I should point out that the two cars that took off from the stoplight much faster than I did will not get to where we are going, which is the next stoplight, faster than I will, but they will use much more gas.
Let me talk a little about laughter: namely what it’s for, what it does, and maybe this time I’ll be able to figure out how; laughter being an incredibly old thing, that like so many things that are so old feels magical; that like so many things that are so old is incredibly powerful–so powerful, in fact, that I am sure that my investigating it and explicating it will not diminish its magic for me in the least.
As a side note there is something I refer to, and I hope you don’t find the name too comical, as the Law of the Forest. It’s something I can’t decide if I should talk about or not, which adds it to a long list of things that are incredibly interesting but perhaps not a good idea for anyone else but me to know my thoughts about.
I think it might be useful to divide laughter into two kinds. I frequently find myself laughing out of sheer joy. There’s no joke; there is no irony; there is simply an arrangement of circumstance that is so pleasing that I am overwhelmed. Taken aback. I suppose because I find it unlikely. And at times like this, laughter spouts out of me. It bubbles up from somewhere in the middle of my spine, curves an arc through the top of my skull, and is a wonderful thing, as it always is, no matter what kind.
I suppose if you wanted to be rigorous you could say such laughter in me only occurs because of the contrast of a situation like that with other situations. But I’m not sure. I don’t know how rigorous that is actually. Good is good. Good does not need bad to be to good. (Good might want bad to be good though.)
I feel pretty confident saying that everyone, each driver in each car on the highway in front of me has had the experience of being mentally knocked down by the beauty of some small thing. It’s funny how unconscious such an experience is. Unintended, non-deliberate. Unexpected, not exactly uncontrollable, but not the kind of thing that you can make happen: rather the kind of thing that happens to you.
And I am also fairly confident that if each of these drivers were to recall such a moment, where the just immeasurable beauty of some small thing stood out to them, however, briefly, they would understand that it required no negative experience to create that experience. And so based on this, what I guess is my own philosophy, I will say that there is laughter that is pure, and joy that is pure. Without side effects. Without negative consequences, or causes.
But more frequently laughter is a singularity (in the mathematical sense of the term– is there another?). A discontinuity. A place where one thing becomes another, in a space we cannot measure. I wonder if as you read this you are beginning to see how much chaos is in an idea like that, and it is more than an idea. It is a real thing, that we do everyday.
And beginning to understand that when you fold that much chaos up into a few seconds of weird noise, you are in fact dealing with something incredibly powerful. And, I don’t want to say strange, but different.
It is alchemy.
I remember being a teenager, writing a few letters on paper, maybe two, maybe one and a number: 1 over x. I don’t know if it was the teacher who was so good or just the fact of it. I had never seen anything like 1 over x before. The leap forward that my mind took to know that such a thing existed was huge. “I have encompassed the world! All of the good in it! All of the bad in it! With three marks on my paper? The largest possible thing I can imagine and the smallest? Somehow– in inversion?– I’ve covered everything with three marks on my paper?!”
That Is EASY! That is what I mean by easy. We do not have to march, and trudge, and chip our way through granite: we just have to twist. And the big problems become small. Progress can suddenly be made. And if what was so large rises again into difficulty, simply twist again.
So the second kind of laughter: someone wrote it in a book that we only laugh because things are terrible. They were halfway there. We laugh in the differential space between the terrible and the wonderful: not the big gaping space that defines them, but another one–a space that I’m not sure without laughter we’d know exists.
There’s nothing wrong with that long path that connects these extremes, but there is also this short path, that finds the infinite good by heading towards the infinite bad–like wormhole.
Have I been quite plain? Have I said my point here directly?
That we laugh at things because we can see how the terrible lines up with the wonderful when just a pinch of absurdity is added, that coincidence becomes clear.
I’m thinking of children’s jokes: what do you call an alligator in a vest? It’s a play on words, right? The answer will be close to the words in the question. But the idea of an alligator in a vest is a little bit absurd.
So in a kid’s joke like that, you can see without any horror having to be part of it, this near-alignment.
The answer is “An investigator!”
And if you want to observe yourself, as an experiment, you’ll probably find that your emotional response to such a joke is a very innocent kind of horror: this little wormhole of coincidence taking you from the space of innocent childhood jokes, and games and thought–to somewhere not quite as nice? You feel wronged, somehow, after hearing a joke like that. Very quickly, just for a second, it took you on a trip from a good one to a bad one, and you didn’t mind–much, maybe? The bad one almost isn’t real, but we feel it, and we groan.
I’ve ruined the word alligator for you. I’ve created a little path, in your brain, from an alligator to an alligator in a vest, and from an alligator in a vest to an investigator. That’s probably not a path you knew you wanted, but there’s not much you can do about it now. It’s there, and it will stay. And I’m sorry–almost–because you might have had some different–I mean, you can say better– associations with those words before, that are now going to have to take a backseat sometimes, to mine.
