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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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