THE ANTHROPOCENE REVIEWED by John Green
At University, I distinctly remember a lecturer mentioning an essay titled ‘Do Dogs Laugh?’. It was a fly-by mention and seemed to have nothing to do with the subject at hand (medieval theatre, I think.) But it was like I’d been stung by a bee of interest. And I’d find my brain scratching around, thinking about laughter while trying to stay awake in other seminars. I hadn’t read the essay: I couldn’t find it in the library, and the internet was not the helpful rabbit hole that it is now. But I kept circling back…How about those dogs though…? Do they laugh? If so, what would they be laughing about and why?
And the more I thought about it, the more I started to think about humans and the oddity that it is laughter. What biological function does laughter serve? A sneeze – that is to do with a nose lining, itch thing? A cough – that is the lungs, shaking off their phlegm? A hiccup – that is the diaphragm, irritated. A laugh though….that is the belly and breath, engaged in… some pretty complicated human communication shenanigans?
As may be apparent, I’m not a biologist. But even I can fathom that laughter is way more than some kind of self-cleaning device.
Or is it?
It’s true that a laugh can be a release. A way to shake off tension, whether we’re being tickled mentally or physically.
But it’s way more than that. Sneezes and coughs don’t bond us humans together, other than in a molecular-virusy-shared sickness kind of way. Laughter on the other hand…It really does spread and at the same time has the potential of acting like the weirdest kind of medicine, including when things get really bad.
My dad joined the navy at 14, and then worked on oil rigs. Unsurprisingly, considering those cultures, he did not talk about his feelings very much. The few occasions he did are indelibly inked into my brain, and this one has to do with shame, laughter, death and survival.
It was 1988. My Dad had been offshore, heading up a dive team in the ‘clean up’ operation for Piper Alpha. Piper Alpha was a rig in the North Sea that blew up horrifically, due to a gas leak and a host of safety failures. 167 of the 228 workers were killed in the explosions. And other divers, including my Dad, were sent to retrieve the dead bodies.
When he got back, my Dad was even more dug into silence and anger than usual. He didn’t talk about Piper Alpha, but his thoughts were clearly making their own web. What he did tell me about, while staring intently out the window at his bird feeder, was this one time when there’d been a fatality on the rig, involving a helicopter and a rig worker. My Dad and another worker had had to stretcher the dead body away from the helicopter pad. “I feel awful,” he said. “We cracked jokes the entire time.”
What followed was this weird, twisting, wonderful conversation about shame, death and survival, underpinned by my shaky teenage theories about why humans might need laughter, to survive. I’d heard the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’, and I was working out my theories that maybe it really could help, when almost nothing else could.
I know from the timestamp of the Piper Alpha disaster that I was thirteen at the time. So it turns out that I was thinking about humans and why they laugh way before I wound up in a seminar room on a campus, struggling to care about medieval theatre. Pricked awake when that essay title snuck through into my consciousness.
I’ve just googled that essay. It is a real thing. Mary Douglas, ‘Do Dogs Laugh?’.
I give the power of laughter 5 stars.
I love John Green’s ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’. I read them all out loud to my husband – sometimes laughing, sometimes choked. I couldn’t get out of my head that I wanted to ‘give laughter 5 stars’. So, this was my mini attempt.