Magazine article The Spectator

The Laughter of Sinners

Magazine article The Spectator

The Laughter of Sinners

Article excerpt

In a fit of madness the other day I bought a book of selected passages from John Donne's sermons. The thunderous sermons, with titles such as 'Terrible Things', 'The World Drowned in Sin', 'The Gate of Death' and 'All Must Die', make depressing reading. You close the book feeling like a whipped dog.

For a while, one of Donne's sermons in particular, called 'The Sinner', kept obtruding itself into my mind at incongruous moments. This sermon kicks off with: 'It is thy pleasure O God, and thy pleasure shall be infallibly accomplished, that every wicked person should be his owne Executioner.' Donne goes on to assert that truly wicked people like me are in a perpetual state of sorrow, even when we are out on the town and trying to enjoy ourselves. 'Even in laughing,' warns Donne, 'the heart is sorrowful, and the end of that mirth is heavinesse.'

If I come to think about it, I suppose sorrow and guilt are the prevailing tempers of my mind. But I've always assumed that when I laughed, I laughed. A moment of joy and relief. John Donne's cynical accusation that my sinner's laughter is contaminated with sorrow was a bit much, I thought. In a spirit of honest and openminded inquiry, however, this week I have put the accusation to the test by making myself laugh as often as possible and examining my laughter for sadness.

In a scrapbook at home I've kept a small newspaper clipping that never fails to make me laugh. It's about Alfred Packer, the notorious cannibal gold prospector. I quote:

Harper's Magazine reports that the students of the University of Colorado have named their student union dining room the Alfred E. Packer grill - after the only American ever convicted of cannibalism. Packer, a gold prospector, killed and ate his five companions when snowbound throughout the winter in the Colorado mountains. Sentencing him to death, the judge, a Democrat, is supposed to have said: 'There were only seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you, Alfred E. Packer, you greedy son of a bitch, have eaten five of them.

I read it and laughed, and I reread it several times more and I laughed every time. Nowhere in my laughing could I detect even a hint of sorrow. I put the cutting in my wallet and whenever Donne's sermon returned to mind, I took it out, read it, laughed, and searched the laugh for sorrow. …

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