West Of The Moon

West of the Moon is the unofficial, temporary meeting ground for the members of Christendom's Guild of the Cross and the Quill. Sadly West of the Moon won't be in our future permanent web URL because a number of other selfish people already registered all permutations of the URL years ago without even consulting me. For that they shall pay.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Laughter And My Generation

Laughter And My Generation
By John Jalsevac

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.


Blogger I am soft sift in an hourglass said...

If I stop to think too long about what to say about this piece, I get distracted by how much I agree with it and how much it eeirely corresponds with my own summer. But that's the point of op-ed pieces, isn't it, to make us delve into the ordinary and peer at the formerly mysterious insight or revelation that's been lurking behind our experiences all along.
The most that I can say is that I love this piece; it's relevant, it's sharply perceptive, and it's a dang good piece of stylistic work as well. Some of the images were plain old hauntingly beautiful. All it took were a couple of words to convey the precise image, tone, and implication that needed to be made. Great, great job on that.

The construction is solid. Drawing upon the old commentator's essay is highly effective way to open the piece, introduce the subject and set the tone. I liked how you let the news-bites speak for themselves. Maybe you could give a tiny blurb about who Chesterton is, like a clause or even a phrase. Even though the point is what Chesterton wrote, not who he is, when I put myself in the shoes of a clueless reader I found myself saying "who?" If I remember correctly, Chesterton came close to a complete breakdown before he developed his theory about gratitude and joy (which he did when he wasn't too old - ? I have to review my Catholic Lit Revival Notes, you probably know more about it than I do). I found that an interesting thought to keep in the back of my head as I read this essay.

The entire section about our generation and its manner of drowning consciousness is extremely well put, I thought. The solution proposed, laughter, is a provocative thought/solution in that it shifts the focus away from "what can I say to these people to make them understand how truly sad their screwed up lives are" to "how can I live I my own life and harbor my own sense joy so that I can extend that grace, love and happiness to others." I liked your propostion to avoid being swallowed by the horror; it's a pertinent reminder that first and foremost, we have our own souls to save. I could go on alot longer on the idea but it's late.

My one main suggestion is that you strengthen the last paragraph. I felt like there needed to be more. Not a ton more, just a couple of sentences expounding on laughter, or the effect of it, or why it IS capable of dissolving our generation's barrier of indifference and apathy. I felt like the entire piece was building up to the revelation of this extremely important solution, and that it ended a too abruptly, or rather, with not enough said.

Other than that, I think it's fantastic. It reads like a professional op-ed piece. Have you thought about publishing it "out there"? It's extremely relevant and I think it addresses an issue that's on the minds of most folks who keep on track of the daily news reports. God bless and have a great night.


1:09 AM  
Anonymous Julian Ahlquist said...

I think this article's very Chestertonian. You hit it right on the head when describing the state of mind that this generation possesses and its temptations. Likewise, you genuinely brought forth hope. Your article's very timely and profound. Definitely, send it. If the man objects, I'll deal with him.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Julian. Don't disturb the art...publish it someplace and let it do its own disturbing.

Wow, John. It read a lot better without you talking in my ear. The premise about why we drug and drink ourselves into oblivion seems so very true. I loved it. You should write.


6:34 PM  
Blogger The Dude said...

Writing....huh...I'll think about it. Thanks for the suggestion Jen. I just might do that after all.

Thanks for the comments Julian and Adrienne. Adrienne, I'll see what I can do about that last paragraph. You have this disturbing habit of putting your finger on precisely what I feel is wrong with my work. I knew that that last paragraph needed a little more, I just didn't want to fully acknowledge it because I was afraid to tamper with the piece any more.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Good essay, overall; I think the observations about the roots of drug use, &c among our generation are particularly powerful.

Be careful, though, about asserting laughter as an absolute good in itself. Look at the role of laughter and humor in a lot of modern art, particularly literature and theater - Beckett, Stoppard, Mann, Huxley, etc. There's a good deal of laughter among our generation, too, I think; but it's not a healthy Chestertonian laughter. It's more like a last-ditch response to despair.

8:35 PM  
Blogger The Dude said...

I carefully chose the term the 'true laugh'. It's a nuance, but a nuance that makes all the difference.

However, nuances can be difficult to see, and I think that the remedy may be a little more explanation in the last paragraph, as has been suggested.

Thanks Mark.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Lola said...

Mark brought forth a point I was thinking on after reading this essay. It is a fantasic piece of work, and it was so incredibly relevant to my life right now that it is, as Adrienne put it, "eerie".

Understanding fully what John meant by "true laughter", I just wanted to ask for, well, perhaps a tiny bit of advice! Laughing has always been a huge part of my life, as many of you know, and as I have grown over the past few years, I have found that humor has turned to more of a sadistic method of showing my distain for the world than anything else. It seems that as I lose more and more hope in the government, our fellow Catholics, and humanity in general, I am turning to laughter as the "last-ditch response to despair", to coin Mark's phrase. I am losing sight of what true humor actually is. Now, obviously I have the time of my life with my friends at school, laughing at the randomness of life and the mountains that God places in our paths. After a very hard and unhappy year, school taught me to laugh again. But then I return to the world outside of our beloved Christendom College, and the hateful sarcasm returns with a vengence. Daily news reports, the assault on our Faith, the battles for purity and life on the streets, everything causes me to laugh now, but not real laughter. I laugh because I don't know what else to do to prevent breaking down into a disheaveled heap of misrerable uselessness.

And of course, as it is with all sin, pride is the ugly root of this dissatisfaction with life. I tend to feel like a part of a priveledged few, above the hum-rum, sad existence of humankind. I forget that yes, as Catholics, we are the chosen few, but nonetheless are a part of humanity, serving God by helping our fellow man. But no one wants to be helped anymore. No one seems to care that we're drowning.

And it makes me laugh.

I suppose my entire point in this comment is to ask of you all, Where do I draw the line? Do I laugh at humanity's self-inflicted plight, or simply laugh at the fact that it was self-inflicted, and I am a part of that fate? I end my morbid comment thus.

9:22 PM  
Blogger The Dude said...

Oh goodness. You ask such good questions. I think I'll write another article at some point. I've thought much about this topic, but this particular piece wasn't the place for going deeper into the laughter issue. The central point of this piece was a look at the nature of the disease more than the nature of the cure and as a somewhat provacative means of getting people to think about laughter by just touching on the cure. But I suppose I could actually make it a nice two part thing. Yes...yes....such a good idea. Such a lovely, lovely idea. I think I will. I think I would quite enjoy writing it.

Thank you Wauwa for your lovely comments.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff. Definitely hit a number of things on the head. Also helps make one, at least me, realize how self-absorbed they are.

5:13 AM  

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