Illustration by Na Kim.
We were sitting at a long table, images and diagrams projected onto the wall behind us, while the audience faced us in silence. I was part of a panel on hoarding, along with another psychoanalyst and a memoirist. As I gave my presentation, audience members went about their business as though they were invisible, like people in cars sometimes do. One person directly in front of me scrolled and typed on her iPhone. Another stood up, walked to the back of the room to get a drink, then returned to his seat and rummaged through his bag. I became aware of my attempt to block out these actions, to pretend not to see what I was seeing.
At one point, I must have turned my head in the direction of my lapel mic because suddenly the volume shot up. I was explaining the concept of horror vacui, or the fear of emptiness, pointing to the part it played in the aesthetics of the Victorian era, causing every surface to be covered with tchotchkes, and in sex, leading some men to dread a sense of post-coital emptiness so much that they stave off—and this is when it happened—ejacuLATION.
That got really loud for a second, I observed matter-of-factly, then burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. I attempted to compose myself, apologize—Sorry, I just had a juvenile moment—and return to the passage, but when I reached the word ejaculation again, I lost it, doubled over, eventually putting my head on the table.
Seconds felt like hours as I tried, with little success, to pull myself together. I had no idea why I was laughing, but the more I laughed, the more others in the room laughed with me. Attacks of laughter are contagious: another person’s laughter—even if nonsensical—is enough of a stimulus to provoke your own.
The British call convulsive laughter corpsing, a term that derives from the frequency with which a fit of laughter overtakes an actor playing a corpse onstage. Before breaking into laughter during my talk, I was, in a sense, playing dead, if you think of dead as assuming a socialized self, pushing your emotions and spontaneous feelings underground.
“When you’re acting,” explains comedian Ricky Gervais, “you’re not caught up in the moment. Anything can put you off. You’re never not aware of your surroundings. So suddenly, one little thing will bring out the absurdity of what you’re doing.” The absurd, philosopher Albert Camus proposes, is marked by a tension between the seriousness you attach to your life and the inherent meaninglessness that is revealed when you catch a glimpse of yourself from an outside perspective: “A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible show: you wonder why he is alive.” Tuning in to quotidian, meaningless actions we perform on autopilot elicits a sense of the absurd, but when the actor of that incomprehensible show is oneself, the absurdity intensifies to the extreme.
Most often, we don’t select the roles we find ourselves playing in daily life; as we move through the world, we are drawn into social scripts, texts that govern interactions we are trained to reprise without conscious recognition. Breaking character is a refusal to become an instrument in the production of a system that is, for the most part, invisible and indifferent to us. When we cease to blend into the social world around us, the “chain of daily gestures is broken,” writes Camus, and what follows is an “awakening.”
In response to an interviewer’s question, “What is the purpose of poetry?” Zbigniew Herbert replied, “To wake up!”
“Have you ever noticed,” Elizabeth Bishop asks her friend Donald E. Stanford in a letter, “that you can often learn more about other people—more about how they feel, how it would feel to be them—by hearing them cough or make one of the innumerable inner noises, than by watching them for hours? Sometimes if another person hiccups, particularly if you haven’t been paying much attention to him, why you get a sudden sensation as if you were inside him—you know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions, aspects which are, really, indescribable to another person and must be realized by that kind of intuition.” She concludes: “That’s what I quite often want to get into poetry.”
The neurobiologist Vittorio Gallese calls this sudden sensation of being inside someone else’s feelings “embodied simulation.” This phenomenon relies on mirror neurons, which fire both when we witness an action and when we ourselves act; our mirror neurons enable us to perceive what happens outside of us as part of our own subjective experience. Embodied simulation allows us to experience empathy concretely, body to body. Poetry also operates by this kind of intuition, leading us to feel moved by experiences that are not our own.
