Anca Parvulescu’s laughing matter

| Managing Editor
Professor Anca Parvulescu (Courtesy of the English Department)

Professor Anca Parvulescu (Courtesy of the English Department)

You hear it when sitting in your economics class, while sipping coffee at Whispers and even as you watch television. Indeed, laughter is one of the most common acts in our society. Yet, while the concept of laughter is so pervasive and constantly surrounds us, there has been little research on the topic. Washington University professor Anca Parvulescu, however, decided to investigate the background of laughter further and set out to explore why this freeing expression has a history of repression. She explains her findings in her new book, “Laughter: Notes on a Passion.”

While reading one day, Parvulescu, who teaches English classes and works with the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, stumbled across a situation that struck her as strange.

“I came upon a rhetorical moment that said ‘and then I laughed,’ and a lot seemed to be in that moment,” Parvulescu said.

That moment eventually led to the exploration of what Parvulescu says is the long tradition of writing about laughter. “Laughter: Notes on a Passion” explores the ideas behind social constructions that once considered laughter as inappropriate and follows these constructions through today and the reintroduction of laughter into society. This tradition included notes on etiquette, conduct books or letters about proper behavior in society. Laughter, in this context, was not considered mannerly.

“You find expressions like ‘You make a spectacle of yourself,’” Parvulescu said.

Laughter was grouped with bodily functions such as farting or belching. Laughing was even more embarrassing if you were a male, according to Parvelscu, because to laugh was to be a woman. But even women were not supposed to laugh, and the ability to laugh was only granted after a woman no longer had to worry about her appearance. These stipulations carried through into literature.

“The figure of the old hag that laughs—she does so because she has nothing to lose,” Parvulescu said. “She’s no longer on the market, so to speak.”

What makes her book unique, according to Parvulescu, is the focus on laughter itself and on laughing people as subjects. Other books tend to take laughter for granted or see it as a tool used to hint at something larger.

“No one asked the question of what laughter does [in Helene Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’],” Parvulescu said. “Rather, they took it for granted that ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ is an argument about the subversiveness of women’s humor.”

This tradition of laughter and how it was reclaimed, or “the return of laughter as a passion,” intrigued Parvulescu because in many ways, she says, laughter is something we can’t understand.

“We mostly laugh in non-humorous situations,” she said. “There is a strong distinction between humor and laughter.”

Whether laughter is a loud, awkward or joyous act, Professor Parvulescu’s book helps us recognize that laughter may be far more intricate than anyone who has laughed at a Jim Carrey movie could ever think.