Evelina bears witness to a moment when this laughter is beginning to be called into question. To organize and laugh at a “freak run” is slowly beginning to be at odds with the demands of both politeness and morality. Within the temporal frame in which Evelina observes the scene, pity, we are told, counteracts laughter. Heraclitus (the weeping philosopher) is preferred over Democritus (the laughing philosopher). Pity does not prevail in the footrace scene, when most of the company continues to laugh, but there is a sense that it should. Evelina resolves the emotional confusion at stake in laughter on the side of pity. Lord Orville’s staged gravitas may not be the alternative the novel proposes to the temptation of cruel laughter, but the question of whether laughter’s cruelty should be curbed is forcefully raised and echoes throughout Burney’s novel.

The discourse on politeness Evelina quotes is disciplinary. It seeks to restrict laughs in the name of historically specific and highly problematic grounds. It operates with an aesthetic ideal of a smiling face that is race- and class-inflected (open-mouthed laughter registered as primitive and working class). It is highly gendered (proper ladies did not laugh). Drawing attention to Evelina’s disapproval of laughter in the footrace scene is not a way of endorsing this discourse. The scene testifies to Evelina’s taking on some of the disciplinary strategies of the civilizing process and starting to engage in the disciplining of those around her. But it remains important to point to a historically specific ethics of laughing that is as much a part of the Western tradition that many invoke today as is the freedom to laugh. In this tradition, disability was once an object of laughter. It is likely that when, in their definitional exercises, Aristotle invokes “deformity” and Bergson “eccentricity,” these words’ semantic fields include disability. However suspect we believe the discourse on politeness to be, clearly we do not condemn all its arguments, at least not unambiguously. In this instance, it curbs the desire to laugh at two old women’s fall. When writing on laughter, it is always risky to come down on the side of those who do not laugh. No one wants to be an agelast; no one wants to be called humorless. Still, as Lauren Berlant puts it, “humorlessness is not all bad.”59

The freedom to laugh was somewhat restrained through the mechanism Evelina dramatizes, but few deplore the infringement on it in this situation.60 In fact, given that laughter at disability is largely considered problematic, disability studies scholars and activists have come to reject its straightforward condemnation. Instead, they draw attention to various, complex forms of disability humor, whereby disabled people themselves produce humor at disability that includes them in the community of laughers or creates alternative, empowering subcultures.61 In an imaginary future novel, one would want to hear the laughter of the two women in Burney’s footrace scene, potentially laughing both at the spectacle of their own running and falling and at the spectacle of the gentlemen whose masculinity is anchored in organizing and winning such competitions—and perhaps laughing at Burney’s novel itself. There is plenty of laughter in this alternative predicament, but it is multidirectional and includes the possibility that two old women, who help us flip the majority/minority antinomy, laugh.

A reading of Burney’s novel in the contemporary moment helps to foreground the fact that today we do not hear many voices claiming the right to laugh at the disabled. The “everything” we purportedly are allowed to laugh at most often does not include disability. Laughter at disability still occurs, but without a strong claim to its desirability or necessity on the part of the able-bodied. The question we are left with is this: In our purportedly inclusive democracies, what makes it possible to empathize with some minorities, sometimes against their resistance to such empathy, but invoke tradition (presumably a tradition that includes Evelina) when we are asked to restrain laughs that pain/insult other minorities?62

Laughter and Social Justice

Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (1869) is one of Hugo’s lesser known novels, known today largely due to Paul Leni’s 1928 expressionist film adapted from it and then, often without acknowledgement, by the international circulation of a long series of Batman images that copied the facial expression of Hugo’s character. Its companion text within Hugo’s corpus, the tragedy The Prince’s Play (1832), performed once and then banned, is known through Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation in Rigoletto (1851). The Man Who Laughs is nonetheless a complex 19th-century meditation on the ambivalence of laughter. This ambivalence brings the novel into the alternative genealogy of laughter to which Don Quijote and Evelina belong. “The efforts of man to procure himself pleasure are at times worthy of the attention of the philosopher,” Hugo writes, imagining himself as such a writer-philosopher.63

