Points of friction/Cruelty and Humour


Cruelty and Humour


THE unhallowed alliance between the cruelty that we hate and the humour that we prize is a psychological problem which frets the candid mind. Hazlitt analyzed it pitilessly, but without concern, because humanity was not his playing card. No writer of the nineteenth century dared to be so clearly and consciously inhumane as was Hazlitt. Shakespeare and Scott recognized this alliance, and were equally unconcerned, because they accepted life on its own terms, and were neither the sport of illusions nor the prey of realities. It took the public—always more or less kind-hearted—two hundred years to sympathize with the wrongs of Shylock, and three hundred years to wince at the misery of Malvolio.

It was with something akin to regret that Andrew Lang watched the shrivelling of that "full-blown comic sense" which accompanied the cruel sports of an earlier generation, the bull-baiting and badger-drawing and cock-fights and prize-fights which Englishmen loved, and which taught them to value courage and look unmoved on pain. In 1699 the old East India Company lost its claim against the New Company by two parliamentary votes; and this measure was passed in the absence of friendly members who had been seduced from their posts by the unwonted spectacle of a tiger-baiting. In 1818 Christopher North (black be his memory!) described graphically and with smothered glee the ignoble game of cat-worrying, which ran counter to British sporting instincts, to the roughly interpreted fair play which severed brutality from baseness. There was never a time when some English voice was not raised to protest against that combination of cruelty and cowardice which pitted strength against weakness, or overwhelming odds against pure gallantry of spirit. The first Englishman to assert that animals had a right to legal protection was John Evelyn. He grasped this novel point of view through sheer horror and disgust because a stallion had been baited with dogs in London, and had fought so bravely that the dogs could not fasten on him until the men in charge ran him through with their swords. Evelyn asked, and asked in vain, that the law should intervene to punish such barbarity.

A century later we hear the same cry of indignation, the same appeal for pity and redress. This time it comes from Horace Walpole, who is beside himself with fury because some scoundrels at Dover had roasted a fox alive, to mark—with apt symbolism—their disapproval of Charles Fox. Walpole, whom Lord Minto characterized as "a prim, precise, pretending, conceited savage, but a most un-English one," demonstrated on this occasion the alien nature of his sympathies by an outbreak of rage against the cruelty which he was powerless to punish. It is interesting to note that he denounced the deed as "a savage meanness which an Iroquois would have scorned"; showing that he and Lord Minto regarded savagery from different angles. So, it will be remembered, did Lord Byron and Izaak Walton. When the former dared to call the latter "a sentimental savage," he brought down upon his own head, "bloody but unbowed," the wrath of British sportsmen, of British churchmen, of British sensibility. Even in far-off America an outraged editor protested shrilly against this monde bestorné, this sudden onslaught of vice upon virtue, this reversal of outlawry and order.

The effrontery of the attack startled a decorous world. Lord Byron had so flaunted his immoralities that he had become the scapegoat of society. He had been driven forth from a pure, or at least respectable, island, to dally with sin under less austere skies. The household virtues shuddered at his name. Izaak Walton, on the contrary, had been recognized in his day as a model of domestic sobriety. He had lived happily with two wives (one at a time), and had spent much of his life "in the families of the eminent clergymen of England, of whom he was greatly beloved." He was buried in Winchester Cathedral, where English fishermen erected a statue to commemorate his pastime. His bust adorns the church of Saint Mary, Stafford, where he was baptized. His second wife sleeps under a monument in Worcester Cathedral. Dr. Johnson and Wordsworth—great sponsors of morality—united in his praise. Mr. Lang (an enthusiastic angler) pronounced him to be "a kind, humorous, and pious soul." Charles Lamb, who thought angling a cruel sport, wrote to Wordsworth, "Izaak Walton hallows any page in which his reverend name appears."

