Essays in idleness/Wit and Humor

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It is dubious wisdom to walk in the footprints of a giant, and to stumble with little steps along the road where his great strides were taken. Yet many years have passed since Hazlitt trod this way; fresh flowers have grown by the route, and fresh weeds have fought with them for mastery. The face of the country has changed for better or for worse, and a brief survey reveals much that never met his eyes. The journey, too, was safer in his day than in ours; and while he gathers and analyzes every species of wit and humor, it plainly does not occur to him for a moment that either calls for any protection at his hands. Hazlitt is so sure that laughter is our inalienable right, that he takes no pains to soften its cadences or to justify its mirth. "We laugh at that in others which is a serious matter to ourselves," he says, and sees no reason why this should not be. "Some one is generally sure to be the sufferer by a joke;" and, fortified with this assurance, he confesses to a frank delight in the comic parts of the Arabian Nights, although recognizing keenly the spirit of cruelty that underlies them, and aware that they "carry the principle of callous indifference in a jest as far as it can go." Don Quixote, too, he stoutly affirms to be as fitting a subject for merriment as Sancho Panza. Both are laughable, and both are meant to be laughed at; the extravagances of each being pitted dexterously against those of the other by a great artist in the ridiculous. But he is by no means insensible to the charm and goodness of the "ingenious gentleman;" for sympathy is the legitimate attribute of humor, and even where the humorist seems most pitiless, and even brutal, in his apprehension of the absurd, he has a living tenderness for our poor humanity which is so rich in its absurdities.

Hazlitt's definition of wit and humor is perhaps as good as any definition is ever likely to be; that is, it expresses a half-truth with a great deal of reasonableness and accuracy. "Humor," he says, "is the describing the ludicrous as it is in itself; wit is the exposing it by comparing or contrasting it with something else. Humor is the growth of nature and accident; wit is the product of art and fancy. Humor, as it is shown in books, is an imitation of the natural or acquired absurdities of mankind, or of the ludicrous in accident, situation, and character; wit is the illustrating and heightening the sense of that absurdity by some sudden and unexpected likeness or opposition of one thing to another, which sets off the quality we laugh at or despise in a still more contemptible or striking point of view."

This is perhaps enough to show us at least one cause of the endless triumph of humor over wit,—a triumph due to its closer affinity with the simple and elementary conditions of human nature and life. Wit is artificial; humor is natural. Wit is accidental; humor is inevitable. Wit is born of conscious effort; humor, of the allotted ironies of fate. Wit can be expressed only in language; humor can be developed sufficiently in situation. Wit is the plaything of the intellectual, or the weapon of nimble minds; humor is the possession of all sorts and conditions of men. Wit is truly what Shelley falsely imagined virtue to be, "a refinement of civilized life;" humor is the property of all races in every stage of development. Wit possesses a species of immortality, and for many generations holds its own; humor is truly immortal, and as long as the eye sees, and the ear hears, and the heart beats, it will be our privilege to laugh at the pleasant absurdities which require no other seed or nurture than man's endless intercourse with man.

Nevertheless, an understanding of the differences in nations and in epochs helps us to the enjoyment of many humorous situations. We should know something of England and of India to appreciate the peculiar horror with which Lord Minto, on reaching Calcutta, beheld the fourteen male attendants who stood in his chamber, respectfully prepared to help him into bed; or his still greater dismay at being presented by the rajah of Bali with seven slaves,—five little boys and two little girls,—all of whom cost the conscientious governor-general a deal of trouble and expense before they were properly disposed of, and in a fair way to learn their alphabet and catechism. Yet perhaps a deeper knowledge of time and character is needed to sound the depths of Sir Robert Walpole's cynical observation, "Gratitude is a lively sense of future favors;" although this is indeed a type of witticism which possesses inherent vitality, not depending upon any play of words or double meanings, but striking deep root into the fundamental failings of the human heart.

