Danilo Zak, Hysterical: Broken Laughter in the Literature of Chicago

Hysterical: Broken Laughter in the Literature of Chicago

By Danilo Zak

It’s curious what we find to be funny. Laughter is often associated with

enjoyment; we laugh pleasantly at something relatable, something trivial. But

laughter can also be analyzed as a response: an unthinking, intuitive reaction to

being overwhelmed by life’s inescapable turmoil. We laugh at incongruence; we

laugh in embarrassment; we laugh at what we fear; we laugh at our hopes and

dreams; and we laugh to defend ourselves from hopelessness.

In Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Richard Wright’s Native Son, laughter is

explored through this unconventional lens, as a way to delve into the broken, the

hopeless, and even the hysterical. Bellow’s Citrine lives the privileged life of a

respected intellectual, but his laughter reveals the specter of sensitivity and

detachment that haunts him. Meanwhile, the silent and manic laughter of Humboldt

first predicts and than embodies his more palpable paranoia. The laughter of

Richard Wright’s protagonist Bigger represents a similar progression in a far less

privileged setting; he at first laughs to defend himself from the reality of his racist

and imprisoning environment before his helplessness inevitably plummets him

towards rage and violence. Across both books, laughter is predictive of this

evolution of damaged psyches, from Citrine’s more mild sensitivity to Bigger’s

panicked, preordained violence.

Humboldt’s Gift revolves around the Chicago elite. Even the mobsters drive

Thunderbirds, play racquetball, and carry around gym memberships. But despite

their relatively comfortable lives, all of the central characters suffer from

exceedingly fragile mental states. The novel is full of intellectuals that are mired in

their own thoughts, detached from the outside world. Issues of death and purpose

plague Charlie Citrine, an accomplished playwright, to the point of sensitivity and

isolation. Humboldt, Citrine’s poet-mentor, is driven to paranoia and even death by

a simultaneous envy and hatred of the academic sphere. Laughter serves as an

expression of these characters’ inner disorder, a manifestation of Citrine’s

sensitivity and Humboldt’s mania.

Citrine’s nervous self-consciousness, which can be analyzed through

laughter, stems from a life that has fallen into total disarray: His once vivacious

mentor, Humboldt, has died ignominiously in a decrepit New York apartment; he

has not yet recovered from the passing of his lover and muse, Demmie, in a

mysterious South American plane crash; and he is in the midst of a brutal divorce in

which his lawyers are colluding with his scheming ex-wife to acquire his dwindling

assets. Adding to this, his Mercedes was destroyed by a vengeful and egotistical

mobster, named Cantabile, who felt slighted by Citrine’s failure to repay a minor

poker debt. When Citrine laughs, it is a window into this insecure and collapsing

world, one even further muddled by his confused musings on boredom, purpose,

Citrine often laughs at inopportune times, drawing ire from those around

him and emphasizing his insecurity. When Cantabile calls snarling for the return of

his money, Citrine responds by laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Following

this bizarre reaction, Citrine reiterates his growing self-doubt by proclaiming, “My

way of laughing has always been criticized” (Bellow 37). Later, he recalls a scene

from his collapsing marriage in which he laughs in response to his wife’s “warlike

and shrill” tone. “I laughed,” he narrates, “Partly from embarrassment. I am

normally a baritone…but under certain kinds of provocation my voice disappears

into the higher registers, perhaps into the bat range” (42). Citrine’s laughter is a

window into his shame and his inner discomfiture, a provoked defense mechanism

that responds to and evokes the realities of his collapsing life.

Another part of Citrine’s unrest and sensitivity is that he is forced to confront

his current life as a privileged, wealthy academic with remaining anxiety over his

artistic purpose. Despite his elite status, Citrine still has major concerns about his

mission as a writer and the lasting impact he hopes to leave on the philosophical

and intellectual world. His laughter demonstrates tensions that arise for him

because his standing in society belies what he feels to be a dearth of achievement

and impact. Denise, his perceptive ex-wife, tells him, “You give yourself away when

you laugh…you were born in a coal scuttle. Brought up in a parrot-house” (Bellow

42). While Denise is prone to heavy criticisms of Citrine, most of her judgments are

grounded in real insight (43). At his core, Citrine is still just another common

Chicagoan, much more concerned with his unfulfilled creative mission than his

impressive academic and economic surroundings.