This admirable Crichton, this honoured guest of "eminent clergymen," was the man whom Byron—who had never so much as supped with a curate—selected to attack in his most scandalously indecent poem. His lilting lines,

"The quaint, old, cruel coxcomb in his gullet
Should have a hook, and a small trout to pull it,"

were ribald enough in all conscience; but, by way of superdefiance, he added a perfectly serious note in which he pointed out the deliberate character of Walton's inhumanity. The famous passage in "The Compleat Angler," which counsels fishermen to use the impaled frog as though they loved him,—"that is, harm him as little as you may possibly, that he may live the longer,"—and the less famous, but equally explicit, passages which deal with the tender treatment of dace and snails, sickened Byron's soul, especially when topped off by the most famous passage of all: "God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than fishing." The picture of the Almighty smiling down on the pangs of his irrational creatures, in sportsmanlike sympathy with his rational creature (who could recite poetry and quote the Scriptures) was more than Byron could bear. He was keenly aware that he offered no shining example to the world; but he had never conceived of God as a genial spectator of cruelty or of vice.

Therefore this open-eyed sinner called the devout and decent Walton a sentimental savage. Therefore he wrote disrespectful words about the "cruel, cold, and stupid sport of angling." Therefore he said, "No angler can be a good man"; which comprehensive remark caused the public to ask tartly—and not unreasonably—who appointed Lord Byron to be its monitor? The fantastic love of animals, which was one of the poet's most engaging traits, may have been deepened by his resentment against men. Nevertheless, we recognize it as a genuine and generous sentiment, ennobling and also amusing, as most genuine and generous sentiments are apt to be. The eaglet that he shot on the shore of Lepanto, and whose life he vainly tried to save, was the last bird to die by his hand. He had an embarrassing habit of becoming attached to wild animals and to barnyard fowls. An ungrateful civet-cat, having bitten a footman, escaped from bondage. A goose, bought to be fattened for Michaelmas, never achieved its destiny; but was raised to the dignity and emoluments of a household pet, and carried about in a basket, swung securely under the poet's travelling carriage. These amiable eccentricities won neither respect nor esteem. Byron could not in cold blood have hurt anything that breathed; but there was a general impression that a man who was living with another man's wife had no business to be so kind to animals, and certainly no business to censure respectable and church-going citizens who were cruel to them.

Nevertheless, the battle so inauspiciously begun has been waged ever since, and has found more impeccable champions. It was possible for Charles Lamb to sigh with one breath over the "intolerable pangs" inflicted by "meek" anglers, and to rejoice with the next over the page hallowed by the angler's reverend name. Happily for himself and for his readers, he had that kind of a mind. But Huxley, whose mind was singularly inflexible and unaccommodating, refused such graceful concessions. All forms of cruelty were hateful to him. Of one distinguished and callous vivisector he said plainly that he would like to send him to the treadmill. But he would hear no word against vivisection from gentlemen who angled with live bait, and he expressed this unsportsmanlike view in his "Elementary Lessons in Physiology." Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson's piteous lines on a little dace, whose hard fate it is to furnish an hour's "innocent recreation" for an angler, had not then been written; but Huxley needed no such incentive to pity. No man in England reverenced the gospel of amusement less than he did. No man was less swayed by sentiment, or daunted by ridicule.

When Hazlitt wrote, "One rich source of the ludicrous is distress with which we cannot sympathize from its absurdity or insignificance," he touched the keynote of unconcern. Insignificant distress makes merry a humane world. "La malignité naturelle aux hommes est le principe de la comédie." Distress which could be forced to appear absurd made merry a world which had not been taught the elements of humanity. The elaborate jests which enlivened the Roman games were designed to show that terror and pain might, under rightly conceived circumstances, be infinitely amusing. When the criminal appointed to play the part of Icarus lost his wings at the critical moment which precipitated him into a cage of hungry bears, the audience appreciated the humour of the situation. It was a good practical joke, and the possible distaste of Icarus for his rôle lent pungency to the cleverly contrived performance. "By making suffering ridiculous," said Mr. Pater, "you enlist against the sufferer much real and all would-be manliness, and do much to stifle any false sentiment of compassion."

