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 possession of the thinking half, and the humorists must be classified at once with the thinkers.

On the Possession of a Sense of Humor

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 head-strong 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 hack 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 contrast—of 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 contemplate 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 joke be judged by its intent or by its consequences? Is a joke that does not produce a laugh a joke at all? Pragmatically considered it is not. Agnes Repplier, writing on Humor, speaks of "those beloved writers whom we hold to be humorists because they have made us laugh." We hold them to be so—but there seems to be a suggestion that we may be wrong. Is it possible that the laugh is not the test of the joke? Here is a question over which the philosophers may wrangle. Is there an Absolute in the realm of humor, or must our jokes be judged solely by the pragmatic test? Congreve once told Colly Gibber that there were many witty speeches in one of Colly's plays, and many that looked witty, yet were not really what they seemed at first sight! So a joke is not to be recognized even by its appearance or by the company it keeps. Perhaps there might be established a test of good usage. A joke would be that at which the best people laugh.

Somebody—was it Mark Twain?—once said that there are eleven original jokes in the world—that these were known in prehistoric times, and that all jokes since have been but modifications and adaptations from the originals. Miss Repplier, however, gives to modern times the credit for some inventiveness. Christianity, she says, must be thanked for such contributions as the missionary and cannibal joke, and for the interminable variations of St. Peter at the gate. Max Beerbohm once codified all the English comic papers and found that the following list comprised all the subjects discussed: Mothers-in-law; Hen-pecked husbands; Twins; Old maids; Jews; Frenchmen and Germans; Italians and Negroes; Fatness; Thinness; Long hair (in men); Baldness; Sea sickness; Stuttering; Bloomers; Bad cheese; Red noses. A like examination of American newspapers would perhaps result in a slightly different list. We have, of course, our purely local jokes. Boston will always be a joke to Chicago, the east to the west. The city girl in the country offers a perennial source of amusement, as does the country man in the city. And the foreigner we have always with us, to mix his Y's and J's, distort his H's, and play havoc with the Anglo-Saxon Th. Indeed our great American sense of humor has been explained as an outgrowth from the vast field of incongruities offered by a developing civilization.

It may be that this vaunted national sense has been over-estimated—exaggeration is a characteristic of that humor, anyway—but at least it has one of the Christian virtues—it suffereth long and is kind. Miss Repplier says that it is because we are a "humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part with, and not at our fellow creatures." This, I think, is something that our fellow creatures from other lands do not always comprehend. I listened once to a distinguished Frenchman as he addressed the students in a western university chapel. He was evidently astounded and embarrassed by the outbursts of laughter that greeted his mildly humorous remarks. He even stopped to apologize for the deficiencies of his English, deeming them the cause, and was further mystified by the little ripple of laughter that met his explanation—a ripple that came from the hearts of the good-natured students, who meant only to be appreciative and kind. Foreigners, too, unacquainted with American slang often find themselves precipitating a laugh for which they are unprepared. For a bit of current slang, however and whenever used, is always humorous.

The American is not only a humorous person, he is a practical person. So it is only natural that the American humor should be put to practical uses. It was once said that the difference between a man with tact and a man without was that the man with tact, in trying to put a bit in a horse's mouth, would first tell him a funny story, while the man without tact would get an axe. This use of the funny story is the American way of adapting it to practical ends. A collection of funny stories used to be an important part of a drummer's stock in trade. It is by means of the "good story" that the politician makes his way into office; the business man paves the way for a big deal; the after-dinner speaker gets a hearing; the hostess saves her guests from boredom. Such a large place does the "story" hold in our national life that we have invented a social pastime that might be termed a "joke match." "Don't tell a funny story, even if you know one," was the advice of the Atchison Globe man, "its narration will only remind your hearers of a bad one." True as this may be, we still persist in telling our funny story. Our hearers are reminded of another, good or bad, which again reminds us—and so on.

A sense of humor, as was intimated before, is the chiefest of the virtues. It is more than this—it is one of the essentials to success. For, as has also been pointed out, we, being a practical people, put our humor to practical uses. It is held up as one of the prerequisites for entrance to any profession. "A lawyer," says a member of that order, must have such and such mental and moral qualities; "but before all else"—and this impressively—"he must possess a sense of humor." Samuel McChord Crothers says that were he on the examining board for the granting of certificates to prospective teachers, he would place a copy of Lamb's essay on Schoolmasters in the hands of each, and if the light of humorous appreciation failed to dawn as the reading progressed, the certificate would be withheld. For, before all else, a teacher must possess a sense of humor! If it be true, then, that the sense of humor is so important in determining the choice of a profession, how wise are those writers who hold it an essential for entrance into that most exacting of professions—matrimony! "Incompatibility in humor," George Eliot held to be the "most serious cause of diversion." And Stevenson, always wise, insists that husband and wife must he able to laugh over the same jokes—have between them many a "grouse in the gun-room" story. But there must always be exceptions if the spice of life is to be preserved, and I recall one couple of my acquaintance, devoted and loyal in spite of this very incompatibility. A man with a highly whimsical sense of humor had married a woman with none. Yet he told his best stories with an eye to their effect on her, and when her response came, peaceful and placid and non-comprehending, he would look about the table with delight, as much as to say, "Isn't she a wonder? Do you know her equal?"

Humor may be the greatest of the virtues, yet it is the one of whose possession we may boast with impunity. "Well, that was too much for my sense of humor," we say. Or, "You know my sense of humor was always my strong point." Imagine thus boasting of one's integrity, or sense of honor! And so is its lack the one vice of which one may not permit himself to be a trifle proud. "I admit that I have a hot temper," and "I know I'm extravagant," are simple enough admissions. But did any one ever openly make the confession, "I know I am lacking in a sense of humor!" However, to recognize the lack one would first have to possess the sense—which is manifestly impossible.

"To explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the condition of human life," says Hazlitt, and no philosophy has as yet succeeded in accounting for the condition of human life. "Man is a laughing animal," wrote Meredith, "and at the end of infinite search the philosopher finds himself clinging to laughter as the best of human fruit, purely human, and sane, and comforting." So whether it be the corrective laughter of Bergson, Jove laughing at lovers' vows, Love laughing at locksmiths, or the cheerful laughter of the fool that was like the crackling of thorns to Koheleth, the preacher, we recognize that it is good; that without this saving grace of humor life would be an empty vaunt. I like to recall that ancient usage: "The skie hangs full of humour, and I think we shall haue raine." Blessed humor, no less refreshing today than was the humour of old to a parched and thirsty earth.


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