Offbeat 22 April 2016
Memories of childhood seem more vivid. I think that’s a function of the novelty of just about everything, way back then. The particular memory I am exploring is a tent at a school bazaar. The lawn is green. The tent is white, large. The old guy outside takes 10 cents for a short movie, 15 cents for a longer one.
The projector is almost as old as the movies themselves, black and white Charlie Chaplins, and Laurel and Hardy reels. I can’t remember sound. I can remember the clicking and whirring of the projector. I remember absolute absorption. Movies were special then. That was before television showed up. At that stage the Saturday matinee was the magic moment of a week or a month.
I can’t remember laughing, but I can remember absorbing those movies with every single rod and cone in my eyes. Movies were rare, and the unexpected find of the tent was not an opportunity to be missed. I devoured those moving images like a human trying to fatten up before a long, lean winter. Maybe it was some kind of an addiction. There’s an unpopular neurological theory about the release of dopamine induced by moving images.
The idea that strikes me most is the absence of laughter. Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy, are supposed to be funny. I suppose they were, just the moment was different. I have since laughed to tears at things like Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, Will Ferrell, Black Books and one volume of Justice League America, which I cannot find anymore. I also laughed when I discovered the beauty of the square on the hypotenuse, a different kind of euphoria.
The thing that strikes me is I don’t laugh much anymore. It seems like I am turning into a serious person.
The roots of laughter seem to lie in several places. Obviously laughter can come with joy, and it can come with cognitive dissonance, the weird differences between this and that, when things fit together but don’t. And then there’s the huge element of relief.
Let me explain it this way. There is a Buster Keaton movie which, if I remember correctly, is one in which he builds a house. At the end, after a series of clever collapses, the front of the house falls on him. The expectation is a Road Runner cartoon ending. Call it a splat. He is not splatted though. We discover that the window fell around him, and he is left standing.
There is relief that he isn’t killed, which leads to laughter. There is also a different kind of relief, that the series of disasters isn’t happening to us. These two types of relief compound one another to become riotous laughter, or at least they did when I watched it. The root of that scene is fear, so let’s revise the idea that led to this point, and call fear the primary source of laughter.
There are echoes of this in a memorable 2000AD comic panel, in the Slaine series. ‘What is laughter but slaughter without the S?’ I am not sure if that particular idea comes from further back than that moment, but it repeats in one of the recent Batman movies in a scene where the Joker has daubed it on the side of a truck.
Following the technique of sophistry, laughter derives from slaughter, the fear it induces, and relief at its absence.
I realise that the absence of laughter in my life is partly derived from the knowledge that slaughter is not fun. The development of my mile-wide spiritual streak hasn’t led to relieved laughter in the pain of others, so that has made laughter difficult now. After years of populating a news site, day-in, day-out, I can absorb horror, I just can’t laugh at it.
Perhaps I have become numbed to fear and as well. There is only so much of any one emotion that can be absorbed before it becomes numbed.
Or perhaps it is that there is not so much funny stuff anymore. The new brand of comedy is so politically correct and sensitive that it makes falling over a cat feel insensitive.
I remember the huge sense of happiness when I figured out the square on the hypotenuse. I should go back to the maths books, and find euphoria there. It feels safer.