This failure to connect with his current social sphere can be advanced

through an exploration of laughter and his general detachment from the outside

world. Cantabile decries Citrine’s laugh as “not a normal sound”; it exemplifies his

separation from those around him (Bellow 38). Laughter is often a tool for him to

isolate himself from the realities of his flawed world. Of his weakening romantic

relationship, he states, “Renata made me laugh, I was willing to deal later with the

terror implicit in her words”. In the academic realm as well, despite his

accomplishments, he is mostly detached. When Humboldt asks him to consider

taking a position at Princeton, Citrine’s first reaction is stunned laughter; shocked

the idea would even be brought up (129). Through all facets of his life, Citrine’s

laughter represents not only sensitivity and doubt, but also detachment.

“Pale Humboldt opened his mouth. Through small teeth he gave his near-silent laugh.”

-Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift

While laughter highlights serious issues within Citrine’s broken life, his

troubles are merely a silhouette of Humboldt’s much more evident anxieties.

Humboldt was once a famed and brilliant poet, but he slowly descends into mania,

depression, paranoia, and eventually death. According to Citrine, Humboldt’s decline

began with Adlai Stevenson, his supposed confidante, losing in the 1952 presidential

election. Humboldt expected to be welcomed into Stevenson’s administration, and

to be given the opportunity to shape and better the world from that perch. When

Eisenhower won, the already fragile Humboldt felt exposed and rashly attempts a

power grab for a tenured chair at Princeton. In this scene, laughter plays an overt

and complex role in portraying Humboldt’s decaying mental state; it is both

protective and predictive.

At times, Humboldt’s laughter serves as defense mechanism, a way to cope

with his rising fears and protect his still astute mind. He attempts to enlist Citrine to

help him get the seat at Princeton, and the ensuing argument is filled with just this

form of laughter. When Citrine expresses ridicule at the first full outline of the plan,

Humboldt fights for a moment of brief clarity: “His mind was executing some

earnest queer labor. It was swelling and pulsating oddly…He tried to laugh it all off

with his nearly silent panting laugh” (129).  Humboldt is unable to fully recover and

cogently examine his decisions, but his laughter represents his desperate attempt to

do just that. In this instance, it is not representative of his mania, but rather it is the

only way for him to express his desire to regain equilibrium and rationality. In

another occasion when Humboldt is faced with Charlie’s criticisms, a voice he knows

to be perceptive, the reaction is striking: “Humor me, Charlie. Never mind how

ridiculous this seems” (130). When Humboldt laughs he is demonstrating he knows

his plan is coming from a place of absurdity. Humboldt is in the process of losing

himself to his anxieties, and at points his attempts at laughter are defenses; they are

an effort to synthesize this progression that he can see within himself.

But in the same scene, laughter is predictive and projective of Humboldt’s

growing sense of helplessness and fear. Its silent, panting nature is indicative of a

certain twisted insincerity. At times, his laughter represents a detachment from

reality and an affirmation of his own crazed position. In one instance, Charlie calls

him out for being conspiratorial, and, responding, “Humboldt seemed to take this as

a compliment, and laughed between his teeth, silently” (127). At this point,

Humboldt’s laughter makes his hysteria seem imminent and obvious. The silent

laugh is Humboldt’s defining eccentricity, and is again repeated when Citrine

returns with good news from Princeton. Citrine coldly observes the laugh, and

afterwards describes Humboldt for the first time as “Manic” (136). Humboldt’s

laughter is a defense and a coping mechanism, but it is also a clear predictor of his

impending emotional and spiritual decline.

Bellow uses laughter in Humboldt’s Gift to probe his characters’ wounded

psyches. Citrine’s laughter demonstrates his self-doubt and detachment, while for

Humboldt it is demonstrative of his failed struggle for rationality and composure.

