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Absurdity, Incongruity and Laughter

  • Bob Plant (a1)

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus recommends scornful defiance in the face of our absurd, meaningless existence. Although Nagel agrees that human life possesses an absurd dimension, he objects to Camus’ existentialist ‘dramatics’. For Nagel, absurdity arises from the irreducible tension between our subjective and objective perspectives on life. In this paper I do two things: (i) critically reconstruct Camus’ and Nagel's positions, and (ii) develop Nagel's critique of Camus in order to argue that humour is an appropriate response to absurdity.

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1 Tolstoy Leo, A Confession and Other Religious Writings (London: Penguin, 1987), 35 (hereafter abbreviated AC).

2 Rousseau Jean-Jacques, The Confessions (London: Penguin, 1953), 86 (hereafter abbreviated TC).

3 Hare R.M., ‘Nothing Matters’, in Klemke E.D. (ed.), The Meaning of Life (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 242 (hereafter abbreviated NM).

4 The passage Hare recalls can be found in Camus Albert, The Outsider (London: Penguin, 2000), 115–16 (hereafter abbreviated TO).

5 Hare refers to psychological abnormality later (NM, 246).

6 In fact, Meursault recognizes ‘I'd lived in a certain way and I could just have well lived in a different way. I'd done this and I hadn't done that. I hadn't done one thing whereas I had done another’. His point is, ‘So what?’ (TO, 115). That we inevitably pursue one course of action over another does not, for Meursault, undermine the absurdity of life. On the contrary, the contingency of what we do and value is part of what makes our lives ultimately meaningless. Arguably then, Hare begs the question by using such activities as evidence against the purported absurdity of life.

7 See also NM, 247.

8 I am not convinced by this. There is a question why someone who is convinced that ‘Nothing matters’ would, as a matter of fact, say so (or why she would say that rather than something else or nothing at all). However, if nothing mattered, then paralysis is not the only option here; she might well shout ‘Nothing matters’ from the rooftops, just as she might declare anything else, wave her arms about or read Camus just for the sake of it. Only if one declares ‘Nothing matters’ with serious (non-ironic, non-indifferentist) intentions would it constitute a performative contradiction.

9 On Pyrrhonian indifference see Plant Bob, Wittgenstein and Levinas: ethical and religious thought (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), Ch 1 (hereafter abbreviated W&L).

10 ‘My friend had not understood that the function of the word “matters” is to express concern; he had thought mattering was something (some activity or process) that things did, rather like chattering’ (NM, 246).

11 Or Tolstoy's ‘[W]hy do I live? Why do I wish for anything, or do anything?’ (AC, 35).

12 We might cash-out these questions in terms of our purposes or goals, and the importance of potential (though not guaranteed) success in such endeavors.

13 See NM, 247. I say ‘values’ (plural) because ‘value’ (singular) is liable to make us think that there must be just one underpinning quality that renders life per se ‘valuable’.

14 It also resembles early scenes from Allen's Annie Hall; specifically Alvy Singer's conversation with Dr Flicker (Allen Woody, Four Films of Woody Allen (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 45). The correlation between this and Hare's account is unsurprising given Allen's preoccupation with ‘existential’ themes (Allen Woody, Woody Allen on Woody Allen: in conversation with Stig Björkman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 209, 211–12, 225). For a very British parody of existentialism (amongst other things) see Tony Hancock's 1960 film The Rebel.

15 I am not claiming that laughter is the only appropriate response to absurdity. Likewise, I specify comic laughter to distinguish it from (e.g.) nervous laughter, laughter caused by laughing-gas or tickling. I am also presupposing that comic laughter is, at least in part, life-affirming rather than life-contesting or life-questioning.

16 This claim will be more or less contentious depending on one's metaphilosophical views. I will not argue the point here.

17 Williams Bernard, Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Middlesex: Penguin, 1972), 17; see also 23–24; Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1993), 22–29. As Hare's ‘treatment’ was successful, I think we should conclude that the boy's ‘illness’ was not very serious. If the boy had been genuinely sceptical about why ‘anything matters’ then, to borrow Wittgenstein's phrase, ‘I shouldn't know what it would mean to try to convince him…[otherwise]. And if I had said something, and that had removed his doubt, I should not know how or why’ (Wittgenstein Ludwig, On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), §257).