The novel, written by a French author in exile, is set in 17th-century England during the reign of James II. Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, a republican, becomes the king’s enemy and is exiled to Switzerland.64 Upon his death, the king orders that Clancharlie’s two-year-old heir be sold to a group of travelers known as the Comprachicos, notorious for the surgical operations they perform on the children they buy. In this case, they sculpt the face of the boy into a laughing rictus, so that he can become a human toy: “A well-formed child is not very amusing; a hunchback is better fun.”65

The narrative fast-forwards ten years, when the Comprachicos abandon the boy and he is taken up, alongside another abandoned child (Dea), by a traveling mountebank, Ursus. The latter raises the child, teaches him philosophy and social justice, and renames him Gwynplaine. Another fifteen years pass, and this motley crew arrives in London. In Ursus’s traveling theater, Gwynplaine’s presence is highly lucrative: “They laughed all around his laugh [On riait autour de ce rire] . . . Their laughter ended in clapping of hands and stamping of feet . . . it seemed almost an epidemic.”66 Gwynplaine’s face is a laughable laughing mask: “Every one who saw Gwynplaine held his sides; he spoke, and they rolled on the ground.”67

A perpetually laughing man is a sad man. Gwynplaine, the man who laughs, in fact never laughs in the novel. He appears to be laughing, contagiously prompting the laughter of others, but he is, in fact, not laughing: “It was Gwynplaine’s laugh which created the laughter of others, yet he did not laugh himself. His face laughed; his thoughts did not [C’est en riant que Guynplaine faisait rire. Et pourtant il ne riait pas. Sa face riait, sa pensée non].”68 The novel frames the situation in which the laughing man is rendered unhappy by the laughter he inevitably triggers. Hugo’s The Prince’s Play similarly laments the fact that the “deformed” court jester Triboulet is forced to limit the range of his emotion and can only display “the mask of mirth”: “All men who suffer weep, and only I / The constant comic, have no right to cry.”69 Instead of the much invoked “right to laugh,” we have here a demand for the “right to cry.”

Gwynplaine’s unhappiness is assuaged by the thought that, aside from offering entertainment to the powerful, he is helping the poor: “He was able to do a great deal for the wretched. He could make them laugh; and, as we have said, to make people laugh is to make them forget [faire rire, c’est faire oublier].”70 Ordinary people come to see the performance: “They came to buy a pennyworth of forgetfulness [d’oubli].”71 Against contemporary arguments about the political potential of laughter, whereby presumably the weak laugh at the strong, The Man Who Laughs reminds its reader of the conservative dimension of laughter: it helps the people forget injustice, suffering, and misery. They laugh so they will not revolt. Rather than ignite the revolution, laughter helps postpone it indefinitely. Laughter is a mechanism for the distribution of forgetfulness, arguably the best distributeur d’oubli.72

If this is the effect of laughter on ordinary people, the novel also frames its impact on the powers that be. Once Gwynplaine is restored to his inheritance and becomes a lord, he delivers a speech in the House of Lords. With his face uncovered, he offers a lecture on inequality: “My lords, I bring you news—news of the existence of mankind.”73 He is addressing a minority that falsely claims representative status for the majority and ironically announcing to it the very existence of the majority. Heir to his republican father, he calls for horizontal, symmetrical equality. The effect of this “news” on his audience is laughter, a means to reestablish the verticality, top-down relation between the lords and those they purport to represent: “Mad merriment seized the whole House [Le rire, cette démence épanouie, prit toute la chamber].”74 For Hugo, the madness of this laugh includes murderous touches: “Men’s laughter sometimes exerts all its power to murder [Le rire des hommes fait quelquefois tout ce qu’il peut pour assassiner].”75 The more Gwynplaine implores the House to consider the fate of their subjects, the more they explode in laughter: “Their sovereign mockery had reduced him to dust.”76 It is in this sense that laughter can be murderous; this kind of laughter kills the possibility of equality. In political debate, in a long rhetorical tradition going back to Cicero, laughter often has the effect of blocking conversation, by reducing one party to “dust.” He who laughs last laughs best because his laugh ends all conversation. This argument is especially ironic given the contemporary recurrent conflation of the freedom to laugh with the freedom of speech: this scene gives us an instance when the freedom of speech is drowned in mocking, sovereign laughter.

