Killing with Laughter

Light of truth

Prema Jayakumar

In the Harry Potter series of books that deal with magic and spells, there are some insights that are true of all times. When frightened by bogeys that take the shape of the thing you fear the most, the children are taught to point their wands at them and say ‘ridickulus!’ and the bogey would vanish. Such is the force of laughter that can reduce the power of the frightening thing to nill.

It is not for nothing that it has been said that ‘One good hearty laugh is a bombshell exploding in the right place.’ Laughter can, with great power, destroy pretension, evasion, masks of good intention.

One has heard all the bromides about laughter being the best medicine, how laughter rejuvenates, how laughter lengthens your life, how laughter makes you healthy and so on. There are even courses that teach you to laugh! However there is no method that is so effective in reducing the value of something, whether it is good or bad, than to laugh at it in contempt. You point your wand at it and say ‘Ridiculus!’ It is as powerful as the wand of the magician in the story. Any great idea, any great movement, can be killed so easily with a laugh that makes light of it. Using word endings that have, in other contexts, a derisory slant, quoting words taken out of context, all of this can serve to reduce the force of a good idea or a grass roots movement that is making some impact. Calling environmentalists tree-huggers is one that comes easily to mind. During the resistance to the destruction of the Silent Valley, the poets and activists who were in the forefront of the fight were called ‘Marakkavikal’ or ‘Wooden Poets.’ A worse insult to a poet than an accusation woodenness cannot be imagined. Feminists are called bra burners. Or liberals, air dreamers. One can recall a number of such epithets to mind, in almost all the languages one knows. Following the epic tradition, names can always be preceded by a descriptive adjective, usually pejorative in the modern context, that clings to the name in the minds of the readers. The very epithets reduce the seriousness of the arguments raised by the individuals so described, by cutting the people down to size, however valid their arguments may be. One doesn’t listen to the arguments, but laughs at the person.

Of course this can also serve as a line of defence against a tyrant or an autocratic ruler. Which is why such rulers have always dreaded the weapon of laughter raised against them. And people who use words to entertain have a way of seeing the shape of things to come. It often surprises one to read a book or see a picture of times past and see how the present is foreshadowed in them. Humorous columns, cartoons, farces, often presage the shape of terrible events to come. It is only when one cares about what happens to the world that one can be bitterly humorous. Jonathan Swift who wrote his sharply critical view of the world of human beings by placing them in unlikely situations comes immediately to mind. No one can forget the stupidity of rulers who fought wars on the big question of whether eggs should be broken at the big end or the narrow end. Possibly nothing reduced the power of Adolf Hitler to frighten the ordinary man than Charlie Chaplin’s movie ‘The Great Dictator.’ The powerful personality of the tyrant is torn to pieces. One can’t laugh at something and be afraid of it. Cartoonists who pointed fingers at the rise of fascism even while governments were struggling to accommodate it were examples of this. Darien Fo, the Italian dramatist, whose farces often point fingers at the follies of the rulers is a contemporary example.

And people remember the comments that came on the wings of a laugh. It was the poet Horace who said, ‘Man learns more readily and remembers more willingly what excites his ridicule.’

Perhaps, this is the ultimate test. If you are afraid of laughter, you have things to hide. If your dignity, your public face will not survive the examination of laughing eyes, you are pretending to be something you are not.

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