Guest post: Leafing through the canon and cackling uproariously

Originally a comment by AJ Milne on Refrain from laughter.

Philosophical documents on laughter, religious statements and mandates forbidding laughter–all these provide instructions on how and when and how hard to laugh. They designate the proper attitude one should take toward laughter, because laughter is our last “sense” to capitulate to authority…

… Imagine, then, being firmly seated in a position of authority and knowing that at any second the power to control and direct could be cut short by the lowliest peon–not with a Molotov cocktail or an Uzi automatic, but with riotous laughter…

(Barry Sanders, from Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History.)

… I figure it should be entirely unsurprising, whenever ‘prophets’ or the authorities who try to reuse their creed to cement their own power attempt to forbid laughter. Read the work of the former, and you have to figure that was the first reaction of much of the audience; initially, at least, they have hope it works out, and they get enough people to buy the line together to get a certain critical mass going. But ongoing laughter no doubt worries them, even once this is achieved. And the ‘prophet’ and their first followers, if still alive, I figure, are likely to remember this reaction bitterly. It takes them back to a very different world, when they had to be far humbler in their demands.

Religions prefer, I figure, therefore, generally to control it. Probably the only reason more of them don’t attempt so clumsily to ban it outright is this is a just a little too obvious. More subtle dissuasion will, however, do within communities, at least, once the creed is dominant enough. The rituals shall encourage a hushed, reverent attitude, or, if you are to smile, or perhaps holler or sing hallelujahs, it is to be done in a beatific, transcendent fashion. ‘Joyful’ may be okay. Leafing through the canon and cackling uproariously generally less so.


  1. lorn says

    George Carlin said that the best laughter is forbidden laughter … like when you’re kneeling in front of the casket …

    George Carlin’s comedy is still applicable.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    Strange that the ‘Toronto Blessing’ should have stormed through the American evangelical culture so quickly. Holy Roller congregations descending into fits of laughter became quite the ‘thing’ for a while there.

    I don’t know if this is still happening.

  3. Eric MacDonald says

    I find it incredible that the suggestion should be made that all religions takes control of humour and laughter. This is simply untrue. It may be true of Islam, as an Iranian Ayatollah has claimed, but it is certainly not true of Christianity in general, and even more certainly of Judaism. When The Life of Brian came out — while it is true that some Christians were offended — many thought it was a great spoof on a sacred story. There is no reason why such things should not be laughed at, though no doubt there are occasions when, in the context of liturgy, laughter would be inappropriate. But there are lost of occasions, secular as well as religious, where laughter would be inappropriate, so this should occasion no surprise. I have never heard so much laughter as when attending gatherings of clergy, so I do not understand the AJ Milne’s claim that religion seeks to control laughter. Of course, there are über serious forms of religion (as well as secular rituals) where laughter would be thought out of place. I don’t know whether Calvin or the Puritans laughed uproariously or not, but there may be something in the expression about the dour Scotsman, and this might be related to the deep influence of Calvin (by way of John Knox) upon the Scots. That aside there is nothing that I know of in either Christianity or Judaism (and I daresay in Hinduism and Buddhism as well) anything that would put a damper on laughter or humour, even at the expense of holy things.

  4. says

    I was thinking of Malvolio later in connection with this, Eric. Someone – either Sir Toby or Maria – says he’s a Puritan, and Sir Andrew says if he’d known that he would have beaten him, and Maria says he’s not a Puritan he’s just a time-pleaser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *