Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

fact; and since, therefore, the class of ideas compared together in the bull are, to use the old logical phrase, greater in "intention "and less in "extension" than the ideas compared together in wit, it follows that the Irish bull cannot be the converse of the witticism.

In the second place it is to be observed, though this is a minor point, that Sydney Smith's admission that the bull must be "unintentional" is virtually equivalent to an admission that it cannot be, at any rate subjectively speaking, the converse of wit. For wit, considered as a quality inherent to the comparison of ideas, is independent of the mental attitude of the person comparing them; that is to say, that although we might deny the honors of "a wit" to a man who stumbles accidentally on a mot, we could not on that account refuse the praise of "wit" to the saying itself. But an objective quality of the comparison of ideas cannot have for its converse a quality thereof which is partially subjective of the person who compares them. "A great deal," adds Sydney Smith, "of the pleasure experienced from bulls proceeds from a sense of superiority in ourselves" to the person uttering them. "Bulls which were invented or known to be invented might please, but in a less degree for want of this additional zest." Undoubtedly that is true, but it is quite enough to show the radical distinction, both of origin and character, between the pleasurable emotions respectively produced by these two forms of the comparison of ideas. Our feeling towards the sayer of a witty thing is certainly not one of "superiority," but of admiration, and even gratitude; and our "zest" is directly proportioned to the amount of deliberate "invention "— of cleverness, in other words — which we perceive the speaker to have displayed.

The truth seems to be that the real logical converse of wit is not that accidental and rare peculiarity of the comparison of ideas which constitutes the

• This sense of superiority, however, is, it should be noted, of a somewhat subtle kind. It must not be the mere contempt with which a man of ordinary intelligence might regard a stupid blunderer. It is rather the pride of quick perception; a triumph in the avoidance of those intellectual pitfalls into which men far from stupid might at any moment inadvertently tumble. "Fewer absentees than formerly!" exclaims one of Mr. Charles Keene's excellent Irishmen in Punch. "Not a bit of it, me boy. The counthry swar-rms with em." This is a nearly perfect bull of its kind; but it is so for the very reason that it could have been easily made by any man who had so accustomed him self to use the phrase "The country swarms with them" as a mere hyperbolical equivalent for "there are many of them in existence," That its territorial import, so to speak, had been effaced by familiarity from his mind. LIVING AGE. VOL. XL. 2036

Irish bull, but that deliberately infused and much commoner quality of their comparison which we agree to call "humor." Had Sydney Smith followed out his analysis a little more closely, he would have found that the emotion of pleasure which we experience from the discovery of unsuspected incongruity beneath apparent congruity of ideas is of far more frequent occurrence than he seems to have perceived. He would have found that this pleasure is not excited by the Irish bull alone, nor only in those cases in which the combination of the incongruous ideas is unintentional and the discovery of their incongruity a source of discomfiture to their combiner, but that the human mind takes delight in the combination for its own sake, and enjoys the contemplation of incongruity intentionally exhibited. And he would, I believe, have been able to show by an indefinite number of illustrative' examples that the cases in which this happens are invariably instances of what we are now agreed to call humor, as distinct from wit. It may, perhaps, appear rash to assert of so Protean a quality that in its every phase and manifestation the pleasure given by it can be traced to the perception of incongruity, but I am strongly disposed to think that such is the case, and that no form of pure humor

[ocr errors]

for humor and wit may, of course, be sometimes combined in the same sentence could resist such reduction in the last analysis. But we may, I think, go further even than this. Good reason may be given for concluding that wit itself, considered in its relation to laughter, is mainly, if not wholly, dependent on an infusion of the accidental element of humor into that discovery of latent similitudes" of which it essentially consists. To show this, however, it will be necessary to resume the deferred analysis of Sydney Smith's above-cited definition of wit.

