Today’s Happiness Happens Month feature is Laughter: Notes on a Passion by Anca Parvulescu, which uncovers an archive of laughter, from the forbidden giggle to the explosive guffaw. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
The year is 1579. Having kept the manuscript in a drawer for twenty years, Laurent Joubert publishes his Treatise on Laughter. His goal: “leave nothing on the unusual topic unsounded.” The treatise is an early modern encyclopedia of laughing matters…
What is laughter? Joubert’s catalog of definitions returns us to a materialism long forgotten today. Laughter is “a trembling and a noise”; “a sound producing movement”; “a movement which stretches the muscles of the face”; “the dilating of the parts of the mouth and of the face.” In laughter, “the chest shakes, the lungs produce an interrupted sound, the mouth opens, and the lips draw back.” To the question: What does laughter look like? Joubert gives a complex answer:
Everybody sees clearly that in laughter the face is moving, the mouth widens, the eyes sparkle andtear, the cheeks redden, the breast heaves, the voice becomes interrupted; and when it goes on for a long time the veins in the throat become enlarged, the arms shake, and the legs dance about, the belly pulls in and feels considerable pain; we cough, perspire, piss, and besmirch ourselves by dint of laughing, and sometimes we even faint away because of it. This need not be proven.
Laughter is a convulsion of the face. It involves a specific constellation of functions of the face: the mouth, the eyes, the cheeks, the voice. When laughter becomes a question not of a single burst but a series of bursts (“when it goes on for a long time”), it also involves the rest of the body—arms, legs, belly, breast, veins in the throat. The body laughs. Extreme physiological changes might occur, for one can feel pain, cough, perspire, piss, besmirch oneself, faint. The body in laughter is a convulsive assemblage, whose parts shake and dance about, refusing to form a totality. The laughing face is itself bursting, its mouth suddenly stretched, its eyes sparking, color splashing its cheeks with shades of red.
Joubert further complicates the scene of laughter:
Some men, when they laugh, sound like geese hissing, others like grumbling goslings; some recall the sigh of woodland pigeons, or doves in their widowhood; others the hoot-owl; one an Indian rooster, another a peacock; others give out a peep-peep, like chicks; for others it is like hose neighing, or an ass heehawing, or a dog that yaps or is chocking, some people call to mind the sound of dry-axled carts, others, gravel in a pail, others yet a boiling pot of cabbage; and some have still another resonance, aside from the look on their face and the grimacing, so variedly diverse that nothing parallels it.
Not only is laughter distorting the face into a grimace and shaking the body convulsively, but it also produces a certain, hard-to-define, sound. Joubert describes laughter’s sound onomatopoeically; laughter sounds “like” geese hissing, horses neighing, the peep-peep of chicks, or the hee-hawing of asses. Even when laughter sounds like a pot of boiling cabbage or gravel in a pail, the description speaks to the ear of Joubert’s reader; one is challenged to hear these sounds.