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Chapter 4

Laughter and Distress

1.     [page 133>] Beattie on the pain element in laughter. Arousal-safety model of the role of fear in laughter. Fear-stimulus retains this function even when promoted to laughter-stimulus; only the fear is bisociated with a positive emotion.

2.     Role of aggression in laughter. Humor checks hostility by transforming it, even while permitting its expression. Neutralization of aggression by positive pole of bisociation reflected in clown’s sense of “balance.”

3.     Role of disgust (especially towards organic impurities). Exploitation in ritual clowning: retained, though highly attenuated, in comic function of the aestheticized vidűSaka. Mutual neitralization of disgust and sexual affect in “dirty jokes.” Social valorization of the ritual clown (or trickster) contributes to the promotion of disgust-stimuli to laughter-stimuli. Assimmilation of transgression of purity-taboos to madness in “primitive” and traditional societies.

4.     Indistinguishability of fear and disgust and their alternation with laughter is the psychological stereotype before the ritual clown and reflects his ambivalent character (Makarius). Abhinava’s assimilation of fear- and disgust-stimuli. Bhairava is “terrifying” because he represents impurity which is the basis of transgression; GaNeza and vidűSaka are comic because inthem this fearful aspect is neutralized. Exaggerated timidity of the vidűSaka meant to neutralize fear of his deformity symbolizing violation.

5.     Sorrow and Freud’s ‘humor’ based on the “economy of pity.” But for Abhinava, incipient unpleasure is common to all forms of determinate (= bisociative) laughter (hâsa).

1.     Negative effects of the painful stimulus is integral to the mechanism of pleasurable laughter. Criticism of Masson and Patwardhan’s reading of Abhinava on the role of (incipient) pain in pleasurable laughter, and interpretation in terms of Gurdjieff’s [134>] bisociative model. Whereas the combination of pleasure and pain elements in the other sthâyins (worldly emotions) is due to a single univalent attitude to the stimulus and are functions of each other, pleasure and pain in hâsa are generated by incompatible fields and emotional attitudes, which are resolved into pleasurable laughter. Abhinava’s treatment of rasâbhâsa (‘semblance of rasa’), etc., supports this interpretation of distress in laughter.



[135>] “Although 200 years have passed since James Beattie proposed a link between distress and laughter, we have only just begun to test and incorporate similar ideas in our present-day models of the laughter process. Twentieth-century psychologists of humor may find it both informative and humbling to review some of the dimensions Beattie identified as important to the expression of laughter…”1 Careful observation and recent empirical research not only corroborate this link but would suggest that an element of distress or pain is an essential ingredient of the laughter-mechanism. This is especially clear in the experiments conducted to test the arousal-safety model of laughter in children, which postulates that the arousal of negative emotions by a stimulus which is then suddenly perceived to be a non-stimulus, results in laughter. This model emphasizes the difficulty of differentiating fear stimuli from laughter stimuli without further information about the situation and the state of the individual. A stimulus used for evoking fear in one situation, such as the mask in Scarr and Salapatek’s study of fear development,2 has been used in another [136>] context to evoke laughter.3 The same action performed by a stranger and a familiar person toward a child may in the former case lead to crying and distress, and in the latter case to laughter.4 Blurton Jones reports that a child laughing while being chased by another child may suddenly develop a fearful expression. The sound of laughter is then replaced by screaming and distress.5 “The close relation of laughter and distress suggests the hypothesis that stimuli effective in evoking fear may also be effective on evoking laughter” (Rothbart, Humor and Laughter, p.41).