Like Don Quijote and Evelina for their own historical moments, Hugo’s novel helps placate the assumption that the Western tradition of laughter has often foregrounded laughter’s liberatory dimensions. Bakhtin’s study of François Rabelais (the most common reference behind this assumption) indeed proposes that the carnival offered a sanctioned, structured time to laugh. Nothing was spared, provided laughter occurred during this time. But the “everything” in this argument has always been tied to an opportune time for laughter. Carnival was a durée of such opportune time. Literature, if we follow Bakhtin’s argument, replaced the historical carnival in its carnivalesque mission, offering moments of sanctioned laughter at “everything.”77 In other words, laughter moved from being allowed during a certain time in the public square to being allowed all the time within certain modern institutions. Against claims to laughter’s transgressive potential, it is important to remember that the “everything” one is allowed to laugh at is as conditioned by modern institutions as it was by the temporal framework of the carnival. Even within the limited purview of these institutions, laughter is often far from transgressive. One could think of Gwynplaine’s street performance in Hugo’s novel as a carnival of sorts—Londoners come to see it, laugh copiously, and then return to their lives, tamer than before. It may well be that what we call “transgression” names precisely this mechanism.78

Laughter and Secularism

The freedom to laugh has never been absolute. Don Quijote bears witness to a struggle over the meanings of various laughs and the training of its reader in laughing matters. Evelina provides an example of a problematic laugh that the discourse on politeness corrected. The Man Who Laughs draws attention to the conservative uses of laughter, its function as deterrent to social change. Most of the time in this unlikely tradition, provided that we can (which is not always the case), we are called to pause, however briefly, and quasi-decide—to laugh, not laugh, or laugh a different laugh. Given the history of laughter’s having been considered a mixed, ambivalent passion, it is possible to trace a minimalist negotiation between the impulse to laugh and an emergent ethics that shows concern for minority issues.79

For some time, cultural objects have functioned both in a porous national framework and on transnational paths. The latter are by no means new, but they have been amplified at the turn into the 21st century. The national public sphere has been extended by the presence of “new” minorities. (Ex-colonial subjects should not be considered new migrants.) In this context, invocations of “French laughter” or “European laughter” are not only anachronistic but potentially dangerous.80 The same is true of the invocation of a self-evident, transgressive, and purportedly liberatory “tradition of laughter.” Such gestures create humorless minorities excluded from the imagined community of laughers. The acknowledgement of this insidious form of nationalism should not trigger the conclusion that the pages of satiric magazines should be empty (presumably because whatever we may say, someone may be offended). This is not the end of laughter. Once again, as it has often been the case historically, we are asked to pause briefly before we burst. We still burst, but in that pause our laughter is likely to acquire different tonalities.

Sancho’s response to Don Quijote—“But it is only a joke!”—does not work as a face-saving mechanism: Don Quijote remains insulted. Having produced the sentence, Sancho proceeds to acknowledge that he pushed the joke too far. This acknowledgement resolves the dispute. The gentlemen who entertain themselves by watching the old women’s footrace in Evelina could try the “But it is only a joke!” strategy, but to little effect. The lords who laugh at Gwynplaine’s attempting to bring them news of the existence of humankind would be in the same situation.81 “But it is only a joke!” offers no immunity.82 This is because laughter may have an exclusionary “sting in its tail” (Norbert Elias’s words), but the exclusion it performs need not be a form of ostracism.83

