Laughter, Levinas, and the Otherwise than Being

Levinas suggests that the otherwise than being is to be understood in being, but differs absolutely from essence (see Otherwise than Being, p. 16). It “has no genus in common with essence, and is said only in the breathlessness that pronounces the extra-ordinary word beyond. Alterity figures in it outside any qualification of the other for the ontological order and outside any attribute.”  

What is there to understand about the otherwise than being? (Isn’t this a funny question, one may say?…) Here is a possibility: imagine Abraham bursting into laughter the moment he receives the commandment to kill his son, his only one, the one he loves, Isaac (Genesis 22). There are at least three possible ways to interpret this laughter:

 1. Abraham becomes crazy (after all, totally understandable, giving that he’ll likely lose his son);
2. Abraham thinks God is crazy and laughs in the face of this creature that calls himself God;
3. Abraham is at a loss, is silent, and this silence is expressed in laughter.
There might be something in the first laughter that avoids philosophy, being. Crazy persons talk but don’t really say something; at the same time, there is something said. But what is said seems to be outside of our power of comprehension. Nevertheless, we understand what is said as being something else than the normal discourse, as not being something. If this is so, then maybe we should call this laughter the laughter of the non-being.

However, the laughter of the insane, as much as it may be otherwise than the being defined by others, is still some being; we can make it familiar. It does not escape philosophy.

Can Abraham’s second kind of laughter escape being? Abraham thinks God has lost his mind and laughs in the face of this creature that calls himself God. It is probably Nietzsche’s laughter that Levinas mentions in the text quoted above. In a sense, this kind of laughter seems to be close to Kundera’s devilish laughter, or even the Socratic irony. Realizing he has engaged in some kind of rituals that became his God, believing in a God that now does not make any sense to him, Abraham laughs. He laughs and rejects everything that proposes itself as a possible solution to how to live his life. This laughter comes with a feeling of non-belongingness and falling out of the realm of the others. Kundera says in his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
I wandered through the streets of Prague, rings of laughing, dancing Czechs swirled around me, and I knew that I did not belong to them but belonged to Kalandra, who had also come loose from the circular trajectory and had fallen, fallen, to end his fall in a condemned man’s coffin, but even though I did not belong to them, I nonetheless watched the dancing with envy and yearning, unable to take my eyes off them (93-4).
A laughter that comes with the sense of a loss. Kundera has lost something that was familiar to him, has lost what he has called being, but he is still not in a realm totally different, in a realm that could not lack what he had had. Since the place where he is lacks something that is, something defined by ontology, this place too is part of ontology. We can imagine Abraham himself yearning for the faith he enjoyed having, for the assurance that the appurtenance in the circle gave him. Now, laughing at all the nonsense around him, he does not find anything to grasp. In a way, he even lost his son, Isaac, the laughter and the promise that God gave him that there would be a great nation coming from his seed. But this sense of a loss is powerful and brings fear. Rejecting everything, one like Abraham finds oneself in a space where the only thing present is fear of death. 
Bringing the presence of death, this laughter might be what we are looking for, for death itself seems in a way beyond being. But death is part of being precisely by being non-being, so maybe this is still not the laughter we are searching. In fact, it would be enough to see that the devilish laughter, this laughter that rejects all possible theories, all possible circles, becomes itself a circle, a theory.

Consider, for instance, Socratic irony, itself a laughter in the face of a god – our opinions, our truths. As Bakhtin says in the Dialogical Imagination, “it is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance” (23). Socratic laughter seems to have a cleansing function: it rejects all opinions that one has.

But there is a danger here too. On one hand, this space of freedom, of inconclusiveness, might become itself the new king. “I only know I don’t know anything, and I am proud of it.” I only know that I do not know anything has the problem of still knowing something, perhaps that there is nothing to know. In other words, you laugh at everything and your laughter becomes your ideology. So this option still leaves us with the question whether there is any possibility to refuse idolatry without becoming idolatrous. Or, in other words, whether there is any possibility for a genuine moral ethical attitude, one that would avoid any ideology.

