In an essay from the 1873 Diary of a Writer, we find this intriguing little phrase :
Self-reflection, the ability to make of his own deepest feelings an object which he could set before him and pay it tribute, and, in the next breath, perhaps, ridicule it, was a thing he had developed to the highest degree.
Although he is talking about Herzen here, in a nutshell this delineates Dostoevsky’s own poetics of laughter, a three step process towards ambiguation:
1. There is the emphasis on self-reflection: his own deepest feelings, or in other words the foregrounded consciousness, which we see in all his major characters.
2. an object which he could set before him; the objectifying of man’s deepest feelings in the form of highly personal statements, man’s fears, horrors and doubts as well his loftiest ideals and dreams.
3. pay it tribute, and, in the next breath, perhaps, ridicule it; the sudden disorienting switch in attitude from one of reverential tribute to these personal statements, to one of scornful ridicule, symbolised by the presence of laughter.
So, contemplation, objectification in the form of a personal statement, followed by laughter.
This sudden switch in attitude from reverence to ridicule can be seen time and time again in his work. For example, in the episode from Notes from Underground when the underground man is unburdening his soul in the darkness to the prostitute Liza. He presents a lofty picture to her, and then suddenly fears that her response to these idealistic visions will be laughter. In Crime and Punishment, after Marmeladov’s religious outburst in the pub, the room is filled with raucous laughter. Likewise, in The Idiot, laughter greets Ippolit’s ‘Necessary Explanation’, in which he has just poured out his dying soul. In Demons Stavrogin reads his confession to Tikhon, a confession full of depravity and remorse. And then Tikhon warns him that it is after all ridiculous and the most likely response to the confession will be laughter. In all of these examples, a personal statement of the most candid, rawest self-exposure, is followed by laughter. In Karamazov, the servant Grigorii reflects on his infant's deformity, announces solemnly that a confusion of natures has occurred, and is met by laughter.
In Dostoevsky, mocking, sarcastic, antagonistic, belittling and callous laughter is the common response to the loftiest and the most idealistic visions and yearnings as well as the most degrading, dehumanising revelations.
The laughter usually originates from the other characters, but Dostoevsky also joins in this laughter. In the same way that other characters laugh at a soul-baring personal statement, so Dostoevsky laughs- and expects us to laugh as well. Every statement, lofty or degraded, becomes vulnerable, then, to mocking laughter:
Nature does not ask for our permission.
Which is better: cheap happiness, or lofty suffering?
Ordinary people must live in submission and have no right to transgress the laws, because, you see, they are ordinary.
A respectable man is morally obliged to put up with boredom.
Catholicism is the same as an unchristian faith. It is even worse than atheism itself.
Our Christ, whom we have preserved and they have never known must shine forth as a response to the West.
What is more precious than Love? Love is the crown of being.
The Russian God, according to the latest reports, is rather unreliable and even barely managed to withstand the peasant reform, anyway, he tottered badly.
I cannot believe in God without a God to believe in.
All of these notorious statements from the key novels exist in a kind of double space: one where their seriousness is reverenced, and another where it is ridiculed, so that we never really know what is intended. Are these genuine expressions de foi? Or mere parodies of expressions de foi? Are we to take them as profundities? Or as a parody of profundity? Is it possible, desirous or even necessary to search for the meaning of the conflict between our consciousness and our cosmic insignificance? Or is it just ridiculous? These are the questions that Dostoevskyan laughter evokes, but to which it provides no answers at all.
Interestingly, it is only after his release from prison in 1854 that we find this kind of double spin increasing in Dostoevsky. It is possible that this kind of deflating, caustic humour was something he learned from the peasants during his prolonged incarceration with them. His descriptions of the peasants in his essays and prison notebooks often include this kind of cutting laughter, culled from real life. This laughter is the response of the common crowd to the tortured posturings of the intellectual; the humour of the unquestioning, the ignorant and the uncaring directed at those who are perhaps too preoccupied with the eternal questions.
As far as amusement and having a laugh are concerned, there are various forms of amusement, and various kinds of laughter, even in matter that may be quite unseemly.