By: Kat Mulligan
Image Credits: imdb
I was seventeen, and it was a typical school night in the Virginian suburbs, with neon dry cleaner signs and parking lot flood lights effacing the natural darkness that should have reigned over the tree-lined streets. My friend and I were driving around aimlessly to smudge the hours out of night, talking about this or that petty high school drama or stunted romance. We came to the topic of our most casually dour friend, who treated every misfortune in life with a hearty dose of laughter, creating a spectacle out of his sadness. My friend at the wheel lamented that she could never seem to get through to him, that she avoided broaching even her own issues with this friend for fear that they would not be given proper attention. As much as I understood her complaints, I attempted to convince her that this friend was capable enough of handling other people’s problems with grace, and that laughter was perhaps the only suitable coping mechanism he knew. What I did not realize at the time was how long-standing a tradition laughter was in combatting the cruel indifference of our world—a tradition which German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse helped solidify nearly a century prior.
Hesse’s 1927 novel Steppenwolf follows a man named Harry Haller who is torn between two selves: that of spiritual enlightenment and that of the solitary, animalistic wolf. Believing himself unique in this division, he is hesitant to participate in society, simultaneously revering the bourgeois world and considering himself unfit for it. One day, he receives a pamphlet from a magic theater advertiser, called Treatise on the Steppenwolf. It addresses Harry by name and implores him to consider the reality that all humans are multi-faceted and undefinable in identity. At the time he is unready to accept this. The advertiser directs Harry to a dance hall, where he eventually goes and meets a woman named Hermine who, mocking Harry’s self-pity yet offering much-needed understanding for it, encourages him to indulge in dance, alcohol, and courtship, these facets of bourgeois society which he thought inaccessible to his lupine self. Hermine introduces Harry to a saxophonist named Pablo, whom Harry considers the epitome of frivolity. At the end of the novel, Pablo transports Harry to his magic theater, a series of trials both fantastical and horrific designed to test the hopes, vices, and limitations of Harry’s fractured soul.
At the risk of revealing too much of the principal intrigue, I will offer that the solution to Harry’s crisis of identity is, in the end, laughter. Broken and battered by the magic theater’s string of trickeries, Harry learns that his only way out is through resigning himself to laughter, though not of an indiscriminate kind. Laughter is in fact a matrix of intentions and planes of reality. Divorced from comedy, it rather acts as punctuation in conversation, a response to awkwardness, and, in Harry’s case, a defiance of suffering. It is not a natural gift, but rather a cultivated skill.
There are multiple types of laughter that contribute to this matrix of forms. At the beginning of the novel, Harry deems his lupine, steppenwolfish laughter a reflection of his regrettably animalistic nature, deserving of subjugation. At every act of goodwill or spiritual inspiration, he feels the wolf inside him sneer and laugh in derision. To him, this lupine laughter serves to expose the daily farce we humans play into, of which he would rather not be so keenly aware. Later on, however, Harry learns that laughter marks the border between humans and animals; an animal’s eyes do not waver in their severity, while a human’s eyes can transform in and out of jesting. He is human, and his laughter is commonplace. This would come as a relief to the European modernists of the time, who feared that their societies had forgotten how to laugh, and who would benefit from the apprenticeship in laughter that Harry undertakes.
At the other end of the spectrum lies divine laughter, the noblest of all types. Harry is visited in a dream by his literary idol, Goethe, whose face is animated by unbridled laughter. Goethe tells him, “We immortals do not like things to be taken seriously. We like joking. Seriousness, young man, is an accident of time” (Steppenwolf, 97). Goethe belongs to the class of artists who have ascended to god-like status in Harry’s eyes, whose ease Harry yearns to emulate but at the time of the dream does not have the skills to. They are fluent in laughter without an object, contradicting Freud’s assertion that laughter is an exclusionary game with a specific target. Through this unpretentious laughter, the immortals bare themselves to the full force of imagination and creativity.
Harry, however, is no immortal. He is a fifty-year-old man who believes his life to be tapering off. The most important lesson for Harry to learn then is that of self-laughter. In a universe governed by the absurd and in a world run through the jaws of modernity, man’s only defense is the mockery he makes of his own torture. Although laughter cannot solve one’s problems in any material way, it can poke holes in them, aerate them. A weight that smothers the soul can at once become light. Not only does humor cushion harsh topics when one approaches them with others, but it also conditions the speaker with a sense of detachment, allowing the mind to bounce around these issues in search of witticisms to describe them. To laugh is, in a way, to give up—it is the most fruitful resignation, a blissful indifference.
Had I been more well-versed in European modernism at the age of seventeen, I could have assuaged my dear friend’s suspicions about our other friend’s emotional levity. I could have explained to her that he had unknowingly attained Steppenwolfian enlightenment, and that his apparent flippancy was instead a triumphant middle-finger to the anguish that struggled to knock him over.
Morbidly curious as we humans are, we gravitate towards self-deprecating humor. It is the rope that tethers us together, the source from which camaraderie springs. There is, of course, a time and a place for dark jokes about one’s life circumstances. You should not be shelling out hundreds of dollars on a therapist, for example, who practically serves as an audience for your grim stand-up routine. However, in proper measure, it acts as the most glowing sign of our humanity and simultaneously the strongest method of coping with it. Laughter is the key to the boundless eternity that Hesse claims is waiting for us at the other end of enlightenment—a cosmic bohemia in stitches at itself.
Hesse, Hermann. Steppenwolf. New York, Modern Library, 1963.
Parvulescu, Anca. “Even Laughter? From Laughter in the Magic Theater to the Laughter Assembly Line.” University of Chicago Press, 2017.