[ocr errors]

- that it

Now the first thing that strikes one about this definition, when we come to examine it, is that it is too widecommits that worst fault of a definition, of covering more objects than it is intended to define. "The pleasure arising from wit proceeds from our surprise at suddenly discovering things to be similar in which we suspected no similarity." But if this alone be wit, what then are the rhetorical figures of simile and metaphor themselves? The similarities revealed by wit must, as we are told, be unsus. pected, but so they are in some similes and metaphors, and so they ought to be in

all similes and metaphors which are meant | emotions which they arouse. They do to be rhetorically effective. An orator not of themselves suggest any serious who confined himself to pointing out pat- train of reflections or affect the bearer's ent resemblances would soon weary and or reader's mood to solemnity in any disgust his hearers; to captivate or even way; but he is none the nearer to being to interest them he must disclose latent | amused by them for all that. I would not resemblances; but when he does so the contend that they are on that ground alone effect is not, or is not always, wit. He to be denied the honors of wit; and, inmay produce something of the intellectual deed, it would be impossible to maintain effect of wit; he certainly does not pro- the proposition that the capacity of produce its well-known physical conse- voking laughter is to be treated as the quences. And these it is which the defi- differentia of wit proper. Such a proponition leaves altogether unexplained. We sition stands refuted by some of the most all know, without going into questions illustrious examples of wit, and of wit, of the wit of speech, that the sudden dis- too, of the purest and subtlest kind. One covery of fitness invariably gives pleas- might read the "Provincial Letters," for ure. The answer to a riddle, the neat instance, from end to end, without a working out of a mathematical problem, laugh, yet nobody surely would deny that the solution of a mechanical puzzle, all the keen pleasure which Pascal's irony awaken emotions of pleasure; but they gives us is essentially pleasure of the kind do not excite laughter, or not at any rate produced by wit. Nevertheless it reamong adults. One may, indeed, see a mains true that the provocation to laughchild clap its hands and burst out laugh- ter is popularly accounted as the only ing as the right segment of its "dissect-true test of wit; and it is at least certain, ing map drops suddenly into an un- that if we once begin to waive this test, promising-looking hole; but the satisfac- it becomes very difficult to draw the line tion of its elders at this "sudden dis- between those comparisons of ideas which covery of fitness" is more soberly mani- | are entitled to the epithet of "witty" and fested. Surprise and pleasure do not those which are not. At opposite ends of here excite laughter, nor do they in other the scale the discriminative process may analogous cases. Surprise is aroused by be easy enough. There are some similes, every brilliant comparison invented by excellent in their kind, which no one would orator or writer; and the pleasure and think of including in the catogory of wit, admiration which accompany it are pro-and others, not perhaps more apt, to portioned to the perfection of the com- which no one would think of refusing a parison, and to the completeness with place therein; but midway between the which it lay hidden till the happy sen- two we find a number of examples which, tence flung the light upon it. But though except by applying to them the criterion we are delighted at the discovery, and risibile, we should be quite at a loss to admire the discoverer, we do not necessa- assign to their respective categories. rily laugh at it or with him. Sydney What then is that element in any comSmith has himself remarked on the occa-parison of ideas which, when present, sional failure of suddenly revealed resem- makes it satisfy this criterion, and when blances to excite laughter, and suggested absent makes it fail to do so? It is not an explanation which, though true enough mere felicity, nor mere surprisingness so far as it goes, is insufficiently general- not the closeness of resemblance beized. He examines the comparison between the ideas compared, nor the comtween the cedar-tree imparting fragrance pleteness with which that resemblance to the axe and the Christian returning lies hid; for these as has been observed, good for evil to his persecutors, and says and, as could be easily proved by examthat this would give the pleasure of wit ples, are characteristics present to a were it not that it "excited virtuous emo- greater or less extent in all similes and tions." And no doubt a simile which ex-metaphors of any degree of merit. Let cites virtuous emotions is not calculated us take two examples at random. In one to provoke laughter- at least from per- of his eloquent speeches delivered in the sons of well-regulated minds. But, in Spanish Cortes, under the late republitruth, for an apt comparison to produce can régime, Señor Castelar was dilating mirth it is not enough that it should make (rather prematurely as events proved) on no positive appeal to our graver feelings. the extinction of the monarchical spirit Very many comparisons that we meet among his countrymen. "The monarwith in literature and oratory are thor- chy," he exclaimed, "is dead in Spain. oughly neutral in respect of the moral In Spain, gentlemen: remember what

that means.