Scott, who had a clear perception of emotions he did not share, gives us in "Quentin Durward" an apt illustration of human suffering rendered absurd by its circumstances, and made serviceable by the pleasure which it gives. Louis the Eleventh and Charles of Burgundy are fairly healed of rancorous fear and hatred by their mutual enjoyment of a man-hunt. The sight of the mock herald, doubling and turning in mad terror with the great boar-hounds at his heels, so delights the royal spectators that the king, reeling with laughter, catches hold of the duke's ermine mantle for support; the duke flings his arm over the king's shoulder; and these mortal enemies are converted, through sympathy with each other's amusement, into something akin to friendship. When Charles, wiping his streaming eyes, says poignantly, "Ah, Louis, Louis, would to God thou wert as faithful a monarch as thou art a merry companion!" we recognize the touch of nature—of fallen nature—which makes the whole world kin. Ambroise Paré tells us that at the siege of Metz, in 1552, the French soldiers fastened live cats to their pikes, and hung them over the walls, crying, "Miaut, Miaut"; while the Spanish soldiers shot at the animals as though they had been popinjays, and both besiegers and besieged enjoyed the sport in a spirit of frank derision.

This simple, undisguised barbarity lacks one element, intensely displeasing to the modern mind,—the element of bad taste. Imperial Rome had no conception of a slave or a criminal as a being whose sensations counted, save as they affected others, save as they afforded, or failed to afford, a pleasurable experience to Romans. Human rights were as remote from its cognizance as animal rights were remote from the cognizance of the Middle Ages. The survival of savagery in man's heart is terrifying rather than repellent; it humiliates more than it affronts. Whatever is natural is likely to be bad; but it is also likely to come within the scope, if not of our sympathy, at least of our understanding. Where there is no introspection there is no incongruity, nothing innately and sickeningly inhuman and ill-bred.

The most unpleasant record which has been preserved for us is the long Latin poem written by Robert Grove, afterwards Bishop of Chichester, and printed in 1685. It is dedicated to the memory of William Harvey, and describes with unshrinking serenity the vivisection of a dog to demonstrate Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. Such experiments, made before the day of anæsthetics, involved the prolonged agony of the animal used for experimentation. Harvey appears to have been a man as remote from pity as from ferocity. He desired to reach and to prove a supremely valuable scientific truth. He succeeded, and there are few who question his methods. But that a man should write in detail—and in verse—about such dreadful work, that he should dwell composedly upon the dog's excruciating pain, and compliment the poor beast on the useful part he plays, goes beyond endurance. Grove, who had that pretty taste for classicism so prevalent among English clerics, calls on Apollo and Minerva to lend Harvey their assistance, and promises the dog that (if Apollo and Minerva play their parts) he will become a second Lycisca, and will join Procyon and Sirius in the heavens.

Here is an instance in which a rudimentary sense of propriety would have saved a gentleman and a scholar from insulting the principles of good taste. It is more agreeable to contemplate the brutal crowd surrounding a baited bear than to contemplate this clergyman writing in the seclusion of his library. Religion and scholarship have their responsibilities. The German soldiers who ravaged Belgium outraged the sentiments of humanity; but the German professors who sat at their desks, alternately defending and denying these ravages, outraged, not merely humanity, but the taste and intelligence of the world. Theirs was the unpardonable sin.

Cruelty is as old as life, and will cease only when life ceases. It has passed its candid stage long, long ago. It must now be condoned for its utility, or laughed at for its fun. Our comic sense, if less full-blown than of yore, still relishes its measure of brutality. To write gaily about the infliction of pain is to win for it forgiveness. Douglas Jerrold found something infinitely amusing in the sensations of the lobster put into a pot of cold water, and boiled. His description of the perspiring crustacean, unable to understand the cause of its rapidly increasing discomfort, was thought so laughable that it was reprinted, as a happy example of the writer's humour, in a recently published volume on Jerrold's connection with "Punch." The same genial spirit animated an American Senator who opposed the sentimental exclusion of egrets from commerce. It was the opinion of this gallant gentleman that the Lord created white herons to supply ornaments "for the hats of our beautiful ladies"; and having expressed his sympathy with the designs of Providence, he proposed in merry mood that we should establish foundling asylums for the nestlings deprived of their over-decorated parents,—as waggish a witticism as one would want to hear.