The consequent problem of determining what external factors decide whether the stimulus is perceived as a fear- or a laughter-stimulus, leads Rothbart to conclude that the stimulus in itself is neither a fear- nor a laughter-stimulus. “These findings suggest that rather than labeling a stimulus as a fear stimulus or a laughter stimulus, it may instead be located on a continuum of surprise, suddenness or intensity, and related to the state of the child and the characteristics of the situation before reactions of laughter or fear are predicted. The close relation of fear and [137>] laughter may be observed in a young child on a swing. When the swing is pulled back, the child’s eyes are open wide in an expression of apprehension or fear. As the trajectory of the swing proceeds forward and then back again, the child may be seen to be laughing heartily. Adult laughter to the shock of a roller-coaster or a carnival house-of-horrors are similar phenomena” (Rothbart, HL p.40). However, such a conclusion assumes, following ‘common sense’ and not empirical science, that the laughter stimulus ceases ipso facto to be still a fear stimulus, whereas the rapid alternation would rather suggest to us that the fear is itself a necessary component of the laughter response; that the fear stimulus has merely been promoted to a laughter stimulus without ceasing to be a fear stimulus. It is this distressful negative emotion that is discharged through the bisociative effect as laughter. Otherwise, the role of the mask in the laughter-response becomes problematic; why is it necessary for the laughter in the first place? If on the stranger it is frightening whereas on the mother it is funny, this is because the stranger reinforces its function as a fear stimulus whereas the mother neutralizes, without eliminating, this function. It is the oscillation between the fearful strangeness of the mask and the affectionate familiarity of the mother’s face, their mutual neutralization, that is bisociatively responsible for laughter.

Even where it is no longer a fear stimulus that is in question but an anger, disgust or sorrow stimulus, the above pattern or mechanism would still apply. In being promoted to laughter stimuli, they do not lose their negative more or less painful affect but, on the contrary, produce laughter by very virtue of their inherent [138>] character as the stimuli of these specific negative emotions. Other researchers have stressed the role of aggression in humor in such a way that the aggressive components of the joke-structure must necessarily be considered as retaining their inherent character even when contributing to laughter. Statistical studies of the types of situations in which college students laugh, conducted independently by Kambouropoulou6 and Young,7 reveal that “clever remarks made by one person at the expense of another, accounted for over half of the responses in both lists. This finding seems to suggest that aggression or hostility is often involved in those events contributing to laughter.”8 Intrigued by the surprisingly large number of disparaging remarks in a preceding study,9 Coser examined the social functions of humor among the staff of a Boston mental hospital by looking at the origin and function of laughter occurring in 20 staff meetings.10 The findings suggest that though witty remarks are valued and can and do serve to release tension, resolve conflicts, and help [139>] promote teaching and learning, the humor—even when serving in any of these functions—always contains from a little to a lot of aggression (Pollio and Edgerly, p.221). Coser notes that humor serves “to reduce social distances between people in different positions (in the hierarchy) and, therefore, has an equalizing function11… Hence release of aggression in witty manner may do much to prevent the outbreak of hostility… Humor helps to convert hostility and control it, while at the same time permitting its expression.” Though the role of aggression in the laughter mechanism has been undeniably exaggerated here12 (for we have seen the role of fear above, and will see the similar roles of disgust and sorrow below), what is certainly valid is that this mechanism permits the simultaneous release and checking of aggression wherever the latter happens to be a component. The findings support the bisociation theory according to which the checking of the negative emotion (aggression) by an opposing positive emotion will result in the discharge of both as laughter. Where such aggressive instincts are channeled out safely through the figure of the clown, it is this delicate bisociative structure [140>] that is perceived by us as the sense of balance reflected in the clown’s mastery: “the social event of humor allows for the cathartic release of aggressions, hostilities and taboos and provides for a private-public affirmation that such activities are acceptable providing an appropriate balance is maintained. This balance is provided, of course, by the very special artistry of the Clown and all of his near and far relatives—the comic actor, the comedian, the story teller, the fool and, finally, the naturally occurring witty person” (Pollio & Edgerly, p.241). what this balance really means is that the aggressive component is simultaneously both acceptable and unacceptable.13

