I sometimes laugh at parts of books that really aren’t meant to be funny (I think). I don’t even know if I find them funny, but something about it makes me laugh.
In the short story Beer at the Corner Bar from Hot Water Music by Charles Bukowski, Bukowski is at the bar. He’d rather be left alone, but someone is trying to have a conversation with him. Here’s how part of it goes:
“You from Los Angeles?” he asked.
“You think the Dodgers will make it this year?”
“You don’t like the Dodgers?”
“What do you like?”
“Yes, anything is cruel when you lose.”
“But the bull doesn’t stand a chance.”
“None of us do.”
I enjoyed the whole conversation, but I laughed out loud at that last line.
Another example is from the end of Sister Carrie. The last two pages consist of Dreiser editorializing about Carrie’s life, how she always chases beauty and will never be satisfied. Here’s how the story ends:
Oh, Carrie, Carrie! Oh, blind strivings of the human heart! Onward, onward, it saith, and where beauty leads, there it follows. Whether it be the tinkle of a lone sheep bell o’er some quiet landscape, or the glimmer of beauty in sylvan places, or the show of soul in some passing eye, the heart knows and makes answer, following. It is when the feet weary and hope seems vain that the heartaches and the longings arise. Know, then, that for you is neither surfeit nor content. In your rocking-chair, by your window dreaming, shall you long, alone. In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.
I laughed when I read that last sentence. I was on a train, smiling and laughing. I read it a few times. The sentence has a sad message, but I smiled and laughed. Why?
I remember a post by Seth Roberts where he said “Laughter is a big and important part of life. Visible, common, highly desirable — yet mysterious.”
It does seem mysterious. In the post Seth says “laughter is caused by sudden pleasure.” I think that’s a sufficient but not necessary condition for laughter. For example, sometimes people laugh when they feel uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say, but want to break the silence (for example, during an awkward social interaction). In that case, perhaps laughter is a way of releasing tension.
I’d say we laugh when:
- we hear something that we think is funny
- we see/hear something that we like but didn’t expect
- as a social bonding mechanism (laugh with our peers to signal that we like them, share their values, etc)
- we are uncomfortable with something that has been said, and don’t know how else to break the tension
The first two could be thought of as types of sudden unexpected pleasure.
related post here