« PreviousContinue »
ON THE POSSESSION OF A
SENSE OF HUMOR
“Man,” says Hazlitt, "is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." The sources, then, of laughter and tears come very close together. At the difference between things as they are and as they ought to be we laugh, or we weep; it would depend, it seems, on the point of view, or the temperament. And if, as Horace Walpole once said, "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel," it is the thinking half of humanity that, at the sight of life's incongruities, is moved to laughter, the feeling half to tears. A sense of humor, then, is the posssession of the thinking half, and the humorists must be classified at once with the thinkers.
If one were asked to go further than this and to give offhand a definition of humor, or of that elusive quality, a sense of humor, he might find himself confronted with a difficulty. Yet certain things about it would be patent at the outset: Women haven't it; Englishmen haven't it; it is the chiefest of the virtues, for tho a man speak with the tongues of men and of angels, if he have not humor we will have none of him. Women may continue to laugh over those innocent and innocuous incidents which they find amusing; may continue to write the most delightful of stories and essays-consider Jane Austen and our own Miss Repplier-over which appreciative readers may continue to chuckle; Englishmen may continue, as in the past to produce the most exquisite of the world's humorous literature-think of Charles Lamb-yet the fundamental faith of mankind will remain unshaken: women have no sense of humor, and an Englishman cannot see a joke! And the ability to "see a joke" is the infallible American test of the sense of humor.
But taking the matter seriously, how would one define humor? When in doubt, consult the dictionary, is, as always, an excellent motto, and, following it, we find that our trustworthy friend, Noah Webster, does not fail us. Here is his definition of humor, ready to hand: humor is "the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating ludicrous or absurdly incongruous elements in ideas, situations, happenings, or acts," with the added information that it is distinguished from wit as "less purely intellectual and having more kindly sympathy with human nature, and as often blended with pathos." A friendly rival in lexicography defines the same prized human attribute more lightly as "a facetious turn of thought," or more specifically in literature, as “a sportive exercise of the imagination that is apparent in the choice and treatment of an idea or theme." Isn't there something about that word "sportive," on the lips of so learned an authority, that tickles the fancy-appeals to the sense of humor?
Yet if we peruse the dictionary further, especially if we approach that monument to English scholarship, the great Murray, we shall find that the problem of defining humor is not so simple as it might seem; for the word that we use so glibly, with so sure a confidence in its stability, has had a long and varied history and has answered to many aliases. When Shakespeare called a man "humorous" he meant that he was changeable and capricious, not that he was given to a facetious turn of thought or to a "sportive" exercise of the imagination. When he talks in "The Taming of the Shrew" of "her mad and headstrong humor" he doesn't mean to imply that Kate is a practical joker. It is interesting to note in passing that the old meaning of the word still lingers in the verb "to humor." A woman still humors her spoiled child and her cantankerous husband when she yields to their capriciousness. By going back a step further in history, to the late fourteenth century, we met Chaucer's physician who knew "the cause of everye maladye, and where engendered and of what humour" and find that Chaucer is not speaking of a mental state at all, but is referring to those physiological humours of which, according to Hippocrates, the human body contained four: blood, phlegm, bile, and black bile, and by which the disposition was determined. We find, too, that at one time a "humour" meant any animal or plant fluid, and again any
kind of moisture. "The skie hangs full of humour, and I think we shall haue raine," ran an ancient weather prophet's prediction. Which might give rise to some thoughts on the paradoxical subject of dry humor.
Now in part this development is easily traced. Humor, meaning moisture of any kind, came to have a biological significance and was applied only to plant and animal life. It was restricted later within purely physiological boundaries and was applied only to those "humours" of the human body that controlled temperament. From these fluids, determining mental states, the word took on a psychological coloring, but-by what process of evolution did humor reach its present status! After all, the scientific method has its weaknesses!
We can, if we wish, define humor in terms of what it is not. We can draw lines around it and distinguish it from its next of kin, wit. This indeed has been a favorite pastime with the jugglers of words in all ages. And many have been the attempts to define humor, to define wit, to describe and differentiate them, to build high fences to keep them apart.
"Wit is abrupt, darting, scornful; it tosses its analogies in your face; humor is slow and shy, insinuating its fun into your heart," says E. P. Whipple. "Wit is intellectual, humor is emotional; wit is perception of resemblance, humor of contrastof contrast between ideal and fact, theory and practice, promise and performance," writes another authority. While yet another points out that “Humor is feeling-feelings can always bear repetition, while wit, being intellectual, suffers by repetition." The truth of this is evident when we remember that we repeat a witty saying that we may enjoy the effect on others, while we retell a humorous story largely for our own enjoyment of it.
Yet it is quite possible that humor ought not to be defined. It may be one of those intangible substances, like love and beauty, that are indefinable. It is quite probable that humor should not be explained. It would be distressing, as some one pointed out, to discover that American humor is based on American dyspepsia. Yet the philosophers themselves have endeavored to explain it. Hazlitt held that to understand the ludicrous, we must first know what the serious is. And to apprehend the serious, what better course could be followed than to contem
plate the serious-yes and ludicrous-findings of the philosophers in their attempts to define humor and to explain laughter. Consider Hobbes: "The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from the sudden conception of eminency in ourselves by comparison with the inferiority of others, or with our own formerly." According to Professor Bain, “Laughter results from the degradation of some person or interest possessing dignity in circumstances that excite no other strong emotion." Even Kant, desisting for a time from his contemplation of Pure Reason, gave his attention to the human phenomenon of laughter and explained it away as “the result of an expectation which of a sudden ends in nothing." Some modern cynic has compiled a list of the situations on the stage which are always "humorous." One of them, I recall, is the situation in which the clown-acrobat, having made mighty preparations for jumping over a pile of chairs, suddenly changes his mind and walks off without attempting it. The laughter that invariably greets this "funny" maneuver would seem to have philosophical sanction. Bergson, too, the philosopher of creative evolution, has considered laughter to the extent of an entire volume. A reading of it leaves one a little disturbed. Laughter, so we learn, is not the merry-hearted, jovial companion we had thought him. Laughter is a stern mentor, characterized by "an absence of feeling." "Laughter," says M. Bergson, "is above all a corrective, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness." If this be laughter, grant us occasionally the saving grace of tears, which may be tears of sympathy, and, therefore, kind!
But, after all, since it is true that "one touch of humor makes the whole world grin," what difference does it make what that humor is; what difference why or wherefore we laugh, since somehow or other, in a sorry world, we do laugh?
Of the test for a sense of humor, it has already been said that it is the ability to see a joke. And, as for a joke, the dictionary, again a present help in time of trouble, tells us at once that it is, "something said or done for the purpose of exciting a laugh." But stay! Suppose it does not excite the laugh expected? What of the joke that misses fire? Shall a