A woman’s power is in her laughter – no wonder men are scared enough they want to silence it

Unloose laughter in her, and the angels are in turmoil


If there is one thing theocracies and their variants have difficulty with, it’s laughter. If there’s another, it’s women. Put the two together and the foundations of their states begin to crumble. When the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister made his speech about “moral corruption” last week, calling for women to be vigilant of their chastity, not to be “inviting” in their demeanour and, above all, not to laugh in public, he was invoking an ancient neurosis.

Yes, I know Turkey calls itself a secular democracy, but it’s a secular democracy with God looking over its shoulder, and it’s with God, of course – or at least the Jewish, Christian and Muslim mutations of God – that this fear of a woman’s laughter originates. Let the state describe itself how it will; if it is nervous of laughter in general, and women’s laughter in particular, it’s a theocracy. That this remains the case when the god happens to be Karl Marx, I don’t need to remind readers of Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls and Milan Kundera’s The Joke.

In a wonderful flight of speculative fancy in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera imagines the angel overhearing the Devil laughing and realising what the godly are missing out on. He tries to make a similar sound but can’t produce it. He doesn’t have the vocal register, but more than that he doesn’t have the critical intelligence. “Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good and sensible everything on earth was.”

Laughter, by this account, is the vigorous expression of our scepticism, our refusal to believe that everything is harmoniously conceived, or that a benevolent agency – God or Big Brother – shapes our ends. Which explains why the angel, the cleric or the apparatchik cannot laugh: there is nothing in their conception of the world to laugh about. Charles Baudelaire dates laughter to the moment of man’s fall. Had we behaved in the Garden of Eden as we were meant to, had we settled for being gratefully and serenely supine, as the angel wished, there would have been no reason to laugh. “Man being there inflicted with no pain, the expression of his face remains unchanged. Neither laughter nor tears are to be seen in the paradise of all delights. They are both children of suffering.”

Worth remembering, while we are in the Garden, that the architect of our fall, and therefore the architect of laughter, was woman. Now is it clear why those who would imprison us in unsmiling paradises of delights are so suspicious of woman? Even where she is not the one doing the laughing, she is the instigator of laughter: enquiring, dissatisfied, critical. The age-old insults that women have had to bear – that they are shrews, termagants, viragos, even that they are sexually insatiable – all testify to man’s fear of her power to disparage and discriminate. We don’t offer marital guidance in this column, but is it not a matter of common observation that the partner wanting the quiet life is, more often than not, the man? And that the engine for change in a marriage is the woman?

Now unloose laughter in her, and the angels are in turmoil. “Shame on your immodesty!” they cry, sticking a wig on her, draping her in a floor-length curtain or, to be on the safe side, sealing her in a bin liner. For if laughter denotes a rebellious spirit (we make an exception for that servile laughter that greets comedians on Live at the Apollo), it is also an expression of sexual desire and appreciation. And while a man likes a woman to laugh desirously on his say-so, he doesn’t want her laughing on someone else’s. I am as guilty as other men when it comes to this. As a boy I didn’t like my girlfriends laughing at jokes I hadn’t made, and today I don’t much care for my wife laughing at books I haven’t written. I overstate the case for effect. Of course I don’t mind, really. And being a modern man with no beliefs, I don’t demand that she covers her legs while she’s reading. So long as she promises never to find another writer funny again.

We live, it’s true, in raucous and unseemly times. Only the other evening, as I was crossing Regent Street, I heard the laughter of a thousand women pouring full-throatedly from a single black cab and felt the tiniest stab of disapproval. Let’s be honest: maybe it was also the tiniest stab of envy – for it would have been fun to be in that cab with them – and the tiniest stab of jealousy – for I would have liked to be that laughter’s cause: not the butt of it, you understand, but its occasion. What happened next threw all these motives into still more confusion. The cab stopped at the lights, two of the women succeeded in thrusting their heads out of the same window at the same time, and in unison they shouted: “Show us your willy!”

They did not, let me be absolutely clear, shout “Show us your willy!” at me. I know this a) because I am not the sort of man to whom women shout that sort of thing, and b) because when I looked interrogatively their way, they did not look affirmatively back. Who they were actually addressing I had no idea. There were, in the vicinity, several men young and presentable enough to arouse the women’s curiosity. Ask them what they thought.

What interested me more was the women themselves. Reader, they were not girls out on a hen night. They were mothers, grandmas, materfamiliases. I caught myself tutting. But in other contexts, I remembered, I applaud the unwithered Cleopatra hopping 40 paces through the public street, and praise the gap-toothed Wife of Bath her unfettered appetite. I choked back further disapproval and waved (my arm) in solidarity. So long as there are women laughing – laughing at men, sex, age, propriety, laughing at the very idea that they shouldn’t be laughing – we are safe. From one sort of tyranny at least.

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