Divine Comedy: Laughter in Hell

Cosmic Joke -or- Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious

Freud Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, joke-work takes centre stage for the dramatic plotting of dream-work and dream interpretation. The enigmatic nature of humor provides the philosophy of mind with a riddle and a hermeneutic pronouncement of humanities plight of ongoing language games. Freud, believed that jokes have the ability to bypass the censorship imposed upon the dream work and thereby providing access to underlying memories, experiences, thoughts and feelings.

In Christopher Fry's anthology Comedy: Meaning and Form, we hear about the story about a dream:

"A friend once told me that when he was under the influence of ether he dreamed he was turning over the pages of a great book, in which he knew he would find, on the last page, the meaning of life. The pages of the book were alternately tragic and comic, and he turned page after page, his excitement growing, not only because he was approaching the answer but because he couldn't know, until he arrived, on which side of the book the final page would be. At last it came: the universe opened up to him in a hundred words: and they were uproariously funny. He came back to consciousness crying with laughter, remembering everything. He opened his eyes to speak. It was then that the great and comic answer plunged back out of his reach."

Umberto Eco's novel In Name of the Rose depicts the culture of the Inquisition, which resurfaced in Stalin's staging of show trials in the Soviet Union and the McCarthy witch hunt in the United States. The Reformation set in motion the growth of religious freedoms. With the American and French Revolutions, the king's right to rule was no longer seen as ordained by God. The division or separation of church and state authority became institutionalized. From the beginning, comedy subverted religious persecution. In The Name of the Rose we are told that Aristotle's book of comedy (of which no edition survives), is a threat to the authority of the Church. What other comic visions have been lost or erased from our history?

If tragedy plays on our deepest anxieties, then comedy is an antidote that dispels them, transforming them into liberating laughter. Life is in many ways a tragicomedy, a comedy of errors ending in death. In Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust, Steve Lipman collected the jokes of Holocaust survivors who used them as a distraction from fear and helplessness, and to affirm life. Creativity, as many Holocaust survivors tell us, is liberating. The use of the term "black comedy" derives in part from Andre Breton's Anthologie de l'humour noire. In it, topics normally treated with gravity, such as death, mass murder, sickness, madness, terror, drug abuse, and rape, are treated humorously or satirically. Black humor is kin to sick humour. However, in sick humour, most of the comedy comes from horror, shock, and revulsion; black humour contains an element of irony. Black comedy as well as sick humor are common in dreams.

Representing humanity or an individual with little hope of escape from an absurd predicament, black comedy implies that, since we can't do anything in horrific circumstances, we may as well laugh. Writers such as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut published novels that rely on this sentiment, as do films like Catch 22,  Slaughterhouse 5, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the last, the paranoid-delusional General Jack D. Ripper (get the intended pun on the General's name of a famous serial murderer?!) believes that the fluoridation of the U.S. water supply is a Russian conspiracy to render America impotent, and orders the nuclear bombing of Russia. Another end-of-the-world film, WarGames, has a different plot twist. A computer that takes control of the U.S. nuclear -missile silos discovers that every thermonuclear strategy leads to the extinction of mankind, and determines that "the only winning move is not to play."

In the film Bruce Almighty, God gives Bruce the power to rule the forces of nature and the mind. Bruce uses a home computer to register and create an e-mail database of prayers from his city, this can be understood by the motto so many prayers and dreams, so little time. Bruce believes that he can fix the world's problems by magically granting everyone their wishes to come true. When chaos is the result, Bruce realizes that God has his work cut out for him in keeping everyone in line. God can have the last laugh, though.

Humour can be used as a malicious weapon for schadenfreude, fulfilling a need for superiority. Sarcasm, a word derived from the Greek sarkazein, meaning tearing or ripping of the flesh, is often the humour of choice for the adolescent. Hitler specialized in it, delighting in the sense of the powerful laughing at the powerless. Malicious jokes and schadenfreude are often aimed at ethnic or gender groups, offering the  tension-releasing pleasure of comic relief at others' expense, just as black humour uses satire, parody, mockery, and farce to rebel against the strictures of authority. The strategy of claiming ignorance to expose ignorance was one that Socrates used as an ironic tool.

Gallows humour can sometimes have a horrific literalness. Eli Wiesel in Night says that as a young boy he witnessed three people being hung, one of which was a child. The child took more than half an hour to die. Standing close to Wiesel, a man asked:" ‘Where is God now?' And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here he is-He is hanging here on this gallows....'." The voice of gallows humor was an ironic footnote to Nietzsche's, Death of God. I remember from my days as a student at the University of Zurich a joke that hopefully became well-known. On a washroom cubicle door was scribbled in classical philosophical logic: "Axiom 1. ‘God is Dead' (Nietzsche), Axiom 2. ‘Nietzsche is Dead' (God)." This was truly a cosmic joke.

All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.