The use of laughter to link both characters’ poor mental states gives rise to the fear

that Citrine will inevitably follow in Humboldt’s ill-fated footsteps, a possibility

Bellow dances with throughout. Citrine is exhibiting a milder form of the issues that

lead to Humboldt’s tragic and fatal decline.

“They guffawed, partly at themselves and partly at the vast white world that sprawled

and towered in the sun before them.”

-Richard Wright, Native Son

In Richard Wright’s Native Son, the use of laughter demonstrates significant

thematic similarities with Humboldt’s Gift that would otherwise be difficult to

examine. Bigger exists in an entirely different Chicago than the one inhabited by

Charlie and his cohort, but he faces an incredible struggle for sanity that mirrors

Humboldt’s and, to a lesser extent, Citrine’s. Bigger is a young black man living in a

small, one-room tenement in a radically racially divided Chicago. He bears constant

witness to the riches and benefits offered to the white world, but society dictates

that he has no way of ever achieving them. He wastes time shooting pool and

watching films, trying to forget the fact that he is incapable of caring for his destitute

family. Bigger has severe emotional issues that stem from the racial divide, and his

eventual loss of control results in multiple murders and his own capital punishment.

While Citrine and Humboldt struggle in spite of their surroundings, Bigger’s issues

stem directly from his environment.

Like Bellow, Wright employs the agent of laughter in a variety of ways to

depict a range of mental instability. Laughter is first used to examine milder

sensitivity and detachment. At the very start of the book, Bigger laughs while

dangling a killed rat in front of his sister, almost intentionally inciting his mother’s

rage. He describes how he isolates himself from his family, because “He knew that

the moment he allowed himself to feel to its fullness…the shame and misery of their

lives, he would be swept out of himself with fear and despair” (Wright 10). Bigger’s

laughter also displays his sensitivity and separation regarding his supposed friends.

After Gus tells a joke, “they all laughed and Bigger laughed with them but stopped

quickly. He felt that the joke was on him” (24). This self-created feeling of seclusion,

of isolation, is evident from the start for Bigger, and demonstrates a doubt and

nervousness that is similar to Citrine’s.

But laughter is also used in Native Son, as in Humboldt’s Gift, as a defense

mechanism, a tool to cope with terrible realities. In a telling scene early on, Bigger

and Gus laugh uncontrollably while contemplating the dominance of the White

world. Pausing in their mirth, Bigger wonders, “It’s funny how the white folks treat

us, ain’t it?” (17). He is forced to find humor in the terrible inequity of his day-to-day

life, because without it he would slide into a fearful and hopeless rage. When he is

planning to rob a white convenience store, Bigger again calls on laughter as a tool to

defend himself from his awful experience. He feels an “urgent need to hide his

growing and deepening feeling of hysteria…he wanted to run, or listen to some

swing music. Or laugh or joke” (28). Just as Humboldt forces laughter in an attempt

to understand and deal with his mounting paranoia, Bigger tries to cope with his

own sense of entrapment and anger in a similar fashion.

But while laughter is used to cope, it is also predictive and demonstrative of

Bigger’s derangement as the book progresses. His early fight with Gus is one of the

first clear signs that Bigger has lost whatever semblance of control he once had.

After kicking a defenseless Gus, he laughs, “softly at first, then harder, louder,

hysterically; feeling something like hot water bubbling inside of him and trying to

come out” (36). Here violence, laughter, and fear coalesce into a dangerous mixture

that pushes Bigger towards his future horrific crimes. The bubbling hot water is an

explicit reference to the hysteria that he holds within him, and laughter was the

inciting factor for its rise. Later that same day, Bigger panicked and murdered Mary

Dalton, a white woman who was sympathetic but ignorant towards the plight of

blacks in Chicago. Echoing Humboldt’s panting laughter, Bigger’s laugh represents

and foreshadows his increasing confusion and mental decay.

