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Ripples: The Laughter of the Medusas

Anna Tallach explores the revolutionary power of women laughing together.



It is September 2023 and I’m in Orkney, the collection of islands right at the top of the Scottish mainland across the deep, dark Pentland Firth. Renowned for its standing stones, imposing cliffs and rolling waves, what matters to me here is the expansiveness it induces in me, and being cut off by 300 miles and a wide belt of water from my life in Edinburgh. Here it is as if my feelings can be expressed loudly and at will to the air, sea and sky. They can, if I need it, be contained by the landscape and held in time and space. I have come here often to still the noise around me, as a place to listen to my own suppressed sounds, clamouring for attention. The sea roars or thunders, or is still and silent, the weather can be seen before it arrives, rain clouds gather on the horizon, and move swiftly or slowly and ominously, before I am engulfed but I have found it to be a place where my emotional truth can exist as naturally as the elements.

This time, however, I’m not alone. I have gathered with a dozen women for a writing residency run by The Museum of Loss and Renewal. We usually inhabit different lives, but we are here to look and learn, to write and share together and to situate ourselves carefully and deliberately with people we haven’t met before. It’s a bold move. I don’t know who or what to expect and initially, on arrival, I find myself politely inhibited, warily checking out the others, asking the question quietly to myself and to them, ‘How do you feel?’ as I am sure the others are asking of me and themselves.

Shortly after arrival it becomes clear, at least implicitly, that there is a subset of us who are unafraid to express emotions freely. And there is a subset of us who are encouragers and containers. And there is a subset of us who use humour to break the ice. And within this beautiful mix of characters the boundaries begin to crack.

Maybe it’s the excitement of being away from home, in a place where we are not held as tightly by the rigours of time; or the relief of getting over the fear of sharing our stories with a new set of people; or maybe it’s because of delicious dinners accompanied by wine, but soon something gurgles up from below, and, like a collection of tributaries, emerges gushing from each of us into the rooms of Links House where we are staying. This great tsunami of joyousness spreads through the group. Its form is laughter.  


 

Even though there is a great deal of significance in what we are exploring, because each of us take our art seriously, every now and again we are engulfed by a sea of warm mirth that washes through our bodies. Jointly, we inhale air and expel it, stomachs shake, ribs are tickled, tongues waggle, cheeks flush, lips contort and eyes crinkle and moisten.

That’s the look of the thing. But it requires something to have stimulated it, a shared understanding of the way life is. And that, for us, is particularly to do with the place that women occupy in society. We are not laughing at ourselves; we are not laughing at anyone else. There is no barb in the laughter. It isn’t sarcastic. Away from all the messages that come at us daily, in a place that can hold our sense of who we are as individuals and collectively, we can see how far we’ve come from home and looking back from this lofty perspective, laugh at the way society positions us and at how our female bodies, with breasts, a womb and a vagina, are often perceived.

Around the dinner table one night we marvel at the idea that a word for our genitals could be used as a swear, and what this means for us as women, a kind of demeaning of womanhood, perhaps, a kind of suppression of our own sense of what this part of our bodies means to us. And this seems hilarious. As any good comedian does, we’re using humour as an attempt at reclamation.

 

Like all emotional expressions, laughter has its reasons for being part of the human repertoire. We could turn to evolution as a source of understanding but that would reduce it to function and functions do not capture the beautiful range of the human condition well enough in my opinion. And this shared laughter has been beautiful. There are a few natural comediennes in the group, and observational humour becomes the order of the day, often spreading around the breakfast table, as we butter our toast, over lunch, as we sip our soup. It is a sound that is raucous for sure. Often loud and wild and crazy and out of control. Despite the geographical and age differences between us, there is a shared understanding of what it is like to be a woman who is trying to write, who is trying to tell of her own experiences and express deeply held opinions and wanting to be taken seriously. It is also an expression of relief that this is a place where we can be seen and accepted as writers.

Later, I come across the essay The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous. As I begin to read I imagine it will be about women laughing but it isn’t. It is, perhaps even more appropriately, about women writing. In the 1970s Cixous is anxious to explore the silencing of women’s voices. She says ‘By writing herself women will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display – the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time.’

Maybe we are laughing out the things that inhibit our progress as writers and at the idea that we might be imposters. In this group we could express vulnerability but as we do so became less afraid. We could be teased a little, feeling comfortable enough to poke fun at each other’s obsessions or eccentricities because here we also know that our voices matter. The laughter only serves as means to consolidate that seriousness and a way of bonding our new found sense of togetherness. This epidemic of collective maturity, accompanied by a childish delight – at the rocks, the shells, the sky, the seaweed, and at imposed ideas – shines through, holding each of us in that precious place between childhood and adulthood, the essential space for creative exploration.


 

The voices that may have been quietened, ‘Sssh’, by parents, teachers, friends and as we get older by partners or our own children can – in the right places – be given free rein, rediscovered. No one in this group (in the end) is making fun of themselves in order to get the joke in before someone else does. It’s not about self-denigration. Rather the expression of emotion in this joyous form serves as an outlet from which the writing can flow, because it breaks open new channels of thought for exploration. It is also funny and beautiful to have found people who see our potential as we would wish it to be seen and who listen and encourage and empathise.

And so here on these islands, where bodies of water separate us from all that we have known up till now, there came a collective response to destructive words and philosophies - a grin, giggle, titter, chuckle, snort, chortle, guffaw and finally a torrent of mirth drifting out across the sea.



 

Anna Tallach is a psychology lecturer, historian of psychology and writer, who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has recently contributed a chapter on early twentieth century theories of emotion to the forthcoming edition of Emotion Theory: The Routeledge Comprehensive Guide and is currently working on a project about Hugh Miller, a renowned nineteenth century Scottish geologist, as well as a series of lyric essays. 


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