Nietzschean Laughter and the Happy Inquisition

*Posted by Kirk Spencer

After 40 years, I went back to church camp. It was a bittersweet trip down memory lane. The sameness surprised methe same knotty-pine cabinsthe same name-scarred bunksthe same exaggerated teenage importance of whos cute and who-loves-who. And the smell of adolescence was the same (warm sweaty corn-chips!). However, it is the differences that really shocked me. I was surprised at their muchness. And, while it may be uncomfortable to think about, I believe one of these differences reflect a cultural tectonic shift that has occurred in the generation since I was a child. Please bear with me as I try to explain it.

Passing the Pig

My group of pre-teens were at the Challenge Course, where they were put through a series of physical challenges to teach them how to problem-solve and work as a team. But before they began, there was a warm-up time to stretch-out their muscles. And the stretching was organized around a game called Pass-the-Pig. But before the Pass-the-Pig Game started, the campers were herded into the shade under a large tin-roofed arbor. Here they stood listening intently to a brief exhortation about how much the camp staff was concerned with the campers safety; not just their physical safety, but their emotional and social safety too. The staff members were there to protect them from emotional abuse and social ridicule. Why? Because God has made us all different. It was a great speech; but I was horrified by what happened next. All the campers were asked to form a circle and then the camp-staffer got in the middle and led everyone in a stretch; then they asked Who wants the pig?! (and heres the horrifying part) the kid who was the least enthusiastic about wanting the pig, got the pig (a ragged stuffed velveteen pig which had obviously been passed many times). The winner was brought to the center of the circle and required to lead the group in a stretch. And so the camp-staffer passed the pig to a shy little boy, hiding himself way in the back, obviously terrified of any public attention. He was pointed out because of his lack of enthusiasm, handed the pig, brought to the center of the circle and asked to do a stretch. He just stood there, his eyes down, quiet and motionless as a mouse, closing himself off in hopes of escaping the excruciating embarrassment. The herd of kids began to giggle; and one of the camp-staffers said, Now thats a stretch we can all do. And they all turned their eyes down, pretended to curl up inside themselves and stood totally motionless. Then they told him to pass the pig.

The Happy Inquisition

I was flabbergasted. But nobody else seemed to be flabbergasted (or even notice) and that made me even more flabbergasted. So let me review to make sure no one misses it. Talking about protect children from emotional abuse and then immediately emotionally abuse introverted children. Saying that God has made us different and then assume that we all should be the samenamely enthusiastic extroverts. And this expected enthusiasm is not derived from any particular object or reason other than a Christian leader told them to be enthusiasticon cue. As strange as it sounds, I have seen this behavior (and blindness to it) in many other places. I call it the Happy Inquisition.

In the Inquisition, people were publically ridiculed (and tortured) into professing an acceptable statement of faith; it did not matter so much that they really believe it, just that they profess it with their mouths publically. In the Happy Inquisition, people are publically ridiculed into demonstrating an acceptable emotional state. All that is required is a public demonstration, with no consideration for what their real emotional state may be. I am reminded of this reality every time I hear leaders say to a group Lets try that again! or You can do better than that! or I cant hear you! or they simply keep repeating a greeting (or question) if the response is not enthusiastic enough. It seems there is a particular acceptable decibel-level of enthusiasm for the herd (or flock). If it falls short (hamartia), then disapproval is spoken from the magisterium and another dispensation is given to show oneself approved. Once the orthodox decibel-level of enthusiasm is publically demonstrated, the inquisitor pronounces absolution with these comforting words, Now thats more like it! More like what? What is expecteda righteous level of enthusiasm as the only orthodox emotional state.


So you dont think people should be happy?! I would like to go on the record and confess that I believe that people should be happy. For that is what the inquisition would want me to say. But I dont think I will. It just may be that God wants us to be more than just happy. The question So you dont think people should be happy? makes my point about the Happy Inquisition. For it is an enquiry with an obvious correct response implied and expected. However, though the Happy Inquisitors may disagree, we are not obligated to prodigal our lives in the pursuit of ever-fleeting happinessespecially the giddy, mindless variety. It is this particular variety of happiness I am focusing on in this essaythe kind that appears on cue or after a stern reprimand without reference to any object of said happiness (what is actually making us happy). More specifically I would like to explore how such happiness (appearing without reference to any object) became an expected spontaneous and ubiquitous part of our culture. In short how we became enthusiastic about enthusiasm itself.

Suddenly Funny Incongruity

In this endeavor, let me begin with the similarity that exists between such forced expected enthusiasm and laughter. Both are expected to be spontaneous and ubiquitous. Laughter is such. It is often a ubiquitous enthusiastic response that spreads quickly through a crowd. When funny things happen we dont evaluate the object of our laughter to determine if it is laugh-worthy. We just laughspontaneously.

