Play's the Thing

‘Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation’ by Nuar Alsadir


A POET AND a psychoanalyst walk into a bar. That sounds like the setup to a joke, but really, it’s a scene from Nuar Alsadir’s enthralling new book, Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation, and, in this case, the poet and the psychoanalyst are one and the same: Alsadir herself.

In this expansive and erudite meditation on the relationship between laughter and basically everything else, Alsadir interweaves both of those strands of her identity—along with many more, including her experiences as the daughter of Iraqi immigrants and as the mother of two daughters—to explore what laughter can reveal about our deepest selves and the reality that surrounds us. On the very first page, she quotes George Orwell: “A thing is funny when—in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening—it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

From there, she lets the reader ride her waves of thought, considering the ways in which this revolutionary power can be manifested in environments as diverse as her studies in a clown class at Yale University to broader contexts of activism and resistance such as those described by John Lennon:

When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you—pull your beard, and flick your face—to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is nonviolence and humor.

Or, as Alsadir puts it shortly thereafter, “By behaving spontaneously, in line with our instincts, we have the potential to provoke ourselves—and others—into possibility, whether its personal, poetic, or political.”

In the associative style of Freudian talk therapy, Alsadir riffs to her audience on an astonishing array of people, topics, and theories—from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Primo Levi, from the Still Face Experiment to Audre Lorde, from the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings to Martin Heidegger, from Sarah Silverman to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—all in the service of examining how the human activity of laughter is inextricably connected to our conscious and unconscious minds, our physical bodies, and our body politic.

Although she deliberately avoids a clear plot, throughline, or thesis, Alsadir comes across as rhetorically persuasive on page after page. Proceeding by the method of unexpected leaps and pleasing juxtapositions, she makes the convincing case that humorous ruptures and the laughter that accompanies them stand—if they are honest—to divulge a great deal about who we are, how we live, and what we desire.

Over and over again, she shows that what makes us truly laugh also has the capacity to expose hypocrisies and falsehoods. Writing of Sascha Baron Cohen’s personae—including Borat, the supposed journalist from Kazakhstan—she notes how deftly these figures can draw “real people into fictional scenarios they believe to be nonfictional in order to reveal their genuine—perverse—feelings and beliefs.” In the summer of 2020, Baron Cohen infiltrated a conservative rally against Covid-19 restrictions in Washington State, leading them in a singalong designed to expose “the extent to which the ‘rights’ the protesters were defending were entangled with the infringement on the rights of others” (e.g., “Chinese people, what we gonna do? Nuke ’em up like in World War II,” and, “Journalists, what we gonna do? Chop ’em up like the Saudis do”), until one of the organizers recognized the prank and unplugged the sound system.

ALSADIR IS THE author of the poetry collections More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012) and Fourth Person Singular (Pavilion Poetry LUP, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in England and Ireland. Just as her style resembles therapy, so too does it resemble poetry, utilizing repetition and surprise to advance her ruminations. She crafts her book from patterns and variations, though it is also intellectually rigorous: she tells stories and also quotes experts, calling back to them as the book progresses.

If the book can be said to have an overarching mission, it is arguably to help the reader regain awareness of what the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott refers to as the “True Self,” a self that manifests in the spontaneous gestures of human infants but that begins to transform by necessity into a False or “socialized” self as the baby grows up. Both Winnicott and Alsadir argue that one way to reaccess the True Self is through unrehearsed, impetuous play, play in which we don’t worry about other people failing to affirm or accept us but to which we can simply abandon ourselves. Early on, Alsadir puts forth the concept of “addressivity” as defined by the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, a phenomena in which, right before we speak, we project ourselves into our listener, envisioning how they’ll receive what we are about to say and then tailoring our communication to those expectations. Addressivity is the reason why “you can feel connected speaking with one person but talk about the same thing in the same way with someone else and feel like a fumbling bore.” Perhaps addressivity illuminates why I, as one particular reader, felt absorption and pleasure in the style and structure of Animal Joy. The book was a game that I wanted to play, a back-and-forth that felt invigorating and real. The addressee of which Alsadir appears to conceive is smart and curious, sophisticated and patient, quick-witted yet eager to slowly reflect—qualities that feel potentially true but also aspirational, as if she thinks her readers are going to bring their best selves to the task of reading her words, a belief which might, in turn, encourage those selves to be present.

At one point, she recounts how, during her time studying at Oxford University, she was so keen to get to know her fellow students that she came on too strong, peppering them with icebreaker-esque inquiries. Finally, one of them told her, “Here in Europe, when we try to get to know someone, we don’t ask questions. We enter into conversation and get to know a person by the way they think.” Alsadir admits she doesn’t know if this is, in fact, the European way, but that getting to see the movements of a person’s mind can be captivating. Watching the motion of her mind across her capacious subject matter is captivating as well, for we get to know her not by the questions we might want to ask (What do you do all day? Who do you love? Why did you write this book?) but by simply spending time with her as she thinks on the page.

The book is full of witty but subtle touches. For instance, she titles her bibliography not “Works Cited” but “A Shrewdness of Thinkers and Feelers.” And the thoughts and feelings she cites from them are indeed shrewd, as when she quotes Joseph Brodsky as saying that in a poem, “you should try to reduce the number of adjectives to a minimum. So if somebody covered your poem with a magic cloth that removes adjectives, the page would still be black enough because of nouns, adverbs and verbs. When that cloth is little, your best friends are nouns.” Because adjectives call up prefabricated judgments in the mind of the reader rather than letting them see things directly and decide for themselves, she concludes that, “Adjectives are the canned laughter of language.”

Alsadir draws her title from the opening epigraph from Chekhov: “The so-called pure, childlike joy of life is animal joy.” But perhaps the most powerful of her epigraphs is the one preceding the second section from Shirley Jackson: “I am the captain of my fate. Laughter is possible laughter is possible laughter is possible”—a necessary mantra in a world that can feel like absurdity all the way down.

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