The Possibility of Laughter: Laughing Creatures and Fecundity in Levinas, Derrida, and Dara Horn’s “In the Image” – Part I


Laughter is an ambiguous thing. It can either exclude one or include the other. And, in relation to time, one might think it relates solely to the present moment. Laughter is all about the new. Henri Bergson associated it with progress and “Creative Evolution.” And Leo Strauss argued that laughter was the key element of modernity since it was able to advocate the notion of progress by mocking tradition. For Strauss, mockery seems to be the means by which the present triumphs over the past. But this need not be the case. Laughter can create a bridge between the past and the future.

From the Torah, we learn that the matriarch, Sara, laughed when she was told that – at her late age – she would have a child. It didn’t seem possible. The link between laughter and the possibility of having a child  suggested by the Torah is not by any means arbitrary.  It speaks to something phenomenological, temporal, and existential.

Emmanuel Levinas, in his book Totality and Infinity, uses the word “fecundity” to describe the relationship between the child and possibility.

Citing Isaiah 49, Levinas notes that:

My child is a stranger, but a stranger who is not only mine, for he is me.   He is me a stranger to myself….No anticipation represents him nor, as is said today, projects him….the encounter with the Other as feminine is required in order that the future of the child come to pass from beyond the possible, beyond projects. (267)

Fecundity is about what is to come and Levinas writes about it with great joy. It has a kind of messianic element to it. Fecundity opens one up to the possible since what is fecund is what he calls “entirely pardoned” and free. It is beyond aging and triumphs over time and history.  (As Hannah Arendt also points out forgiveness is able to change the past.  Likewise, she also sees birth in terms of a “new beginning” which can change history.)  The “pardon” that fecundity offers – the pardoning of the past by way of the possibility of the future – is given to me through my child:

The discontinuous time of fecundity makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement…and in a free interpretation and free choice, in an existence that is entirely pardoned. The recommencement of the instant, this triumph of the time of fecundity over the becoming of mortal and aging being, is a pardon, the very work of time.   Pardon in its immediate sense is connected with the moral phenomenon of fault. (282-283)

Sara’s laugh goes from incredulous to miraculous when Isaac (which means “he will laugh” in Hebrew) is born. It is his birth that makes her laugh a kind of laughter that is born out of the “time of fecundity.”

In a session on hospitality on January 8, 1997, Jacques Derrida takes not that he has spent a lot of time – in the last session – talking about the relationship of mourning to hospitality. And one would think that, given his lecture, hospitality had more to do with tears and less to do with their opposite, laughter:

We have not yet encountered this strange possibility, regarding hospitality, the possibility of laughter.     We have encountered tears (those, for example, of the women who, during Tupinamba ceremonies of hospitality and ‘when they receive friends who go visit them,’ they begin to cry as a sign of welcome…). We have spoken of mourning, of hospitality as mourning….But we have not evoked laughter. (358, Acts of Religion)

For Derrida, laughter relates to “what awaits us” since the “question of hospitality is also the question of waiting, of the time of waiting and of waiting beyond time.”    Derrida tells us that the host is waiting for and welcomes the “unexpected guest.” This, to be sure, was Abraham’s greatest hope. He wanted to be surprised by a strange guest.

Speaking of Abraham, Derrida points out how, in the wake of childlessness, G-d visits Abraham. And he does this by way of noting the “apparition” of the stranger: “This unexpected apparition by an uninvited visitor who makes himself seen, who shows himself, who comes (“shows up”), the non-awaited irruption is, in itself, already a visitation”(372).

The only problem with Derrida’s readings is that although he suggest that he will talk about the laughter in terms of the unexpected, he keeps on returning to a kind of irruption that is closer to tears and mourning than to laughter. It’s as if he can’t laugh.

And although he suggests that the unexpected child is related to Sara’s laughter, he sees laughter as a challenge to the notion of pardon and fecundity to what we saw above:

Yes, laughter denies. It is mad, this demented laughter, and it denies lying.   This laughter is, like every laughter, a kind of degeneration of lying which lies still while denying lying or while avowing lying. (396)

Laughter is synonymous to saying “something else than what I want to say, through my body, my history, the economy of my existence, of my life or of my relation to death. And here is another lie to be forgiven”(396).   Laughter, it seems, has nothing to do with pardon. And if it needs to be forgiven, how could it have anything to do with what is to come?

Derrida doesn’t answer this question. He suggests that it may have something to do with what is to come. But what he misses is that the laughter at the “non-awaited irruption” is a comical visitation. Laughter can open one up to the other – whether that other is a child or another person. Laughter can say yes to what is to come. While Derrida doesn’t note this here, he does articulate this – elsewhere – in relation to the yes-saying in Joyce’s Ulysses. Yes laughter has an “eschatological tone” since it is “of a gift without debt, light affirmation, almost amnesic, of a gift or abandoned event”(Acts of Literature, 294).     Derrida refers to “Elijah” (who in Judaism is seen often as a prophet or angel disguised as a stranger and is also the harbinger of the Messiah) in relation to the eschatological aspect of laughter.     Does this suggest a laughter about what is to come?

In the essay on Ulysses, Derrida finishes by telling the reader that there are two kinds of laughter that emerge out of the “yes” (307): one is, as we have seen above, “amnesic” and negating while the other affirms the other and memory.

I would like to suggest that this discussion – which his strangely missing from Derrida’s texts – has to do with a kind of laughter that is in relation to fecundity. It establishes a link between the past and the future (which in the form of the child, is other, is pardoned, etc).

Dara Horn, in a key chapter in her novel, In the Image, shows how the yes of laughter has to do with fecundity. It not only brings together male and female, it also brings together man and animal, as well as the past and the possible future.   And, as Dara Horn also shows, laughter has to do with the trust that comes with sharing a life with the other who one watches over. The apparitions of laughter – as Derrida would call them – are “in the image.” And, since the laughter Horn is talking about is shared, it prompts us to take a risk in relation to what is to come for…us.

If laughter is – as Derrida says – to be seen in terms of irruption, vision, and time, laughter  requires us to look at what appears in its wake.   But, as Horn would say, we need not look to closely at the dazzling presence of the other. The laughter of fecundity prompts a kind of look that accepts imperfection and shared contingency.  And it is a look that is shared with the other vis-a-vis the future possibly of….children.  Of a stranger coming into one’s life….who, unlike us, is pardoned.   The possibility of laughter hinges on irruption.   But the question is…what kind of rupture are we talking about.  After all, Derrida had a problem with abrupt humor and the laughter it evoked.


To be continued…..



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