The evolution of laughter in Native Son provides an interesting method of

examining Bigger and his developing morals. In the early part of the book, laughter

clarifies his devolvement towards anxiety and violence. But after the first killing,

Bigger does not laugh again until the novel’s enigmatic end. In the meantime, he has

murdered another women named Bessie, provoked a massive manhunt, and has

recently been sentenced to death. Max, a perceptive lawyer, defended Bigger

unsuccessfully in court by blaming the racist environmental pressures which forced

Bigger’s fate. Max continually converses with Bigger in an attempt to enlighten him

to the changing racial realities and to pull him out of his dark inner turmoil. But at

the end, just as Max believes he is getting through to Bigger as he could not to the

jury, Bigger laughs in his face. After a lengthy diatribe Max pleads, “’Y-you’ve got to

b-believe in yourself, Bigger,’ [but] his head jerked up in surprise when Bigger

laughed” (428). This laughter resides at the very crux of the book, and is a

continuation of its radically unconventional use that can also be seen in Humboldt’s

Gift. Laughter represents Bigger’s hysteria, the bubbling hot water that arose out of

a sickeningly imbalanced society. Bigger laughs at Max because merely

understanding the issue is insufficient and does nothing to cure the central causes of

his mentality: Endemic racism and separation. The novel closes by lingering on

Bigger’s bitter smile, which demonstrates that as long as the society remains racist,

this ‘Native Son’ will keep on laughing.

“‘Jesus,’ he breathed. ‘I laughed so hard I cried.’“

-Richard Wright, Native Son

Both of these authors effectively utilize laughter as a way to investigate

mental deterioration and weakness, so it is fascinating in contrast to discuss how

each employs crying. In Humboldt’s Gift, the juxtaposition is obvious as Citrine

continually refers to tears as a sign of mental strength. Referring to Demmie’s

sleeping moans, Citrine states, “When she cried, you not only pitied her, you

respected her strength of soul” (Bellow 29). For Citrine, expressions of grief carry

with them genuine authenticity, a treasured thing in his spiritual world. Later,

Citrine’s good friend George declares, “a man in his fifties who can break up and cry

over a girl is a man I respect” (191). Tears are not only genuine but they are

youthful and vital, counter to the aged detachment and sensitivity that are evoked

when Citrine laughs.

Instances of crying in Native Son provide more conventional insights, which

in some ways accentuates the unique and unfamiliar nature of laughter in the novel.

Most of the crying results from distress over Bigger’s violent actions, starting with

Gus. When Bigger makes him lick a knife, Gus bursts into tears (Wright 40). Bessie,

another one of Bigger’s victims, is also often tearful. Crying represents genuine fear,

sadness, and suffering in the novel. However, unlike Humboldt’s Gift, tears represent

mental fragility rather than strength. Both books take unusual positions regarding

laughter, and understanding the nature of crying assists in contrasting and

sharpening those positions.

Laughter is the string that winds throughout theses novels, eventually

binding two drastically different settings tightly together. Both are really about

personal battles to maintain sanity, and in these skirmishes laughter is the warped

weapon of hysteria. Citrine’s laughter portrays sensitivity and detachment, but by

the end he manages to escape the footprints laid so ominously by Humboldt.

Unfortunately, Humboldt and Bigger succumb to the hysteria their damaged

laughter represents, leading inevitably to their demise. The novels are connected by

their reliance on laughter to demonstrate a sloping decline towards paranoia and

rage, bridging milder sensitivity with themes of loneliness and death,

Broken laughter evokes itself in many forms: Silent; Panting; Laughter that

disappears into the bat range; Nervous laughter; Laughter that begins softly,

tensely; Laughter that is hard and loud; Embarrassed laughter; Laughter that

bubbles up and out like boiling water; The laughter of isolation; The laughter of

doubt; The laughter of fear; the laughter of rage; the laughter of death. In Humboldt’s

Gift and Native Son, laughter is explored unconventionally as both a symptom and a

sign of mental decay. Using laughter to represent weakness rather than strength,

illness rather than health, Bellow and Wright are able to illustrate characters that

are complex and meaningful within the context of their stories.

Works Cited

Bellow, Saul. Humboldt’s Gift. New York: Penguin Group, 1973. Print.

Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: HarperCollins, 1940. Print.

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