James Wood proposes that the alternative to a laughter of correction (the laughter with “a sting in its tail”) is to engage in a laughter of forgiveness, which includes the laugher in its fold. The laughter of correction is embodied by the Greek personification of mockery Momus, who, as “the ancient personification of fault-finding, reprehension and correction . . . [was] the patron saint of satirists.”84 We conveniently forget that Momus’s laughter is religious in its genealogy; the gods and those claiming to laugh in their name laugh a superior laugh that attempts to correct.85 This is Bergson’s laughter, inherited from a discourse on emotion in which laughter is an index of amour propre, an inherently comparative passion.86 The self compares itself to an other, whom it finds deficient and whom it attempts to correct. In this sense, the burst of laughter is a claim of superiority (however fragile). This is the laughter of self-proclaimed contemporary secularists who take it upon themselves to correct, through satire, religious zeal that they presumably know and understand through and through. (Momus sees through you, Wood emphasizes.) What they do not acknowledge is that, its anticlericalism notwithstanding, the laughter of correction is a religious laugh. The salvific overtones of transgressive laughter speak to its own postsecularism. It should be clear that laughter that ignores its own religious underpinning is hardly an antidote to religious fundamentalism. As Aamir Mufti, reading Edward Said, may put it, such secularism needs to secularize itself.87 In the meantime, the acknowledgement of our thoroughly postsecular condition (another way to flip the minority/majority antinomy) should lead to more laughter of forgiveness.

Further Reading

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Bataille, Georges. Inner Experience. Translated by Leslie A. Boldt. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.
  • Baudelaire, Charles. “On the Essence of Laughter.” In The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press, 1964.
  • Beard, Mary. Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.
  • Bergson, Henri. Laughter. Edited by Wylie Sypher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
  • Carpio, Glenda. Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (1976): 875–893.
  • “Comedy: An Issue.” Edited by Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngain. Special issue, Critical Inquiry 43.2 (2017).
  • Darwin, Charles. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray, 1872.
  • Elias, Norbert. “Essay on Laughter.” In “Comedy: An Issue.” 281–304.
  • Ellison, Ralph. “An Extravagance of Laughter.” In Going to the Territory. New York: Vintage, 1995.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989.
  • Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter. London: Atlantic Books, 2006.
  • Halliwell, Stephen. Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Translated by Michael Heim. New York: Penguin, 1986.
  • Joubert, Laurent. Treatise on Laughter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
  • “On Laughter,” French issue, MLN 102.4 (1987).
  • Morreall, John. Taking Laughter Seriously. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983.
  • Propp, Vladimir. On the Comic and Laughter. Edited and translated by Jean-Patrick Debbèche and Paul Perron. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
  • Skinner, Quentin, “Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter.” In Visions of Politics. Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Smith, Jacob. “The Frenzy of the Audible: Pleasure, Authenticity, and Recorded Laughter.” Television New Media 6.1 (2005).


  • 1. This essay is concerned with the relation between laughter and literature. It starts from the premise that laughter is an object of analysis in itself, distinct from comedy, humor, jokes, and so on. For more on this distinction, see Anca Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), and “Even Laughter? From Laughter in the Magic Theater to the Laughter Assembly Line,” Critical Inquiry 43.2 (Winter 2017).

  • 2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities: A Novel, trans. David Constantine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 139. Goethe included the sentence as an aphorism in Ottilie’s Diary: “Durch nichts bezeichnen die Menschen mehr ihren Charakter als durch das, was sie lächerlich finden (Nothing so characterizes a man as what he finds ridiculous).”

  • 3. George Eliot, “German Wit: Heinrich Heine,” Westminster Review 65 (1856): 1–33, 2.

  • 4. Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World remains the go-to theoretical account of the transgressive potential of laughter. Mary Russo’s The Female Grotesque is one example of how this influential line of thinking developed throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess, and Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1994).

  • 5. Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter,” in Visions of Politics, vol. 3 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

  • 6. Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion; Glenda Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • 7. Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

  • 8. Drawing attention to the lack of sociological knowledge on laughter, Norbert Elias started working on a project titled “Essay on Laughter” in 1956. Norbert Elias, “Essay on Laughter,” ed. Anca Parvulescu, Critical Inquiry 43.2 (Winter 2017).

