How Much Humanity in Laughter: Some Final Thoughts on the Chicago Humanities Festival

December 1, 2009 · Print This Article

Guest post by Damien James.

440332661_3621a4b36dI heard all about what made the ancient Romans laugh (an inordinate amount of what were essentially absent-minded professor jokes), where Wittgenstein and Buster Keaton converge, the bathroom habits of insects, and Jewish humor. I heard clips of what is considered to be classic comedy, saw unreal films made and animated by Bob Sabiston, witnessed people actually slapping their knees while experiencing John Hodgman’s charmingly eloquent bullshit, and others share stories about themselves without the least bit of encouragement simply to pass the time while waiting in line to have a book signed.

It was such a bustling couple of weeks that I really didn’t have much time to do any actual and focused thinking about laughter, though. In hindsight and when I seriously put my mind to it (not necessarily easy for me), I began to consciously appreciate just how loaded laughter is, how there is a laugh for every emotion, how easily and naturally laughter is used to cover embarrassment, anger, self pity, contempt, all of which had passed through my thoughts at various times throughout my life, but had never featured prominently for any appreciable amount of time.

Though nearly every event I attended at the festival was enthralling (I’ll admit: the lectures I went to at the Chicago Temple were not easy for me; I was conditioned at an early age to be bored and distracted in churches, largely due to the fact that all of the services I attended as a kid were in Greek, and though the music of the language and the cantors on the altar still send a shiver along my spine, pale English in the echoing cavern of a sanctuary puts me straight to sleep. On top of that, I also have a bit of residual anxiety in churches because, as a kid, I thought I was the Antichrist. I thought this for two reasons. One, being that my name is Damien and I was born the same year that The Omen was released, my older brothers used to sit on my chest and pin my arms down with their legs while ruffling through my hair to find the 666 that they pretended was sure to be there. Two, we didn’t eat breakfast before going to church because communion had to be taken on an empty stomach (Wine first thing in the morning and I managed to avoid having a drinking problem. Up to this point, anyway.), and the combination of no food in the belly and sitting for what seemed like an eternity in the hot airless church would cause me to get light-headed. The color would completely drain from my face, I’d break out in a cold sweat, and get dizzy. At age eight, this seemed like exactly the kind of thing that would happen to the Antichrist in the house of god. I’d have to go downstairs into the bathroom and rest my cheek on the cool tile of the wall until everything stopped spinning. These were some of the easier moments of my childhood.), I simply had trouble sustaining thoughts about laughter once the events concluded. It was easy to be there, to be present, to forget your troubles while listening to some first-rate talent regale you with some first-rate story which, even if it might have been about hardship or of an entirely depressing nature, was still told by a professional, adept in the culture of laughter and humor, someone who just knows how to make you laugh and/or wonder, jaw dropped, at the amazingness of whatever it is they have to say.321732850_b2bd3165a5

But stepping back onto Chicago’s November street of reality, life was waiting, with its debt and collection agency phone calls, with its potholes of governmental carelessness and nightmarishly real robotmonster called Sarah Palin, with its never-ending bad news about teen killers, terrorist trials, celebrity scandals, the capitalist ruling class, holiday consumer frenzies, and who gives a fuck what else. Incessantly. Everywhere. Even the buses bark at you with their ultra-bright animated advertising video boards. (Yes I’ll say it: I’m so sick of advertising. Why is it that I can’t walk through the Jackson red-to-blue line tunnel without being bombarded every three paces by ads for Flip? Jesus Fucking Christ. Is it really that amazing?)

(I actually consider myself to be an incredibly fortunate person in that I have so much to be happy and laugh about. In fact, my life is filled with laughter, these small but constant injections of pure uncut joy which keep me from jumping out the 12th-floor window of my shitty day job. But there is so much data constantly trying to blot out everything that exists apart from itself, so much that just isn’t funny, isn’t healthy, isn’t productive, isn’t real; It’s impossible to avoid and maybe naïve to want to avoid it; but despite that, I don’t like it in my face. I understand that it’s a part of us and not likely to go anywhere, but I don’t like it.)

One of the things brought most prominently to the front of my thoughts while attending the Humanities Festival was humanity itself, in all its excellence and brokenness, as I experience it on the street and in culture from all over the world. When I think about all that we’ve accomplished as a humanity, as a collective force existing in time, I really can’t help but laugh. We’ve done such great things, from gaining awareness of the stars to navigating by them, from defining diseases to curing them, from Harry Potter to Twilight. And the potential for further greatness seems exponentially increased by how small the world has become, by how quickly we can communicate our discoveries, our inspirations, our trials, our hopes. Whenever I see something utterly amazing or mind boggling, I just laugh. Not so much a self-satisfied laughter, but I won’t deny some small bit of pride in being related to what is amazing or mind boggling by sheer virtue of the fact that I am also a part of this humanity. It feels great to be a part of this strange thing, this thing I will never understand.

The flip side, of course, the very dark, drastic, looming flip side, is our equally amazing and mind boggling capacity for self destruction. And though that, too, sometimes makes me laugh – the absurdity of what we destroy and how freely we destroy it, and perhaps more importantly how blind we chose to be to that destruction – our failures tend to inspire deep disappointment, depression, and hopelessness which no broad-smiling and charming politician will ever be able to negate. It all seems so tragic so much of the time, and it’s so hard to know where to go and what to do if you’re of the mind to commit yourself to altering the course of that tragedy, futile as it tends to feel. But humanity seems to be worth it. In my naïve, ultra-optimistic fantasy, anyway.

It certainly takes more than two weeks of listening to people at the Humanities Festival to encourage a little hope in the future, but listening to those people definitely helps remind me of what is at stake: the absolutely beautiful amazingness of humanity. And laughter, though sometimes hard to come by and harder to hold on to, is certainly a useful tool to wield against the end of the world which maybe only John Cusack can save us from.

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