Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Trouble with Laughter

I like to laugh. I also like to make people laugh. When I was a kid my brother and sister and I, inspired by a TV game show, would play "Make Me Laugh: The Home Game" during quiet moments. They're both very funny.

Sharing emotions can be a really powerful experience: to laugh or cry or rage together is to declare ourselves in solidarity, common cause, with one another. It's the sort of moment you don't soon forget, the sort of moment you associate with that person or those people from that point onward. We feel understood and understanding when we share emotions. But eventually the way parts for us, and our sense of solidarity yields to an uncomfortable consciousness of our differences.

T. S. Eliot describes such an incident in his "Hysteria," which I read recently and haven't yet shaken:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her thoat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . ." I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.


Some emotions are, simply, ultimately, inscrutable. We can't know from whence they come or why they linger as long as they do. We're inclined to hurry people through their laughter or tears, and then when it's our turn to laugh or cry we wonder why people are so unsympathetic. There's a certain conspiracy of deceit, I think, that pervades all public emotion. We are allowed brief display but taught and encouraged and even coerced to retreat inside ourselves before our emotions have run their full course. To laugh too long, to cry too loudly, is unseemly.

I wonder how life would be different if we were freed of this conspiracy, if we were allowed to laugh and cry freely, if we were taught and encouraged and even coerced not to stifle ourselves but to encourage and support one another through each expression of feeling. It might be chaos, I suppose. But really, it might not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. Not only is crying too loudly a public no-no, but to cry too often, and at the oddest things. To well up with emotion when telling a story about one's children, or to be observed with tears after having seen an amazing double play--these are cultural no-nos. Ursula K. LeGuin made the "easy tears" a part of her portrait of inhabitants of an alien planet in "Planet of Exile" but I have never seen it discussed anywhere else.

2. Don't be a wuss. It wasn't even that good a double play, and if you only KNEW the things your kids do when your back is turned. . .