It is in its simplest forms, however, that humor enjoys a world-wide actuality, and is the connecting link of all times and places and people. "Let us start from laughter," says M. Edmond Scherer, "since laughter is a thing familiar to every one. It is excited by a sense of the ridiculous, and the ridiculous arises from the contradiction between the use of a thing and its intention." Even that commonest of all themes, a fellow-creature slipping or falling, M. Scherer holds to be provocative of mirth; and in selecting this elementary example he bravely drives the matter back to its earliest and rudest principles. For it is a weapon in the hands of the serious that such casualties, which should excite instant sympathy and alarm, awaken laughter only in those who are too foolish or too brutal to experience any other sensation. It would seem, indeed, that the sight of a man falling on the ice or in the mud cannot be, and ought not to be, very amusing. But before we frown severely and forever upon such vulgar jests, let us turn for a moment to a well-known essay, and see what Charles Lamb has to plead in their extenuation:—

"I am by nature extremely susceptible of street affronts; the jeers and taunts of the populace; the low-bred triumph they display over the casual trip or splashed stocking of a gentleman. Yet I can endure the jocularity of a young sweep with something more than forgiveness. In the last winter but one, pacing along Cheapside with my accustomed precipitation when I walk westward, a treacherous slide brought me upon my back in an instant. I scrambled up with pain and shame enough,—yet outwardly trying to face it down, as if nothing had happened,—when the roguish grin of one of these young wits encountered me. There he stood, pointing me out with his dusky finger to the mob, and to a poor woman (I suppose his mother) in particular, till the tears for the exquisiteness of the fun (so he thought it) worked themselves out at the corners of his poor red eyes, red from many a previous weeping, and soot-inflamed, yet twinkling through all with such a joy, snatched out of desolation, that Hogarth—but Hogarth has got him already (how could he miss him?) in the March to Finchley, grinning at the pieman;—there he stood, as he stands in the picture, irremovable, as if the jest was to last forever, with such a maximum of glee and minimum of mischief in his mirth—for the grin of a genuine sweep hath absolutely no malice in it—that I could have been content, if the honor of a gentleman might endure it, to have remained his butt and his mockery till midnight."

Ah, prince of kindly humorists, to whom shall we go but to you for tears and laughter, and pastime and sympathy, and jests and gentle tolerance, and all things needed to make light our trouble-burdened hearts!

It is not worth while to deny or even to soften the cruel side of humor, though it is a far more grievous error to overlook its generous forbearance. The humorist's view of life is essentially genial; but he has given stout blows in his day, and the sound of his vigorous warfare rings harshly in our unaccustomed ears. "The old giants of English fun" were neither soft-spoken nor soft-handed gentry, and it seems to us now and then as if they laid about them with joyous and indiscriminate activity. Even Dickens, the last and greatest of his race, and haunted often to his fall by the beckoning of mirthless modern phantoms, shows in his earlier work a good deal of this gleeful and unhesitating belligerency. The scenes between old Weller and Mr. Stiggins might be successfully acted in a spirited puppet-show, where conversation is of less importance than well-timed and well-bestowed pommeling. But we have now reached that point of humane seriousness when even puppet-shows cannot escape their educational responsibilities, and when Punch and Judy are gravely censured for teaching a lesson in brutality. The laughter of generations, which should protect and hallow the little manikins at play, counts for nothing by the side of their irresponsible naughtiness, and their cheerful disregard of all our moral standards. Yet here, too, Hazlitt has a seasonable word of defense, holding indeed that he who invented such diverting pastimes was a benefactor to his species, and gave us something which it was rational and healthy to enjoy. "We place the mirth and glee and triumph to our own account," he says, "and we know that the bangs and blows the actors have received go for nothing as soon as the showman puts them up in his box, and marches off quietly with them, as jugglers of a less amusing description sometimes march off with the wrongs and rights of mankind in their pockets." It has been well said that wit requires a good head; humor, a good heart; and fun, high spirits. Punch's spirits, let us hasten to admit, are considerably in advance of his head and heart; yet nevertheless he is wanting neither in acuteness nor in the spirit of good-fellowship. He has hearkened to the advice given by Seneca many years ago, "Jest without bitterness"! and has practiced this delightful accomplishment for centuries, as befits the most conservative joker in the world.

