Interpreting the Language of Laughter

Finding the sweet spot between idealism and cynicism

Laughter. There’s few other ways to communicate so much meaning without uttering a single word. Depending on the tone, haha could be cynical or complimentary. Hihihi could signify innocent child’s play, or getting away with adultery.

Laughter can be dismissive, it can hide secrets, it can reveal unpopular opinions, and it can sure as hell get you locked up in a gulag for laughing at the wrong person. It can be worn proudly like a badge on your chest or shamefully like a red A indelibly staining your white dress. Laughter is political. But its roots go much deeper than that.

“The first time an angel heard the devil’s laughter he was horrified. It was the middle of a feast with a lot of people around, and one after the other they joined in the Devil’s laughter. It was contagious. The angel was all too aware the laughter was against God and the wonder of His works. He knew he had to act fast, but felt weak and defenceless. And unable to fabricate anything of his own, he simply turned his enemy’s tactics against him. He opened his mouth and let out a wobbly, breathy sound in the upper reaches of his vocal register, and endowed it with the opposite meaning. Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed at the meaninglessness of everything, the angel’s laughter rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived and beautiful everything on earth was. (Milan Kundera, 1974)


The Devil’s Laugh And The Angel’s Laugh.

The devil ridicules our clumsy efforts to stick to our image of order. He laughs at contradictions, things suddenly deprived of the place assigned to them in our make-shift ‘order’. For example, a nymphomaniac who believes in the sacredness of the female body. Or an atheist who renounces god but keeps track of his destiny by reading his weekly horoscope on Elle magazine.

Whenever we fail to place things into neat categories and definitions, the devil chuckles with contempt.

The angel laughs at the sheer beauty of creation — at how utterly marvellous and breathtaking our existence can be. The angel laughs at the amazing potential of nature and human existence in it. Take the image of a naked couple running through a field of green, holding hands and laughing. They’re laughing out of pure joy and innocence. They laugh out of wonder and admiration.

Funnily enough, the same external phenomenon — the haha moment — embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes. Cynicism and Idealism. Yet for some odd reason we still clumsily call both of them laughter.


On the Dangers of Laughing Too Hard.

Most religions preach about an endless war between good and evil — said war will only be won when one completely obliterates the other.

Take our original naked couple laughing in the prairie — Adam and Eve.

They were having a jolly good giggle, until they were pushed out of the garden of Eden for having taken a bite from the wrong apple. That forbidden tree represents the knowledge of good and evil, and with that, the knowledge to decide what you want to believe. The garden of Eden has no room for ambiguity, because in it everything is unquestionably aligned and rationally organized. The minute you have a taste of ambiguity — when perfection is no longer a reality but someone’s ideal of it — then order can no longer be.

To claw our way back up into the garden of Eden, we have waged a war against everything we think betrays this perfectly melodic laugh. Every single Ism we’ve ever come up with (Communism, Liberalism, Anarchism) have all used the image of the laughing naked couple to promote their own agenda. And for the sake of attaining this image of perfection, they’ve humiliated, locked up, tortured, persecuted and murdered all those who dared question their utopia.

Ie. If you were caught muffling a laugh in the middle of Stalin’s speech it wouldn’t end well for you.

Every time mankind sets out to chase a new image of perfection we fall prey to our own ideals of what is good and what is bad. And thus, the more we pursue the good in us, the more we violently repress, hunt down and slaughter anything that doesn’t fit the picture.

An excess of idealism produces the opposite effect. Rebellion and blood-shed.

But if we snicker dismissively at the famous garden — start popping champagne bottles, smoking opium, and having orgies in the fiery pits of hell — we wouldn’t bother getting anything done. We would have given up on the potential of humanity all together because we’re just too tainted to think that there is any ‘good’ worth pursuing in the first place.

An excess of cynicism is as destructive as an excess in idealism — it excuses laziness and self-destruction.


The Merits Of Balance — Laughing At This And Also That.

World domination, as we’ve been told, is divided between angels and demons. Good and Evil. But the well-being of the world doesn’t require one to conquer the other, all it really needs is balance. When there’s an excess of doctrine, man collapses under the burden of his own ideals and the hunt begins. On the other hand, if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the demons) life is every bit as hellish. Balance is learning how to walk the tight rope, leaning neither left nor right, floating neither up into the ether, nor falling down into hopelessness. We need to stop chasing eden and fearing hell. We also need to stop taking comfort in the meaninglessness of our existence as an excuse to slack.

If laughter says anything universal at all, it’s to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Laughter can be a reminder to check your beliefs before you wreck yourself and your neighbours too. And it’s also a reminder to lighten up before falling prey to your own cynicism and giving up.

Let’s have it this way — be the giggling naked couple running in the prairie…but also pop the champagne and get down to Drake when need be.

“Bursts of laughter, laughter rehashed, jostled laughter, laughter defleshed, magnificent laughter, sumptuous and wild.” (Milan Kundera, 1974)

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