The Laughing God begins below! My schedule has recently become much busier, and so Monday’s posts may come later in the night and be a bit shorter than usual for the foreseeable future. But so help me, there will still be something here every Monday and Friday. Enjoy!
I hear it in my head, a thousand voices laughing a thousand different ways. A low chuckle of disinterested amusement. Riotous, high-pitched cackling. A child amused by a new plaything. A sadist reveling in another’s pain. A thousand kinds of laughter for a thousand jokes, each funnier than the last.
God help me.
* * *
It began at the funeral, which is appropriate enough. Shakespearean tragedies all end with funerals; why shouldn’t this comedy begin with one? Joseph Kerr, a student from one of my comparative religion classes, slit his wrists one beautiful July day. His parents found him in the bathtub after they’d come home from work. Funny how he cared enough that he wanted to spare them the trouble of having to clean up after him, and yet he couldn’t be bothered to not commit suicide. Funny. Everything’s funny.
He had also seen fit to leave behind instructions on what to do with some of his possessions. Among these was a sealed package that he’d left behind for me, accompanied by a letter that was also sealed and labeled in a tight, pained-looking script “OPEN FIRST.” His parents gave me both of these things, and I awkwardly excused myself from our conversation, and we didn’t speak anymore for the duration of the service.
Back at my apartment that night, I stared at the package and the letter for some time, trying to decide what to make of them. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t been particularly close to Joseph. Most of the students who took my classes were English or philosophy majors, or else sociology and psychology and anthropology students looking to fulfill some sort of university requirement. Joseph had been an artist, and while the class did occasionally those from other disciplines (usually science majors of one form or another who were looking to prove they had just as firm a grasp on the spiritual as their liberal arts brethren,) Joseph was singularly quiet in class.
Part of it was a short of shyness, I suspect; he wasn’t what you would call classically handsome, being pale and alternatingly thin and thick in all the wrong places, as well as being somewhat unkempt in his general appearance. But most of his reticence seemed to stem from contempt. Whenever debate or outright argument broke out in the class, there was Joseph, observing from a distance, shaking his head, snorting dismissively. He would speak to me on occasion after class, usually seeking clarification on some obscure belief that had been mentioned in passing, but he never revealed his reasons for doing so. He was a fine student, if that matters now.
After some consideration, I opened the letter. Inside the envelope was a single sheet of white paper, writing in the same hand as had been on the envelope covering both its front and its back. I read.
Even though I only took one of your classes, you left quite an impression on me. I’d never understood before why people worshipped gods. It always struck me as a stupid thing to do, praying to an invisible man or animal in the sky to make everything better. Pointless. Primitive.
But as we learned about different traditions, the contrasts, the similarities, I began to think that maybe there was a reason to believe in something. Not Jesus or Buddha or Gaia or anything, mind you. But maybe there was something to be said for acknowledging an avatar of a moral framework, a worldview. So I put more time and energy into your class than any of my others, trying to understand the world’s religions, their perspectives. And ultimately, I came to the conclusion that none of their gods did anything for me.
So I made my own. A god that wouldn’t offer promises, but perspective. That wasn’t supposed to be a benevolent creator, but an impartial observer. A god that I could understand, that I could relate to, that didn’t “test me” or “work in mysterious ways” or any of that other bullshit. Something I could believe in and still look at myself in the mirror.
That one didn’t do anything for me either. Obviously.
Here. He’s yours now, if you want him. Have a good life, Professor Calloway. Such as it is.
I set the letter down and picked up the box It was a cardboard rectangle, about eight inches by eight inches by fourteen inches, and it was heavy. The contents shifted as I moved the box around, thumping dully against the walls that held them. There was minimal packing in it, as I would discover upon opening it. Not quite knowing what to expect, I began pulling off the tape that sealed it.
To have called the statue ugly would be an unthinkable understatement. Never in my life had I seen anything that suggested such craftsmanship while somehow being so completely repulsive. Perhaps most repulsive of all was that I could see which of my lessons Joseph’s young mind had siezed upon. The figure was a foot in height, although it sat in the lotus position. There was nothing meditative about its pose, though. In fact, it seemed to be leaning forward, it’s hands palm down and gripping its knees, as if expectant, as if hungry. Its skin was pale to a point suggestive of translucence, and its body was swollen to the point of corpulence. It had both male and female genitalia, breasts, a laryngeal prominence, alopecia universalis, trickster’s gender-bending nature taken to an illogical extreme. His head was disproportionately large and ringed by manic, laughing faces, an obvious parody of the Roman Janus, or perhaps Dante’s Satan.
But the eyes… the eyes were mirthless. There was no humor in those pupilless eyes with their blood red sclera. Only cold judgment.
I shuddered then, and even now, despite everything, I find myself shuddering just thinking about it. I don’t know what dark urge moved Joseph, what nameless insistence led him to create an abomination he could worship, but there can be no doubt that he succeeded in capturing its essence. Perhaps it existed before him. Perhaps he tapped into some latent part of the human brain, or some unspeakable pulse in the universe that longed to express itself. I’ve met no shortage of artists over my years at the university, and more than a few of them have said that some of their best ideas seemed to come from outside of themselves. Divine inspiration. Serendipity. The Pythia speaking in tongues, slowly being driven mad by pneuma.
Of course, none of this went through my head at the time. All I could do was look at the thing in disgust. I set it back in the box. I did my best to go to sleep.