Spontaneous outbursts of laughter are, in that sense, poetic: they communicate intercorporeally by luring bystanders’ bodies to places that their conscious minds may not choose to carry them. “Seeing and hearing a man laugh I participate in his emotion from inside myself,” philosopher Georges Bataille explains. “We have an immediate knowledge of the other person’s laughter when we laugh ourselves or of excitement when we share it.” The “immediate knowledge” that results from participating in another person’s emotion from inside ourselves connects our body to other bodies, evoking “a state of continuity through secret channels” outside of what our mind processes consciously. In destabilizing our boundaries of self and seducing our body’s engagement without our mind’s consent, this state of continuity “gives us a feeling of obscenity.”
Perhaps the obscenity we experience when another person’s laughter stimulates us in ways we can’t control has something to do with why some cultures view an open-mouthed laugh as a form of indecent exposure. The only part of our skeleton we reveal to others is our teeth, so when we laugh, we flash our interior at others. Twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides warned, “Laughter and levity bring about illicit sexual conduct.” Or, as the philosopher Samuel Weber put it, “Laughter is dangerous to the guardians of the state as to all good men, because of its tendency to get out of hand.”
The repeated objection of Herman Melville’s character Bartleby when he’s asked to perform a task by his employer (“I would prefer not to”) is, as George Orwell said of jokes, a tiny revolution. To refuse to play the part that is expected of you is to resist transferring power to whoever is invested in your taking up that part. The power another person has, explains lawyer Gerry Spence, “is my perception of their power. Their power is my thought. The source of their power is, therefore, in my mind.” If the power or authority a person expects another to grant them is denied, the sense of deflation that ensues can make them feel, as Bartleby’s employer describes, “disarmed,” “impotent,” “unmanned.”
A few winters ago, after noticing mouse droppings on a shelf in my pantry, I placed a sticky trap in the corner. I wanted to avoid the risks associated with other options: snapped fingers, poisoned food. The next day, I found droppings stuck in the trap’s glue. When I caught sight of the droppings, I felt a surge of rage well up inside me, the same kind I sometimes experience when my daughters resist my authority.
A babysitter who quit working for us some years before the sticky-trap revelation described a similar frustration. She had asked my then-five-year-old daughter to do something—I can’t remember what—that she preferred not to do. The babysitter said, If you don’t [whatever it was], I’ll take away your cookies. My daughter replied, That’s okay. Cookies aren’t important.
Resisting a transfer of power to someone in a position of authority most often leads to a negative consequence; after being fired, Bartleby, for example, becomes homeless and is thrown in jail for vagrancy. But that very risk can also elicit a peculiar kind of pleasure that rubs against the edge of pain. This sublime pleasure has its own kind of potency, which is why an inappropriate outburst of laughter, however counterintuitively, amplifies a person’s power. After all, the actor who corpses controls the show.
Corpsing relates, in this way, to jouissance, a term used by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. English speakers sometimes replace it with bliss or enjoyment, but the French word defies translation, containing within it jouir—“to enjoy” (rights, things) and “to come” (ejacuLATION)—but also “the sense in which the body experiences itself … at the level at which pain begins to appear,” where “a whole dimension of the organism, which would otherwise remain veiled, can be experienced,” a sense of pleasure merely in being at the level of the body.
In explaining the psychology behind jouissance, Lacan borrows a scenario proposed by philosopher Immanuel Kant in discussing reason. A man is given the opportunity to spend the night with a woman he desires—in Lacan’s terms, “unlawfully”—on the condition that, upon exiting the room of lovemaking, he pass into an adjacent room in which he will be executed. For Kant—who is thought to have died a virgin—the pleasure of lovemaking is not worth the punishment of death, and anyone in his right mind would refuse this trade-off. However, “one only has to make a conceptual shift,” counters Lacan, “and move the night spent with the lady from the category of pleasure to that of jouissance, given that jouissance implies precisely the acceptance of death—and there’s no need for sublimation—for the example to be ruined.” Jouissance shits on the sticky trap of practical reason.
“Birds feel something akin to pain (and fear) just before migration,” writes poet Lorine Niedecker, and “nothing alleviates this feeling except flight (the rapid motion of wings).”