Another reproach urged against humor rather than wit is its somewhat complicated system of lying; and much well-merited severity has been expended upon such questionable diversions as hoaxing, quizzing, "selling," and other variations of the game, the titles of which have long since passed away, leaving their substance behind them. It would be easy, but untrue, to say that real humor has nothing whatever to do with these unworthy offshoots, and never encourages their growth. The fact remains that they spring from a great humorous principle, and one which critics have been prompt to recognize, and to embody in language as clear and unmistakable as possible. "Lying," says Hazlitt, "is a species of wit and humor. To lay anything to a person's charge from which he is perfectly free shows spirit and invention; and the more incredible the effrontery the greater is the joke." "The terrors of Sancho," observes M. Scherer, "the rascalities of Scapin, the brags of Falstaff, amuse us because of their disproportion with circumstances, or their disagreement with facts." Just as Charles Lamb humanizes a brutal jest by turning it against himself, so Sir Walter Scott gives amusing emphasis to a lie by directing it against his own personality. His description of himself in his journal as a "pebble-hearted cur," the occasion being his parting with the emotional Madame Mirbel, is truly humorous, because of its remoteness from the truth. There are plenty of men who could have risked using the phrase without exciting in us that sudden sense of incongruity which is a legitimate source of laughter. A delightful instance of effrontery, which shows both spirit and invention, is the story told by Sir Francis Doyle of the highwayman who, having attacked and robbed Lord Derby and his friend Mr. Grenville, said to them with reproachful candor, "What scoundrels you must be to fire at gentlemen who risk their lives upon the road!" As for the wit that lies in playful misstatements and exaggerations, we must search for it in the riotous humor of Lamb's letters, where the true and the false are often so inextricably commingled that it is a hopeless task to separate facts from fancies. "I shall certainly go to the naughty man for fibbing," writes Lamb, with soft laughter; and the devout apprehension may have been justly shared by Edward Fitzgerald, when he describes the parish church at Woodbridge as being so damp that the fungi grew in great numbers about the communion table.

A keen sense of the absurd is so little relished by those who have it not that it is too often considered solely as a weapon of offense, and not as a shield against the countless ills that come to man through lack of sanity and judgment. There is a well-defined impression in the world that the satirist, like the devil, roams abroad, seeking whom he may devour, and generally devouring the best; whereas his position is often that of the besieged, who defends himself with the sharpest weapons at his command against a host of invading evils. There are many things in life so radically unwholesome that it is not safe to approach them save with laughter as a disinfectant; and when people cannot laugh, the moral atmosphere grows stagnant, and nothing is too morbid, too preposterous, or too mischievous to meet with sympathy and solemn assurances of good will. This is why a sense of the ridiculous has been justly called the guardian of our minor morals, rendering men in some measure dependent upon the judgments of their associates, and laying the basis of that decorum and propriety of conduct which is a necessary condition of human life, and upon which is founded the great charm of intercourse between equals. From what pitfalls of vanity and self-assurance have we been saved by this ever-watchful presence! Into what abysmal follies have we fallen when she withholds her restraining hand! Shelley's letters are perhaps the strongest argument in behalf of healthy humor that literature has yet offered to the world. Only a man burdened with an "invincible repugnance to the comic" could have gravely penned a sentence like this: "Certainly a saint may be amiable,—she may be so; but then she does not understand,—has neglected to investigate the religion which retiring, modest prejudice leads her to profess." Only a man afflicted with what Mr. Arnold mildly calls an "inhuman" lack of humor could have written thus to a female friend: "The French language you already know; and, if the great name of Rousseau did not redeem it, it would have been perhaps as well that you had remained ignorant of it." Our natural pleasure at this verdict may be agreeably heightened by placing alongside of it Madame de Staël's moderate statement, "Conversation, like talent, exists only in France." And such robust expressions of opinion give us our clearest insight into at least one of the dangers from which a sense of the ridiculous rescues its fortunate possessor.

When all has been said, however, we must admit that edged tools are dangerous things to handle, and not infrequently do much hurt. "The art of being humorous in an agreeable way" is as difficult in our day as in the days of Marcus Aurelius, and a disagreeable exercise of this noble gift is as unwelcome now as then. "Levity has as many tricks as the kitten," says Leigh Hunt, who was quite capable of illustrating and proving the truth of his assertion, and whose scratching at times closely resembled the less playful manifestations of a full-grown cat. Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food, and few things in the world are more wearying than a sarcastic attitude towards life. "Je goûte ceux qui sont raisonnables, et me divertis des extravagants," says Uranie, in "La Critique de l'Ecole des Femmes;" and even these words seem to tolerant ears to savor unduly of arrogance. The best use we can make of humor is, not to divert ourselves with, but to defend ourselves against, the folly of fools; for much of the world's misery is entailed upon her by her eminently well-meaning and foolish children. There is no finer proof of Miss Austen's matured genius than the gradual mellowing of her humor, from the deliberate pleasure affected by Elizabeth Bennet and her father in the foibles of their fellow-creatures to the amused sympathy betrayed in every page of "Emma" and "Persuasion." Not even the charm and brilliance of "Pride and Prejudice" can altogether reconcile us to a heroine who, like Uranie, diverts herself with the failings of mankind. What a gap between Mr. Bennet's cynical praise of his son-in-law, Wickham,—which, under the circumstances, is a little revolting,—and Mr. Knightley's manly reproof to Emma, whose youthful gayety beguiles her into an unkind jest. While we talk much of Miss Austen's merciless laughter, let us remember always that the finest and bravest defense of harmless folly against insolent wit is embodied in this earnest remonstrance from the lips of a lover who is courageous enough to speak plain truths, with no suspicion of priggishness to mar their wholesome flavor.