18 Although I suspect that laughter is the right response to absurdity, in this paper I am only interested in explaining why laughter is a legitimate response. For an account of the relationship between humor and nihilism see Marmysz John, Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism (Albany: SUNY, 2003) (hereafter abbreviated LAN).

19 Camus Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971), 11 (hereafter abbreviated MOS).

20 See AC, 28–31, 32–33, 35, 43.

21 Camus also refers to the ‘uselessness of suffering’ (MOS, 13).

22 See also MOS, 11.

23 One could make the same objection against Tolstoy's claim that religious ‘[f]aith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequence of which is that man does not kill himself but lives…If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live…Without faith it is impossible to live’ (AC, 54).

24 See also Camus’ remarks on self-knowledge (MOS, 22), and our ‘nostalgia for unity’ and ‘appetite for the absolute’ (21).

25 One obvious difference is the endlessness of Sisyphus’ task. But, as previously noted, for Camus human finitude offers little solace in the face of absurdity.

26 The absurdity arising from overfamiliarity also seems important to Camus (MOS, 19).

27 Camus also thinks that it is absurd that even our greatest achievements and most memorable experiences often begin in extremely mundane situations (MOS, 17).

28 See MOS, 18.

29 And similarly: ‘The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world’ (MOS, 29). Again, this is misleading. One might rather say that the world is neither reasonable nor unreasonable; just as trees, tables, the sea, twilight and walking are neither reasonable nor unreasonable.

30 See Nagel Thomas, Mortal Questions (Cambridge UK: Canto, 1991), Ch. 14 (hereafter abbreviated MQ); The View From Nowhere (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) (hereafter abbreviated VFN); Avramides Anita, ‘Thomas Nagel: The View from Nowhere’, in Shand J. (ed.), Central Works of Philosophy 5: The Twentieth Century, Quine and After (Bucks: Acumen, 2006), 227ff.

31 See MQ, 17, 22 note.

32 Nagel deals explicitly with the absurdist's appeals to the minuteness of humanity compared with the vastness of the universe and the history of the earth (MQ, 11–12, 21), and likewise that death is both inevitable and terminates the ‘chains of justification’ (12) within life (Nagel Thomas, What Does it all Mean? (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 96, 100 (hereafter abbreviated WAM)). On the purported insignificance of finite human life in the context of infinity see also AC, 36.

33 Although the ‘pursuit of objectivity…involves a transcendence of the self’, this ‘must be distinguished from a different kind of transcendence by which one enters imaginatively into other subjective points of view’ (MQ, 209).

34 Nagel relates absurdity to epistemological scepticism (MQ, 18–20, 23).

35 Tolstoy similarly remarks: ‘[I]t is only my position that is absurd’ (AC, 47). However, he here has in mind a contrast between the learned (like himself) and the ‘vast masses of simple folk’ who ‘continue to live’ (47–48; see also 50) in a metaphysically unperturbed state.

36 ‘Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern’ (MQ, 15).

37 Nagel thus insists: ‘[W]e cannot refuse [the transcendental view] consciously, for to do that we would have to be aware of the viewpoint we were refusing. The only way to avoid the relevant self-consciousness would be either never to attain it or to forget it – neither of which can be achieved by the will’ (MQ, 21). (He does not rule out entirely that someone could live by animal ‘impulse’ and thereby render their life ‘less absurd’ (22) – something attempted by the ancient Pyrrhonists (W&L, Ch 1).) The alternative is to try and shed one's subjective view – something pursued by ‘certain Oriental religions’ (MQ, 21). But even this requires that ‘one take oneself [minimally] seriously’ (22).

38 See also MQ, 17, 19, 20–21.

39 See also MQ, 196–97. This ‘collision’ is also why Nagel rejects attempts at ‘reduction’, ‘elimination’ and ‘annexation’ of the subjective dimension of human life (210–11). Thus, the ‘objective picture’ is inherently ‘partial’ (212).

