Funny Face

Engineer Pascal Cotte’s reflective light technology revealing a second portrait beneath an existing painting.

1. Often I awaken to the realization that Chelsea Manning was imprisoned, isolated, and tortured for her refusal to be apathetic. That she sat at a military base on a stretch of land along the Iran-Iraq border and became horrified by the video she witnessed of U.S. soldiers killing unarmed civilians as live sport. The truth of all this will never leave me. And often I wonder about the last time Chelsea Manning laughed, and about whom, and whether there was anyone nearby to hear it.

2. One night I gave a reading at Segue Books’ poetry series. Outside, during a break, I talked to critic Michael Barron while a friend took candid photos and smoked cigarettes. Michael asked me how I thought the reading went, and I was genuinely surprised to reflect on it—that is, on the question of how I was perceived. “I don’t know what people thought,” I said, “but maybe I struck a note of melancholy. I didn’t mean to. But there was little laughter in the room.”

Michael had just seen I am Not Your Negro and told me how in days gone by, ideas did not have to be funny, to entertain. The frat-boy soundtrack of political news shows (hosted by a political comedian, the twenty-first century scion of twentieth-century broadcasting), the general gaiety and levity of public airtime, and the slushy tabloidal merriment demanded today are not historical constants. “There were days when Baldwin and Lorde talked to the American people without a trace of funny undertone demanded or received,” I paraphrase Michael.

3. At a silent vipassanā retreat I attended this year there was a POC breakout group. Silence—including meeting another’s gaze—could be temporary paused for retreatants of color so they could hold court with each other. One of the retreat’s leaders, a white man of deep integrity and race consciousness, announced that a discussion space would also be held for white retreatants. It would be called Waking Up White, after the book of the same title. Many people laughed at this. I attributed the spatter of giggles to discomfort, the way some pretend-laugh at mentions of genitalia or ‘lower’ order sexual talk as a mask for psychological repression. But later, at the POC meet, one Asian practitioner admitted how much that “white laughter” had unnerved and angered him.

Laughter—to extend the benefit of the doubt that those not “of color” seem to hold in such incongruous amounts, even laughter evinced from nervousness or discomfort—had that old chalk-board grinding, teeth-chattering effect as outright mockery. Laughter in which we do not co-partake—laugher that is at core unshared—retains a sharpness that prickles and grates. More than “getting on [my] nerves” as temporary irritation, it sticks and uncomfortably glues itself to the mind. It disinvites us from the party, like alcohol, that obligatory social lubricant that repels and bonds to random and sometimes extreme effect.  Like a shibboleth, it decides who can and can’t stay, who can live and who must die.

4. Its opposite is not sadness, but I do find that laughter forecloses the dark and mysterious opacity of richer affects. From Louise Glück’s “The Empty Glass”:

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.

Funny knows only how to fill. Funny fills the empty. And we are scared of the big empty. Reversing the poem’s last lines: “I am at your mercy. I have nothing.” Nothing and mercy are coefficients. When there is no mandated laughter in nothing, there is the possibility of mercy (from Latin merces or merced- “[heavenly] reward”). To take pity, to give thanks, to favor and reward. The empty, unlike the fill, expands and affords bounty to even the smallest of nothings.

“O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was / hard-hearted, remote. I was / selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.” Why do we mistakenly behave as though the void begs for attention, pleads for anything to distract from the awkwardness of say, Waking Up White in a world where not all are afforded that softer road to realization?