The Willard Watch: Garry Wills wonders, "Why is this man laughing?"
"He opens his mouth wide, emits a very loud sound, and gesticulates: that is to say, he is laughing. But he's not laughing like the rest of them: his laughter feels like a copy among originals." (Milan Kundera, not about the Incorporated Willard but about a man he had seen many years before in a crowd, laughing uncomprehendingly and uncomfortably)
"If I have never forgotten this tiny episode it is because it was a brand-new experience for me: I was seeing a person laugh who had no sense of the comical and was laughing only to keep from standing out from the crowd, like a spy who puts on the uniform of a foreign army to avoid recognition."
-- Milan Kundera, quoted by Garry Wills
in a NYRB blogpost, "Why Is This Man Laughing?"
in a NYRB blogpost, "Why Is This Man Laughing?"
Certain behaviors seem always to have come naturally to our Willard, like his now-celebrated prep-school merry prank when, taking on the role of lead jackal in a band of overprivileged sociopaths, he joyfully assaulted and gleefully lopped off the long locks of a fellow student he had decided was gay. Many everyday behaviors, however, seem beyond his capacity even to simulate -- and in many cases it's not for want of trying.
Which brings us to what Garry Wills in this recent New York Review of Books blogpost calls "the non-laugh laugh of Mitt Romney." Garry describes it as "a kind of half-stifled barking," and wonders, "What does it mean?"
It is blurted out as abruptly as it is broken off. Is it a kind of punctuation, part comma, part full stop, part interrogatory mark? What, if anything, is it trying to convey? Why does it seem more like coughing or burping than laughter?
Does it mean: "I know you are saying something critical about me, and I don't know how to answer it, so I'll just pretend that you did not mean it seriously"?
Or: "I want to show I am just a regular fellow, so I'll try out my regular-fellow laugh"?
Or: "I hope you will take what I just said as something humorous, though I doubt it, but I'll see if I can start a laughing chain reaction"?
Or: "I want to change the subject, but there is no natural way to do that, so I'll just throw in this comic rictus as a non-sequitur"?
Or: "The Cheshire Cat could evanesce by leaving just a smile behind, so maybe I can avoid attention by disappearing away from my laugh"?
It's at this point that Garry offers us Milan Kundera's indelible description of an instance of senseless laughing he encountered, as recounted in his essay "The Comical Absence of the Comical (Dostoyevsky: The Idiot" (included in the essay collection Encounter). We've already read a couple of crucial chunks, but here's a fuller version of the Wills citation:
[Kundera] finds examples of humorless humor in the defensive-aggressive response of Prince Mishkin to other people's senseless laughter.
Or he sees it as Mishkin's ill-focused expression of defiance. Or he sees it in a woman's derisive response to Mishkin's inconsequence.
But then Kundera describes an experience of his own. He saw a man standing uncomfortably in a crowd, not knowing what to do, and therefore he laughs when others do, not knowing why they do it but hoping this will make him fit in:He opens his mouth wide, emits a very loud sound, and gesticulates: that is to say, he is laughing. But he's not laughing like the rest of them: his laughter feels like a copy among originals. If I have never forgotten this tiny episode it is because it was a brand-new experience for me: I was seeing a person laugh who had no sense of the comical and was laughing only to keep from standing out from the crowd, like a spy who puts on the uniform of a foreign army to avoid recognition.
Garry wonders if this isn't "the best description of Romney's idiosyncratic barking."
Does he "emit a very loud sound" to put on the uniform of ordinary citizenness that is foreign to him, hoping "to avoid recognition"? If so, he is no more successful than was the laughing man Kundera observed. If anything, such random outbursts just make everyone else feel uneasy. Rather than fitting in, he drives off.
Just as there are people who dismiss the significance of Willard's prep-school bullying, despite the clear indication that it ideally prefigures the "elite attack-pack" mentality that seems to underlie his entire adult career, there will no doubt be people who write this matter of Willard's non-laughter off as irrelevant, like NYRB commenter hedgehog6, who wrote:
The issue of his laugh is a side-show, fair game for pundits and comedians. Does it tell us much else? Is he nervous; is public psychoanalysis of the trait that helpful? I doubt it. It is, perhaps, even a relief that this candidate cannot be as carefully physically choreographed as some others. What is far more disturbing is his persistent inability to connect with average workers, his inability to articulate an understanding of people outside his own narrow world.
The thing is, hedgehog6: Aren't Willard's creepy impersonations of laughter all about "his persistent inability to connect with average workers" and "his inability to articulate an understanding of people outside his own narrow world."