It is difficult, at any time, to deprive wit of its social or political surroundings; it is impossible to drive it back to those deeper, simpler sources whence humor springs unveiled. "Hudibras," for example, is witty; "Don Quixote" is humorous. Sheridan is witty; Goldsmith is humorous. To turn from the sparkling scenes where the Rivals play their mimic parts to the quiet fireside where the Vicar and Farmer Flamborough sit sipping their gooseberry wine is to reënter life, and to feel human hearts beating against our own. How delicate the touch which puts everything before us with a certain gentle, loving malice, winning us to laughter, without for a moment alienating our sympathies from the right. Hazlitt claims for the wicked and witty comedies of the Restoration that it is their privilege to allay our scruples and banish our just regrets; but when Goldsmith brings the profligate squire and his female associates into the Vicar's innocent household, the scene is one of pure and incomparable humor, which nevertheless leaves us more than ever in love with the simple goodness which is so readily deceived. Mr. Thornhill utters a questionable sentiment. The two fine ladies, who have been striving hard to play their parts, and only letting slip occasional oaths, affect great displeasure at his laxness, and at once begin a very discreet and serious dialogue upon virtue. "In this my wife, the chaplain, and I soon joined; and the squire himself was at last brought to confess a sense of sorrow for his former excesses. We talked of the pleasures of temperance, and of the sunshine of the mind unpolluted with guilt. I was so well pleased that my little ones were kept up beyond the usual time, to be edified by so much good conversation. Mr. Thornhill even went beyond me, and demanded if I had any objection to giving prayers. I joyfully embraced the proposal; and in this manner the night was passed in a most comfortable way, till at length the company began to think of returning." What a picture it is! What an admirably humorous situation! What easy tolerance in the treatment! We laugh, but even in our laughter we know that not for the space of a passing breath does Goldsmith yield his own sympathy, or divert ours, away from the just cause of innocence and truth.

If men of real wit have been more numerous in the world than men of real humor, it is because discernment and lenity, mirth and conciliation, are qualities which do not blend easily with the natural asperity of our race. Humor has been somewhat daringly defined as "a sympathy for the seamy side of things." It does not hover on the borders of the light and trifling; it does not linger in that keen and courtly atmosphere which is the chosen playground of wit; but diffusing itself subtly throughout all nature, reveals to us life,—life which we love to consider and to judge from some pet standpoint of our own, but which is so big and wonderful, and good and bad, and fine and terrible, that our little peaks of observation command only a glimpse of the mysteries we are so ready and willing to solve. Thus, the degree of wit embodied in an old story is a matter of much dispute and of scant importance; but when we read that Queen Elizabeth, in her last illness, turned wearily away from matters of state, "yet delighted to hear some of the 'Hundred Merry Tales,' and to such was very attentive," we feel we have been lifted into the regions of humor, and by its sudden light we recognize, not the dubious merriment of the tales, but the sick and world-worn spirit seeking a transient relief from fretful care and poisonous recollections. So, too, when Sheridan said of Mr. Dundas that he resorted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his facts, the great wit, after the fashion of wits, expressed a limited truth. It was a delightful statement so far as it went, but it went no further than Mr. Dundas, with just the possibility of a second application. When Voltaire sighed, "Nothing is so disagreeable as to be obscurely hanged," he gave utterance to a national sentiment, which is not in the least witty, but profoundly humorous, revealing with charming distinctness a Frenchman's innate aversion to all dull and commonplace surroundings. Dying is not with him, as with an Englishman, a strictly "private affair;" it is the last act of life's brilliant play, which is expected to throw no discredit upon the sparkling scenes it closes.