40 Camus’ response strikes Nagel as overly ‘romantic and slightly self-pitying’ (MQ, 22).

41 See also Marmysz on the presuppositions of nihilism (LAN, 155ff).

42 The ‘transcendental step is natural to…humans’ (MQ, 21). Nagel refers to our ‘natural responses’ and remarks that ‘[w]hat sustains us, in belief as in action, is not reason or justification, but something more basic than these’ (20). He also refers to Hume in this context (20 note).

43 Nagel refers to ‘irony’ earlier, though adds that irony does not ‘enable us to escape the absurd’ (MQ, 20). I return to this later.

44 See MOS, 99.

45 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 38.

46 See Hutcheson Francis, ‘Thoughts on Laughter’, in Graham G. (ed.), Scottish Philosophy: Selected Readings 1690–1960 (Exeter: Imprint, 2004), 29.

47 Kant Immanuel, Critique of Judgment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 161 (hereafter abbreviated CJ).

48 Seeing another's expectation being ‘reduced to nothing’ can also provoke laughter, even when that frustration is rather less than funny for the other. For examples of comic incongruity see Orwell George, Collected Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968), 208; Gaita Raimond, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 4849; Kundera Milan, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Middlesex: Penguin, 1984), 233 (hereafter abbreviated BLF); TC, 86.

49 See Bergson Henri, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Macmillan, 1911), 34 (hereafter abbreviated LMC). See also Orwell George, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3: As I Please, 1943–1945 (Middlesex: Penguin, 1970), 327.

50 See also LMC, 197ff. On a more Hobbesian note, Bergson remarks: ‘In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed’ (136).

51 See also LMC, 138.

52 See also LMC, 20.

53 Wittgenstein Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 174 (hereafter abbreviated PI).

54 Wittgenstein Ludwig, Zettel (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), §527. See also LMC, 32, 24–25, 30–31.

55 For example, an ‘ingrained twitching’ or ‘fixed grimace’ (LMC, 24).

56 Though in some repetitive behaviour we suspect ‘sickness and infirmity’, ‘mental deficiency’ or ‘insanity’ (LMC, 18; see also 185).

57 See also LMC, 37, 57, 58, 77, 109.

58 There is something comic, though not trivial, in Wittgenstein's remark: ‘If fleas developed a rite, it would be based on the dog’ (Wittgenstein Ludwig, ‘Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough’, in Luckhardt C.G. (ed.), Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996), 73 (hereafter abbreviated RFG); see also Plant Bob, ‘The Confessing Animal in Foucault and Wittgenstein’, Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 34, No. 4 (December 2006), 543ff.

59 ‘Now step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn into a comedy’ (LMC, 5). Morreall also emphasises the ‘distanced’ attitude needed for laughter (Morreall John, Taking Laughter Seriously (Albany: SUNY, 1983), 122–23 (hereafter abbreviated TLS)). More specifically: ‘If we simply shift to a more cosmic perspective than we usually adopt, then not only our present concerns but the whole history of our species looks insignificant…[A]ny incongruity can be funny…[t]he human condition itself is funny’ (TLS, 124). Interestingly, at the end of his analysis, Morreall refers to Camus’ claim that suicide is the most fundamental philosophical question, and suggests: ‘We can even treat the question of suicide with a sense of humour’ (129).

60 There are obvious correlations here with Nietzsche's affirmation of the ‘eternal recurrence’. See Nietzsche Friedrich, The Gay Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), §341; The Will to Power (New York: Vintage, 1968), §1053ff; Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin, 1990), §56; Ecce Homo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 36–38, 50–51; Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Middlesex: Penguin, 1972), 176–78, 231–33 (hereafter abbreviated TSZ). For a particularly interesting reading of this see Nehamas Alexander, ‘The Eternal Recurrence’, in Richardson J. and Leiter B. (eds), Nietzsche: Oxford Readings in Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118ff.