Thinking, as W. R. Bion, Samuel Beckett’s psychoanalyst, explains, comes into existence to cope with thoughts, which enter the mind when a yearned-for sensation has not been experienced. He illustrates this process with a scenario involving a hungry infant who craves the breast. When no breast turns up, the baby feels frustration instead of the yearned-for satisfaction, which then leads to a thought (The breast is not there). The “development of an ability to think” emerges as a way of coping with the thoughts that crystallize from frustrated feelings. Or, in philosopher Emil Cioran’s terms, “Every thought derives from a thwarted sensation.” With breast—or its metonym—in mouth, however, there’s no need for thoughts or thinking. You are free to feel.
Spontaneous outbursts of laughter, like jouissance, unveil a whole dimension of being and bodily aliveness that reveals thinking to be a sad consolation. Part of what makes an eruption of intensified being pleasurable, as in Lacan’s version of Kant’s scenario, is the recklessness involved in expending drive energy urgently, unproductively, without sublimation. Eroticism, as Bataille defines it, “is assenting to life up to the point of death.”
La petite mort, the “death which lovers love,” in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words, referred in medieval times to the loss of consciousness following orgasm. “Eroticism,” for Bataille, “unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest independent of the natural goal: reproduction and the desire for children.” Such an unsublimated expenditure of energy can be seen as wasteful: la petite mort is circumvented not only by men, as discussed in my talk, who want to avoid a sense of emptiness after sex (“Suck on, suck on,” writes Shelley, “I glow, I glow!”), but by others (athletes, artists) who don’t want to squander their life force.
“I’m afraid of depleting my energy,” Lady Gaga told an interviewer. “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina.” Plato also warns in Laws that laughter is a waste of wisdom, a pointless expenditure of valuable resources. Laughter and sex, from this perspective, are wasteful depletions, pointless transfers of power.
Aesthetic experience, on the other hand, shares with jouissance a sense of urgency, directness. “Art reminds us,” writes Nietzsche in a notebook, “of states of animal vigor,” which are “on the one hand a surplus and overflow of flourishing corporeality into the world of images and wishes” and “on the other a rousing of the animal function through images and wishes of intensified life—a heightening of the feeling of life.”
“Most people are disgusted,” writes philosopher Martha Nussbaum, “by drinking from a glass into which they themselves have spit, although they are not sensitive to the saliva in their own mouths.” The idea behind disgust, she continues, is that the self will become contaminated if it takes in something thought of as repellent, even if the substance originated within one’s own body. The secretions that we share with animals—mucus, urine, feces, semen—are the most repulsive, and, Nussbaum tells us, “in all cultures an essential mark of human dignity is the ability to wash and to dispose of wastes.” Repulsion expresses our desire to distance ourselves from something outside of us that is also inside us and could just as easily erupt from our own bodies. Maintaining a civilized appearance involves “warding off both animality in general and the mortality that is so prominent in our loathing of our animality.”
Months before the babysitter quit, she told my daughter not to cry because it made her look ugly. Sobbing, as Charles Darwin observed, is physiologically similar to a fit of laughter: “During excessive laughter the whole body is often thrown backward and shakes, or is almost convulsed; the respiration is much disturbed; the head and face become gorged with blood, with the veins distended; and the orbicular muscles are spasmodically contracted in order to protect the eyes. Tears are freely shed.” Although the primary purpose of tears is to wash away foreign particles in the eyes, when we cry for emotional reasons, “the eye,” as literary critic René Girard puts it, acts “metaphorically,” expelling not material particles but emotional ones.
A spontaneous fit of laughter, in this way, can drive out what upsets our psychological balance, as do defenses against traumatization. Trauma occurs, according to Freud, when someone is emotionally overwhelmed by an external event for which they were unprepared. Victims of trauma, including most hoarders, become adept at preparedness in hopes that, by being prepared, they will protect themselves from further traumatization. No one will pull the rug out from under them because they are standing on ten rugs and know it since they put the rugs there themselves. Hoarders clutter out thoughts and emotions—the unknown—that have the potential to overwhelm their psyches by filling their homes with objects that have known memories and feelings attached. Aristotle believed there are no vacuums in nature because denser surrounding material will immediately rush in to fill any void. This rushing-in is, perhaps, at the heart of the horror vacui of a hoarder: if emptiness will always be filled, then it is risky to leave empty any spaces through which thoughts and emotions that haven’t been carefully curated can enter.
