Fall 1993, Volume 10.3


Elouise Bell

Who Turned Out the Light in 'Light-Minded'?   And Other Reflections on the Subject of Laughter

Elouise Bell (M.A., Brigham Young University) is Professor of English and Associate Dean of General and Honors Education at Brigham Young University. She received the 1991 Essay Prize from the Association of Mormon Letters for her collection of essays, Only When I Laugh. She spent the 1992-1993 academic year in Hungary, teaching literature at Berzsenyi College in Szombathely, the alleged birthplace of Leopold Bloom's father in Joyce's Ulysses.

I have been listening to laughter. It's not a new preocupation for me; more than thirty years ago, in a graduate class, Marshall Craig asked us, What is comedy? What makes us laugh? Some of us have been wrestling with that question ever since. It's a merry wrestle, for the most part, a romp, and I've learned more than I ever dreamed there was to know about what tickles our funny bones; but just when I think I have the conundrum pinned to the mat, I get thrown.

As I write, I am a stranger in a strange land, Hungary; and for some weeks I have ungone what many exence when surrounded by people speaking a language unknown to us. That is to say, I thought people were laughing at me. Now of course, sometimes they were; goodness knows there are plenty of reasons for risibility, beginning with the figure I cut on my bike. Everyone rides bikes here, but few have as fancy a ten-speed mountain bike, and no one is as inept at starting, stopping, and negotiating genly as I am. The combination of fancy bike and unfancy biker is laughable, even to me. However, though my unly bikerobatics are funny, reason tells me that the good Magyars are, in fact, not laughing at me most of the time. But that's how I felt initially, and that is how most people feel when they hear free-floating laughterlaughter that they cannot connect to words. It's a form of paranoia as common to the traveler as Montezuma's revenge.

Once the paranoia subsided a bit, I could bring a little objectivity to my observations, and, watching and listening, I have learned a few more things. For example, I discovered that the natural votion of the human adolescent is the laugh. Puppies bark, lion cubs growl, ducklings quack, and teenagers laugh. They may intersperse the titters and shrieks with a few words, but the basic call is a laugh. I had suspected this before, but the truth pounded into my eardrums and from thence to my brain in Austria, where I rode the trams when large numbers of teens were aboard. Over long stretches of time (maybe they just seemed long) I heard the pattern: a few words, maybe a couple of sentences, followed by minutes of loud laughter. Another few words, and the extended chorus. Anyone listening could clearly hear that the fabric of their interaction was the laughter; the words were only woven in here and there as necessary to keep the fabric intact. Words served the laughter as wood stokes a fire, as means to an end.

Over the years, I have marveled at the range of emotions laughter can express. I have been fortunate enough, from time to time, to be on the receiving end of laughter as applause, a gratifying exence. Short of a twenty-one gun salute or a burst of fireworks at the end of a speech, I can't imagine any happier response than laughter. Of course I sometimes hear silence when I had hoped for laughs, but just between you and me and the microphone, there is a still more disheartening sound, which is laughter when it's not expected.

I remember the first time that happened: a women's club had asked me to speakon a subject of my own choosing. (The invisible fine print, which I had failed to decipher, read,as long as it's funny.) Since this was a service group of professional women, I decided to focus on a social issue, possibly spouse abuse or child neglect, I no longer remember. The result was as if an audience expecting Roseanne Barr [Arnold] ended up with Barbara Walters. To hear a statement such as,One woman in Amerca is hospitalized every twenty minutes for injuries from spouse abuse, greeted by polite chuckles can stop a speaker dead in her notes.

But laughter expresses much besides amusement. Cordial or admiring, or just plain polite, audiences laugh as a way ofstroking the speaker. Often a person who is behind the podium for other than entertainment (a politician or a visiting dignitary) will get hearty laughs with the flimsiest quips: this good-will laughter is a response to status rather than wit. (Note to such speakers: don't push your luck.) An LDS General Authority speaking to a congregation in Japan was a bit nervous about how he would be received, knowing that jokes often limp after translation; but he brightened considerably when the members laughed heartily throughout his speech. Only later did he learn that as necessary, his transtor had said to the audience, without ever relaying a joke,Now at this point, Elder X expects you to laugh. And they did. Was that laughter hypocritical? Not a bit: it simply conveyed a different emotion than usual.

Another version of such goodwill laughter is heard often when loved ones are reed. Time and again I have watched families gathered at airports for the arrival of a son or daughter who has been long goneto school, on a mission, in the service. In the heart-full moments after reunion, there will be some tears, perhaps, but much more laughter; and the weakest jokes or the flattest quips trigger big, grateful laughs. All that emotion wants to find expression someplace, and laughter is one of the most accepted, most comfortable places.

So I come to realize what a thick lexicon we need to define the language of laughter. From the bark of derision and scorn to the snicker of amused condescension, from the polite chuckle to the nervous giggle, from the belent snort of refutation to the Mephisto-peal of sinister triumph, from the affectionate titter to the belly-born guffawwe have a laugh-hoard of asing range, a redent companion to our word-hoard (as the Anglo-Saxons called the language). We are the richer for this expressive treasure.

