In these dark times, embracing laughter is an ethical choice | Charlotte Wood

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Laughter has optimism embedded in it. It allows us to see that, while we are all human and we fail, we can change

Because we live in such very dark times, Ive been thinking about laughter and art.

If you feel as I do, some days youll see no hope for humanity. Weve destroyed much of the planet already and seem hellbent on continuing that destruction. People all over the world suffer unspeakable violence and deprivation. We in affluent countries seem unwilling to share our wealth with others, and we spend our time and money on pursuits that wreak ever more environmental destruction.

At the same time, those of us in wealthy nations suffer ever-rising levels of anxiety and depression. Australians have the second highest rate of antidepressant use in the world. What can simple laughter possibly do to counteract all of this?

It might seem a trivial thing to be talking about, when the world is in such trouble. You might expect that Im about to advocate fiddling while our planet burns, urging you to enjoy a kind of nihilistic amusement at what weve done to ourselves. But nothing could be further from my mind. The embrace of laughter in our art and in ourselves is an ethical choice that we can and must make; Im idealistic enough to suggest that if we think seriously about laughter and what it means, we might even begin to save our planet.

The first question, of course, is what do I mean when I use the word laughter, as opposed to comedy, or satire, or even humour. The distinction is a little difficult to make but its an important one for me, because I dont think comedy can save the world. I dearly wish it could.

What I mean is something beyond, and broader than, comedy. I mean a sense of lightness, of joy, the sense of possibility that comes when laughter enters a work of literature, whether its manifest on the page itself or merely as part of the writers process. For laughter is a sharp instrument, as it turns out, capable of performing many crucial, and I think profound, functions.

Daniel Lapaine and Toni Collette in Muriels Wedding.

Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Ive been drawn to thinking about laughter lately because for the past three years, since publication of my novel The Natural Way of Things and for the preceding three years during which I wrote it Ive been thinking and speaking so much about anger. That book concerned our societys punishment of young women for speaking out against sexual mistreatment, and it was published in 2015, a couple of years before the #MeToo movement exploded across the globe. It took me a long time to accept my own anger about the degradation of women in our culture. I dont consider that I personally have been oppressed in any significant way, other than in the ways all women are and that is a mark of my privilege and the many forms of pure luck that have visited me through my life. But on behalf of my gender and the inequality we continue to fight, angry I certainly have been. I still am.

It has taken me until deep in middle age before I learned that anger could be a productive creative tool. Creative anger, as I think of it now, is the kind of fury that can be channelled and harnessed. It burns slow and low, as fuel for producing art full of charge and fire and power.

But while it can be artistically productive even absolutely liberating when anger is not balanced with other energy sources it is also, in my experience, completely exhausting. If I want to keep working, writing purely from anger would be impossible.

But more importantly, Ive come to realise that, for me, laughter by which I mean this sense of lightness and pleasure and optimism might in fact be productive angers most effective, most powerful friend.

Laughter as pain relief

Laughter and pain are inextricably linked in life, as anyone who has made a black joke at a loved ones deathbed knows. A friend of mine whose brother died as a small baby tells me that when her father sat the other children down to tell them this horrific news, she and her brother and her father too began to laugh. They roared laughing, in fact. And then they cried.

Just before my own father died, when my siblings and I were teenagers, he told us not to feel guilty if we found ourselves laughing about his death. Inappropriate laughter, he so compassionately told us, was a natural impulse, of which we must never be ashamed.

Laughter can be a psychic expression of disbelief a refusal to accept that what is happening can actually be happening. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

So what is it, this human instinct to laugh through tears? Maybe its a pressure-release valve. Maybe its a psychic expression of disbelief a refusal to accept that what is happening can actually be happening. Or perhaps laughter at terrible times simply releases some badly needed chemical, some pain relief for the soul. Whatever the reasons, of course laughter and hurt are inextricably linked in literature as in life.

When I think of this, I think of Amy Blooms sassy, bittersweet literary voice, or George Saunders tender absurdist stories, or his frolicsome spirit at work in the devastating Lincoln in the Bardo, where ghosts who do not understand they are dead live and yearn in the graveyard alongside President Lincolns lost son.

But its not only in the subject matter of books that laughter can be found but in form and language, even grammar and punctuation. I recently heard the Irish novelist Anne Enright articulate this beautifully, in describing the narrative voice of Gina, the heroine of her novel about marriage and infidelity, The Forgotten Waltz.

I tend to shift tone from paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence, and even sometimes on either side of a comma, said Enright. You get a kind of ironic shift or lift, or you realise something was a bit of a joke but youre not quite sure what the joke was. Gina is full of jokes, which isnt quite a sense of lightness, its almost a sense of hurt, expressed as lightness irony being a kind of distance you have from yourself or the situation. That remove, that disconnect, is not always a joyful one but its quite a powerful one.