The breadth of atmosphere which humor requires for its development, the saneness and sympathy of its revelations, are admirably described by one of the most penetrating and least humorous of French critics, M. Edmond Scherer, whose words are all the more grateful and valuable to us when they refer, not to his own countrymen, but to those robust English humorists whom it is our present pleasure to ignore. M. Scherer, it is true, finds much fault, and reasonable fault ever, with these stout-hearted, strong-handed veterans. They are not always decorous. They are not always sincere. They are wont to play with their subjects. They are too eager to amuse themselves and other people. It is easy to make out a list of their derelictions. "Yet this does not prevent the temperament of the humorist from being, on the whole, the happiest that a man can bring with him into this world, nor his point of view from being the fairest from which the world can be judged. The satirist grows wroth; the cynic banters; the humorist laughs and sympathizes by turns.… He has neither the fault of the pessimist, who refers everything to a purely personal conception, and is angry with reality for not being such as he conceives it; nor that of the optimist, who shuts his eyes to everything missing on the real earth, that he may comply with the demands of his heart and of his reason. The humorist feels the imperfections of reality, and resigns himself to them with good temper, knowing that his own satisfaction is not the rule of things, and that the formula of the universe is necessarily larger than the preferences of a single one of the accidental beings of whom the universe is composed. He is beyond doubt the true philosopher."

This is a broad statement; yet to endure life smilingly is no ignoble task; and if the humors of mankind are inseparably blended with all their impulses and actions, it is worth while to consider bravely the value of qualities so subtle and far-reaching in their influences. Steele, as we know, dressed the invading bailiffs in liveries, and amazed his guests by the number and elegance of his retainers. Sydney Smith fastened antlers on his sheep, for the gratification of a lady who thought he ought to have deer in his park. Such elaborate jests, born of invincible gayety and high spirits, seem childish to our present adult seriousness; and we are too impatient to understand that they represent an attitude, and a very healthy attitude, towards life. The iniquity of Steele's career lay in his repeatedly running into debt, not in the admirable temper with which he met the consequences of that debt when they were forced upon him; and if the censorious are disposed to believe that a less happy disposition would have avoided these consequences, let them consider the careers of poor Richard Savage and other misanthropic prodigals. As for Sydney Smith, he followed Burton's excellent counsel, "Go on then merrily to heaven;" and his path was none the less straight because it was smoothed by laughter. That which must be borne had best be borne cheerfully, and sometimes a single telling stroke of wit, a single word rich in manly humor, reveals to us that true courage, that fine philosophy, which endures and even tolerates the vicissitudes of fortune, without for a moment relinquishing its honest hold upon the right. Mr. Lang has told us such a little story of the verger in a Saxon town who was wont to show visitors a silver mouse, which had been offered by the women to the Blessed Virgin that she might rid the town of mice. A Prussian officer, with that prompt brutality which loves to offend religious sentiment it does not share, asked jeeringly, "Are you such fools as to believe that the creatures went away because a silver mouse was dedicated?" "Ah, no," replied the verger, "or long ago we should have offered a silver Prussian."

It is the often-expressed opinion of Leigh Hunt that although wit and humor may be found in perfection apart from each other, yet their best work is shared in common. Wit separated from humor is but an element of sport; "a laughing jade," with petulant whims and fancies, which runs away with our discretion, confuses our wisdom, and mocks at holy charity; yet adds greatly, withal, to the buoyancy and popularity of life. It makes gentlefolk laugh,—a difficult task, says Molière; it scatters our faculties, and "bears them off deridingly into pastime." It is a fire-gleam in our dull world, a gift of the gods, who love to provide weapons for the amusement and discomfiture of mankind. But humor stands on common soil, and breathes our common air. The kindly contagion of its mirth lifts our hearts from their personal apprehension of life's grievances, and links us together in a bond of mutual tears and laughter. If it be powerless to mould existence, or even explain it to our satisfaction, it can give us at least some basis for philosophy, some scope for sympathy, and sanity, and endurance. "The perceptions of the contrasts of human destiny," says M. Scherer, "by a man who does not sever himself from humanity, but who takes his own shortcomings and those of his dear fellow-creatures cheerfully,—this is the essence of humor."