It is as though one should | in short, are incongruous; and it is the incongruity of the things compared, not the neatness or felicity of the comparison, which provokes laughter. But incongruities form the material of humor, as resemblances form the material of wit; and in cases like this, therefore, we can clearly trace the laughter-moving property of witticisms to an admixture in them of the quality of humor.

say that the Koran was dead in Mecca." Here then is a comparison, which, without being above the average of quality, will serve to illustrate my point as well as another. It is a comparison which no one would think of describing as witty, but which nevertheless fairly satisfies Sydney Smith's definition of wit. The resemblance of the ideas, that is to say, is sufficiently striking, and yet is not ob vious, and their comparison accordingly produces that mixture of pleasure and surprise which was all that Sydney Smith's analysis of the emotion produced by wit can be said to yield. Yet the comparison is undoubtedly not witty, and it certainly fails to satisfy the criterion risibile. Many of Señor Castelar's hearers no doubt applauded it, but we may take it as certain that none of them laughed at it.

It cer

There are doubtless, however, other cases in which this is not so immediately apparent cases in which the ideas compared in a witticism are not themselves incongruous, while laughter is, notwithstanding, provoked by the comparison. Even here, however, it will be found, I believe, that it is not to the mere felicity of the comparison that the laughter is due that it is not the perception of fitness but that of unfitness which arouses mirth. Among the many witty things But on the other hand take this exam- which were said, or are reported to have ple. A certain moribund ministry, exist been said, in the old Irish Parliament, ing only on the sufferance of the opposi- there was none perhaps of higher merit tion, was wont to plead for successive than this: "The honorable member deprolongations of its official life on the scribed himself just now as the guardian ground of the valuable legislative meas- of his own honor, but on other occasions ures which it declared itself on the point I have heard him boast that he was an of producing; and these appeals were enemy to sinecures." We not only ad compared by Albany Fonblanque to the mire this, but laugh at it, and it might be plea which female convicts under capital thought at first sight that the laughter sentence sometimes put forward for the was the pure product of the wit. arrest of execution on the ground of tainly seems to follow as instantaneously pregnancy. Fonblanque's comparison is and inevitably upon the flash of surprise here as apt as, but perhaps no apter than, struck out at the moment when we grasp Castelar's, yet it would undoubtedly be the "point" as the thunder-clap follows called witty, while Castelar's would not; upon the lightning when the storm is diand, unlike Castelar's, it certainly satisfies rectly overhead. Yet still I am inclined the criterion risibile. It is indeed ex- to think that it is in reality not the sense tremely laughable, and of course it is not of fitness, but of unfitness not the felicdifficult to see why. The ideas compared ity of the comparison, but its extremely are in this case not only outwardly disinfelicitous application to the person similar, they are incongruous, and incon- against whom it is directed which gruity in the sense in which the word moves us to mirth. The " passion of is here used means much more than mere laughter" has been defined by Hobbes in dissimilarity. Incongruous ideas are his "Discourse of Human Nature" ideas which are not only dissimilar as nothing else but sudden glory arising presented to the intellectual vision, but from some sudden conception of some which belong to different planes of emo eminency in ourselves by comparison tion. Now the ideas of the monarchy in with the inferiority of others, or with our Spain, and of the Koran in Mecca may own formerly;" and though this definibe mentally unlike enough, but they are tion stands in need of course of some alemotionally similar: there is no marked lowance for the too sweeping cynicism of descent in dignity from one to the other. its author, it undoubtedly contains a large But from the idea of a condemned wom-ingredient of truth. It is always, indeed, an pleading for the life of her unborn as unsafe to neglect a definition of Hobbes child, to the idea of a discredited govern- as a maxim of Rochefoucauld's. Neither ment attempting to wheedle out a political shows us more than the "seamy side reprieve for themselves as being big with of human natue, but it is human nature legislative projects, there is a very notable which they both show. The "passion of and comical descent indeed. The ideas, laughter" is usually something more than

[ocr errors]

as

[ocr errors]

Hobbes's "sudden glory; " but this sud- words, is the satellite of humor and not of den glory is nearly always an ingredient wit, save when wit—as happens, however, in it, and is sometimes its sole constitu- more often perhaps than not is in huent. I believe that it is so in the instance mor's company; and that while, therefore, above quoted. We laugh at the discom- the former is confined to a narrow and strictly defined domain, the latter ranges freely over all the incongruities of the world.

