I am a nerd. This is known.
When self-important people gravely denounce the propriety of mirth in a particular situation, I start thinking about a particular scene in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Power That Preserves centered on the power of laughter. I remember thinking of it, in particular, shortly after 9/11 when there were a number of pundits and politicians telling us “everything had changed” and that irony and mockery was no longer culturally appropriate. I thought of the scene, not because the terrorist attacks were risible; but because of the nature of the sorts of people who meant to assert authority in the aftermath of the attacks. Laughter diminishes a certain type of power. It punctures authority based on social consensus that is not firmly tethered to reality.
The Very Serious People hate that. It’s very, very impolite to notice that the Emperor is naked; even ruder to mention it to others and encourage them to laugh at the Emperor when he is trying so very hard to pretend to be clothed.
Anyway, the scene takes place in Lord Foul’s throne room. Thomas Covenant has just beaten Lord Foul, The Despiser – Soulcrusher and Corruption. Covenant’s friend, Saltheart Foamfollower is still bound in chains. But, Covenant realizes that he can’t beat Foul for good with force alone. Despite can’t be defeated that way. Unfortunately, Covenant is such a broken person he can’t do what needs to be done. Foul also is broken but he’s not dead. His eyes blaze with defiance. Covenant asks his friend, Saltheart Foamfollower whose entire race has been destroyed by Foul to laugh, to “bring some joy to this bloody hole.” The spectral Lords, ghosts of people defeated by Foul who have seen all that they love ravaged by Foul over the centuries are also in the throne room, and they are aghast. They want vengeance, not joy.
With a terrible effort, Saltheart Foamfollower, the last of the Giants, began to laugh.
It was a gruesome sound at first; writhing in his fetters, Foamfollower spat out the laugh as if it were a curse. On that level, the Lords were able to share it. In low voices, they aimed bursts of contemptuous scorn, jeering hate, at the beaten Despiser. But as Foamfollower fought to laugh, his muscles loosened. The constriction of his throat and chest relaxed, allowing a pure wind of humor to blow the ashes of rage and pain from his lungs. Soon something like joy, something like real mirth, appeared in his voice.
The Lords responded. As it grew haler, Foamfollower’s laugh became infectious; it drew the grim specters with it. They began to unclench their hate. Clean humor ran through them, gathering momentum as it passed. Foamfollower gained joy from them, and they began to taste his joy. In moments, all their contempt or scorn had fallen away. They were no longer laughing to express their outrage at Lord Foul; they were not laughing at him at all. To their own surprise, they were laughing for the pure joy of laughter, for the sheer satisfaction and emotional ebullience of mirth.
Lord Foul cringed at the sound. He strove to sustain his defiance, but could not. With a cry of mingled pain and fury, he covered his face and began to change. The years melted off his frame. His hair darkened, beard grew stiffer; with astonishing speed, he was becoming younger. And at the same time he lost solidity, stature. His body shrank and faded with every undone age. Soon he was a youth again, barely visible.
Still the change did not stop. From a youth he became a child, growing steadily younger as he vanished. For an instant, he was a loud infant, squalling in his ancient frustration. Then he disappeared altogether.
In addition to being healthy and good for you, laughter beats despite and it also beats pretense. If the Emperor says, for example, that he can’t describe the precise nature of his clothes but six studies say that the clothes are very fine indeed; you won’t get anywhere by saying that you have better studies saying that he is unclothed. You point and you laugh at his nakedness and, more particularly, that he is pretending to be otherwise.