Laughter And My Generation
Tonight I sat at my computer and read endless, endless numbers of news articles; and as I did I happened to stumble upon a certain essay. It was written during the Cold War and I read it with increasing trepidation. It is a famous essay, a devastating essay, and I believe is still often read for having given a potent written form to the apocalyptic mind of the Cold-War generations.
On the news that night, said the essayist, the respectable-looking, facts-at-his-fingertips newsman said that with proper preparation maybe the Soviet Union could only kill 40 million Americans with their nuclear bombs. They could kill only 40 million instead of, say 80 million, if Americans were only prepared to flee out of the cities to the countryside in time, and then there would be enough Americans left to retaliate, enough, perhaps to annihilate the Soviets.
“If I were sixteen or seventeen,” said the essayist as the mournful beauty of the essay reached its despairing crescendo, “and I had to listen to that, or read things like that, I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.”
But I don’t think he went far enough; I think he stopped short of what he should have said. I think what he should have said is that if he were sixteen or seventeen he would be twisting and turning to rid himself not only of language but of thought altogether; of the very ability to think. I desperately believe that to be most accurate he really should have said that he would be twisting and turning to squeeze out of the tight, claustrophobic scales of his self-awareness, if he was sixteen or seventeen and had to read and listen to things like that.
I myself was reading the news tonight. “Al-Quaida nukes already in United States,” said the headline. “Bin Laden's goal,” said the news, “is to kill at least 4 million Americans, 2 million of whom must be children. Only then, bin Laden has said, would the crimes committed by America on the Arab and Muslim world be avenged.”
“China is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the US if it is attacked by Washington during a confrontation over Taiwan,” said the news tonight. “China now has the full capacity to strike the United States with missiles with nuclear warheads.”
“At least 50 people have been killed in suicide bombings in London,” read another headline. “The West is on high alert with information that there will be more attempts in the coming weeks.”
Some short time ago as I neared the end of a mildly tumultuous teenage-hood and I thought things over I decided that instead of the anger or melancholy of my adolescence I was going to make the laughter of my childhood my new creed. Chesterton made me do it. After frantically imbibing as much of Chesterton as even the strongest disposition can handle, I realized that his was the ethos of laughter. I also concluded that the ethos of laughter is the one that holds the greatest power and is the most reasonable in a world infected with fear; in many ways Chesterton himself, I realized, was the embodied words of St. Francis, who Chesterton quotes in The Meaning of Crusade. "Shall I, the gnat that dances in Thy ray, dare to be reverent?" Personally I have come to consider this one of the most insightful things said by a man. So, I decided that the greatest thing that I could offer the world, and what would be the greatest praise I could offer my God, would be to be cheerfully and lovingly and humbly irreverent; I would laugh.
But now, as this long, long, hot summer progresses towards its end something has changed. It has become a part of my job as a journalist to be well informed. Every day it is part of my job to read dozens and dozens of news articles; this was never the case before. I have never been ‘well informed’, at least in contemporary events, before.
I don’t have to speculate like the cold-war essayist did. I don’t have to say, “If I was sixteen or seventeen.” I am twenty. There is so little difference between twenty and sixteen or seventeen. I adequately represent the youth of generation ‘X’, and even some of the next generation below mine.
As my mind and my store of experiences grows I find my tenuous personal peace being repeatedly shattered by the force of crashing revelations that I wouldn’t ever have expected to have. This summer--with information and events throughout the world constantly pouring into my mind--has been rammed with such intrusive revelations. I, just like the rest of my generation, am undergoing the difficult process of gradually growing into and coming to grips with the inexplicable world and the particularly inexplicable historical age into which I have been abruptly placed and ordered to get along in. But, though I desperately want to live the ethos of laughter that I once professed, instead to my chagrin I am now gripped by the ethos of fear. I find this a curious and terrible thing; because I thought that Chesterton and the saints had finally taught me the greatest and most enduring lesson of my life. I thought that maybe nothing in the world could make me stop laughing, not even death. And if I have stopped laughing, how much more so the rest of my poor, disillusioned generation?
Sometimes now when I read the news I find myself twisting and turning to shake off thought; tonight is one of those nights. Tonight I see the bombs strapped to the bodies of strong, young Arab men, and I see Chinese and American and British missiles peacefully slicing through the air hundreds of miles above the earth; I see terrifying explosions in New York, in London, in Beijing, in Paris, in Paris, in Paris. In Washington, in Moscow, in Los Angeles. And sometimes I am hit with the temptation to consume bottles of pills; I think that maybe I should be smoking up; shooting juice into my thirsty veins and gasping brain; indiscriminately folding myself into the ecstatic pleasure of others’ bodies; losing myself in the non-intelligence of sensual ecstasy through whatever means available—just like the rest of my generation is doing. I think that I should be squeezing out of thought altogether, not just reading and listening; that I want to squeeze out of thinking, to shed that rotten skin.
A number of weeks ago I attended a large party; in the midst of the natural intoxication of that sweet summer night a dozen boys and girls of about my age sat around a table and passed around a large, potent Marijuana joint. And they drank, they drank with a curious, ravenous desperation, lifting the bottle to their lips as though every sip of its contents was vital to their continued existence at that precise moment. I was sitting on the subway a few days ago on my way to work and I heard a group of students of about my age discussing the various anti-depressants and drugs that have been prescribed to them. A news article from several days ago said that stats show there is an increasing and disturbing trend of so called pharma-parties, where teens are getting together and exchanging various legal prescription drugs with one another and experimenting with them.
This is my generation. My generation twists, and they turn and they squirm; they’re not listening, and they’re certainly not reading and most of the time, if they can help it, they’re not even thinking.
The night of that party I listened to the hollow, hyenic laughter of the drug stuffed scarecrows that sat around that table and its sadness made me want to weep. “They have made laughter lonelier than tears.” How do you reach that? What can you say to them to make them think that maybe thought can show them a far deeper and more fundamental joy than their false and empty ecstasy?
Laughter must be the answer. It occurred to me that night that perhaps, even as my friends were lost within their languishing drug-induced trance, maybe if they heard the deep, welling, joyous, consciousness-smashing laughter of a saint, perhaps that would serve to cut through the layers upon layers of walls that they have constructed around their minds. Perhaps, just perhaps, that kind of a true thing crashing into their world of illusions would collapse their house of cards; perhaps it would startle them and make them stop and listen for even just a moment; perhaps then they would know the hollowness of their own attempts at laughter and would catch a vital glimpse of the deep joy of the saint.
A true laugh may be the world’s quickest theological lesson. Unless we learn the joy of our faith then we are good for nothing. I tell you that my generation no longer wants to listen or read, or think. It is squirming and twisting and turning to stop itself from thinking. It wants nothing to do with thought; it looks on thought as an enemy. The true laugh may be the only theological lesson that this desperate generation will listen to; it may be the only theological lesson that can be delivered and listened to in the simplicity of their own language. And for this reason I will soon learn to laugh again.