But like all else, laughter has a shadow side. On that side, in that shade, lie the knotty questions.

Once at a party, when joking and story-telling were the order of the evening (jokes and stories totally of the PG-13 rank, let me add), I heard a man respond to the chuckling and chortling of the group thus:Not with much laughter, for this is sin. He said it with a pleasant but perfectly seous smile. He was not being ironic. What was his thinking? What was in his mind? He was clearly quoting a scripture, but did he believe it applied in this circumstance? The conservative, middle-aged group was hardly out of control; the jokes were modest in more ways than one; and no one had had anything stronger to drink than apple juice months away from being applejack. Why did he think the laughter required his warning?

Yet laughter does seem troubling at times, and not only the laughter that may be crude, or scornful, or otherwise at another's expense. I remember feeling shocked, and then shocked again at my own prudishness, when, at the pre-funeral viewing of a woman I greatly admired, I heard her adult son (himself a father) laugh heartily, throw back his head and guffaw rely, while standing in the line. What was I expecting of him, some kind of assumed deor, a mask of stylized mourning, some suit of ill-fitting sackcloth and ashes?

The puzzling kinship between grief and laughter is beautifully portrayed in James Agee's novel, A Death in the Family. In the relevant scene, family members have gathered following the accidental death of a young father. The stricken widow and her tender, supportive familybrother, aunt, aged mother, and fathertalk in low, sorrowing tones. The mother, who is fairly deaf, mishears a comment and makes a response that is humorously out of context. Her remark sets off an avalanche of laughter among the grieving family, laughter that rolls and builds and gets more beyond their control the more they try to stop it. Several times they seem to have it contained, but each time it bursts out and engulfs them again. The laughter, though bewildering, is clearly a blessing, a benediction, the release valve that allows their grief some physical outlet, a spillway to run down.

Laughter, then, seems to express not necessarily specificappropriate emotions, but emotion per se. Some people, when very angry, cry, though they wish they would not. Some who cannot weep find relief in laughter. And sometimes laughter seems to unlock tears:I laughed so hard I cried.

None of this laughter seems to melight-minded. Of all the ideas about laughter, that one is the most elusive for me. Just what does the phraselight-minded imply? Obviously, to joke about ormake light of what others consider serious or even sacred is not simply rude but ignorant. I think of the conquering armies from Europe who, after marching into Near Eastern cities, would laughingly take their swords and whack off the noses of holy statues, unable to comprehend the value of an art, a religion, a world-view not their own.

Perhapslight-minded implieslightweightthat is, a mind that can only focus on the lighter matters, that cannot or will not engage topics that puzzle, perplex, or panic. Just as a man will put on alight-weight suit in the summer, when he will not have to brave wind, cold, and the other hazards of winter, maybe those consideredlight-minded are perpetually just playing around, summer soldiers of the spirit.

Some critics, however, definelight-minded as being other than reverent when discussing spiritual subjects. (To paraphrase Daniel Mattis, spiritual subjects include God and sex if you are Christian, God and food if you are Jewish.) According to such arbiters of propriety, spiritual subjects must only be spoken of with seriousness and positive affirmation. To jest, to pun, to parody, to be ironic, to doubt, certainly to express resentment or rageany of these actions would be considered light-minded. Actually, of course, the emotion generating such expression may be anything but light.

And it is at this point that I get uncomfortable with warnings againstlight-mindedness. I cannot avoid an association withlight-fingered, that is, having a tendency to pilfer, to steal. Indulge me while I explain. To my thinking, the only way to achieve intimacy with the spiritual, whatever or Whoever that may be in one's life, is to bring one's full self to the engagement. How easy to say, how hard to do! By the time we reach adulthood, we all have such a baggage of masks, false selves, public images, and designated roles, and such a fettering habit of revealing only the top-foam of the ocean of our authentic selves, that true intimacy is as rare and precious as a miracle.

Those who advise only a sober, reverent approach to the things of the spirit seem, then, to be light-fingered, to advise that we pilfer from the collection plate before it even reaches the altar, to advocate something less than the unconditional gift of ourselves, full measure, heaped up, pressed down and running over. Such logic would seem to argue that only a masked self, only the Sunday-go-to-meeting part of our hearts and minds, only the socially proper persona, is acceptable in this most intimate of all relationships. I once heard a wise rabbi say,Sin is whatever you cannot do with a whole heart. When we will not bring the whole heart to our spiritual life, when we censor and edit and make up our faces for this ultimate encounter, perhaps then we are most truly in danger of being light-minded.

I suggest that in actuality, to be light-minded is to come before our spiritual Source without a full mind, without every ounce of who and what we areincluding our joy and gratitude, our tears and rage, our praise and our curses, our doubts and our faith, and, most certainly, our laughter.