A Certain Kind of Laughter

In his Preface to “The Order of Things,” Foucault writes of his laughter upon reading about something at once disturbing and hilarious: a Chinese encyclopedia that categorizes animals into (among others) “those that belong to the Emperor,” “those that tremble as if they were mad,” and “those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush.”

This laughter eventually inspires his own seminal work, “The Order of Things,” in which he attempts to make a little more sense of the science of taxonomy. It is the laughter, though, that I will always remember. His laughter expresses bitterness, insecurity, even horror, and helps him find control over a situation that seems ridiculous and inescapable.

It is for this reason that, in the wake of the recently-discovered child abuse tragedy in State College, I turn to The Onion:

After former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky was charged Saturday with multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, corruption of minors, indecent assault, and unlawful contact with minors, the national sports media sought out his victims this week to ask if they were worried about Joe Paterno’s legacy and how their molestations might affect the recently fired head coach’s place in the history books.


“The victim I spoke to, who was 12 years old when Sandusky first took advantage of him, looked very upset throughout the entire interview,” Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel said. “And when I asked whether he was concerned not just for how Joe Paterno would be remembered, but also for the football program’s ability to recover, he told me the interview was over and I should get out of his house.”

“Can you blame him, though?” Mandel added. “A coaching legend’s reputation hangs in the balance. I’m just as hurt and frustrated as he is.”

A more serious and logical summary of my personal opinion can be found in John Scalzi’s scathing and (justifiably) profane invective, certainly, but somehow I find The Onion’s story more compelling. Probably because it reassures me that there is a perverse humor in the reactions of the college community that have rendered me speechless with incredulity.

There is a certain kind of laughter that says, “This is funny precisely because it is not.” The Onion clearly established its ability to inspire that laughter with its first issue after the September 11 attacks: the three-word headline was succinct and incisive, echoing the thoughts of most of us. Holy ——ing ——.

I have heard many enlightened people say that sarcasm is poisonous, an unacceptable response in any situation; and indeed, its literal translation is “tearing of the flesh.” This is why I think it is perfectly appropriate for a situation this dark and ugly. At the very least, it could save you from tearing your own.