When an eminently respectable American newspaper can be convulsively funny, or at least can try to be convulsively funny, over the sale of a horse, twenty-seven years old, blind, rheumatic, and misshapen, to a Chicago huckster for fifteen cents, we have no need to sigh over our waning sense of humour. The happy thought of calling the horse Algernon gave a rich twang to this comic episode, and saved the cheerful reader from any intrusive sentiment of pity. When a pious periodical, published in the interests of a Christian church, can tell us in a rollicking Irish story how a farmer, speeding through the frozen night, empties a bag of kittens into the snow, and whips up his horse, pretending playfully that the "craitures" are overtaking him, we make comfortably sure that religion lends itself as deftly as journalism to the light-hearted drolleries of the cruel.

Novelists, who understand how easy a thing it is to gratify our humorous susceptibilities, venture upon doubtful jests. Mr. Tarkington knows very well that the spectacle of a boy dismembering an insect calls for reprobation; but that if the boy's experiments can be described as "infringing upon the domain of Dr. Carrell," they make a bid for laughter. "Penrod's efforts—with the aid of a pin—to effect a transference of living organism were unsuccessful; but he convinced himself forever that a spider cannot walk with a beetle's legs." It is funny to those who relish the fun. If it does not, as Mr. Pater advises, make suffering ridiculous, it makes sympathy ridiculous, as being a thing more serious than the occasion warrants. The reader who is not amused tries to forget the incident, and hurries cheerfully on.

A more finished example of callous gaiety, and one which has been more widely appreciated, may be found in a story called "Crocker's Hole," by Blackmore. It tells how a young man named Pike, whom "Providence" had created for angling (the author is comfortably sure on this point), caught an old and wary trout by the help of a new and seductive bait. The over-wrought, over-coloured beauty of Blackmore's style is in accord with his highly sophisticated sense of humour:

"The lover of the rose knows well a gay, voluptuous beetle, whose pleasure it is to lie embedded in a fount of beauty. Deep among the incurving petals of the blushing fragrance he loses himself in his joys till a breezy waft reveals him. And when the sunlight breaks upon his luscious dissipation, few would have the heart to oust such a gem from such a setting. All his back is emerald sparkles; all his front, red Indian gold, and here and there he grows white spots to save the eye from aching. Pike slipped in his finger, fetched him out, and gave him a little change of joys by putting a Limerick hook through his thorax, and bringing it out between his elytra. Cetonia aurata liked it not, but pawed the air very naturally, fluttered his wings, and trod prettily upon the water under a lively vibration. He looked quite as happy, and considerably more active than when he had been cradled in the anthers of a rose."

The story is an angling story, and it would be unreasonable to spoil it by sympathizing with the bait. But there is something in the painting of the little beetle's beauty, and in the amused description of its pain, which would sicken a donkey-beating costermonger, if he were cultivated enough to know what the author was driving at. It takes education and an unswerving reverence for sport to save us from the costermonger's point of view.

There are times when it is easier to mock than to pity; there are occasions when we may be seduced from blame, even if we are not won all the way to approval. Mrs. Pennell tells us in her very interesting and very candid life of Whistler that the artist gratified a grudge against his Venetian landlady by angling for her goldfish (placed temptingly on a ledge beneath his windowsill); that he caught them, fried them, and dropped them dexterously back into their bowl. It is a highly illustrative anecdote, and we are more amused than we have any business to be. Mr. Whistler's method of revenge was the method of the Irish tenants who hocked their landlord's cattle; but the adroitness of his malice, and the whimsical picture it presents, disarms sober criticism. A sympathetic setting for such an episode would have been a comedy played in the streets of Mantua, under the gay rule of Francesco Gonzaga, and before the eyes of that fair Isabella d'Este who bore tranquilly the misfortunes of others.

We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will,—which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man's malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world. "Our being," says Montaigne, "is cemented with sickly qualities; and whoever should divest man of the seeds of those qualities would destroy the fundamental conditions of life."