Another study of laughter in college students14 revealed 49% of the jokes to sexual and excrement jokes. Excrement jokes necessarily contain an element of disgust and this element is not lacking in those sexual jokes that would be classified as obscene (‘dirty’), though the latter also contain the opposing element of positive sexual affect. This type of the comic based on the negative affect of disgust is especially important in the ritual clowning common to many ‘primitive’ and traditional societies, where the clowns violate powerful taboos interdicting all contact with organic impurities. In an attenuated sense, this is true of the vidűSaka of the Sanskrit drama who also indulges, by prescription, in generous doses of obscene (azlîla) language. The [141>] distressing character of the stimuli of disgust is explicitly recognized by the NâTyazâstra through its distinction between disgust based on shuddering due to the sight of blood (entrails, etc.)—kSobha-ja—and the recoiling disgust accompanied by sharp agitation due to the perception of excrement, rotting by worms, etc.—udvegî.15 The bisociative mechanism behind the laughter caused by sexual obscenities is quite apparent, in that the disgust-stimulus becomes a laughter stimulus not by ceasing to evoke disgust but by simultaneously evoking positive sexual affect, the mutual neutralization (no/yes) being responsible for the laughter. In the case of purely scatological elements, as in the ceremonial clowning of the Pueblo Indians where excrement, urine and other disgustingly impure substances are consumed, it would go against everything we know about the attitude to impurity in these societies to suggest that as laughter-stimuli they must be wholly distinguished from their normal role of disgust-stimuli. It is clear that the social position of the clowns—generally they are powerful religious figures, even ruling priests in the case of the Zuni Koyemci clowns—who handle these impurities, has much to do with the transformation into laughter-stimuli. “It is this larger context which is obvious in sociological and anthropological [142>] studies which serves to moderate everything a comedian or clown says and does. It is quite one thing when a ritual Zuni clown drinks great draughts of urine amid the roaring merriment of the spectators and quite another when a psychotic patient does so in a hospital back-ward. In one case we have humor and laughter, in the other, only madness and woe. Because of the very strong effect social factors seem to play in defining what is permissible and/or appropriate, it seems necessary to look at such factors before we turn more directly to comedy and comedians” (Pollio & Edgerly, pp.216-17). Similarly, the vidűSaka, though assimilated to a madman of sorts, stands in a privileged relationship to the king as his equal (together forming the two principal male characters of the ritual-drama), and this valorization contributes too his comic effect. It is because to a certain degree we are able to identify with the ritual clown in his handling of impurities, that the opposing reaction of disgust is discharged as laughter. If the psychiatrist does not find his patient funny in this respect, this is because his very mode of perceiving the latter protects him from the patient’s madness, from identifying with it.16

Before we leave the subject of the psychological reactions evoked by ritual clowns in their traditional audiences, it is [143>] relevant to note the preponderant role of fear and its rapid alternation with laughter, exactly as was observed for the school-children studied by Blurton Jones. The Amerindian clowns, during their public rituals inspire both hilarity and fear at the same time, and if they approach too close (let us not forget that often they are masked as in the experiments mentioned in notes 2 and 3 above), “the smiles of the women and children quickly change to expressions of surprise, tempered with fear.”17 The Assineboine clowns provoke the laughter of their audience, but also frighten them. Seligman, for example, mentions the intermingling of fear and laughter of the Shilluk, running away from the figures of Nyikang and Dak.18 So characteristic is this response that L. Makarius, “this intermingling of hilarity and fear is, ethnologically speaking, a s stereotype sufficient to betray the presence of a clown. The ambivalent behavior of the public reflects the ambivalent character attributed the clown…”19 She goes on to stress the contradictory attitudes to the clown of his people, who not only grant him the highest social valorization but “at the same time recoil from him as an unclean being, to whom every kind of impurity is assimilated and whose contact is defiling and baneful” (ibid., p.57), which shows that in the clown the stimuli of fear and those of disgust are often [144>] indistinguishable from each other.20 See in the light of the theory of bisociation, the very laughter itself is marked by ambivalence, the negative ‘distressing’ affects of fear and disgust being neutralized by their exalted place in the ritual. The basic function of the ritual clown, including the vidűSaka of the Sanskrit theater, is the violation of socio-religious taboos, and this holds true even for comic divinities like GaNeza. The normal reaction before such flagrant violation of taboos, often involving intimate contact with defiling impurities, is terror, and the Tantric divinity par excellence presiding over such systematic taboo-violation is Bhairava ‘the terrifier’. These ‘terrifying’ divinities governing taboo-violation are both identical with and to be distinguished from comic divinities like GaNeza in relation to the metaphysical notions they symbolize. Here, it suffices to note that this profound identity on the metaphysical and symbolic level is reflected clearly on the psychological level in the stereotyped intermingling of hilarious laughter and fear/disgust that betrays the presence of the ritual clown. Rather than a mere [145>] intermingling, the fear/disgust may be seen as necessary components of the bisociative laughter. The problem then becomes one of determining the factors that contribute towards the component of positive affect  towards such comic figures, which by neutralizing the fear and disgust generates our laughter. In the vidűSaka, the fear aspect has been minimized and even reversed to the extent of characterizing him with an exaggerated timidity.21 The only element of his make-up that perhaps retains this fear-evoking role is his deformity and ugliness, itself symbolic of transgression.22 Similarly, most of the impurity he bears has been [146>] reduced to a mere symbolic presence or displaced onto personages with whom he comes into close contact. Even then, the playwrights do not seem to have forgotten to include more trivial disgusting elements like foul breath, saliva, drooling at the sight of raw intestines, obscene language and so on in his portrayal, granting tem a symbolic status of sorts.23 [147>]  