66

fiture of this "guardian of his own honor," and glory in the sudden sense of superiority which it awakens in our minds. We rejoice to think that we have never ἐσθλοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἁπλῶς, παντοδαπῶς δὲ κακόι, laid ourselves open to so neat and ingenious an insult; and the mere fact that said the Greek gnomic poet of the essenno possible exercise of caution could have tial difference between the good and the saved the victim the mere fact that no evil; and the same distinction may be 'enemy of sinecures" could reasonably drawn between the unity of the material have foreseen any danger in describing of wit and the multiplicity of the material himself as the "guardian of his own of humor. Resemblance is a word of limhonor," - detracts nothing from the com- itation, but unlikeness, disparity, unfitplacency with which we contemplate his ness, are words implying the negation of dialectical overthrow. For our own "em-limiting qualities. A is one; but notinency "need not, to satisfy Hobbes's A is infinite, and humor is as illimitable definition, be founded on our own merit, as the space covered in scholastic logic nor the "infirmity of others on their by the universal negative. own fault: it is enough that circumstances have placed us in a position of superiority to another man, and that we are enabled to admire the suddenness and skill with which his imprudent utterances have been turned to his own confusion.

[ocr errors]

Still it is not, of course, the extent of the field over which humor ranges, but the quality of its material, which is the really interesting thing. It is, indeed, one of the most mysterious phenomena of the mystery of being, that this keenest But in so far as this "sudden glory" and most abiding of mental pleasures enters into it, the example in question is should be essentially and inseparably another case of delight in incongruity-combined with the unfit, the incongruous of pleasure excited by the spectacle not with, in fact, the imperfect in human of fitness but of unfitness. In other life and in the constitution of the world. words, it is not the wit of the comparison It is Carlyle, I think, who has somewhere between the two forms of sinecure, but defined humor as "a sympathy with the the humor of the contrast between the seamy side of things;" but the metaphor self-glorifying intention of the anti-sine- has, perhaps, somewhat of a tendency to curist's boasts and the humiliating use to obscure the truth. "Sympathy," in this which his adversary has contrived to put connection, is doubtless not to be underthem that excites our mirth. And the stood in its natural sense, as implying same thing is observable in an indefinite any admixture of compassion or pity. In number of instances - instances which all that acceptation, of course, the sense of tend to confirm the theory that humor humor is neither the product of sympathy and not wit is the true excitant of laugh- with, nor of antipathy to, the "seamy side ter; and that if and when laughter is ex- of things two perfectly well-known cited by a witty comparison it will be and well-marked mental attitudes of two found that the appeal to the risible fac- different classes of mind, which, however, ulty comes not from the intellectual shock belong neither of them to the humorous which is produced by the discovery of re-order; for as there are minds too impatient semblance between the two compared of the imperfections of life to permit of ideas, but from the sudden change of their possessing a sense of humor, so emotional temperature which is produced there are minds too deeply moved by when we are compelled to associate great things with small, noble things with ignoble, serious things with trivial, and to think of objects thus dissimilar in point of dignity as in some other respects closely resembling each other.