One day I was walking quickly across the front of my classroom, my feet became tangled and I almost fell. I didnt fall; rather I stumbled forward with my heels kicking up behind me in a frantic manner, trying desperately to maintain my balance. I finally caught myself and stood up straight and regained my composure just before crashing into my desk. The class was roaring with laughter. Why? Not because they decided it had a sufficient level of funniness. They were not commanded or coerced into laughing. They just laughed. It was spontaneous and ubiquitous. If not volition or coercion, what was it that did make them laugh? One of the most common explanations (Kant, Hobbes, Schopenhauer is that such laughter occurs as a release of minor tension arising from the unexpected ludicrous effect produced by a sudden incongruity between what was expected to happen (me walking across the classroom as always) and what suddenly did happen in reality (me stumbling across the room like a spastic baby stork and almost breaking my neck).

Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.
~Kant from Critique of Judgment

Whatsoever it be that moveth laughter, it must be new and unexpected.
~Thomas Hobbes from Leviathan

Nietzschean Laughter

It seems we subconsciously project upon the world the way it should be based upon the way it has been. When the world is not the way we expectwhen it is suddenly different, strange or absurdwe react to the absurdity with laughter. So, in a world where God is dead and we suddenly recognize that everything is meaningless and absurd, we should expect we would be laughing ourselves giddy. In such a world, laughter could provide a way of convalescence, finally allowing humanity to recover from the disease of Western Metaphysics (our sustained search for absolute truthsthe way things ought to be). For Thus Spoke Friedrich Nietzsche:

No! You ought to learn the art of this worldly comfort first; you ought to learnto laugh, my young friends, if you are hell-bent on remaining pessimists. Thenperhaps, as laughers, you may some day dispatch all metaphysical comforts tothe devilmetaphysics in front! Or, to say in the language of that Dionysian monster who bears the name of Zarathustra: This crown of the laugher, this rose-wreath crown: I crown myself with this crown; I myself pronounced holy my laughter. I did not find anyone else today strong enough for that Zarathustra, the soothsayer; Zarathustra, the sooth-laugher; not impatient; not unconditional; one who loves leaps and side-leaps: I crown myself with this crown. This crown of the laugher, this rose-wreath crown: to you, my brothers, I throw this crown. Laughter I have pronounced holy: you higher men, learnto laugh!
~Friedrich Nietzsche, FromAttempt at a Self-Criticism (1886) quoting himself as Zarathustra from Part IV ofThus Spoke Zarathustra


If we agree that laughter is spontaneous and Nietzschean laughter (as with everything else Nietzschean) is willed, then such learning to laugh is not really laughing because it is not spontaneous. It is just pretending to laugh. It is self-induced pseudo-enthusiasm. While not spontaneous, such self-induced pseudo-enthusiasm is becoming quite ubiquitouspossibly part of the cumulative effect of our submersion in a mediascape of pseudo-worlds (think about how much time we spend looking at screens)all designed to sell product by way of manipulating our endocrine system and thus generating an orthodox level of mild euphoria, well-being or enthusiasm to put us in a buying mood with the authority of loudness. In time such enthusiasm becomes expecteda habiteven without the spectacle, without anything to be enthusiastic about. We are expected to be (and expect ourselves to be) enthusiastic, even if it is only being enthusiastic about enthusiasm. And, in groups, those not as enthusiastic about enthusiasm can usually be led, and, if necessarily, intimidated into just faking it. It is a fearful thought, but this may be simply a learned response, a learned laughter. The mire of pseudo-enthusiasm we are passing on to our pigs I mean children.

Campy Camp

As with most habits, we soon become accustom to the higher enthusiasm levels. To keep enthusiasm from lagging (or seeming to lag), we must up the ante, so to speak. It is a snowball effect of increasing affectation that, as a vicious (or virtuous) cycle, leads to an exaggerated frivolity and artifice so shockingly extreme it takes on a strange sophisticated appeal and affections. This is what we call Camp. The playful anti-seriousness affectation of Camp blurs the boundary between the serious and the frivolous. The effect of the affectations can become so strong that the boundary between life and theatre become blurred (as the ubiquitous Reality Shows make abundantly clear). We become so used to the simulacra habit that only events of great trauma (like towers falling) can cause us to express it. We say things like, It (life) seemed like a movie (theatre). The incongruity is so severe we glimpse the Camp life for a moment and we are forced to be serious and the comedians are silentuntil we begin to forget the feeling and can once again begin to make fun of what is serious. When we laugh to death what is serious, with no seriousness left to laugh at, there is no expected should to make the unexpected what-ever-else funny. With nothing serious to poke fun at, in the uncomfortable silence, we must find a way to conjure the expected laughing without an object. It must be willed.

Camp Nietzsche

In this sense, it is the lightness of Nietzschean anti-gravity that makes everyone blissfully lightheaded. It essentially throws all things out of orbit to the point where we would not speak of the object of our enthusiasm; for there would not be anything left important enough to sufficenothing heavy enough to make light of. We just kick up our heels and learn to laugh as a part of the performance that we would eventually come to think to be real, for it feels real enough, and thats enough. We finally forget that life has become a sitcom and our laugher is canned and sold. In this Camp life where sobriety is a vice rather than a virtue, we no longer recognize the absurdity of applauding on cue. We amen when the preacher tells us to and we repeat the antiphon (call and response) until we achieve the righteous level of pseudo-enthusiasm.