Our body is also set up to vigilantly drive out unknown elements that have the potential to throw off our homeostasis. Convulsive reactions (coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing) expel foreign elements that enter our body and threaten our metabolic balance at the concrete level, while other responses, such as corpsing, protect our system’s equilibrium at the emotional level. We are set up to mobilize resistance against both physiological and psychological intrusions from the external world at the reflexive, unconscious level.
Laughter can also be enlisted to ward off interpersonal danger by signaling positive feelings towards people we find threatening in order to appease them (“Are You Actually Funny,” Katherine Coldiron recently wrote on Twitter, “or So Creepy That Women Laugh Nervously at Your Comments for Their Own Safety? A Pamphlet for Men”). We use nonverbal cues much like animals do: to communicate power and intent.
Years ago, a woman approached me after a poetry reading I gave, complimented my work and chatted about other topics. As I listened to her, I found myself taking tiny steps backward which she met with steps forward of roughly the same size. Though my instinct to move away should have made me decline to give her my email address when she asked for it, I let a sense of propriety drown out my gut. I recited the address quickly, hoping there would be a mistaken letter somewhere as she typed it into her phone.
The next day, I received a short email from her asking where she could find my work. I sent a formal but friendly response, to which she replied with a long personal email, saying that she would soon be in New York, and extending an invitation to meet. I wasn’t interested in meeting or continuing the exchange and took a giant step back by putting off a response. A couple of days later, her name appeared in my inbox. Immediately after I clicked on the message, the letters seemed to fly off the page toward me:
“No animal in the wild,” writes security advisor Gavin de Becker, “suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of its mental energy thinking, ‘It’s probably nothing.’” Instead of valuing our gut feelings, he continues, “we, in contrast to every creature in nature, choose not to explore—and even to ignore—survival signals.”
Different kinds of laughter serve different purposes. A spontaneous outburst of laughter is, according to Freud, an eruption from the unconscious, a discharge of surplus energy that exposes raw unedited aspects of a person’s interior and, like a sneeze or cough, has the potential to expel elements that threaten the psyche’s homeostasis. This kind of body driven laughter is termed Duchenne, after the nineteenth-century neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne. Duchenne laughter is often fueled by emotions that break through censors and other inhibitory processes in disguised form to express deep-seated thoughts and beliefs that might not necessarily be in line with the image or persona one would like to project to others. As it is infectious, Duchenne laughter strips us down to a primal state of unbounded continuity with other bodies.
But most of the laughter we experience daily, even if well intentioned, belongs to a different category, Non-Duchenne laughter. Non-Duchenne laughter is not expressive but imitates emotional expression, feigning the joy associated with genuine laughter to influence people. Whereas Duchenne laughter inadvertently expresses a person’s state of mind, non-Duchenne laughter is used strategically to signal emotions that may or may not be present. In a study, the neurobiologist Robert Provine sent his team out into the world, to observe more than a thousand instances of laughter, and found that, rather than laughing after jokes, “people laugh more often after such innocuous lines as ‘I’ll see you guys later’ or ‘Are you sure?’’’ In fact, he found, only 10 to 20 percent of pre-laugh comments were remotely funny: “Most laughter did not follow anything resembling a joke, storytelling, or other formal attempt at humor.” Some typical statements leading to laughter were: “I hope we do well,” “It was nice meeting you,” “I think I’m done,” “Are you sure?”