On the other hand, the second danger comes from the nothingness itself that the ironical laughter produces. Surrounded by the nothingness that he himself created around him by laughing in the face of God, Abraham becomes indeed insane or feels he is dead. He is outside the circle, as Kundera puts it, but he is still craving for one.

We are then still at a loss. It might be that, as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, we find out that there is nowhere to go. But what if we do not go and, more, don’t even try to go? What if the third kind of laughter, if we can still name it this way, or maybe that kind of attitude, whatever it may be, when Abraham is at a loss, silent, a silence that is laughter and is not laughter at the same time, is that thing beyond any comprehension, but which is, if we can still use “is” here, the genuine understanding itself? An attitude that does not have cause and does not presents itself as a cause of something else. An attitude that we cannot say that it is, an attitude that cannot be included in our categories of being and non-being. An attitude purely and simply other. An attitude that cannot be named and about which we talk only saying that it is like… Like laughter, or maybe like silence. Or maybe like responsibility. But it is neither of them really.

There is no solution to Abraham’s dilemma. Can there be more of a solution than this answer, that there is no solution, one might ask? And one is right, but only in a sense. For indeed if we see this “solution” as a solution, as an answer to a problem, then we fell again from a circle to another. We might say that this circle is superior for it understands the difficulties of the first one, where we were still looking for solutions. There are people who live in a circle, and there are people who live in a circle and realize it, are aware of the fact that they cannot escape it. The latter seem superior. But this second circle is still not superior for, as the previous one, still does not see its own problems. We would still be imitations of faces of Vladimir and Estragon, maybe more aware that there is nothing to be done, but still trapped within the play of waiting for something. 

 In the face of the incomprehensible commandment, Abraham laughs. Or he suspends judgment – he becomes silent. His laughter itself is a way of not saying anything. It is not that he makes a conscientious decision in the face of the evidence that there is no decision to be made, whether he must kill his son or not. If laughter is a choice, then laughter becomes idolatrous. Abraham’s laughter now is the realization itself that no judgment can be made, and not the result of that. Laughter, or silence, for there is no difference between the two now, is the activity in which Abraham engages when he realizes that the kind of knowledge required from him is too powerful to be known, is a knowledge that shatters the individual and takes him out of his world. God’s command to Abraham throws him in darkness expressed in laughter. But in this darkness, something else appears: “there is no judgment.” Abraham knows that he cannot say that he must not offer his son as an offering up, and that he cannot say that he must kill his son. And he laughs. His laughter now cannot follow a decision. If it were a decision, then it would be nothing else than an idolatrous movement, one that replaces an idolatrous love – as long as love for anything other than God, so love for the son who ensures that his seed will give birth to a mighty nation is idolatrous – with another idolatrous love. Abraham does not start mounting on Moriah after taking the decision to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. The Abraham of this third laughter cannot decide to obey any command. He does not decide to do anything – he just presents himself, “here I am,” and the decision is already comprised in this attitude. His action is determined by the genuinely ethical attitude of presenting oneself as the first and most responsible individual. If Abraham says that God will see to the offering-up, he expresses his genuine attitude of trusting his fate in the hands of God. I would say that the absence of any kind of judgment is the apparition of what Levinas calls responsibility. Or maybe it is the attitude of giving death to oneself, as Derrida might call it, or loving one’s life so much as to be able to renounce it.
This death resides in the incomprehensibility itself – things can no longer have logos and thus cannot participate into Being. In this incomprehensibility Abraham holds nothing, not even the incomprehensibility itself for it cannot be held. This other death is the laughter beyond life and death, beyond day and night, beyond being and non-being. It is rather the realization that being cannot be but intertwined with non-being, that any authentic belief cannot be but embodied with ideology, and this realization becomes laughter. Or silence.

The third kind of laughter means becoming silent. It opens the possibility of acting ethically – it orients us differently in life. In a sense, we could say that laughter helps us to avoid making any totaling claim. And it does, as long as we think about laughter as Socratic irony. But this kind of laughter opens the possibility of the third kind which is not an answer to anything, but rather is the only thing one can do the moment one is about to see the Good beyond being. And is the only thing that one can do in the sense that one cannot not do it. That moment, laughter seems to equate silence and it stands for the genuine ethical moment. 


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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