Hillary Clinton is greeted by supporters at a town hall meeting in New York during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Photograph: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Enright seems here to be talking about voice itself as a manifestation of laughter through hurt; language itself as a form of analgesia.

Hurt is present, too, in aspect of laughter laughter as defiance, as resistance.

Laughter as resistance

Here my thoughts turn most immediately to satirical writing to dark political comedies like Joseph Hellers Catch 22 perhaps, or Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five. But in thinking about social critique and laughter Im just as likely to turn to Jane Austen, and the way her wit so sharply exposes the injustices of the class and gender restrictions of her era. In contemporary Australian literature, I think of the work of Wayne Macauley, with his strange, black novels about social alienation in the late capitalist era. And I think, too, of Michelle de Kretsers dazzlingly sharp scalpel, and the incisions she makes into privileged, well-meaning progressive thinking on race and class and power in books like Questions of Travel and her latest, The Life to Come.

In thinking about social critique and laughter Im just as likely to turn to Jane Austen. Photograph: Allstar/BBC

Satire is often perceived as a rather chilly art form; some might even say cynical but I think its important to note that the best satire is born of deep idealism. As the British writer Anita Brookner said, Satire depends on strong beliefs, and on strong beliefs wounded. Both Michelle de Kretser and Wayne Macauley have echoed this in recent statements of their own. De Kretser, in a conversation at the Sydney Writers festival this year, raised the adage that if you scratch a cynic youll find a wounded idealist. When I interviewed Wayne Macauley for my book The Writers Room, about the often bleakly funny version of Australia to be found in his fiction, I asked him, Have you ever been idealistic? He answered, Im incredibly idealistic. Thats the problem! If I didnt think about all the potential Id be very different. But I do have idealism ridiculous, ludicrous idealism when I think about it.

Aside from satire, though, theres a less obvious, more surprising form of laughter as resistance, one that I first noticed in the fiction of Kim Scott. Scott, a Noongar man and two-time Miles Franklin winner, is very much aware of a sense of humour as a powerful weapon in his work. Its wielded not as satire but a form of playfulness. I asked Scott about this, about his books capacity for joy even while speaking of monstrous cultural destruction and the most dreadful abuses of Aboriginal people.

West Australian Indigenous author Kim Scott, whose novels include That Deadman Dance, Benang: From the Heart and Taboo, and who has twice won the Miles Franklin literary award. Photograph: Pan Macmillan

This is what he said about the humour in his first novel, Benang: I knew what I was doing. I was trying to make fun of some of the really shitty stuff it defuses some of the hurtfulness thats in there, I think, by playing with it. And it also seemed gutsy to play in that context. It seemed courageous not only because it was difficult to sort of psych yourself up to do that. But because it might also be seen as an unworthy way to deal with nasty shit like that, to play with it. It is a source of such hurt and damage, you know, what are you doing playing? Its not an appropriate response. But it seemed very necessary.

Along with music and dancing two other forms of laughter, Id suggest these bubbles of optimism and joy play out again and again in Scotts work.

Laughter as courage, as taking charge of your own history and pushing back against oppression by saying no I decide what material I get to be playful with this seems to me not only a profound statement but a very beautiful one.

This sense of play brings me to my third point laughter as a generative, creative force.

Laughter as a creative force

Just as anger can be fuel for art, laughter does the same work in a different way. It can operate sometimes as a key change in a dark work, bringing lightness into gloom and providing a balancing energy. I hope, for example, that the darkness of my novel The Natural Way of Things is ameliorated for the reader not only by little blasts of beauty but by moments of comedy and lightness. In this way, laughter can provide a breathing space for the reader, a moment to gulp some fresh air and sunshine before plunging back into the hard stuff.

But there is also, in the creative process itself, a very important role for play, for mischief. Its this form of humour, or laughter, that I think provides a crucial creative energy for art. A while back I wrote a PhD thesis on the cognitive processes of creativity. One of the nine processes I identified in a small longitudinal study of five writers was what I ended up calling overturning or disruption. This process is evident in a writers urge to change tack, to throw a spanner in the works. Its that part of our creativity that behaves like a mischievous imp, moving through a narrative and flipping over our carefully constructed ideas and orderly scenes. For me, this is an essential and hugely energetic part of creativity. It often comes from a sense of boredom with the work as it stands, even sometimes especially if the existing work is perfectly well-made.

There is also, in the creative process itself, a very important role for play, for mischief. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

One of the writers in my study described a kind of rogue spirit entering the work: I reckon the impulse to muck things up is a massively good impulse, she said. When I get that little voice in the fiction, its often the start of the real idea. Its the part of you that wants to make a silly face during a job interview. When that [impulse] comes it can be really good, because you think, Oh, this is digressive and has nothing to do with anything but it actually turns out to be key.

