Do butterflies wonder if they are beautiful?

I had a discussion a few weeks ago on the subject of laughter with a girl who had anorexia. She saddened me when she told me that she had not laughed properly in years. Not, she was quick to add, because she had lost her sense of humour. She still had a keen sense of irony as our conversation proved. Rather, she lacked the energy to be moved to laughter. A small smile was all she could muster.
For anyone who does not know much about anorexia, it is a condition where the brain has taught itself that starvation, having no spare energy and depriving oneself of sensation are good things. Either because the subject does not believe that he or she deserves better or because they enjoy a sense of purity. Or for an entirely different reason, mental health is far from simple. But what is often a constant is lacking energy to do what a healthy subject might take for granted.
Perhaps we can sympathise. Remember a time when, worn down and tired, we couldn’t really enter into the spirit of a funny situation. But this example is interesting simply because it helps to separate laughter from humour. Laughter as a physical response and humour as a philosophical perspective on the world. After all, we do not have to laugh to be amused. But, as it appears, we need to have a least a certain amount of energy in order to laugh.
Perhaps a sufferer of anorexia has a highly developed sense of humour despite not being able to laugh. As Simon Critchley has noted, humour can occur in the gap between being and having one’s body. We exist and there is no denying that without resorting to mindbending metaphysics (and perhaps the Matrix). Secondly, we cannot exist without our bodies (though perhaps I can only say that because I am not particularly religious). But we do not fully identify with our bodies. They do strange things without our conscious input or even despite our conscious efforts to control them. We can dislike them intensely (to an extreme in the case of the anorexic) while still quite like ourselves. We search for a sense of purpose, create all manner of stories to explain who we are and what we are doing. But the simple, in the present existence seemingly enjoyed by animals and plants evades us. After all, it is hard to imagine a butterfly with self-image issues. We do not have our bodies.(1)

Humour occurs when we are distanced enough from our bodies to see them objectively and to marvel at their weirdness. The anorexic who has developed this objectivity to an alarming degree, to the point where the body is seen as an enemy, might, if he or she is of a philosophical mind, be able to see the ridiculousness of the situation. (2) She fights what she is in the search to become herself. It is at least darkly ironic. So, exhausted and unable to laugh, the anorexic can still have a sense of humour. She can watch the laughers around her and marvel at how ridiculous these beings are who cannot control their paroxysms of mirth. She and Baudelaire might have had a lot to say to each other.(3)

But, allow for a moment that laughter does not point to the best  humour but the most explosive reaction. Critchley indeed makes the point that, while laughter is recognised in most languages as superior to a smile (French a smile – sourire – is a sub-laugh – rire; English we use the German word for Laughter and the Danish word for Smile – a small laugh), a smile is at the heart of humour. It is what marks humans as different from animals because it is a wry, reflective but humorous approach to life. It is the response we assume when we have taken all that life has to through at us and can still find the comedy in the situation.(4) That my anorexic friend (who, you’ll be happy to know is well on the road to recovery) can still find reason to smile is a sign of the resilience in the human condition.


  1. My thanks to Simon Critchley for this valuable insight. See Simon Critchley, On Humour, (London, Routledge,2002), p.  50.
  2. Ibid, p. 42. I am focusing in on an example that Critchley mentions in passing.
  3. Baudelaire is famous for his examination of the superiority theory of humour. He notes that the buffoon who makes others laugh is the most superior being since he drives the others to a state that is undignified and demeaning. See Michele Hannoosh, Baudelaire and caricature: from the comic to the art of modernity, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
  4. Critchley, On Humour, p. 108.