MR. TRAILL ON THE SENSE OF HUMOUR.
WE are surprised to see in Mr. Traill's interesting paper in the Fortnightly for February, on "The Evolution of Humour," that he revives the old view of Hobbes that laughter springs from a sort of self-congratulation on our own superiority over others, that its source is in the consciousness of our own "eminency," for which we take to ourselves a sudden sense of glory; and therefore that humour in its primary form, is a delight in practical jokes which degrade or cheapen others to our own advantage. He presses on us the problem why there should be any pleasure in the perception of the incongruous,—in other words, the perception of what is unfitting, what is perverted,— and can find no answer to that question except Hobbes's, that originally the pleasure arose in man's sense of superiority to the person who is the victim of either a practical joke or a sudden mishap. He thinks that the first sense of the humorous in a child is excited by the perception of another child's tumble, and that the more humiliating the circumstances of the tumble, the greater the sense of humour will be. Indeed, he holds, if we rightly under- stand him, that as there could be no natural pleasure in mere incongruity, mere wrongness, for the sake of incongruity or wrongness, the pleasure must originate in that livelier sense of the congruity or rightness of one's own position which this vivid sense of the wrongness of another's position forces upon one. Yet he has to admit that in the very greatest instance of Aristo- phanic humour, —the Birds of Aristophanes,—the pleasantry is pleasantry at the expense of the whole human race, so that the author of the pleasantry, as well as all those who enjoyed it, realised that whatever humiliation there was in the case, was a humiliation in which they themselves shared ; and all he can say on this head is that Aristophanes in this play was showing a kind of prophetic sense of the higher stage of evolution at which humour has in our own day arrived,—in other words, that Aristophanes was, as a humourist, before his time. But what will he say of the humour of parody, the earliest kind of humour probably of which we have any specimen,—such humour as we find in The Battle of the Frogs and Mice or The Pot-Kiln, in both of which the charm apparently lay jest where the charm lies for modern children in our Bon.
bastes Furioso,—that is, in the application of a style which specially suits the sublime to a subject-matter which is entirely unworthy of it, so as to excite laughter by the close association of a magniloquent form with a less than common- place substance. Every child has laughed at the lines,—
" Stich love warms the coldest of spots As I feel for Scrubinda the fair, Who lives by the scouring of pots
In Dyot Street, Bloomsbury Square."
And so far as we can judge, the source of the amusement in this somewhat humble blending of contrasted feelings, is precisely the kind of amusement which the Greeks felt in reading the grandiose account of the interferences of the Olympian gods between long-descended heroes amongst the frogs and long- descended heroes amongst the mice, or in hearing the processes of pottery described in the high-flown style of an imaginative mythological narrative. Ottfried Muller, in his "History of the Literature of Ancient Greece," gives the following description of the earliest bit of parody on record, a parody by Asius of Samos, saying that in it "a parasite, forcing himself upon a marriage- feast, is described with Homeric solemnity and ironical serious- ness, as the maimed, scarred, and grey-haired adorer of the fragrancy of the kitchen, who comes unbidden, and suddenly appears among the guests, a hero rising from the mud."
We cannot see that the pleasure in such parody,—apparently the earliest form of comic literature in the West,—can be traced in any degree to the sudden glory with which a man conceives himself to be enveloped who discerns his own superiority to the victim of a joke. On the contrary, here, as in the case of the Birds of Aristophanes,—the most magnificent work of humour of the early world,—the reader who enjoys this serio- comic vein is himself the victim of his own joke. It is he who feels himself in part in sympathy with the exalted style of the epic, in part also in sympathy with the homely or even vulgar nature with which it is contrasted ; and it is just because he hardly knows with which of the two he is most in sympathy, that he laughs at the rapid transition from the one to the other. If Mr. Traill presses the question, What is there pleasurable in mere incongruity ?' we should reply by asking another question, 'What is there pleasurable in looking at St. Paul's first from St. Paul's Churchyard, and next from the highest of the outside galleries?' The delight is in the sudden consciousness of range which it gives to the mind. After all, incon- gruity is only a relative word. There is no real incongruity be- tween the epic and the homely at all. The epic is the natural form of one class of thoughts, the homely of another class ; and though it is not usual to pass very suddenly from the one to the other, and undoubtedly there is something that is in part distressing in the sudden transition, all the more distressing the more the mind gives its permanent and voluntary preference to the higher as distinguished from the lower class of interests, yet besides the distressing feeling,—the sense of partial disgust,— which parody always produces on the educated mind that has more and more absorbed the more exalted strain of feeling, there is necessarily also a sudden glow of life kindled by the con- sciousness that the mind is at home in two quite separate worlds,—the world of clay and the world of spirit,—and is free of both. The popularity of the "muscular Christianity" of the last generation was in a great degree due to the same source as the charm of the hamourist. Men enjoyed feeling that the full pride of bodily health and strength was compatible with the full humility of spiritual devotion. But undoubtedly it is true that the suddenness and abruptness of the transition becomes more jarring as the mind gets more fully impregnated with the higher region of feeling, and the time comes when humour such as is shown in The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, or in Bonzbastes Furioso, or in parody generally, revolts the educated taste, and we enjoy only those finer and more subdued transitions which seem to suit the more refined natures.