The Dark Night of the Soul

A fire truck on fireI saw this iconic image in the movie The Dark Knight (2008), a movie that exposes the truth of Nietzsches vision. In this movie, the absurdity of a willed laugh can be seen (or rather heard) most clearly in one of the most strange laughs ever recorded on filmthe absurd laugh that the Joker (Heath Ledger) laughs as he enters the gangsters kitchen therapy session. Here is a transcription of it: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Ho, hee-hee, aha. Ha, ooh, hee, ha-ha. It is an obviously forced or learned laugh and thus no laugh at all. Other manifestations of the Nietzschean laugh appear in the serious anti-seriousness of the Jokers phrase Why so serious?! and in the coerced smile of using a knife to put a smile on that face. All these speak of a forced pseudo-enthusiasm. All of them, in their insane strangeness, call to mind the second line spoken by the Joker where he confesses what he believes; it is a slight redaction on one of Nietzsches most famous quotes: Whatever doesnt kill you simply makes you stronger stranger.

The Joker goes on to deconstruct Nietzschean laughter throughout the film? For instance, the Biblical message (Laughter is the best medicine) appears printed on the side of the Jokers truck where he has spray-painted a red S in front of the word laughter (making the word SLAUGHTER). For in the real world, Nietzsches vision leads to slaughter not laughter. The spontaneous medicine of God-given laughter is replaced with the (S)laughter caused by the poison of unregenerate human (all too human) will to power. I noticed that just before the appearance of both the burning fire truck and the Jokers (S)laughter truck the same words were spoken on screen. These words: What the hell is that! The reference to hell is interesting. Nietzsches vision is not a way beyond good and evil, to an Edenic world without God. No. It is a way to hell and insanity (strangeness). To not know Good from Evil or Right from Wrong or Real from Make-Believe before the willfulness in Eden (and adolescence) is called innocence after, it is (by definition) insanity.

Laughter of Superiority

Nietszchean Laughter is often divided into two types. The laughter of the herd occurs as a groups laughter at someone outside the group based upon the groups perceived superiority over a lone inferior. The laughter of the height occurs with the perceived superiority of the loner who laughs at the inferiority of the absolutes of the group (as well as all elseincluding himself and I suppose even the idea of Nietzschean laughter itself). Both kinds of laughing can be seen as derivatives of a comparison where superiors laugh at inferiors (Plato, Hobbes and Nietszche). It is said that we laugh such willed laughter at inferiors to demonstrate our superiority. However, personally, I believe it demonstrates our inferiority (or at least our inferiority complex) when we willfully laugh the laugh of superiority. If we were really superior we would not laugh at our inferiors. For God, who is superior to all, did not laugh at us because of our inadequacies, or inferiority. He did not laugh at usHe became a laughing-stock for us. And, in His death, He made a way beyond the superior Nietzchean laughter both of the mindless herd and the meaningless height. Both the herd-willed laugh of scorn and the self-willed laugh of disbelief hides the abyss. Christ conquered it.

Holy Spirit

Each day at church camp, once in the morning and once in the evening, we would go to Celebration. From the Latin root which simply means a large assembly. Of course today we expect a celebration to be enthusiastic. And so it wasmuch more so than what I remember from my childhood. We passed from the bright outdoors into the dark cavernous interior with laser light and smoke and loud musicthe whole room was enveloped in a palpable frenetic energy. From start to finish it was a continual free fall of music, dancing, lights and spirit games about who could yell the loudest (demonstrating holy spirit). One of the songs began with these words: Im so happy-y-y! Everybodys feelin happy-y-y! Im not sure anyone really knew why, but everybody certainly seemed happy. At Celebration on the last day of camp, as we were all singing the Happy-y-y song, my son (the first winner of Pass the Pig) leaned over to me and yelled in my ear (It was so loud you had to yell in peoples ears so they could hear you), he said, But Dad, what if youre not happy? Not everybodys happy all the time. There is a certain beauty in happiness, especially the real kind with an object; yet the Bible says that God has made everything beautifulin its time. He has His seasons and purposes for the full range of human emotion. Whether weeping or laughing, mourning or dancing, they are all appropriate in their time (Eccl 3).

If we dont prodigal our lives pursuing such fleeting happiness we might find a deep and abiding joy beyond incongruity or superiority, beyond the forced laughter of the herd or the willed laughter of the height, even beyond circumstances, happy or otherwise. A joy with a simple object, like a childs joy at chasing a friend in a circle or rolling down a hill, when we realize the gracious love of our Creator. And this joy may, at times, overflow into a laugh uncoerced and unwilled just joy overflowing into laughter a rare thing this side of childhood and this side of heaven.

This entry was posted in Christian Life, Culture, Ministry. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

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