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By John Helmer, Moscow

There’s a lot to be afraid of in life. Mine has been dominated by the fear of suffocating to death.

Compared to that, verbal insults, the headmaster’s cane, my father’s screaming, army camp, police on horses, Harvard University, the doorman at Fortnum’s, bad reviews, Russian gunmen, Georgian gunmen, and threats by lawyers amount to less. When they strike, they generate an equal or greater mass of energy to fight back. But when suffocation comes on, all I am able to do is to gasp for air, and prepare for the worst.

The problem with the fear of suffocating is that it leads to three other fears – the fear of dentists working in my mouth; the fear of being gagged by robbers; and the fear of laughing.

Introducing THE COMPLETE DANCES WITH BEARS COMIC BOOK.    Left: the superhero when  young, fearful, unsmiling. Right: the superhero and the villain locked in the incredible final act.   

The first time the fear came on was when I was two years of age. That’s what I was told.

The first time I remember myself the sensation of choking and the sensation of fear I was three.  In those days, and for all of my childhood, the diagnosis was asthma, for which there were none of the swift remedies now available; albuterol inhalers and ephinephrine injections didn’t arrive until later. Instead, for me bronchitis infection often followed; and then worse, pneumonia.  

From the expressions on the faces of my parents and the doctor I understood that was quite possibly fatal. And so the little boy in the picture learned to anticipate the shortness of life, to keep his desk in order every night before sleep, so that if he didn’t make it to the morning, his survivors would know what he had been thinking at the last.  This accelerated teaching myself to read and to write. It did not encourage telling or listening to jokes. I learned not to laugh; I still have no memory for the punchlines of anecdotes.

The one escape from this cycle is also in the picture. It was to sail far away across the sea to the New World where fair winds would blow, I believed, warming to my chest and curative for my struggling lungs. It is said that in the original of that picture — “The Boyhood of Raleigh” painted on the Devon coast by John Everett Millais in the summer of 1870 — the old sailor is pointing south and westward towards the Spanish Main. At the time that meant the Caribbean Sea and islands like Tobago. To that island, therefore, and to other Caribbean islands I decided I would go to be free of the fear of death by suffocation. So to Tobago I returned many times; and it turned out to be true – the treasure of the islands I discovered was that I could run the risk of laughing safely for the first time.

The favourite book of my childhood, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1881), was reassuring in a particularly personal way. That was because no one in the story ever laughs, certainly not the boy narrator Jim Hawkins, his father, Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, or Captain Smollett, all uniformly  character-building models of how to live life. No, the laughter comes only from the villain, the mutinous pirate Long John Silver and his parrot Captain Flint.

In my condition, I interpreted laughter to be the mark of the free man; and also, the man who could and would survive on his wits. Stevenson must have thought so too, because in the penultimate paragraph of the story, Hawkins the boy now grown to adulthood admits to a sneaking admiration for Long John escaping imprisonment and hanging for a safe exile. “I dare say,” concludes the narrator, “he met his old negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and Captain Flint.”

Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of the 1911 US edition of Treasure Island

Look up the anatomy, and you will discover that laughing involves the involuntary action of the same set of muscles in the face, the vocal chords and the lungs as are required for exhaling, coughing, breathing. Normal people around me, I realized, could laugh and breathe at the same time. Not me – my nose didn’t work for breathing at all. So all the risk-taking started when I opened my mouth.

When normal people breathe, the air from their lungs passes freely through open vocal cords in the larynx. When the chords close, the air can’t pass. When they’re partially open, they generate some form of sound. Laughter is the outcome when we exhale while the vocal cords close, with the respiratory muscles periodically activating to produce the characteristic rhythmic sound of laughing.   

The risorius muscle, inside the cheeks and pulling sideways on the lips of the mouth, works for both laughing and smiling. But unlike the zygomatic muscles which do most of the work, it is easier for a child to learn to control the risorius. Fear is a good teacher, so I learned neither to laugh nor to smile from a very early age.

Remarking on this later, my parents used to say that I grew old before my time. Adding that I used to keep my shoes as neatly beside my bed as my books and pencils were arranged on my desk, they used to say that I had never been a child. All I thought I was doing was making sure a joke wouldn’t kill me.

“Your big mouth will be the end of you!” My father also kept warning me until he expired.  

I took this so seriously I decided that if opening my mouth was a risk there was no choice but to run, I should try to make a living out of it. Making others laugh seemed one way of gathering advance intelligence on the dangers my mouth was running, and converting the fear from the child’s defence of  humourlessness into the adult’s offence of laughter.  Paid for, if possible.

This book has been written and illustrated to prove that although a joke might have lethal consequences for me, and maybe for you too, this is not because laughing will cause us to choke.

Be warned though of the fate of Chrisippus, the ancient Greek philosopher of the Stoic school. He was 73 in the summer of 206 BC in Athens, when he saw a donkey eating figs. A joke occurred to him, and he was heard to say — give the donkey a bottle of wine to wash down the figs.

That was the last ever heard from Chrisippus, because the idea had struck him (not the donkey) as so hilarious, he started laughing uncontrollably. His muscles seized up, his lungs stopped functioning.  There wasn’t time for him to realise, let alone coin the phrase in Greek, as it has come down to us in Russian and in English:

Read on, but with the Chrisippus health warning.  

Donkeys are laughable, presidents and oligarchs are quite another thing.

The story of Nicolas Ferrial, aka Triboulet, is a warning of the health consequences of political jokes; that is of laughing at power. Francis I, king of France between 1515 until his death (natural) in 1547, employed Triboulet as his court jester for many years, as had his predecessor Louis XII. In the end, though, Francis had enough of the jester’s jokes about the queen and the affairs of the court, so he forbade him from telling more.

Triboulet made fun of the order, so Francis sentenced him to be executed. He offered Triboulet the favour of choosing how he preferred to die. Keeping his nerve, Triboulet replied that he requested to die from old age. Francis laughed so hard at that one he commuted the penalty to banishment and exile.

In the prequel to this book I’ve told the story of how that has happened to me. We are now approaching the 11th year anniversary of my banishment from Russia by the Kremlin. According to a notice signed by a deputy department head of the Federal Security Service, it is not due to end until November 1, 2025.  He and his superiors aren’t likely to shorten the banishment if they  laugh at this book, or even smile.

The 3-year old before, on the far side of the ocean, and the 75-year old that is me now, still in exile, mean to demonstrate that while it’s easy enough to control the risorius muscle and feign the smile of amusement, a genuine comic book will help to encourage honest laughter and detect the truth. Take the laugh test, and read on.

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