Monday, October 13, 2014

`A Joyous Surrender'

“…to die of laughter--this, too, seems to me a great euthanasia…” 

Spend a moment with me contemplating this thought. The inability to laugh, or to laugh only as a gesture of social obligation (the robotic ha ha of the cocktail party or board meeting), is an ailment clinically associated with psychic constipation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , fifth edition (2013), glosses the condition as “tight-ass to the max; a real drag.” A related symptom, according to the DSM-5, is habitual use of the acronym LOL and, in more severe cases, LMAO. Sufferers are to be approached with the utmost caution. Seek professional assistance. 

The fragmentary quotation at the top was written by the happiest, most mentally fit of writers, Max Beerbohm, in “Laughter,” the final essay in his final collection of essays, And Even Now (1920). In it, Beerbohm intersects with another vigorously sane writer, Dr. Johnson, who in his Dictionary defines laughter as “the convulsion caused by merriment.” “Convulsion” precisely suggests the involuntary, all-consuming nature of true laughter. Beerbohm refers to a scene outside the Temple’s gate in Fleet Street on the night of May 10, 1773, as recounted by Boswell. Beerbohm writes that we observe  

“…a gigantic old man laughing wildly, but having no one with him to share and aggrandise his emotion. Not that he is alone; but the young man beside him laughs only in politeness and is inwardly puzzled, even shocked. Boswell has a keen, an exquisitely keen, scent for comedy, for the fun that is latent in fine shades of character; but imaginative burlesque, anything that borders on lovely nonsense, he was not formed to savour. All the more does one revel in his account of what led up to the moment when Johnson `to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple Bar to Fleet Ditch.’”

Read Beerbohm’s retelling of what led up to Johnson’s heroic laughter. Here is a portion of Boswell’s account: “Johnson could not stop his merriment, but continued it all the way till he got without the Temple-gate. He then burst into such a fit of laughter that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement…” Clearly, Beerbohm approves of Johnson’s helpless, full-body, undignified fit of laughter. Nothing can be more bracing to witness or experience first-hand. Fortunately, the condition is highly contagious, at least for those without the previously cited immunity. Beerbohm proceeds with a nuanced anatomy of the condition: 

 “There is no dignity in laughter, there is much of it in smiles. Laughter is but a joyous surrender, smiles give token of mature criticism…And you will have observed with me in the club-room that young men at most times look solemn, whereas old men or men of middle age mostly smile; and also that those young men do often laugh loud and long among themselves, while we others -- the gayest and best of us in the most favourable circumstances -- seldom achieve more than our habitual act of smiling. Does the sound of that laughter jar on us? Do we liken it to the crackling of thorns under a pot? Let us do so. There is no cheerier sound. But let us not assume it to be the laughter of fools because we sit quiet. It is absurd to disapprove of what one envies, or to wish a good thing were no more because it has passed out of our possession.”

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