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

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.