Times have been, it is said, merrier than these; but it is certain nevertheless that laughter never was so honoured as now; were it not for the paradox one might say, it never was so grave. Everywhere the joke “emerges”—as an “elegant” writer might have it—emerges to catch the attention of the sense of humour; and everywhere the sense of humour wanders, watches, and waits to honour the appeal.
It loiters, vaguely but perpetually willing. It wears (let the violent personification be pardoned) a hanging lip, and a wrinkle in abeyance, and an eye in suspense. It is much at the service of the vagrant encounterer, and may be accosted by any chance daughters of the game. It stands in untoward places, or places that were once inappropriate, and is early at some indefinite appointment, some ubiquitous tryst, with the compliant jest.
All literature becomes a field of easy assignations; there is a constant signalling, an endless recognition. Forms of approach are remitted. And the joke and the sense of humour, with no surprise of meeting, or no gaiety of strangeness, so customary has the promiscuity become, go up and down the pages of the paper and the book. See, again, the theatre. A somewhat easy sort of comic acting is by so much the best thing upon our present stage that little else can claim—paradox again apart—to be taken seriously.
There is, in a word, a determination, an increasing tendency away from the Oriental estimate of laughter as a thing fitter for women, fittest for children, and unfitted for the beard. Laughter is everywhere and at every moment proclaimed to be the honourable occupation of men, and in some degree distinctive of men, and no mean part of their prerogative and privilege. The sense of humour is chiefly theirs, and those who are not men are to be admitted to the jest upon their explanation. They will not refuse explanation. And there is little upon which a man will so value himself as upon that sense, “in England, now.”
Meanwhile, it would be a pity if laughter should ever become, like rhetoric and the arts, a habit. And it is in some sort a habit when it is not inevitable. If we ask ourselves why we laugh, we must confess that we laugh oftenest because—being amused—we intend to show that we are amused. We are right to make the sign, but a smile would be as sure a signal as a laugh, and more sincere; it would but be changing the convention; and the change would restore laughter itself to its own place. We have fallen into the way of using it to prove something—our sense of the goodness of the jest, to wit; but laughter should not thus be used, it should go free. It is not a demonstration, whether in logic, or—as the word demonstration is now generally used—in emotion; and we do ill to charge it with that office. Something of the Oriental idea of dignity might not be amiss among such a people as ourselves containing wide and numerous classes who laugh without cause: audiences; crowds; a great many clergymen, who perhaps first fell into the habit in the intention of proving that they were not gloomy; but a vast number of laymen also who had not that excuse; and many women who laugh in their uncertainty as to what is humorous and what is not. This last is the most harmless of all kinds of superfluous laughter. When it carries an apology, a confession of natural and genial ignorance, and when a gentle creature laughs a laugh of hazard and experiment, she is to be more than forgiven. What she must not do is to laugh a laugh of instruction, and as it were retrieve the jest that was never worth the taking.
There are, besides, a few women who do not disturb themselves as to a sense of humour, but who laugh from a sense of happiness. Childish is that trick, and sweet. For children, who always laugh because they must, and never by way of proof or sign, laugh only half their laughs out of their sense of humour; they laugh the rest under a mere stimulation: because of abounding breath and blood; because some one runs behind them, for example, and movement does so jog their spirits that their legs fail them, for laughter, without a jest.
If ever the day should come when men and women shall be content to signal their perception of humour by the natural smile, and shall keep the laugh for its own unpremeditated act, shall laugh seldom, and simply, and not thrice at the same thing—once for foolish surprise, and twice for tardy intelligence, and thrice to let it be known that they are amused—then it may be time to persuade this laughing nation not to laugh so loud as it is wont in public. The theatre audiences of louder-speaking nations laugh lower than ours. The laugh that is chiefly a signal of the laugher’s sense of the ridiculous is necessarily loud; and it has the disadvantage of covering what we may perhaps wish to hear from the actors. It is a public laugh, and no ordinary citizen is called upon for a public laugh. He may laugh in public, but let it be with private laughter there.
Let us, if anything like a general reform be possible in these times of dispersion and of scattering, keep henceforth our sense of humour in a place better guarded, as something worth a measure of seclusion. It should not loiter in wait for the alms of a joke in adventurous places. For the sense of humour has other things to do than to make itself conspicuous in the act of laughter. It has negative tasks of valid virtue; for example, the standing and waiting within call of tragedy itself, where, excluded, it may keep guard.
No reasonable man will aver that the Oriental manners are best. This would be to deny Shakespeare as his comrades knew him, where the wit “out-did the meat, out-did the frolic wine,” and to deny Ben Jonson’s “tart Aristophanes, neat Terence, witty Plautus,” and the rest. Doubtless Greece determined the custom for all our Occident; but none the less might the modern world grow more sensible of the value of composure. To none other of the several powers of our souls do we so give rein as to this of humour, and none other do we indulge with so little fastidiousness. It is as though there were honour in governing the other senses, and honour in refusing to govern this. It is as though we were ashamed of reason here, and shy of dignity, and suspicious of temperance, and diffident of moderation, and too eager to thrust forward that which loses nothing by seclusion.
Meynell, Alice. “Laughter.” 1909. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 23 Feb 2007. 10 Mar 2014 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/meynell/laughter/>.
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