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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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.