  • 9. The most fruitful interdisciplinarity when it comes to description is the nexus of sociology, anthropology, and phenomenology. See Heather Love, “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25.3 (2013): 401–434.

  • 10. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Don Quijote are from Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote, trans. Burton Raffel (New York: Norton, 1996).

  • 11. “Era materia de grade risa,” literally “he was material for great laughter,” has been translated minimalistically as “it was really funny” (21). Ronald Paulson argues that the Quijote constitutes a “nexus of theories of laughter.” In the English context, the novel “put in question the conventional definition of comedy as satire, of laughter as ridicule”; “Each scene contributes to the theorization of laughter.” Ronald Paulson, Don Quixote in England: The Aesthetics of Laughter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), xv, xi, 2.

  • 12. Cervantes, Don Quixote, 274.

  • 13. On the quixotic figure of the morisco aljamiado, see María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown, 2002).

  • 14. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 52.

  • 15. If we agree that the Quijote is the first modern novel, inventing, among other things, the very notion of fictionality as unreliability, arguably the Western literary project is foundationally anchored in this instance of racialization.

  • 16. On the perspectivism inherent in Zoroida’s use of the Arabic word marfuces, see Leo Spitzer, Linguistic and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (New York: Russell & Russell, 1962). Spitzer writes: “She is using an originally Arabic word for ‘treacherous’ which had come to be borrowed by the Spaniards probably to refer, primarily, to the treachery of the Mohammedans (meaning something like ‘false as a Moor’)” (66).

  • 17. On the transnational dimension of Don Quijote and Cervantes’s representation of Moriscos and Moriscas in the two volumes of the novel, which bracket the 1609 expulsion of the Moors from Spain, see William Childers, Transnational Cervantes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

  • 18. The misunderstanding at the heart of Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Don Quijote in Mimesis is a result of the fact that Auerbach believes that the reader sees the lot of the people who populate the Quijote through the prism of “so critical and so nonproblematic a gaiety” that “our consciences do not feel troubled over them.” Auerbach is interested in tragic narrative emerging as a consequence of the mixing of styles, and therefore comedy remains of little interest to him. However, the presence of laughter does not preclude what Auerbach calls “serious concern.” Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trusk (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 358, 352.

  • 19. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 19.

  • 20. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 19.

  • 21. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Stratchey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).

  • 22. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 349.

  • 23. There is a thin line between what Michel Foucault, reading Don Quijote, calls “fantastic invention and the fascinations of delirium.” Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, 1988), 29.

  • 24. René Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul frames a pause within which the decision to laugh is made. We laugh when we are tickled, Descartes argues, but if we anticipate that this is about to happen, we can delay our response, and, in this temporal lull, distract ourselves, change the focus of our attention, and will ourselves to think something else. With “a little skill [un peu d’industrie],” laughter can be avoided. René Descartes, The Passions of the Soul, trans. Stephen Voss (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1989), 134, 48.

  • 25. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 25.

  • 26. On the uses of the aside in early modern drama, see Jeremy Lopez, Theatrical Convention and Audience Response in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

  • 27. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 117.

  • 28. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 117.

  • 29. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 117–118.

  • 30. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 121.

  • 31. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 519.

  • 32. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 535.

  • 33. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 561.

  • 34. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 526.

  • 35. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 530.

  • 36. Slavoj Žižek, “Will You Laugh for Me, Please.”

  • 37. On the affective connotations of correrse, see Paul Michael Johnson, “‘Salido a la vergüenza’: Inquisition, Penality, and a Cervantine View of Mediterranean ‘Values.’” eHumanista/Cervantes 2 (2013): 340–361.

  • 38. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote, trans. John Rutherford (New York: Penguin, 2011), 32.

  • 39. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 96.

  • 40. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 96.

