Elisabeth Morris

The humor-fetish

In every period and every land people have had their pet virtues. The Athenians adored wit, and the Spartans health; the Hebrews, at least retrospectively, honored the gift of prophecy; the Romans the virtue of self-control, the Quakers the virtue of peaceableness. Pioneers, the world over, worship bravery and resourcefulness—the virtues of aggression; settled societies appreciate fair-mindedness and rectitude—the virtues of restraint; aristocracies affect the virtues of conformity.

All virtues are good, though perhaps none of them so superlatively and exclusively good as each has at some time been deemed. But just now it would seem that in the general estimation they are all about to yield precedence to one which is, comparatively speaking, a new-comer, usually known as the Sense of Humor.

Not but that men have always laughed. But their laughter was grounded in brutality, and it was long before it took on any significance that we should now call humorous. The Athenians, to be sure, had attained humor, but later Europeans, in this respect as in many others, did not climb from their shoulders; they had to begin at the bottom, just as if Aristophanes had never made the very heavens rock with laughter. And it was a long way up from the half-Latinized Goth and Celt to Shakespeare and Moliere and Lamb and Meredith.

No wonder that we should be dazzled by a virtue for all practical purposes only a few centuries old, and still growing. But we ought not to be dazzled too long, and it really seems as if this new virtue were becoming something of a fetish. A young man said gravely the other day, “One can’t get to heaven without a sense of humor, you know.” A gentle man writes from England to the editors of an American school paper to inquire into the status of the sense of humor among American boys, as compared with English. The word “humor” is on every one’s lips. Humor is the one thing needful. We are warned against choosing friends who lack it; and as for marriage, if both parties do not possess it the altar is but a prelude to the divorce court, if not to suicide. If any man fail of success in any way, we are told that it is because he lacks humor; if he is dissatisfied with existing conditions, this accounts for it. Nearly every human vagary, from eccentricities in dress to curious tastes in the naming of children, is ascribed to the absence or inadequacy of this one virtue. Everything, from dinner-parties to matrimony, must be ordered with a view to this test.

Now, humor is a pleasant thing, and a good thing; but perhaps it is being a little overdone, and overdone with a touch of priggery and a touch of stupidity. The priggery lies in the assumption, always apparent, that we, the speaker and his companions, possess this jewel, this last gift, and we are filled with a self-congratulatory glow as we consider those poor unfortunates who are not thus endowed. It is the Pharisee hugging himself for his own virtues, though the particular virtue chosen is one which was probably not valued by the original Pharisee. I know of nothing more complete than the arrogance of the man who laughs at a joke towards the man who does not—an arrogance so absolute, indeed, that its only manifestation is often a tolerant and amused pity. As a people, we Americans have assumed for ourselves the position of those who laugh, with the other nations of the world falling into line behind us, according to their respective capacity in this one matter. But some of us who have chanced to encounter the jocular American abroad must have wished that other virtues than humor had been a little more emphasized in his home circle.

The touch of stupidity lies in the assumption that the sense of humor is a simple characteristic, like blueness of eyes, or a definite possession, like pennies, that people may have or not have, in varying and ascertainable quantities. Indeed, whenever we begin to sort people out into classes according to their characteristics, we usually get into trouble. And of all unhelpful classifications, the worst is this one based on the possession of a sense of humor. It is almost as unmanageable as the one based on goodness and badness, so called, which has at least the sanction of tradition, though it has led to little but bewilderment. We all know Aucassin’s frank comments on the personnel of Heaven, as thus determined; and many before and since his time have felt as he did. But if the sense of humor, instead of goodness, is to be made the condition of entrance, the society there will be different indeed, but perhaps even queerer. Thersites and Henry VIII will get in, but Milton and Seneca will not. Lincoln will be safe, to be sure, and Hawthorne may slip past the gate unchallenged, but hardly Emerson. For Cromwell and Napoleon, for Coleridge and John Stuart Mill, there will be no hope. And as for those others whom we know even better than these—Rosalind and Hamlet and Beatrice and Mercutio—it will be well with them; but Perdita and Isabella and Miranda must remain outside with Malvolio and Polonius, although it may comfort them to find Hector and Achilles and Prospero and Horatio in their company.

The trouble all comes from trying to base any classification at all on so elusive a quality as this so-called sense of humor. For it is not all one thing, or even degrees of one thing. It is so protean a quality, so dependent for its value upon a vast number of delicate adjustments among other qualities of a person’s nature, that while it continually invites analysis, it continually eludes definition.

There are as many kinds of humor as there are kinds of people, and the important question is, not whether any one possesses it, but what kind he possesses. Better none at all than a sort that does not chance to harmonize with our own. George Eliot points out somewhere that one of the hardest tests of friendship is a difference of taste in jokes. Why, then, are people thus reckless in invoking a quality so little understood and so apt to lead to difficulties? Everyone knows that there is nothing more dangerous than an escaped virtue, but if we are not careful this one will have given us the slip and, in common phrase, “be all over the shop.” Indeed, it sometimes seems as if this had already happened, if one may judge from our newspapers, our magazines, our conversation, and the demeanor of our countrymen abroad. Humor is considered the one thing needful, and few pause to ask, What sort of humor? Yet the time may come when we shall be so cloyed with it that we may beg to be spared any sort. Already it is a relief now and then to find a person who is habitually serious, whose conversation is not continually “lighted up” by the humorous point of view. Such people, we hear, are not good to live with. What a curious blunder! I know such a person, one of the loveliest I have ever had the good fortune to meet, and of humor—humor of any sort—she has not a shadow—or shall we say a flicker? She smiles often, but from pure kindness, not from amusement. She laughs when her friends laugh, but only through sympathy with them. She has sweet, grave eyes, and a mouth gentle and firm and motherly, and her voice is like the touch of a quiet hand. She has dignity without condescension, and a love for all things, both great and small, that is never found wanting. Not good to live with? Those whose household she blesses give thanks every hour of the day, though not always consciously, for the boon of her presence.

Not get to Heaven without a sense of humor? Like Aucassin, we are puzzled. But we will not be so defiant as he, and choose to stay out. We will rather hope that there is some mistake. Perhaps this ruling is not final. Perhaps Heaven will reconsider.


MLA Citation

Morris, Elisabeth. “The humor-fetish.” 1917. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 8 Oct 2008. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/morris/humor-fetish/>.

Patrick Madden's New Book
Quotidiana by Patrick Madden

Join Us on Facebook
facebook logo

Generate PDF

Related Essays

“That we laugh and cry for the same thing”

Michel de Montaigne

If we would make one continued thing of all this succession of passions, we deceive ourselves

“The old order changes”

A. A. Milne

Anything regular soon gets taken for granted.

“On education”

Hannah More

Let the graces be industriously cultivated, but let them not be cultivated at the expense of the virtues.

“On good-nature”

William Hazlitt

Good-nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues: it is nine times out of ten mere indolence of disposition.

“A meditation upon a broomstick”

Jonathan Swift

I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!”