Side note: jokes don’t work when they are not true. if I told you an alligator in a vest was a Copernicus, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. In this case, you are more likely to feel pity for me than to groan. And I understand. I’ve failed to make that connection.
It’s like what happens when I try to shoot a rubber band at anything. It just falls off and lands in my lap. I’ve never been good at that: someone even showed me how you can put it on your pinky and wrap it around your thumb to your pinky, but still, it has no effect; it’s just going to fall off my hand and into my lap. And
So this should be enough said, right?I’ve been so direct. The case of adult humor should be obvious: which is beautiful; which is a wonderful thing, because your surely your explanation of it to yourself will be much better than my words. Surely what you’ll take away from the idea when you root it in your own experience and shake it around a little bit will be so much more than my lecturing.
Why is it important that we laugh? It is not for our emotional well-being.
It is not to maintain our mood.
It is not to release a chemical in our brain.
We have to remember that thought is real. I’ve said it many times: how we think, our thought, is our actions. So it is real, and it is very important. We dismiss it–we think it is involuntary, to think! We think we only do. But we do, because we thought first, whether we noticed we were or not.
All of the problems of the physical world are problems of thinking. Some thought is their solution, and in some cases also their cause.
And so when we laugh, at the horrific, we are solving a problem, directly, in perhaps the most rapid and effective way that anyone could. And we do find–going back to supporting my thesis–evidence that I hope you’ll make for me: that the problem we laugh at is concretely smaller afterwards; that we problems we don’t are not.
There is infinite inspiration in that graph between the bottom of the graph and the top of it. ALL of the ideas are there. All of the solutions that seem unreachable when you are hovering somewhere around the x-axis are in that gap. When you thread your needle with some wit, or childishness, and make that connection, although you might land quickly back down where you started, or almost, YOU NEVER COME AWAY EMPTY HANDED. That lateral left turn your thinking needed might suddenly be visible there.
You know, I did a lot of work on my house. I stained and varnished things; I patch drywall that wasn’t actually drywall; I contorted myself into strange shapes so that I could reach things in corners under the eaves; I blew up some plumbing.
I worked on it, non-stop, when I wasn’t working for money, for two years straight. So much of my thinking during that time was trying to figure out how to fix that house: what’s first, what’s sec on, what’s most efficient; what labor is involved, what supplies to I need; can I fold these trips to Home Depot together into fewer, etc.
The best way I think I can describe it is that I just crouched under the labor of it all, smashed almost by it. It’s a big house. And I tried to console myself, one room at a time: “If I keep going, I have to finish.” Which works, as long as nothing new breaks.
But there were maybe half a dozen times in those two years where I would wake up early in the morning and while drinking my coffee realize that something, some big task I was preparing for didn’t need completing at all. “It’s fine as it is! People like looking at a ceiling that looks like that!” “Having a hole there is interesting,” and “I can always run an extension cord if I need to plug something in.”
These are the best kind of repairs: the ones you never do. Because you don’t need to. And there’s something hysterical about them all. “No one will ever look there.”
Now there were man more times although not enough if you really want to be a perfectionist–but there were many more times when I would wake up early in the morning and realize that whatever it was that I was dreading working on that day didn’t need to be done–yet. It would need to be done, but there would be a time in the future when doing it would be more appropriate and much much easier. Perhaps even so easy as someone else doing it.
These are also good repairs. Not quite as funny. But still good. I bring this up to bathe for a moment in the sensation of being finished with that house. Although I miss having no floor, and a toilet in the kitchen.* But also as an example of the two kinds of paths I have been talking about here: the hard way and the easy way you could call them, although I don’t like those names. Because sometimes the hard way is the right way, which makes it easy.
I really want people to have this easier way, that comes from understanding. It brings so much joy with it. So I go over it again and again and maybe I will even go over it more. It was not an easy thing–well, actually it was–I was going to say that it was not an easy thing to add to my life, but it was, no joke.
It’s just not always easy to remember that it is there.
I just missed my exit. The GPS doesn’t seem to care. It’s showing that I am not where I am supposed to be, but not saying anything about the fact that I’m not, particularly not anything that would help me levitate over the jersey wall between where I am and where I should be.
*It wasn’t connected.
It took me way too long in my estimation to learn that what sad people need is to be made fun of.
Around the same time I first saw 1 over x I think someone tried to make me read war literature. I hated it, I didn’t get it. Why were we talking about people dying in mud. Not til much later did I understand that increasing the number of minds that contained this image was a real and effective way to decrease the number of bodies that would experience it.