  • 41. Laurent Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, trans. Gregory David de Rocher (1579; Alabama University: University of Alabama Press, 1980), 15, 20.

  • 42. Don Quijote draws Sancho’s attention to the fact that his body is still intact after the blanket tossing, relativizing Sancho’s pain. Sancho, however, is not persuaded by this argument. On the history of pain, see Javier Moscoso, Pain: A Cultural History (New York: Palgrave, 2012). Moscoso emphasizes that the suffering of Don Quijote in the novel has to do with “physiological pain, with the suffering of the organs, the rupturing of the body.” He quotes Sancho Panza declaring that his life of adventure brings him only “kicks and tossings, stones and fists” (36).

  • 43. On friendship’s political weight, see Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 2005).

  • 44. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 587.

  • 45. On the racialization of excessive laughter, see Parvulescu, Laughter: Notes on a Passion.

  • 46. Henri Bergson writes: “Laughter must be something of this kind, a sort of social gesture. By the fear which it inspires, it restrains eccentricity.” Henri Bergson, Laughter (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956), 73. Norbert Elias glosses Bergson: “In the end, Bergson comes to a startling and, in a way, paradoxical conclusion that has been often overlooked: laughter itself is a mechanism. One cannot be quite sure whether this conclusion was intended or whether Bergson has fallen here, not quite voluntarily, into a trap of his own ratiocinations. Laughter, he says rather sadly, is simply the result of a mechanism set up by nature or, what is almost the same thing, by our long acquaintance with social life. It goes off spontaneously and returns tit for tat. 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 some who are guilty” (299).

  • 47. Bergson, 64.

  • 48. Cervantes, Don Quijote, 11.

  • 49. Joubert, Treatise on Laughter, 44.

  • 50. Laughter furthers one’s sense of superiority in a life imagined as a race. In the fiction of the natural world Hobbes sketches, laughter marks the moment when one’s fellow racer falls and the mind exults. Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, ed. Sir William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839), 4.53.

  • 51. María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, 256, 265.

  • 52. Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew and First Satire, trans. Margaret Mauldon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 19–20.

  • 53. Diderot wrote in the introductory entry to the Encyclopedia: “I detest satires in a book a hundred times more than I favor praise: personal sarcasms are odious in any kind of writing; one is sure to amuse ordinary men, when one makes a point of feeding their meanness. The tone of satire is the worst of all for a dictionary . . . I proscribe satires.” Denis Diderot, “Encyclopedia,” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, trans. Philip Stewart (Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, 2002).

  • 54. For another response to Hobbes, see Francis Hutcheson, Reflections on Laughter (Glasgow: R. Urie, 1750).

  • 55. Frances Burney, Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 311.

  • 56. On the history of footraces and women’s and the disabled’s role in them, see Earl R. Anderson, “Footnotes More Pedestrian Than Sublime: A Historical Background for the Foot-Races in Evelina and Humphry Clinker,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 14.1 (Autumn, 1980), 56–68.

  • 57. Burney, Evelina, 30–31.

  • 58. Simon Dickie writes: “What is remarkable to modern readers about these jokes (all taken from mid century jestbooks) is their sheer callousness, their frank delight in human suffering. They suggest an almost unquestioned pleasure at the sight of deformity or misery, an automatic and apparently unreflective urge to laugh at weakness simply because it is weak. The miserable old father, the hunchback, the disabled street vendors, the battered wife, the rape plaintiff: the victims of these jokes are as helpless as it is possible to be.” Simon Dickie, “Hilarity and Pitilessness in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: English Jestbook Humor,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37.1 (Fall, 2003), 1–22, 2. On laughing at the disabled, see also David M. Turner, Disability in Eighteenth-century England: Imagining Physical Impairment (New York: Routledge, 2012).

  • 59. Lauren Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece).” Critical Inquiry 43.2 (2017): 305–340, 313

  • 60. The form empathy takes today is no longer pity (contemporary scholars of disability strongly reject pity), and disability is no longer considered a minority issue. See Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994).