An analysand related—with horror and shame—an anecdote about feeling a sudden, irrepressible urge to laugh at a funeral as the body of his friend’s father was being lowered into the ground. Compulsive laughter at funerals is common, as Freud explains in a note to his Rat Man case. For this reason, some funeral directors hire professional mourners to make particular crying sounds that, like non-Duchenne laughter, will guide the emotion of the crowd in a desired direction. Duchenne laughter, on the other hand, tends to break out when someone feels the need to expel thoughts and emotions that threaten their system’s well-being. For my analysand, that threat pushed against his narrative of who he was (a sympathetic friend), which his laughter, if released, would seem to contradict.
The stronger the rule or tighter the script before you, the more control you will need to hold back spontaneous expressions. Imagine a river flowing with great force that is stopped up by a dam. As the river pushes against the dam, two counteracting energies—the water’s pressure and the dam’s reaction force—cause tension to build. A suppressed emotion or impulse, like the river, pushes against the dam of repression. If the energy invested by the ego in the process of suppression is suddenly discharged, there’s a sensation of pleasure that can range, depending on the strength of the impulse that has built up, from relief to ecstasy.
An uncontrollable fit of laughter is then most likely to erupt in a context in which it would be wildly inappropriate—as happened to me on the panel. Duchenne laughter is non-strategic. Even anti-strategic, in that it exposes internal conflicts and unconscious meaning. The mourner who laughs at a funeral, Freud explains, is likely experiencing contradictory impulses: a consciously intended one (the desire to console) and a repressed one (some unacceptable thought or feeling) that pushes, like that river against its dam, for release.
My analysand’s anxiety at the funeral turned out to be related to anxiety about his own mortality (Glad it’s him, not me!). He came to understand that the literal mortification of the body being lowered into the ground before him made it feel threatening to shut off the motility of his facial muscles and play the corpse that social roles demanded of him. Perhaps feeling the corpse’s deadness inside him was too much. The compulsion to laugh functioned as a way of disassociating not only from the deadness of the corpse but also of the part the social script demanded he play.
Catherine Millot, in her memoir about her affair with Lacan when she was twenty-eight and he was seventy, writes of the “farts and burps which Lacan, as a free man, did not restrain in public.” The more liberated you are, the less willing you will be to suppress your impulses, subject yourself to the constraints expected of polite people. Lacan, Millot writes, became “extremely impatient if he was forced to wait, even at a red light or a level crossing. If he was not served promptly in a restaurant, he soon obtained satisfaction by uttering a resounding cry or a sigh that resembled a cry.” He “shared with the Dadaists their derision of the respectably conventional … He particularly liked the famous adage: ‘Once you’ve overstepped the mark, there are no more limits.’’’
Most people are not as free as Lacan or cannot risk the freedom required to loosen control over themselves, and do so only in safe, low-stakes contexts. Spontaneous outbursts of laughter carry you over the mark into a joyful sensation of limitlessness, and without the social costs that may accompany running red lights or infidelity. Although acceptable in Western societies, laughing with complete abandon—doubled over, stomach muscles aching, tears flowing—is relatively rare for adults. Teenagers succumb to fits of laughter more easily because they’ve spent fewer years reinforcing their dams, and derision of the rules, for them, is the norm. Adults, on the other hand, tend to corpse when they feel safe enough to let their guard down: with family or old friends, when judgment is not a concern, when their well-being won’t be threatened, or when their ego functions have been compromised, as when sleep-deprived or drunk.
Much humor plays with our need to maintain a certain story about ourselves. “When we laugh at someone falling over,” says the medical anthropologist Ann Hale, “it’s not the process of falling that tickles our funny bone but the attempt to stay upright.” Falling is a failure to maintain a posture, the upright gait that distances humans from their shameful prehistoric origins, which placed the head and the genitals in proximity. It makes sense that regression would elicit laughter, given that laughter is an escape from the unconscious, and the infantile, according to Freud, is the unconscious’s “source” (I just had a juvenile moment). The attempt, then, to remain not only upright but upstanding, civilized, distanced from our origins—particularly when amplified by high heels or some other attempt to dissociate oneself from one’s animal origin—incites laughter.