61 Borch-Jacobsen Mikkel, ‘The Laughter of Being’, MLN, Vol. 102, No. 4 (September 1987), 748 (hereafter abbreviated TLB). After all, ‘if my existence is nothing more than an unspeakable farce, an improbable gag lost in the immensity of the universe, why not laugh at it…?’ (TLB, 738). See also Tolstoy's remarks on life seeming to be ‘some kind of stupid and evil joke’ (AC, 31). Borch-Jacobsen's comments are in-keeping with Nietzsche's Zarathustrian laughter: ‘He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary’ (TSZ, 68; see also Lippitt John, ‘Nietzsche, Zarathustra and the Status of Laughter’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 32, No. 1 (January 1992) (hereafter abbreviated NZL); ‘Existential Laughter’, Cogito (Spring 1996) (hereafter abbreviated EXL)). Freud similarly maintains that the meaning behind humour is this: ‘ “Look! here is the world, which seems dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children – just worth making a jest about!” ‘(Freud Sigmund, ‘Humor’, in Art and Literature: The Penguin Freud Library, Volume 14 (London: Penguin, 1985), 432–33). Kundera describes a quasi-Nietzschean laughter in BLF, 61–62.

62 See also EXL, 69. Wittgenstein also refers to humour as ‘a way of looking at the world’ (Wittgenstein Ludwig, Culture and Value (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 78).

63 An example of this can be found in Orson Welles’ The Third Man, where Harry Lime (a murderous fraudster) and Holly Martins share a Big Wheel ride. As they ascend, Martins asks Lime ‘Have you ever seen any of your victims?’, to which Lime responds: ‘Victims? Don't be melodramatic’. He then invites Martins to look at the people below: ‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really…tell me to keep my money or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? …Nobody thinks in terms of human beings; Governments don't, why should we?’.

64 Such experiences reduce us to our embodied being-here so as to make any sort of ‘transcendental step’ unattainable. For an account of extreme pain in this regard see Améry Jean, At the Mind's Limits (London: Granta, 1999), 2140.

65 On a related point, Bergson maintains: ‘A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable’ (LMC, 3).

66 ‘Although I shall speak of the subjective viewpoint and the objective viewpoint, this is just shorthand, for there are not two such viewpoints…Instead, there is a polarity…The opposition between subjective and objective can arise at any place on the spectrum where one point of view claims dominance over another’ (MQ, 206).

67 See MQ, 212. Far from being incompatible with sensitivity toward others, such other-sensitivity is prerequisite for cosmic laughter to be possible in the first place. Assuming that moral constraints are required here, the aforementioned ‘sensitivity’ will not in itself provide them. Nevertheless, such sensitivity is the background condition for any subsequent moral limits we might want to impose. I would therefore describe this sensitivity as ‘minimally moral’.

68 ‘We are thoroughly material beings that are unable to be that materiality. Such is the curse of reflection, but such also is the source of our dignity. Humour is the daily bread of that dignity’ (Critchley Simon, On Humor (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 109 (hereafter abbreviated OH)).

69 ‘[I]f my existence is nothing more than an unspeakable farce, an improbable gag lost in the immensity of the universe, why not laugh at it…Since we cannot escape pain and anguish, let's at least learn to relativise them, by observing ourselves from without, or, more properly, from above…Let's act, in other words, as if we could raise ourselves above our precious self, as if we could, just for the time of an improbable grace period, make fun of this shabby finitude’ (TLB, 738). Of Nietzschean laughter, Alderman similarly remarks: ‘Through fear we pretend to be what we are not – absolute, certain, eternal. Through fear we insist that our most illusory pretensions be taken as reality itself. Only, this human comedy says in effect, by lying insistently can we take ourselves seriously enough to accept ourselves. But this apparent seriousness is really only a solemn evasion: unable to accept the light, temporal character of our creations we weigh them down with pretensions to eternality, universality, and absoluteness…Zarathrusta's laughter is then a form of criticism which silences and liberates…[us from] solemnity, dogmatism, and ponderousness’ (Alderman Harold, Nietzsche's Gift (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1977), 54). Nagel would presumably here insist that taking such a view from ‘above’ is already part of the human condition.

70 Solomon criticises Camus for having exaggerated metaphysical ‘expectations’ (Solomon Robert C., The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993), 38 (hereafter abbreviated PASS)), even accusing him of being ‘a traumatized atheist’ (PASS, 40; see also 41). Thus, Solomon concludes, Camus’ ‘literary genius enables him to paint this ghastly scenario in heroic colours; but we must see it for what it is. It is a degrading, spiteful, and hopeless version of the Christian denigration of man – as petty and helpless, virtually crushed by the weight of his guilt and his punishment, virtuously salvaging his last crumb of self-respect through resentment, scorn [and] silent defiance’ (45).

