How shall we define the wayward and mysterious and outcast thing that we call humour? – that is forever a pillar-to-post fugitive from the stern laws of reality, and yet forms so intimate a part of – and even embodies – all truth about which there is an eternal ring.
There isn’t as much humour in the world today as there was of yore, I think. And through the realms of culture, there do not sweep those gusts of great laughter that used to blow the lamp smoke away from thought, and leave behind only a sense of intoxication. The material for splendid mirth is still here, of course – right in our midst. Turn but a stone and the diamonds coruscate. Yet the man who could make out of this material a supremely godlike brand of jesting, we seem not to have with us any more.
Lots of people have tried to analyse humour: writers, comedians, clergymen, psychologists, undertakers, political cartoonists, crooks, prison superintendants – in fact, all sorts of men in whose private or professional lives humour plays an important role. But I have never come across any attempt, trying to explain what it is that makes us laugh, that has impressed me very much. You can work out what are the important ingredients that go towards the compounding of that rare and subtle thing that stirs the risible faculties. But that doesn’t get you anywhere. You can analyse the elements that embrace laughter, but you can’t make anybody laugh with your analysis.
It’s the same thing with those distinctions that people draw between humour and wit. Is there any difference? I don’t know. If that rather generally accepted, rough-and-ready attempt at classificiation holds water – namely, that humour is born out of the emotions, and that wit springs from the intellect – then I would naturally be prone to look upon wit as being, to some extent, an intruder. I am, by nature, suspicious of the intellect, fancying that in its dark recesses there lurks a specious cunning, whose purpose is to gloss over – with trickery – the soul’s deficiencies.
With this deep-seated distrust of the intellect, therefore, I would be inclined to move warily within the domain of wit, if the abovementioned definition were correct. But, funnily enough, I don’t think there’s much truth in it. When something makes me laugh, I would have to think twice about whether I’m laughing intellectually or whether it is just low, moron joy. And if I had to pause, in order to reflect on this problem, I wouldn’t want to go on laughing any more.
Humour we find all over the place. But with writers of humour – at least the kind of humour that appeals to me – it seems to be different. You seem to find them at particular times and in particular places. The Elizabethans had a sense of humour that I can respond to, as readily as to a backveld joke about rinderpest and drought. I regard Shakespeare as the greatest humourist I have ever come across. And the singular thing about it is that he seems to me to have been a humourist, primarily, in the literary sense – as the Americans of the nineteenth century were humourists, primarily, in the literary sense – for his jests seem to have a spontaneous magic in the form of the written word that they lack when spoken or dramatised. Because I have always derived much more pleasure from reading Shakespeare’s humour than from seeing it on the stage. Perhaps I have never yet seen Shakespeare properly acted, when he is being funny.
But with the exception of the Elizabethans, there have been no English writers who have risen to such dazzling heights of fantasy, or have reached to genius through such an utter abandonment of the spirit, that I would be willing to make for them the claim that they should be admitted, without reservation, to the wearing of the true humorist’s garland. There is a large number that I’d be willing to accept, making allowances for this and for that. But when it comes to my responses to humour, I prefer to keep company with those for whom I do not have to make any concessions.
And here I feel I’m in godly company: the American humorists of the nineteenth century. Mark Twain and those who preceded him, and those who came after, too, at least some of them. I feel there has never, in the whole history of the world, been anything so shocking, so sublime, and truthful and starlike and inspired, as what those men wrote, who contributed to that immortal beauty of literature that comprises American humour. It began shortly after the American War of Independence, this particular expression of a literary spirit whose goal was the awakening of gigantic laughter.
By the time of the American Civil War, this new kind of humour – new, not in its essence, but in its strength and stark objectivity – had blossomed into quite unimaginable beauty; and it lasted in the hands of one or two men of genius, right into the early years of the twentieth century. But for as long as a generation before that, it had already begun to manifest, deep within its structure, the elements of a dark decay. The writers stopped creating humour for its own sake. They began to apply this powerful weapon to the serving of causes that a creative artist cannot believe in. In this respect O. Henry, coming in right at the other end of the epoch, kept his art untainted in a way that Mark Twain, ultimately, didn’t.
All the ordinary attempts at evaluating the significance of humour in terms of its social use and its psycho-physiological functioning seem, of necessity, to end in sterility.
Humour is something that stands apart from these things. I feel that, to get at the true essence of humour, it must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.
Humour is one of mankind’s most treasured possessions, one of the world’s richest cultural jewels.
But it came among us when the flowers were already fading, and it came too late.