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Perry, C. Marcus, M. (1991). Affield-Niemeyer, p. (Berlin). ‘Laughter and its shadow: archetypal symbols and their history, exemplified by a discussion of the recognition of the Gestalt in the human face, in smiling, laughing, and the fear of being thought ridiculous’. Analytische Psychologie, 21: 171-198. 1989.. J. Anal. Psychol., 36(3):393.

(1991). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 36(3):393

Affield-Niemeyer, p. (Berlin). Laughter and its shadow: archetypal symbols and their history, exemplified by a discussion of the recognition of the Gestalt in the human face, in smiling, laughing, and the fear of being thought ridiculous. Analytische Psychologie, 21: 171-198. 1989.

Review by:
Edited Christopher Perry

Merietta Marcus

The interrelated key issues in this paper are: how symbolic experience has its roots in instinctive emotions; how learning the signs in the human face during the first year of life determines the capacity for smile, laughter, and the fear of being ridiculed-and how distorted readings of the signs through faulty phases of learning to read them results in distorted social perceptions and an impaired capacity to use symbols.

Working through the distorted phases in the therapeutic transference, the writer shows in a case study how healing can take place. The work can lead to a capacity for spontaneous shared laughter and to subsequent corrections of distorted social perceptions.

She uses the work of Spitz and Mahler on developmental learning to trace meaningful facial and bodily signs, from animals to the pre-verbal child. She concludes that, if mime development has been faulty, the result is faulty social awareness. For example, if a child has not learned reliably to combine the expression in the eyes of its carer with the shaping of the mouth in that same face, it does not acquire a meaningful Gestalt and can never trust the message. It may well see the grin of death lurking behind each smile and a devouring beast hiding behind each laughing mouth.

She shows a way of correcting the faulty development, through experiencing and surviving the fear of being laughed at, in the therapeutic interaction. The main conclusion the writer draws is that the destructive experience of feeling ridiculed can be turned into health-giving laughter.

The paper looks far beyond these key issues to cover such related topics as: levels of therapeutic regression, linked to amphibian and mammalian animal capacity for communicating through signs; the significance of wild and domestic animals in dreams; the distorted readings of signs by narcissistic and schizophrenic patients and their impaired capacity to play and laugh appropriately.

This wide-ranging paper looks at ways in which signs can become symbols, imitation become personal relatedness. Perhaps in this respect Daniel Stern's ideas are more to the point than Spitz and Mahler's. In The Interpersonal World of the Infant he says that imitation renders form, while attunement renders meaning. Attunement to mother, lover, or therapist is as hard to capture in a paper as the smile of the Sphinx.

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