71 This, I think, is what Critchley is getting at when he claims that ‘humour recalls us to the modesty and limitedness of the human condition, a limitedness that calls not for tragic affirmation but comic acknowledgement, not heroic authenticity but a laughable inauthenticity’ (Critchley Simon, Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Levinas, Derrida and Contemporary French Thought (London and New York: Verso: 1999), 224 (hereafter abbreviated EPS)). He goes on: ‘The extraordinary thing about comedy is that it returns us to the very ordinariness of the ordinary, it returns us to the familiar by making it fantastic. Comedy might be said to provide us with an oblique phenomenology of the ordinary’ (EPS, 235–36). See also Critchley Simon, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (London and New York: Verso, 2007), 7787.

72 See Wittgenstein's remarks on ‘Instinct-actions’ (RFG, 72).

73 We naturally shuttle between subjective and objective perspectives. Indeed, becoming overly preoccupied with either extreme would undermine our normal coping strategies. One might even suppose that exclusive fixation on either subjective or objective perspectives would be symptomatic of certain psychological disorders.

74 Although Lippitt identifies significant correlations between Nagel and Nietzsche on taking a humorous attitude toward life per se (NZL, 46), he objects to the ‘ease with which Nagel appears to think we can escape the absurdity of our existence’, whereas Nietzsche ‘has no such allusions as to the difficulty of the task’ (47). (Interestingly, elsewhere Lippitt expresses concern both about the possibility of Zarathustrian laughter, and whether, insofar as it is willed, it remains ‘defiant…[as it] symbolizes a determination to “affirm” in the face of despair’ (EXL, 70).) Lippett's former accusation is plausible. However, it is notable that he proceeds to claim that Nietzsche highlights a ‘vitally important point: that the tragic and the comic are not polar opposites, or mutually exclusive, but subtly and sometimes almost paradoxically inter-linked modes of experience’ (NZL, 48; see also EXL, 64). It seems to me, however, that under the rubric of the ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ perspectives, Nagel says much the same thing. As such, there is no obvious reason to suppose that Nagelian laughter is easy.

75 See VFN, Ch XI. In ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ Wittgenstein envisages an omniscient being documenting ‘in a big book’ all the ‘movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive’, including ‘all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived’. In other words, this ‘world-book’ would contain a thoroughly objective ‘description of the world’. Wittgenstein then claims that within this book there would be ‘nothing that we could call an ethical judgment’, for all of its ‘propositions [would] stand on the same level’ (Wittgenstein Ludwig, Philosophical Occasions (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993), 39). We might similarly say that within such a book there would be nothing comic, but only events viewed from the objective perspective. For there to be something comic here Wittgenstein's world-book would (somehow) have to capture the ‘collision’ (MQ, 17) between our ‘pretension and reality’ (13).

76 At the very least, smiling is an appropriate response to the absurd. Although Critchley prefers this to the explosive contagiousness of laughter (OH, 107–9, 111), I see no reason to think that smiling is inherently superior to laughter; after all, both can be inane.

77 Whatever his ambiguities, we should recall that Camus insists that ‘the Absurd is not in man…nor in the world, but in their presence together’ (MOS, 30 my emphasis), and likewise: ‘The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world’ (29 my emphasis).

78 This might explain why the problem of scepticism continually returns, despite philosophers’ repeated attempts to refute, deflate or ignore it (MQ, 18–20, 23).

79 ‘[T]he incongruity between order and disorder, by the same token between man, who always seeks order, and the disorderly realities of the empirical world…discloses a central truth about the human condition: Man is in a state of comic discrepancy with respect to the order of the universe’ (Berger Peter L., Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1997), 34).

80 See NM, 246.

81 Thanks to Peter Baumann, Simon Glendinning, Janine Andert and Izabela Szyroka for helpful comments and therapeutic laughter on an earlier draft of this paper.

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