Funny business: Jacobson thinks of laughter as a "portal to creativity" that connects us to a world outside ourselves. Photo: Vincent Migeat/Agence Vu
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Howard Jacobson: Laughing ourselves to life

The Navajo celebrate a baby’s first laugh as a rite of passage, a moment in which the baby laughs himself, as it were, out of inchoate babydom and into conscious humanity.

If I were to give this essay a title, it would be “Waiting for Calvin”. Not John Calvin the theologian, nor Calvin Klein the fashion designer, but Calvin, a Navajo baby whose first laugh I travelled to Arizona in 1995 to film as part of a series of television programmes I was making about comedy.

It’s a nerve-racking business waiting for a baby to laugh, particularly if you have a camera crew standing by in another state, but Calvin’s laugh was as important to my film as it was to his family and community. The Navajo celebrate a baby’s first laugh as a rite of passage, a moment in which the baby laughs himself, as it were, out of inchoate babydom and into conscious humanity. It’s a wonderful concept and grants a primacy to laughter that we, who probably laugh too automatically and certainly far too much, would do well to think about. If it’s laughter that makes us human, or at least kick-starts the process of our becoming human, what does that say about what being human is?

It is sometimes argued that laughter is what distinguishes us from animals, but not everyone would agree that we have laughter to ourselves. Thomas Mann, for example, wrote an essay about his dog Bashan in which he made a claim for Bashan’s demonstrating many of the signs of mirth. And that’s before we get on to the tricky question of internal laughter – that appreciation of ironical mishap or absurd situation that even in human beings doesn’t always issue in a smile, never mind a laugh. Laughter, we can say, is an act of comprehension – whether immediate or arising out of rumination – but which of us can know for sure how much animals comprehend of what they see and how long they go on thinking about it?

It was a long wait for Calvin, anyway, who wasn’t going to rush things just because we were growing impatient. Maybe he liked inchoate babydom too much to be in any hurry to escape it. It was a faint laugh when at last it happened and the party his family threw to celebrate it was a quiet affair. His grandmother gave a prayer of thanks for her grandson’s first laugh in a low voice, not lifting her eyes to anyone. These were shy people. But I took their diffidence to be significant. It helped explain why they have a first laugh rite and we, who think it’s a virtue to have a bubbly personality, don’t. It means that they feel laughter is more than vivacious noise; that it’s an act of entry, a bridge or portal, and therefore momentous.

I choose to believe that laughter is the portal to creativity, not necessarily in the sense of making things but in the sense of connecting to a world outside the self, in the first instance noticing that there is a world that isn’t you. We tend to think of creativity as self-expression, even self-discovery – making a little pile of something that has our personality stamped on it like the word “Blackpool” through a stick of rock. But if that’s all creativity is, animals are certainly capable of it, whether in the matter of disposing of their waste or in building homes in which to rear their young.

Mean something else by creativity, however, mean going beyond the ego of the creator, mean allowing ourselves to be driven by forces we on occasion don’t even recognise, and we are describing something that truly does define our humanity. We all go a little mystical when it comes to describing the making of art. We talk of inspiration, divine sparks, muses. We recognise, in other words, that when we make art we are not entirely in control, that art issues from places in us, or outside us, that are indifferent to our petty interests, ambitions and beliefs. As Calvin’s first laugh demonstrated, what makes us human is the joy we take in looking out; but even more, what makes us human is the impulse to go on wondering where that joy comes from and accepting that we will never know. 

Howard Jacobson’s novels include “J” (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

This series is published in association with the “Jeremy Vine” show (BBC Radio 2)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times