Last week I bought a book because of its epigraph. The book is Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour; the epigraph is “‘Ha, ha’ – Job 39:25.” What a perfect collision: three words—boom! I was jealous of Ferris for thinking of it. But the quote also puzzled me. The Bible, as many have noted, contains very little laughter—and when laughter is found, it’s of the abusive sort (it either accompanies a slaying, or it provokes one). In the First Book of Kings (18:27) Elijah ridicules the priests of Baal, telling them that his God (Yahweh) is infinitely more powerful than their gods. He then uses his sword’s tip to drive home this point. In the Second Book of Kings (2:23) a group of children mocks the prophet Elisha for being bald. The prophet curses the forty-two children, who are then immediately mauled by she-bears. A line from Ecclesiasticus sets the tone for centuries of Christian thought regarding laughter: “A fool lifts up his voice with laughter, but a wise man scarcely smiles a little.”
So where’s the laughter in Job? Many of us recall the hard beauty of the language: “I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.” Or we remember the bracing specificity of the questions: “Can that which is unsavory be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” Or we can recollect the happy ending: “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning: for he had fourteen thousand sheep, and six thousand camels, and a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses.” (I guess that’s a happy ending. I would actually hate to be responsible for six thousand camels.) But laughter? Of the “Ha, ha” sort? Who’s doing the laughing? God? Job?
Neither, it turns out. It’s a horse. And the horse isn’t really laughing. Here’s the passage, spoken “out of the whirlwind” by the Lord:
Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men.
He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.
The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet.
He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
That’s from the Standard King James Version. Other versions go with “Aha” over “Ha, ha”—a solid choice, I think, since it’s more of an “Aha” moment (for the horse).
Ferris knows all of this, of course. His bold and unsettling novel investigates the Job story specifically and religion more generally. His narrator, a sad-sack dentist named Paul O’Rourke, starts out as an atheist but soon finds himself seduced by a cult—a cult that traffics in a kind of spiritual identity theft. Important questions are asked—What do we believe? Why do we believe?—and satiric grenades are lobbed (targets include baseball obsession, office politics, and smartphones). O’Rourke is especially funny when describing poets. About a former girlfriend who “could not yet bring herself to say ‘I do not believe in God,’” he writes: “She preferred to call herself a nonpracticing atheist. This, she thought, would not totally close out the religious impulses that a poem sometimes demanded.” Later in the novel, when the ex-girlfriend tells O’Rourke that she’s moving in with another poet, he replies, “This is really what you want? To live with a poet?”
“Yes,” she said.
“With the hot plate? And the lice?”
The novel also gives us a written-in-gasoline Dark Night of the Soul and a couple of suicides.
Which is all to say: “Ha, ha,” “Aha”—maybe they’re one and the same. We’re struck by something; we’re jolted into expression. I’ll give the last word to improv legend and Saturday Night Live “house metaphysician” Del Close (via Mike Myers, via Tad Friend, from Friend’s excellent 2002 New Yorker article “What’s So Funny?”):
Though Del Close never quite worked out all the details, he was convinced that laughter is related to our fear of death. In an email, Mike Myers wrote, “Del Close said that there is very little difference between the realizations ‘a-ha we are going to die,’ and our laughter, which is ‘ha-ha’—he would say that ‘ha-ha’ and ‘a-ha’ are related industries.”