Laughing

As an 8 year-old I had the opportunity to take a cartooning class at the YMCA, and I went through the course three times. One of the first exercises was to make a drawing based on specific instructions, such as: “Draw a green diagonal line” or “draw a red circle” or maybe “make a yellow box near the blue zig-zag.” The purpose was to demonstrate that even with the same instructions, we would each come up with something unique, and unlike any other drawing in the class.

Another concept I learned there was that laughter is a defense mechanism. Why do we laugh when bad, violent things happen to cartoon characters? Because we project our fears of suffering and death onto the characters, and watching their comedic pain gives us pleasure. When Týr gets his hand bitten off by Fenrir in the Prose Edda, those watching laugh at his misfortune. It is presumably an evolutionary tactic designed to keep us from entering despair in a harsh world. When things go wrong, we can always feel better when we see or hear of the pitiful situations of others. Tall people can laugh at short people, fit people can laugh at the obese, the physiologically superior can laugh at those who stumble and bump into things, and the inventor of a pun can laugh at his listeners. Every joke has a victim, no matter how big or small the joke is. If we run out of real people to laugh at, there’s always comedy so that we can laugh at people and situations to ridiculous to be real. I wonder if we can measure our civilization’s devolution by the depths into which comedic film and television must go in order not to offend the lowest common denominator…

When I was taking this cartooning class, we were told to create a character. So for each time I took the class, I invented a new super hero. They weren’t conventional super-heroes, but heroes that had something weird about them, so that it was a bit difficult for a man to identify with them. There was an alien who shot beams out of his hands to turn things into metal, and there was a character made out of fire-hydrants, who sprayed water at his opponents. I don’t remember the third character. I think the most telling fact is that it didn’t even cross my mind to make something comedic. I wasn’t interested in telling jokes; I wanted to make a compelling fiction of life and death. It didn’t have to relate to man’s struggle with himself or with any existential threat. It was just non-humans fighting a mixture of humans and non-humans.

So, in a way it was not even in the cards, so to speak, for me to make people laugh by making art. Of course, there were probably comedic moments I created unintentionally, and by 8th grade I was drawing some cartoons that had intended to be funny. But by 8th grade I was also not aware of that fact that I was making this shift in an attempt to provoke a reaction. Even then, the comedic moments would occur within some kind of disaster (for example, a giant chicken rampaging through a big city full of fragile valuables).

Hypothetically speaking of course, what would I do if I wanted people to be weak and purposeless, en masse? If I wanted to pacify a large population? I would keep them laughing, finding ways to nullify their imaginations, by means of panem et circenses, bread and circuses. The Romans had their gladiatorial games; spectacles of degradation and homo-erotic violence that just about any modern would shudder to imagine. People laughed while attending such “games”, delighted to see human beings in a much more pitiful state than themselves.

There is another kind of laughter though, a much more powerful kind: the kind when you meet a new friend or idea with which you can finally identify. A child at play, engaging in a new-found passion in a very participatory way. A piece of art or music or film or poetry that defines something you feel at the moment you see or hear it. These things don’t need a victim, because they are not jokes. They are life, taken seriously. They are lost, temporarily, to those who would rather come up with the idea of doing something crazy, rather than reach new heights and transform crazy into history.

I think that someday soon, maybe in my lifetime, maybe not, the most powerful and significant creative impulses of the world will be terrible, destructive acts. They will tear down all modern architecture, and make a mockery out of the way we live now; our world of hard drink and soft bodies. The dominant Weltanschauuing will turn into one of desperately searching for meaning and timelessness, from which something new will be born. That something new, whatever kind of living thing it becomes, will be serious, hierarchical, oppressive, spiritual, and life-affirming. At least of course, until the cycle begins again…

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” – G.K. Chesterton

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