Today I read the words of my title in a new book by John Berger, entitled Confabulations. He is a great master of writing, and more than that, of understanding. He has written splendid novels, searching essays on visual art, and incisive provocations on politics. He is now quite old, but he continues to communicate the wisdom he has discovered.
If you haven’t read him, you’re missing one of the great thinkers of our time.
The phrase I’ve stolen occurs in an essay on Charlie Chaplin, which I enjoyed because in my family I’m always having to defend him against people who prefer Buster Keaton. The full version of the phrase is: “in Chaplin’s world, laughter is the nick-name of Immortality.”
Berger relates the flowering of Chaplin’s comic art to a childhood in which he learned the great lesson of poverty, that you can expect to be humiliated time and time again, and you probably won’t be be able very often to get revenge. So you have to learn to bounce back up, to dance, to weave around the bully a spider’s web of impossibly delicate scorn, to be repeatedly resurrected as the same indomitable victim, turning rage into an improbable laughter.
You can see why that laughter, which expresses the intelligence and courage of the victim and pricks the balloon of power, you can see why he calls it the nick-name of immortality. It has of course nothing to do with the casual and brutal laughter of normal comedy, which often mocks the victim, but is more akin to the ancient tradtion of the fool, who is the only one at court allowed to speak the truth to power. But these are licensed jesters, fed by the same bullies they mock. There are however the geat unlicensed jesters of history, such as Aristophanes, who pointed out 2500 years ago exactly how women could stop war. (Guess) Or Diogenes who lived in a tub and told Alexander the Great to get out of his sunlight. Or St Francis, who by having nothing saved his church from ruin while undermining its institutional corruption. Or Jesus who joked that you could stop war easily by loving your enemy, and that if you liked the great gulf between yourself and the poor, you would find yourself on the wrong side of the great gulf between heaven and hell, where your ass would be fried.
This profound wit that knows the weakness of power and the power of the weak is completely without shallow optimism: it knows that wars will continue, conquerors will throw their weight around, the wealthy will exploit the poor, comedians may end up on crosses. But that doesn’t shut it up, as it continues to point to the emperor’s nakedness, and to punch holes in the fabric of oppression so that the light can get in. Even perhaps to punch holes in the fabric of death, so that the life can get in.
Yes, above all it knows that life does get in, that is it gets into us poor creatures so that we can rediscover the ordinary miracles of life around us, in the curious cocked head of the jackdaw that walks on my neighbour’s roof, in the choked voice of the widower as he speaks about his wife’s scolding, in the way the teenaged schoolgirl pulls the ear of the boy who was patting her rump, in the quick hands of the mechanic who puts new tyres on my car, in my joy at the prospect of seeing an old friend on Sunday, these mortal things that are nevertheless the stuff of eternity, when they are liberated by laughter.