  • 61. Tom Shakespeare rejects the assumption of a strong contemporary taboo against laughing at the disabled, arguing that our society continues to take pleasure in such laughter: “There is a tension, in the history of disability and comedy, between open amusement at the predicament of the physically different, and a civilising process which would banish such voyeurism and prejudice.” Tom Shakespeare, “Joking a Part,” Body and Society 5.4 (1999): 47–52.

  • 62. From its emergence, the concept of “tyranny of the majority” included the possibility of the majority’s claiming the right to ridicule various minority positions. In order to placate such a possibility, the majority cultivates what David Miller calls “democratic self-restraint.” David Miller, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 116.

  • 63. Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs (Winnetka, IL: Norilana Books, 2006), 37.

  • 64. On the immediate political commentary offered by Hugo’s novel, see Kathryn M. Grossman, The Later Novels of Victor Hugo: Variations on the Politics and Poetics of Transcendence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  • 65. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 37.

  • 66. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 322–323.

  • 67. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 288.

  • 68. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 288.

  • 69. Victor Hugo, The Prince’s Play, trans. Tony Harrison (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 45, 37.

  • 70. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 330–331.

  • 71. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 329.

  • 72. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 331.

  • 73. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 604.

  • 74. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 607.

  • 75. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 611.

  • 76. Hugo, The Man Who Laughs, 615.

  • 77. In addition to literature, popular visual culture took up the carnivalesque project. See Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (New York: Walker and Company, 2006).

  • 78. The examination of similarly nontransgressive moments (albeit nontransgressive in a different key) in the literary canon could continue with myriad examples in 20th-century literature and especially modernist literature. See Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), and Jonathan Greenberg, Modernism, Satire, and the Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • 79. On the possibility of negotiating the passions, see Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

  • 80. Walter Redfern, French Laughter: Literary Humour from Diderot to Tournier (Oxford University Press, 2008); Anne Chamayou and Alastair B. Duncan, eds., Le Rire Européen/European Laughter (Perpignan, France: Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, 2010). The introduction to Le Rire Européen/European Laughter distinguishes between “a civilization of laughter” and a “civilization of faith” (9). Europeans (a self-evident category) laugh at each other (say, the French at the English) and “together at the rest of the world” (12). Not surprisingly, the last section of the anthology is titled “From European Laughter to Universal Laughter.”

  • 81. Writing about the use of the “But it is only a joke!” rhetorical strategy in the context of an analysis of racial jokes in the United States, William Cheng refers to this strategy as an alibi. Anchored in laughter’s “semantic promiscuity,” the alibi has an “exculpatory logic.” Cheng writes: “Telling someone to ‘lighten up!’ or ‘take a joke!’ can fetch the killjoy retort that ‘you can’t joke your way out of this!’ (an appeal against effectivity) or ‘you really hurt my feelings! (an appeal to affectivity).’” William Cheng, “Taking Back the Laugh: Comedic Alibis, Funny Fails,” Critical Inquiry 43.2 (2017): 528–549, 533.

  • 82. The invocation of joking is often a means to resolve what Erving Goffman calls a frame dispute. The “only joking” strategy functions, in Goffman’s vocabulary, as a rekeying and down-keying of a frame. See Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis (New York: Harper, 1974). For a parallel argument in anthropology, see Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, “On Joking Relationships,” Africa 13.3 (1940): 195–210.

  • 83. In political terms proposed by Chantal Mouffe, this distinction corresponds to that between antagonism (conflict between enemies) and agonism (conflict between adversaries). Mouffe writes: “The specificity of democratic politics is not the overcoming of the we/they opposition, but the different way in which it is established.” Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013), 9.

  • 84. James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), 4.

  • 85. On laughter and religion, see Ingvild Gilhus’s Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion (London: Routledge, 1997).

  • 86. On comparative passions, see Pheng Cheah, “The Material World of Comparison,” in Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses, ed. Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 168–190.

  • 87. Aamir Mufti, “Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture,” Critical Inquiry 25.1 (1998), 95–125.