Freud’s category of ‘humor,’ which we left without discussion at the end of the previous chapter, best illustrates the role of distress in its extreme form of sorrow (zoka) in the genesis of laughter. But though for Freud it is only one of several categories, the role ascribed by him to pain in its genesis corresponds very closely to that ascribed to it by Abhinavagupta in the genesis of all bisociative laughter. The psychic energy that we ‘save’ in the humorous situation would otherwise have been expended in being wholly engrossed in our own sorrow. Actually, Freud does not restrict the painful affect to sorrow alone but extends it to cover all forms of negative emotion (Jokes p.297, see below, chap. VIII, p.290). But his inclusion and privileging of ‘pity’ among these distressing affects reveals that it is sorrow that is the prime-mover of this category, for it alone depends wholly upon empathy for its reflection in others who are not directly afflicted. ‘Humor’ is very frequently an “economy of pity” which saves the energy that would otherwise be consumed in feelings of sympathy whereby we identify ourselves with the sufferings of others. He gives an example of “gallows-humor” which illustrates both types: The prisoner on the way to the execution pretends to worry about catching cold, and we laugh; since the prisoner takes a [148>] humoristic view of his own misfortunes, our savings of non-expended pity are discharged as laughter. “Defensive processes are the psychical correlative of the flight reflex and perform the task of preventing the generation of unpleasure from internal sources…. Humor can be regarded as the highest of these defensive processes. It scorns to withdraw the ideational content bearing the distressing effect from conscious attention as repression does, and thus surmounts the automatism of defense. It brings this about by finding a means of withdrawing energy from the release of unpleasure that is already in preparation and of transforming it, by discharge, into pleasure” (Freud, JU p.299). Against Freud, we had endorsed Koestler’s affirmation that even the ‘humorous’ recognition is essentially bisociative in structure. Actually, it is unnecessary for our ‘humor’ that the person laughed at should be taking a humorous view of his own sorrow; all that is required is that there be elements in his situation that are incongruous with his seeming sorrow even if this sorrow is complete in him. What matters is that we perceive and relive his sorrow bisociatively, only half-identifying ourselves with it.

What is common to all these four kinds of stimuli—of fear, anger, disgust and sorrow—when promoted to the status of laughter stimuli is that they all contribute, each in its own specific way, the component of negative emotion, of pain, necessary for the emotional bisociation discharged as laughter. This assumption is simpler, hence more ‘scientific’ than to assume that each type of the above stimuli ceases to evoke its specific negative emotion while functioning as laughter-stimulus. It would be especially difficult, in the latter framework, to account for those situations [149>] where the emotion in question alternates rapidly with laughter, or where its presence can be definitively shown through various indices even in the midst of laughter. Most problematic would be the privileged relationship in which laughter alone, among all responses, stands with respect to all these other negative (and positive) stimuli, of which we have mentioned only those four corresponding to the ‘painful’ (duhkhâtmaka) emotions of Indian aesthetics. The emotional bisociation, as the secret of laughter, immediately why things could not have been otherwise.

