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One of the difficulties I have with the Scriptures is my inability to see where the jokes are hidden. Jokes are cultural, and I’m neither Jewish nor several thousand years old, so even if the context is explained to me, I’m still sort of in the dark. After all, nothing makes a good joke die of ennui like having some fusty-lipped academic tell you why you ought to chuckle.
Outside of jokes, though, I’ve often laughed out of sheer gladness. When an evening sky shimmers with afterglow, and the final tatters of an outbound weather system blaze blood-red in the setting sun’s last rays, a joyous chuckle is an appropriate response.
It seems to me that the overflow of joy is crucial to our very lives. Imagine the drear of a Creation without it. Everybody has mental markers for when the world will end. Secularists tempted toward Hollywood’s mythology prefer a good nuclear winter, a plague, or a giant rock from space. Church folk often spin elaborate eschatologies out of political turmoil or, in less admirable cases, Dan Brown novels. For myself, I wonder what’s going to happen when there is no more laughter. In a line from a rather well-known Wendell Berry poem, amid a mounting crescendo of homespun iconoclasms, the Kentucky sage throws down a gauntlet: “Laugh,” he commands. “Laughter is immeasurable.” Yes. With all my fear-addled heart, yes.
I think what Berry is talking about here is real joy, unmarred by irony. It is a mirth that stares Death in the eye and grins, knowing that, after Death has had his day, his day will be done. We see a glimmer of this holy elation in children. My five-year-old is good at it. The other day, I was going through some pictures and found one of her sitting at the table over play-dough, sporting what we might call her “crazy Woody Harrelson” face. She looks capable of any stripe of mischief. It’s hard not to giggle over the photo. I feel I have the comic’s addiction to laughter anyway. Even when reprimanding my kids, I often shoot for the most idiosyncratic phrasing.
“If you touch your sister again, I’m taping both your hands to a passing donkey.”
As you might imagine, this does not always make for effective discipline.
“If you get out of bed, I’m glueing you to the refrigerator.”
I can hear the tired steam-release of my wife’s exasperation, but sometimes I can’t help it. It’s too fun to be utterly silly. My favorite dad-comedic-ninja move is the stock-still face with shifty Gene Wilder eyes. The kids know it means tickles are coming, and they flee the premises with piggy-squeals of delight. All this might be too easy, though. Children’s laughter is wonderful, but perhaps we enjoy it because it seems guileless. Children have not, as Wendell Berry says in his poem, “considered all the facts.”
Looking for joy on the other end of life, though, one person comes to mind: Mr. Brunson.
He’s the owner of a Knoxville office park where a ballet studio sits. My wife and kids dance there. The end of every school semester provides me with an opportunity to witness more than fifty children, mostly little girls, do artistic, sometimes acrobatic things that I could never do. The iconography of their work always surprises me. I’m used to sounds and colors rendering beauty unto the world, but this troupe of amateurs and semi-professionals puts the bodily workmanship of the Creator on direct exhibit. It always feels unexpected. In a Daliesque splay of ulnae and tibiae, the girls venture toward the limits of the human frame, lending credence to its masterful Designer.
Most unexpected, though, is Mr. Brunson himself. He’s an aging man, probably in his late sixties. Growing deltas of crows’ feet spread from the corners of his eyes. In conversation, his mouth curls like an elf shoe, trying and failing to hold in a subtle merriment. Unlike the young ladies doing barre exercises on his property, he boasts no Gumby-like flexibility. His body is closer to the Babe Ruth model. While he doesn’t yet seem to have trouble getting around, it won’t be long until entropy takes its toll. Every year, though, he takes to the stage in a top hat or shirt sleeves. Under the gaze of a full house of parents, community members, and lithe-limbed novices, he dances.
It’s a light affair, all told. This past rendition played out to Sammy Davis’s classic version of “Mr. Bojangles,” drawing subtle toe-point circles that hearkened back to Fred Astaire. The old man tipped his hat, slapped his knee, and gently shook an open-fingered hand in the air, coupling the theatrical bits with easy turns and whimsical kick-the-can steps.
It's the one joke that's on all of us—that the whole world is backwards and that even though everything looks like death, life waits inside and will explode at its appointed time.Adam Whipple
Out of necessity, he’s more a grandiose stage presence than an acrobat. His smiling mien falls upon the audience at the measured pace of a sunset. The temptation, for all of us watching, is perhaps to find it cute that he’s even on stage. At a dance performance, we want the spectacle of a grand jeté or some up-and-coming girl doing endless fouettés. Mr. Brunson, of course, gives us nothing like this. For the passing viewer—or perhaps, the passive viewer—it’s too easy to be glad of an old man dancing in a show featuring mostly athletic youth. We are in danger of seeing mere irony. Upon the exercise of one’s attention, however—or one’s imagination—what Mr. Brunson offers the audience is nothing so superficial. It is no greeting-card painting or pasteboard ontology. It is joy.
The line between irony and joy is a teleological one. That is, it’s a question of goals. If you imagine the universe ending in a supermassive black hole—followed by another eventual big bang, in which noble apes and other summations of carbon once again wait for Godot—your laughter and your smile will tend toward darkness. Like the Cheshire cat, the substance of things will gradually fade from view, leaving only an ever-more-alarming rictus grin. You will eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.
If, on the other hand, you see the machinations of a cosmic battle—in which unrepentant evil will be judged by the Lord of Hosts, whose robe is dipped in blood, whose name is written on his thigh, and whose tongue is a double-edged sword—just maybe, if you laugh at all, it will the the laugh of one who knows the endgame.
While I enjoy seeing my children dance, and I love the artistry and pageantry of the production pieces, a grown man dancing in my culture is a treasure not to be missed. The fact that this man couldn’t do an arabesque to save his life makes it that much more worthwhile. He’s onstage grinning because, if you can dance, there is much reason to dance. I don’t see him as cute. Like a supernova, his small, genuine efforts constitute a moment so bright I have to look away at times. It’s so wonderful, it’s almost embarrassing. In these cases, irony is a defense, something to keep me from feeling too deeply. If I have eyes to receive the gift Mr. Brunson is giving, though, I can see the grand joke. It’s the one joke that’s on all of us—that the whole world is backwards and that even though everything looks like death, life waits inside and will explode at its appointed time. The corn of wheat will fall into the earth and die, and from the ground of its demise, there will spring forth much fruit. The setting sun will blaze, the old man will shuffle a little jig, and by the grace of God, you will laugh.
You can find more of Adam Whipple’s work at the arts journal, Foundling House.