Laughter and the Evenescent Subject

Presented at APW Conference, New York, NY in July 2012


One glance towards the analyst, another from the analyst, then the analysand says “You look like a deer in the headlight’s” . Eyebrow raised.

“Really – tired perhaps”

“I was out too late.. it was the premiere of the film. “Ugh. , I don’t like it when people say Oh you were the girl in the ..”

“No” Raised eyebrows, echo, repetition, laughter.

“No”. Another laugh, “I’m cracking myself up here”

“You are” Laughter as semblance, an identity, an experience was “cracking” and laughter is there  in the aperture.

After the laughter “yes its true, I would rather not be with anyone at the moment, I know it’s a time when I should be focusing on my work, but I am just not interested in..” “Cover up” “Yes, just as I have uncovered”


In his “Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis” we find “Laughter” dated 1913, the same year Bergson’s “Le Rire” appeared in Budapest. The latest installment in the long nineteenth century’s attempt to analyze laughter – Lipp, Freud, etc. The horrors of the next four years will reduce the appeal of writing about laughter – Freud’s text of 1923 “Humour” will underline the way in which it helps us come to terms with pain and the death drive.

The transformation of a whole conception of European civilization is articulated between “Witz and it’s relation to the Unconscious” and “ On Humour”. Witness Freud’s written remark on being forced to sign over his wordly possessions to those who had burned his books:  “I can heartily recommend the SS to anyone” .

In 1913 Ferenczi was in a full passionate encounter with psychoanalysis and one year later the requirement of military service would provide him with the enforced isolation that would enable him to write “Thalassa” his psychoanalytic and physiological manifesto.

Unlike “Thalassa” “Laughter” is a series of brief notes that barely add up unless we have Bergson’s text in hand.  As elliptical as some of the comments are we can fantasize that with them we can follow Ferenczi’s his imaginary dialog with Bergson. Doing so, at least for me, produced the sense of being in the theatre of the reader, a place where text and speech interchange in a unique manner.

Reading Bergson provokes in Ferenczi a thought that will later take more shape in Ferenczi’s traumatic theory of the subject – laughter is related to the mechanism of repetition , because it re-produces the pleasure and unpleasure of being born. Unlike the idea of repetition in Bergson – the automatic, the machine, the artificail – Ferenczi’s sense of repetition is of that of life itself. When we laugh we are re-born.

A more  direct dialogue with Bergson begins with the character Ferenczi contradicting Bergson whose “laughter” is restricted to “laughing” at the Other. The subject of psychoanalysis, as Ferenczi’s clinical genius picks us, is the laughter at our selves, the acknowledgement of the Otherness of our consciousness of being. Bergson’s interest is in how laughter protects us against a social ideal, Ferenczi nuances this sense of the way laughter intervenes between the inner and outer world.

For Ferenczi  psychic automatism  links the comic with the tragic. Laughter can be like breathing of vomiting it purges and releases the physiological tension of the body. His interest is in its cathartic property. He links affects to states of tension that seek for release.

Bergson the philosopher( distinct from the doctor), albeit a philosopher who claims to critique reason’s limitation,  remains pre-occupied with the reason for laughter and not its relation to the subject or psyche itself.  Contra Bergson Ferenczi thinks that affects do not maintain order. The pleasure of laughter does not come from any lowering of tension, that is only the case when we are laughing at someone else and outside the comic scene. This curiousity about the logic of the affects and the relation to laugher is a direction that Freud in the “Witz” did not take because the central affect was angst. But noticeably Ferenczi doesn’t want to address Freud on these grounds – something in him resists this concept of angst.

What Ferenczi does argue is that analytic experience, rather than philosophical examination, reveals that the essense of laugher is related to a wish – the wish to be imperfect, or to be allowed to be imperfect. When I laugh at something I congratulate myself that I am not as imperfect as the one who provoked my laughter.

Following Nietzche laughter reveals the grounds of a moral position in the sense that what we claim as are virtues are the precipitate of what we feel is necessary. The child says to themselves “How difficult it is to be perfect”, ie corresponding to the demand of the Other”. The child has a wish not to be so orderly and takes satisfaction when order breaks down.

The structure of the subject for Ferenczi is divided and each laugh conceals ( and yet reveals) an unconscious laughter. Laughter is not just laughter it is in relation to a repressed laughter.

Ferenczi further elaborates the relation of laughter to conscience, or what we would now call the “uber ich/super ego” – the concept didn’t exist at the time of the notes. Laughter, he notes, is the breakthrough of a sense of sin. He calls it “totemic sin”, not the sin of having broken a code but rather a sense of shame.

This sin or shame is a form of jouissance( he doesn’t use the term) that can only be enjoyed in groups so that what can follow is an experience of forgiveness. Forgiveness of the sin allows one to commit a sin and be an accomplice in the sins.

He then de-constructs the use that Bergson makes of the figure of the “stranger” or the one who would not laugh. Rather than suggest that the stranger’s silence reveals the social significance of the laughter the absence of the need to laugh is instead a defense against a beyond of pleasure.

Ferenczi finds a dialectical relation in the subject, one that I think Lacan goes much further to explore, in that laughter is both an eruption and pleasure and a defense against pleasure. Hence the role in laughter of the sense of conscience or super ego that  both sanctions the pleasure and defends against it.

The stranger who does not join in laughter is simply the one who does not permit themselves pleasure and so they don’t need a defense against it

And here we can see the wish he has to elaborate the analogy between laughter and weeping.

Laughter and the comic are certainly related to the lifting of censorship but they are also the result of censorship. A completely “bad man” (Ferenczi’s phrase) prevents the release of pleasure.

If a “moral” person releases unconscious pleasure he then defends himself by a laugh against an advancing pleasure. Laughter is a failure of repression , a defense against unconscious pleasure – the serious is “successful repression” – like the seriousness of some “theories” of the subject.

Ferenczi then begin’s to converse more with Freud, and his short paper ends with an enigmatic exchange with him about the question of the mother. What Freud transmitted to Ferenczi was the ethical significance of the renunciation of the Mother. Ferenczi leaves us searching for the link between the two. Is it laughter that enables us to renounce and at the same time acknowledge incestuous desire?

In the dream of an analysand he sees a former lover, a woman he thought he might marry, wearing a bath robe, and indicating that some how he should stop all the objects in their home being taken away. He says he is a little ashamed because the bathrobe reminds him of his new girl friends robe which is so soft to touch that it is like skin, the touch of skin that he finds to be the most erotic experience. He says  it feels a little “plug and play” – he dropped one woman and plugged into another – the girl friend now lives in the home he shared with his fiancé.

“And “bathrobe” how do you say it in your mother tongue?

For a moment he cannot grasp why he cannot remember the word, enunciates it “any association ?”

He begins to laugh in an uncanny way, “my grand parents” A number of associations with the robe as the second skin, their skin. Including the robe of the grandmother, who did not change her robe after the death of her husband, who lived a widow for 60 years, who looked after the analysand after the divorce of his patient and with whom he shared a bed for many years in his childhood.

The uncanny laughter was that it could not be distinguished from tears.




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