The above observations, based on experimental evidence, converge to bear out Abhinavagupta’s introspective declaration, made about seven hundred years before Beattie, that bisociative laughter necessarily comprises a fleeting element of pain. This deep insight is proffered to us in the course of his demonstration that though the permanent emotional dispositions are split into the two distinct categories of pleasant and painful affect, nevertheless the pleasant emotions comprise an element of pain and the painful emotions an element of pleasure, in their total configurations. He distinguishes the different ways in which the pain element is introduced into the psychology of the pleasant emotions. “Thus sexual emotion (or love, rati), hâsa, enthusiasm (utsâha) and surprise are of pleasant nature. Of these, rati is penetrated by an element of pain because, though it consists of the determination of (fixation of the mind on) abiding pleasure characterize by eager intentness (aunmukhya) on the object (of sensual pleasure), there is fear of its loss due to the exaggerated expectation centered on the object. That (variety of) laughter based on determination (anusandhâna) (is penetrated by an element [150>] of pain) because it is accompanied by pleasure comprising a lightning-like (i.e., momentary, incipient) immediate presence of a slight proportion of pain. Enthusiasm, though it involves the determination to plunge into the painful exertions of the present, is pleasurable because it is invested with the future long-lasting happiness that will be beneficent to many people. Surprise is characterized by momentary indeterminate (niranusandhâna) pleasure. Anger, fear, sorrow and disgust are however of painful nature…. Sorrow is wholly painful for it is born of the loss of a cherished object and is nourished by the memory of the pleasure formerly derived from it….”24

Masson and Patwardhan (MP) have noted the importance of this passage for the understanding of hâsa, though they do not quite seem to have appreciated its full meaning and implications. “Abhinava in an obscure passage even says that zoka informs comedy, for it is the lightning flash of sorrow that illuminates [151>] the comic in our lives.”25 Abhinava says: hâsasya sânusandhânasya vidyut-sadRza-tâtkâlikâlpa-duhkha-rűpa-sukhânugatau (duhkhâmzânuvedhah). Firstly, duhkha here does not mean the sthâyibhâva (permanent emotional disposition) of ‘sorrow’ (zoka) in particular but pain or distress in general and thereby includes all possible negative or painful emotions (whether sthâyins or vyabhicârins ‘transitory emotions). Their translation is not only incorrect but one also wonders how it could correspond to anything in real-life: “In the case of hâsa, if serious thought is given to it (sânusandhânasya), there is in the wake of happiness, a slight mixture of sorrow, momentary (tâtkâlika), comparable to a lightning flash (but nonetheless real)” (Aesthetic Rapture II p.44, p.261). The term anusandhâna, though it is difficult to find a single English word to render the whole conception, has a precise meaning in Abhinava’s technical vocabulary.26 It refers to the determinate form of perception [152>] based on definite judgment (adhyavasâya). Each emotion is either sânusandhâna or niranusandhâna, either it involves a deliberate judgment that governs the coordinated and sustained response to the stimulus, of which the best example is ‘enthusiasm’ (utsâha) whose distinctive quality is adhyavasâya,27 or it is a confused perception resulting in a vague immediate reflex without deliberation, of which the best example is perhaps ‘surprise’ (vismaya). The qualification sânusandhânasya therefore serves to exclude that variety of laughter caused by tickling or through the influence of another’s laughter; in short, it refers to specifically bisociative laughter, probably to the convulsion O itself, which presupposes a complex reorganization of the perceptual or conceptual field. Though laughter itself may be said to be indeterminate insofar as, being the result of the neutralization of two contrary impulses, it is devoid of external purpose, yet when based on bisociation it may be said to be determinate because of its constituent twin-emotions, their corresponding operative fields, and the motivations associated with them, are determinate. It is only bisociative laughter that being pervaded by intentionality, has the necessary element of pain or distress embodied in the [153>] ‘no’ of the ‘yes/no’ structure. It is because laughter can be sânusandhâna that it has acquired the kind of signifying functions that enable it to play the role of social corrective (superiority-humor).

