Toronto |

Essay: Bleakness. Laughter. Liberation?

by Alicia Louise Merchant

edited by Emily M. Keeler


The second time someone told me I was dying I was 30 years old. The first time I was 23, but I was living in Montréal then and chalked up the nurse’s proclamation of my impending demise to a breakdown in language. I didn’t really believe it. The second time, I believed it, even though the surgeon hardly seemed credible in his sandals and cargo shorts and a voice most people reserve for children and dogs. I cried, but mostly I thought about getting outside so I could crack jokes with my friend about the indignity of being told I was dying by a man with Birkenstocks and bad breath.


Ten years ago, I was a student in Montreal, 22 years old and living with my boyfriend. I'd been scheduled for a regular Pap test, in order to have my birth control prescription refilled. The doctor was performing the pelvic exam. She pressed down on my abdomen with one hand inside me. It hurt and I didn’t say anything.


A a nurse named Louise called and left a message for me six weeks later, on the first day of the winter semester after classes resumed. They told me I had cancer in March.


* * *

When I began researching the conditions of humour, what it is exactly that leads us to laughter, I wasn’t certain what I was looking for. I think I wanted a blueprint, something that would mark out the essential elements of a joke. Plato believed laughter was immoral, that we laugh when we observe the misfortunes and failures of others, and that laughter indicated moral failings in the person who laughed because it isn’t right to see yourself as superior to others, or maybe because you shouldn’t draw attention to your superiority.


Thomas Hobbes, like Plato, viewed laughter as ignoble, contemptible. It arose, he said, from “sudden glory…the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter, and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof the suddenly applaud themselves.Hobbes and Plato, fathers of the superiority theory of humour, see a cruelty inherent to laughter, see all humour as derisive. This cruelty can be self-directed; we can laugh at our inferior past selves. I don’t know how this works when trying to joke about cancer. My present self is in so many ways inferior to my past self. I have not been improved by illness. But my present self knows more—in that sense, it is better than my past self. What does this mean? That I can laugh bitterly at who I was? That joking about my illness is simply a way of deriding the naivety of the person I once was? Am I so cruel as to mock who I used to be?


This is not, of course, the only theory of humour, though it is one of the three main branches. It isn’t even the most dominant, though it is the oldest. Incongruity theory is based on the thought that “essential to humor is the mingling of two ideas which are felt to be utterly disparate,” according to humour theorist D.H. Monro. This is traced back to Kant who, in the Critique of Judgement wrote,In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affectation arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”


Reading it the first time, I recognized in this idea a simultaneous sense of bleakness and liberation. It reflects the ambivalence I often feel when trying to make sense of the events of my life, the last three years in particular. I am not sure what purpose is served by these attempts. It is all so ridiculous and sad. When I read Kant’s statement now, all I can think is that he makes humour sound so grim. Why is it that laughter is described as senseless and unsatisfying, or mean-spirited and immoral? And if it is either of these things, why even seek it out or try to explain it?


* * *

Cancer broke my brain. A decade ago, chemo brain was only talked about in waiting rooms, tossed around between patients as A Thing that happened, while doctors said it didn’t really exist, that I was just responding to the stress of being ill, or what I was experiencing was cognitive changes due to sudden menopause, the lowered estrogen in my body directly affecting those parts of my brain that deal with language comprehension. This didn’t just affect my life as a scholar, it affected every minute of my day. Simple nouns and verbs were no longer in my grasp. I developed a way of approaching things circularly, especially if I was drunk or tired or trying to think on my feet. I became intensely descriptive when I spoke, when I told stories, because I couldn’t think of direct routes through language anymore. Writing was easier, gave me more time to find the appropriate words, let me be economical and careful. In person, I stumbled about but played my wordiness as a joke when I could.


At a party, I might chatter on effortlessly about the riddles built in to Nabokov’s Lolita and how it could be argued that it was in fact a detective novel of sorts, that Nabokov had inserted clues and connections throughout the text to tease the observant reader into thinking there was a mystery to be solved but that there was ultimately no solution to the riddle; the pleasure in reading Lolita as a book with a riddle at the heart of it was in locating the clues but not the answer. But it was okay because the satisfaction of riddles isn’t in the solution, but in the solving. And then I would realize that I needed something to pour my wine in and would look to my host and draw a circle in the air with one finger pointing down at the palm of my other outstretched hand and say, can I get one of those things, you know, (index finger still drawing a circle above the palm of my hand) that I can put something into, an, um, a thing that I can put liquid in and it would become clear that I was asking for a glass, miming badly and completely incapable of thinking the word glass and people would laugh because it seemed like such an affectation and it was quirky and funny. Except sometimes people would call me out on it, tell me to stop pretending like I didn’t know what I was asking for, and if it had been particularly hard for me to get a request out and my inability to access language was mocked too much, I might cry with frustration because it wasn’t an act. I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was just letting people think that it was a choice.


You say, I have cancer but at least they got it all and I don’t have to shit in a bag, which has always been a fear of yours whenever you’ve gone in for surgery, that you would wake up without continence—one of the first, most basic human things you accomplished in your life—but then you get an infection and this time when you wake up from surgery, you have to shit in a bag. And you say, I have cancer and I shit in a bag, but I just need to get through chemo so they can fix me, and you get through chemo and you wait to be fixed and they open you up but they don’t fix you because you can’t be fixed because there are tumours all over like grains of rice scattered and spilled through your abdomen and then you start the process over again, the chemo and everything and you find out a way to live without a bag and it gives you a feeling of control, it reminds you that you are an adult. And you say, I have cancer but this isn’t so bad, I can do this, but then chemo doesn’t work and you say, I have cancer and chemo isn’t working but at least there are other options, but then there aren’t and you say, at least things are finally so bad that they can’t get any worse, but they do. And that’s funny. Because none of this matches the narrative of illness where all you have to do is stay strong and fight and you will win the battle, and probably have someone fall in love with you at the same time because you are so noble and inspiring. And it’s funny because as long as you can say these things, they aren’t really harming you. As long as you can talk about cancer, you aren’t dead, the threat hasn’t manifested as reality.


I still find myself wondering how to be funny when I live under the sword of Damocles. How to convey the ridiculousness and absurdity of a near-constant confrontation with my own mortality? Words, the cliché goes, are not enough—when I write out what has happened to me and what continues to happen to me, it is hard to find the humour. I am afraid I will not be able to convey the benignity behind the threat of my malignancy. That each indignity described will read only as indignity and the farce will be lost. I am afraid the only laughter I can conjure is the nervous laughter of people who don’t know how else to respond.


The second time I was diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t tell people with a straight face. I would talk to them with a smile spread right across from one earlobe to the other, the way people are said to smile when they are really happy. And I would say to someone who asked, as people do, how’s it going?, that it wasn’t going very well at all because I had cancer and they would say ha ha and I would say ha ha and I would still be smiling and I would say, yes, it’s really unfortunate, I don’t know what my treatment options are and I have to go for surgery soon and then maybe start chemo and then the person would say, are you serious? And I would say of course, who would joke about cancer?


* * *

This text has been excerpted from Alicia Louise Merchant's essay, “In the Face of It,” which will appear in the second issue of Little Brother Magazine on May 1st. You can subscribe here