In my own experience, some of the most important creative discoveries Ive made have arisen from this playful, experimental urge to simply poke a hole in something, or blow things up. George Saunders alluded to this urge when talking about the structure of his masterpiece Lincoln in the Bardo.

Speaking of the moment he decided to sample bits of real historical texts, edit them, rearrange them and insert them into his book, he said this: That was [a] moment of excitement and a little bit of transgression something about the almost suspect nature of that got me excited. Ive learned to trust that feeling. If Im being a little dangerous or a little naughty or a little transgressive then I know to go in that direction. I think many artists will recognise this sense of transgressive excitement in the creative process. Its like knocking over a glass of water to see what will happen. Writing against the grain of ones existing beliefs or instincts or knowledge often causes a sudden surge in energy that can turn out to reframe and inform and charge whole works with surprising new power.

Laughter as truth telling

Humour has always been used, very effectively, to puncture inflated emotions or overturn pious ideals. I think the kind of laughter I most enjoy in contemporary novels is that where the characters are behaving badly especially if they are women. In popular culture, representations of women to a large degree still fall into those two restrictive categories so clearly identified by Anne Summers more than 40 years ago in her landmark book, Damned Whores and Gods Police.

In this world, for a writer to encourage good women to behave poorly seems to me an extraordinarily liberating act. One of my favourite writers is Alice Thomas Ellis, an English writer who died in 2005 at 72 after producing a dozen novels. The New York Times described Thomas Elliss fiction as unflinching dissections of middle class domestic life and they are. Often, what shes unflinchingly dissecting is the minutiae of relationships between women.

Another writer I greatly admire is Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Olive Kitteridge, among other books. Strout has said some interesting things about truth and laughter. When she first began writing, for a long time her fiction was rejected. After enduring this for many years, she says, she had a hunch that it was being rejected because she wasnt being altogether honest in her work. There was something she was avoiding writing about. Strouts rather unconventional response to this hunch was to enrol in a stand-up comedy class. In a recent interview, she said shed always known that people laugh at something when its true. In the years her writing wasnt working, she thought, I must not be saying something truthful. I thought, what would happen to me if I had to stand there and have an immediate response from the audience? What would come out of my mouth? It was like putting myself in a pressure cooker.

A sketch of the author Elizabeth Strout. Illustration: Alan Vest

She took the class and the final exam was to perform at a New York comedy club, where she found her comic voice, sending herself up as this really uptight white woman from New England I was just such a white woman and so much from New England that I didnt even know that about myself until I began to make fun of it. I was finally realising, oh, this is who I am. After that, she began writing about an uptight white woman from New England, and her work took off. People laugh at things that are true, Strout reminds us.

The most electric thrill of truthful recognition comes, it often seems, when whats being revealed is something shameful or ugly in human behaviour.

When we reveal the things that show us to be smaller, less worthy than we thought, were making ourselves vulnerable. At points of revelation like these, laughter is a very powerful tool of connection. It allows us to see that we are all human; we are all children; we all fail. Theres a sense of shared relief immediately attended, I think, by a shared forgiveness.

Laughter as a call to optimism

My friend the writer and critic Tegan Bennett Daylight has taught creative writing for many years at universities. The first thing she tries to teach her students is to laugh at themselves. I ask them to cultivate a sense of humour as they write, she told me. In a clear echo of Strouts stand-up discovery, she said, When were laughing at ourselves were being honest about who we are were telling the truth. Theres something profound in this. The ability to laugh at ourselves reflects a crucial flexibility and openness in our thinking. Laughing at yourself means acknowledging your fallibility. It shows you know you might be wrong.

I think this self-questioning is also embedded in a writers capacity for humour, even when its not visible on the page. In this form, the laughter is like an underground river of possibility and goodwill, flowing along beneath the work: you cant see it, but you feel the strength of its current beneath you as you read.

Is it too much of a stretch to believe that this lightness, a sense of the possibility for joy, can allow us to face ourselves, to pause and question our own certainties? It seems crucial now to develop the ability to examine our most deeply held beliefs anew. And to discover that sometimes, were wrong.

I think that if we can do this, we must. If we can overturn an expectation, seize the power to play with dangerous material, if we can use laughter to tell difficult truths and harness it as a powerful creative force, all of this means we can imagine a moment to be different from what we thought it was. If we can imagine a moment to be different, then we can imagine a world to be different.

Laughter has optimism embedded in it. As an ethical choice it is a refusal to accept that what weve already done is irrevocable, that the damage looming before us is inevitable, that the world is unchangeable. It shows instead that just maybe – a new world might be there to be made.

Further reading:

  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
  • The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright
  • Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • Some Tests, by Wayne Macaulay
  • Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser
  • The Life to Come, by Michelle de Kretser
  • Benang, by Kim Scott
  • Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the Bendigo Writers Festival

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