Where is there ever an experience of sorrow (or pain), however meager, in the wake of, that is subsequent to,  laughter? Such a proposition flagrantly contradicts the role of laughter as a relief-mechanism that unburdens us of the discomforting tensions generated by superfluous energies. It is common experience that when circumstances demand that we suppress our spontaneous laughter in an uncontrollably funny situation, we feel extremely uncomfortable,28 and laughter on the contrary is accompanied by a sense of relief. Grammatically, we do not see how the compound alpa-duhkha-rűpa-sukhânugatau could be translated as pain following pleasure; anugati means ‘following’ (or ‘imitation’, ‘dying out’, Monier-Williams Dictionary), and in the locative absolute (anugatau) it can only mean “where there is the succession of pleasure comprising…” The negative component of the bisociative convulsion O, the “incipient development of unpleasure” (Freud), is immediately converted into pleasure through the discharge, the latter being thus characterized by a slight admixture of pain that is not adventitious but essential for its genesis. The sânusandhâna-hâsa [154>] could thus refer directly to the convulsion itself, and the ‘pleasure’ (sukha) to the accompanying discharge; otherwise, the former could refer to both the convulsion and the pleasurable discharge—it makes little difference to the total sense of the definition. Again, tâtkâlika, though it could mean ‘momentary’ in some contexts, indicates rather ‘present time’ or ‘simultaneity’ here—“happening at the same time or immediately, simultaneous, instantly appearing” or “lasting (that time tat-kâla, i.e.) equally long” (Monier-Williams Dictionary).29 In other words, the pain is not remembered as in nirveda but actively permeates (coexists with) bisociative laughter, as the motive force beneath the latter, and being discharged even as it is in the process of being generated.30 The momentariness of the pain is indicated rather by its being “lightning-like,” which refers not to its illuminative capacity but to the suddenness that characterizes the bisociation. As this lightning-like suddenness is also fundamental to the experience of surprise (vismaya), we shall discuss its differing roles in the two responses in the following chapter. [155>]

Though the pleasure and the pain components are of equal force in the bisociation phase, laughter itself is the pleasurable release of the ensuing tension, and therefore the element of pain is said to be meager (alpa) in comparison with the overall pleasure. This is precisely why hâsa is classified as a pleasurable (sukhâtmaka) sthâyin, despite the fact that the bisociation itself is neutral with respect to pleasure and pain, the bisociation accounting for the perceived incongruity. “Necessary ingredients of an adequate theory of humor would seem to involve a (1) sudden (2) happiness increment (…) as consequence of a (3) perceived incongruity” (La Fave et al., HL p.89). A disproportionate increase in the pain element would therefore render laughter impossible, as Beattie himself points out: “While the moral faculty is inactive or neuter, the ludicrous sentiment may operate; but to have a sense of the enormity of the crime, and at the same time to laugh at it, seems impossible, or at least unnatural.”31 “To conceal one’s fear, one may feign a laugh…but nobody laughs at that which makes him seriously afraid, however incongruous its appearance may be” (ibid., p.432).

Though almost all the emotions described by Abhinava are shown to be mixtures of pleasure and pain, with one of these predominating, hâsa may be distinguished from the rest by the fact that here it is the same stimulus that evokes the contrary perceptions and impulses (the opposing fields), whereas in the [156>] other sthâyins the pleasure and the pain refer to complementary aspects of one’s emotional attitude to the object and necessarily form elements of a single operational field. In ‘love’ (rati), the fear of being separated from the beloved is merely the psychological shadow of the enduring pleasure being derived from him. Acceptance of present pain in ‘enthusiasm’ (utsâha) is overshadowed by the pleasurable prospect of achieving one’s goal, and is a function of the latter. It is because the stimulus provokes anger that its imagined destruction is pleasurable. Without the remembrance of pleasures once derived from the lost object, there would be no cause for sorrow at its present irremediable loss. The pleasure and pain in these and other emotions do not contradict but imply each other in the context of a single univalent attitude to the stimulus. But in the case of hâsa, the initial pleasure and pain are bisociated—each is generated by a heterogeneous opposing field—with regard to the stimulus, and the subsequent enveloping pleasure of the discharge (as laughter) is not dependent on any one of these fields but on their mere neutralization. The pleasure involved in the specific consummatory act of fulfillment which liberates the tensions inherent in hunger, sex, fear, anger or enthusiasm—a fulfillment towards which these emotions tend but which nevertheless remain ‘outside’ them—is, in the case of laughter, derived from the purposeless explosion of the excitement. The tensions of the constituent emotions of bisociative laughter are not consummated, but released in aimless muscular activity. The process of relief in laughter is not congenial to the emotional tensions involved, unlike clobbering one’s enemy or sexual union with the beloved. Laughter is its own fulfillment. [157>]

By analyzing the role of distress in laughter, it was our aim to show that Abhinava’s brief and passing description of this role becomes intelligible, not to say feasible, only in the light of the theory of bisociation  as developed from the insights of chapter II. That Abhinava did hold such a conception, or something close to it, will become increasingly evident as we examine his treatment of incongruity (vikRti), ‘semblance of rasa’ (rasâbhâsa) and the role of identification (tanmayîbhavana) in the latter.

[this concludes chapter IV on Laughter and Distress]