You might assume that someone subject to a spontaneous eruption from their unconscious in the form of laughter would be humiliated, but for the most part they end up feeling empowered. A fit of Duchenne laughter operates outside the bounds of logic, language, the respectably conventional and taps into the unconscious to liberate a flow of pure becoming. Corpsing has within it a force of resistance, a provocative impish drive to burst free from external constraints. Rather than transfer power to others, adhere to the codes that usually govern our behavior, a fit of spontaneous laughter oversteps the mark into the limitless realm of jouissance. Even if things go horribly, it’s great.
During my talk, when the volume shot up, it seemed as though my voice was being projected back at me as an external object. Taking your voice back in after it has left your body is a lot like drinking your own saliva from a glass, which perhaps explains why hearing your recorded voice played back can feel disturbing. Because it is difficult to enlist repulsion to block out sound, an uncanny sensation arises instead.
Freud uses the term uncanny to describe a circumstance in which the familiar becomes defamiliarized. In German, the word for uncanny is unheimlich, or unhoused, and my voice was, indeed, unhoused when I heard it outside of my body, my speech appearing to have traveled not from the inside out but from the outside in. When the self that has become not-self reenters the body as a foreign object that appears to have come to life, what might otherwise feel violating or intrusive may be experienced as a metaphysical crisis that leads to obscenity, as well as confusion around what is inside and what is outside, self and other—what is real.
Corpsing was likely my bodily attempt to expel the unhoused feeling of crisis that had been provoked. Laughter offers an escape hatch from situations that are stressful by flipping them, shifting the atmosphere from negative to positive emotion, expulsion to ejacuLATION. Whatever it was that I was feeling, my fit of Duchenne laughter was able to reverse (rapid motion of wings).
When I met with the other participants ahead of time to discuss the format of the panel, the organizer suggested that she open with remarks, the author of the memoir speak and I respond to what the author said. I felt nervous about having to respond on the spot. I expressed my concern to the organizer, and she told me not to worry. I could simply write and present to the audience whatever I wanted to say in relation to the book and to hoarding more generally. My mind was at ease.
In her introduction to the audience on the evening of the event, however, the organizer presented a format that matched her original plan: I was to be a respondent. I felt panicked, confused. Should I follow the setup I’d prepared myself for, the one we had agreed upon, or change course? I worried I would look foolish reading a talk rather than responding.
As I deliberated over what to do, I felt as I had in high school when, while taking the SAT, my bra came undone. Should I fasten my bra, I wondered, or keep going? I had the habit of fastening my bra at the front of my body, then twisting it to the back, which meant I’d have to go to the bathroom if I were to fasten it in my habitual manner. I could try to fasten the hooks at the back and stay in my seat—how hard could it be?—or continue taking the test braless. When I realized how much time I’d lost deliberating, I became anxious, which made it even more difficult to return my attention to the exam.
At the talk, I weighed my options, picked up my pen to take notes and put it back down. By the time my turn to speak arrived, I was gripped by anxiety. I knew that what I’d prepared would be more interesting than what I might come up with while buzzing with anxiety, so I decided to follow the plan we’d agreed upon and read what I’d written.
As I began to read, my mind strayed from the text. I imagined how odd it must seem for a respondent to take on the role of presenter, to play the wrong part in the production, to read from a different script. I began to doubt my decision, which only increased my anxiety. My river of emotion pushed with insistence against the dam of composure until it finally broke free. I can’t say exactly what made me erupt into laughter when I did—I suspect it wasn’t simply the mic’s sound or the word it amplified. Humor is unconscious, as the evolutionary theorist Alastair Clarke says, “else we should all be able to explain its mechanism by simple analysis of what we think before we laugh.” Regardless of origin, my corpsing elicited the jouissance associated with breaking character, overstepping the sticky trap of practical reason. While laughing, I let myself stay off track, improvise, remain elastic, awake, alive. My psychological state shifted from anxiety to a limitless field of clarity and light.
Nuar Alsadir, a poet and psychoanalyst, is the author of Fourth Person Singular, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the Forward Prize for Best Collection, and More Shadow Than Bird. She lives in New York City.
This essay is adapted from Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation, which will be published by Graywolf Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.) in August.
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