As to Mr. Traill's contention that it is the sense of personal superiority which forms the original root of the pleasurable feeling even in vulgar jocularity, we disbelieve it altogether. The practical joker may be, and often is no doubt, cruel as well as humorous ; and in his cruelty he may delight in the contrast between his own comfortable situation and the discomfiture of his butt; while his sense of humour is gratified by the sudden transforma- tion of feelings of fall security into feelings of profound dismay.
But we deny altogether that the humourist, as a humonrist, has his enjoyment at all increased,—on the contrary, he has it much diminished,—by realising the pain and humiliation of another. Indeed, the most delightful sense of humour is entirely unaccom- panied by any shock to another. When the physician recom- mended Sydney Smith "to take a walk on an empty stomach," and Sydney Smith immediately asked, "On whose IP' the humour involved no one's pain and humiliation, and would have been mach diminished if it had involved either. When Dickens makes Mrs. Gamp ask if any lady or gentleman would like some thin bread-and-butter "without the crust, by reason of tender teeth, which Gamp, being in liquor, knocked out four at a blow," and thus huntorously indicates that she was cutting it not for anybody else, but for herself, while breaking her purpose to the company in the form of generous solicitude for some- body else's welfare, we laugh inwardly, not because we feel our superiority to Mrs. Gamp, but because we recognise the subtlety of the insight into the natural selfishness of the human heart, though we might be too shrewd to betray it to the world with Mrs. Gamp's unintentional simplicity. We do not believe that humour of the true kind was ever yet heightened by that delight in our own eminency which Hobbes treats as the essential cause of laughter. Doubtless it is the cause of some laughter, for laughter is often excited by the sense of triumph in men who have no humour at all. "Let those laugh who win," says the proverb, and it cannot be denied that laughter is not uncommon in persons who win, just as tears are not uncommon in persons who lose. Bat to argue that because those laugh who win, while those also laugh whose sense of humour is gratified, therefore all sense of humour is to be traced to the sense of winning, is about as wise as to argue that because men weep when they lose, and also weep when their pity is excited, therefore all sense of pity is due to the sense of loss. Of course, neither of these hasty generalisa- tions is true. Humour originally meant something which was opposed to dryness, and, in our belief, humour always meant, and still means, that rapid power of passing from one mood of feeling to another of which dry men seem quite incapable. It is true that there is such a thing as dry humour, just as there is such a thing as dry wine. Bat dry humour means humour which passes so quietly from one mood to another that the transition is imperceptible to the multitude, while rich humour is the sort of humour which, like Sydney Smith's or Charles Lamb's, passes from one mood to the other with something of joyful exuberance.
Mr. Trail treats satire and humour as if they were nearly iden- tical, though to us they seem very different, in spite of the various intermediate shades by which the difference between the two is graduated. Nobody would call Pope a humonrist. Nobody would call the satire on Addison in the Epistle to Mr. Arbuthnot, —admirable as it iii,—a work of humour. And though Thackeray was a considerable humonrist and a great satirist, it is easy, we think, to see that when his satirical mood was 'uppermost, as in "Barry Lyndon," his humour was not at its highest ; while when his humour was at its highest, as in "The New- comes," his satirical power was to some extent waning. We should say that the difference between satire and humour is this,—that satire is written in the same plane of feeling from beginning to end, though it may put on the mere appearance of a different plane of feeling in order to enhance the effect ; while humour flashes from one mood to another, and is essentially iridescent in its lights, filling one with the feeling that one does not know in which plane of feeling one is. Swift, for instance, was a satirist, a satirist only, though the greatest of satirists. Charles Lamb was a hamourist, and one of the greatest of humourists, though now and then his humour had something of the effect of satire. Now satire, doubtless, is closely connected with the triumphant mood of laughter ; while humour, as such, has no connection of the kind. Humour, whether in the days of Aristophanes or in our own, delights in flashing from one deep vein of human nature to another, with a flight as swift and as brilliant as that of a kingfisher when it plunges from the air into the stream. The charm it exercises is the charm of realising for us vividly in how many planes of life we really live ; but the essence of satire is scorn, and in the attitude of scorn it begins and ends.