The sum, then, of the matter appears to be this—that it is by unfitness always, and by fitness never, that the emotion of laughter is stirred; that laughter, in other

"

those imperfections to permit it either. The one type of character is the natural soil from which springs the visionary philanthropist and projector of Utopias the least humorous personage, probably, among mortal men; the other tends as naturally to beget the ascetic moralist and thinker, or the doer of good works for the love of God-the Pascals or the Vincent de Pauls (the first of which names alone

[ocr errors]

suffices to remind us how completely wit | analogue of humor to be found in any of may be dissociated from humor) the them. A lame couplet, an ill-constructed whole race, in short, of those eager and machine, a discordant note, a clumsy melancholy spirits upon whom the dark-statue, a picture "out of drawing," a ness of the world and of man's lot is ever bungled problem - these are not pleasurlowering unrelieved. But Carlyle's "sym- able to hear, or see, or study, but purely pathy with the seamy side of things painful. If ever the pain that they give must, no doubt, be understood to mean is in any degree relieved, it is by their something quite different from a compas- chancing to appeal to the sense of humor sionate sense of the imperfections of life: on accidental grounds, and for reasons it means, beyond question, an actual en-bearing on relation to the various arts and joyment of these imperfections, a delight sciences to which they belong. In themin the seaminess for the sake of the seams. selves they are mere blots and failures But so explained, the phrase as greatly mere negations of the characteristic effect overstates the truth of the case as, upon which the work of the poet or the musithe other construction, it would understate cian, the painter, sculptor, mechanican, it; for it is unquestionably the fact that or mathematician is normally calculated the sense of humor is appealed to, and to produce. The sense of humor - the keenly appealed to, by circumstances and pleasure which humor awakens — stands situations in which it would be simply alone; it is wholly abnormal and disparate, diabolical to take pleasure: in which, in- completely sui generis; and we seek in deed, none but fiends could be seriously vain for any other account to give of its supposed to delight. It is impossible, for existence except that "it is felt." instance, for an Agnostic, possessed of But whatever mystery may surround its any sense of humor at all, to be uncon-origin and nature, its profound and abidscious of the humorous the powerfully ing consolations must be exultingly rec humorous - element underlying the whole ognized by all but those thrice unhappy relations of man with the unseen world beings to whom it has been denied. We and with his own unknown future. The need not say "gratefully" recognized; fun of the thing is, of course, disagreeably for really the endowment of man with a grim, but it is as genuine and unmistakable an appeal to one's sense of the ludicrous as ever was made; and being so, it cannot help producing the kind of pleasure which the recognition of the ludicrous always produces. But to say that we take pleasure in the existence and insolubility of an insoluble enigma, with which millions of human hearts are wrestling in agony every hour of the day, would be to make too horrible a charge against human nature. Moreover, it would be absurd on the face of it, since it is well known that the capacity of feeling most intensely on this subject is itself an extremely common accompaniment of the power of appreciating its humorous side.

leaves us.

[ocr errors]

The more closely, then, we examine the pleasure derived from the quality of humor, the more hopeless seems the attempt to find a place for it under any known category of human delights. Analysis simply lands us in a paradox, and there it Wit has its analogues in halfa-dozen other products of the human intelligence: in poetry, in mechanics, in music, in the imitative arts of painting and sculpture, in the very processes of the mathematician. Fitness, the better if surprising and suddenly discovered is at the bottom of the pleasure which we derive from all of these. But there is no

sense of humor seems no more than a fair equivalent for the gradual extinction of his belief in immortality. After having been deluded for so many ages, it would have been hard indeed to have denied him the satisfaction of laughing at the hoax. As it is, evolution, the giver, has added this good gift to him for what evolution, the destroyer, has taken away. Our Lubbocks and Tylors have not yet definitely fixed for us the birth, and systematically traced out for us the growth, of the sense of humor in our race: but I presume that it would be quite undiscoverable in primitive man, and it certainly seems that, while it was but faintly developed and sparsely distributed among men of the "ages of faith," it has increased in strength and depth and dispersion with the progress of modern thought. It is assuredly stronger in these days in spite of a certain superficial lack of gaiety, than it has ever been before, and its pleasures are beyond doubt as well suited to the senectus mundi as is whist to the old age. of man. We can say of it, indeed, as we can say of no other earthly delight, that it grows fuller with advancing years, that it is not blunted but sharpened by mental suffering, that it thrives even upon the ashes of despair. For whether there be moral enthusiasms they shall fail; wheth

« VorigeDoorgaan »