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From The World’s Wit and Humor, Volume X, French — Rutebœuf to Balzac; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. xv-xxiv.



By Brander Matthews

IN a recent consideration of the psychology of laughter, a French philosopher recalled the old story of the man in church who remained unmoved when the rest of the congregation were dissolved in tears by the power and the pathos of the sermon, and who explained his self-control as due simply to the fact that he did not belong to that parish. And M. Bergson then asserted that this explanation, absurd as it may seem at first, is not unsatisfactory or illogical if applied to laughter rather than to tears. “However hearty a laugh may be,” so the acute French observer maintained, “it always conceals an after-thought of complicity with other laughers, real or imaginary;” and he drew attention then to the numberless comic effects which are not translatable from one language to another, because the underlying idea which gives them point and piquancy is peculiar to the people in whose language they were invented. Shakespeare was very shrewd even in his unthinking youth; and it is in one of his earliest plays that he told us how

“A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it.”

George Eliot pushed the same thought a little further when she declared that “a difference of taste in jest is a great strain on the affections.” We may be interested to know how the other half lives, but we pay little attention to what the xvi other half laughs at it, so long as this does not happen to appeal to our own sense of humor. And yet if we really with to understand our neighbors, we need to know what it is that they laugh at, what they are willing to laugh at, and what they refuse to laugh at. Fletcher of Saltoun did not care who made the laws of a country so long as he made its songs; and perhaps the old sage would achieve his purpose even more certainly if he had chosen to make the jokes of the people rather than the lyrics or the laws. More than one government has been laughed out of power. The dissolving force of ridicule is indisputable, although there is an immense difference in the quips and mocks which different races find amusing. The French, for example, have often seen no malice in broad caricatures which the British have resented as transgressing the boundaries of decency.

It is one of the commonplaces of criticism now that the drama and the novel have each an interest beyond their literary appeal, because — in so far as they are sincere attempts to set forth life as it appears to the author — they enlarge our knowledge of our fellow-men. Foreign novels and foreign plays contain an unconscious declaration of the thoughts, the feelings, the moral standards of the people for whose entertainment they were devised. In every good play, as in every good work of fiction, we can find a significant revelation of racial characteristics, unintentional, no doubt, but none the less instructive; and it is by the aid of the imaginative literature of a nation that some shrewd observers are accustomed to guide their opinion of that people. And as that shrewdest of observers, Walter Bagehot, once put it with his customary clearness, “There is a certain intimate essence of national meaning, which is as untranslatable as good poetry.”


It is because we can abstract from the sincere fiction of foreign peoples this “intimate essence of national meaning” that the novel and the play have for us their larger significance. But from the humor of a people we can express this intimate essence even more certainly than we can from their fiction. “Show me what a man laughs at, and I will tell you what he is.” The merry jest which sets in a roar the miscellaneous audience of a variety-show is a document of real value in estimating the character of a population; and the casual quip of a paragrapher which goes the round of the papers may help us to a sound conclusion as swiftly as the more laborious investigations of the political philosopher.

It is not a misleading portrait of the American that the foreigner can find in Artemus Ward, Mark Twain, and Mr. Dooley; and John Bull himself is not more characteristically British than Mr. Punch. Perhaps more sharply than in any other way would a comparison of what is found laughable in the United states with what is found laughable in Great Britain bring out the essential unity of the English-speaking peoples and also the differentiation — superficial, it may be, and yet significant — of the American branch from the British. Probably a master of the new science of ethnic psychology would be able to explain the surprising fact that the merely mechanical pun seems to give pleasure to the inhabitants of the British Isles, although it is strenuously abhorred by the citizens of these States.

Another fact also calling for explanation, although easier to elucidate, is the belief widely held here in America that our kin across the sea are slow-witted, and that they fail to take a joke as swiftly as they might. This belief was once summarily stated by an American who lived in a European city where there was a large British colony. “Telling a joke xviii to an Englishman,” he said, “is like trying to write on blotting-paper.” This belief is paralleled, oddly enough by the conviction of the English themselves that the Scotch are obtuse in matters of humor. It was an Englishman who declared that it took a surgical operation to get a joke into a Scotchman’s head. Of course the obvious retort is that it was an English joke that the Scotchman had failed to apprehend; and so it is the American joke which the British are sluggish in perceiving.

The Scotch have pawky wit of their own, as well all know; but they have also, and in abundance, humor of a more universal currency exportable everywhere. Sir Walter Scott was as unlike as may be to that editor of the Scotman who confessed that he “jocked wi’ deeficulty”; and “Ian Maclaren” and Mr. J. M. Barrie are in no peril of surgical operations. Yet there is truth in the assertion that the men of Edinboro’ are often hermetically closed to the humorous appeal of a joke which the men of London find exquisitely amusing, just as the men of London are sometimes hostile, or at least inhospitable, to the joke which has been most warmly welcomed by the men of New York. In other words, there is some humor which is so broad in its humanity that it transcends all boundaries of time and place, of race and of country; and there is humor of another kind, local in its flavor, and needing for its full appreciation the solvent of local sympathy.

In any collection of examples selected from the humorous literature of foreign languages, there should be a proper representation of both these classes — of the humor which is fairly universal in its appeal, like “Don Quixote” and “Tartarin on the Alps,” and also of the humor which is more narrowly national, racial, ethnic, and which is therefore more xix characteristic and to some extent more significant, although it is to be understood, or at least to be appreciated, only at the cost of a certain effort on the part of the reader into whose language it is translated. Humor of this local aroma, because it is less exportable, is obviously less mirth-provoking, less immediate in its assault upon our risibilities; but it ought never to be greeted with contempt, since it is genuinely helpful in aiding us to an understanding of other peoples.

Just as the difference between the jokes most widely popular in the United States from those most widely popular in Great Britain serve to measure the divergence between the two branches of the English-speaking race, so the difference between the merry jests acceptable wherever English is spoken, and those accepted wherever German is spoken, serve to measure the divergence between the two chief divisions of the old Teutonic stock. Although not a few of the greater humorists of our language, from Shakespeare to Mark Twain, have won popular approval among our second cousins who have German for their native tongue, only one German humorist has ever been acclimated in English; and it cannot be denied that Heine who was a master of wit, even more than of humor, owned not a little of his peculiar pungency to his Hebrew blood.

Much that the German finds laughable leaves us untempted to mirth, and sometimes it arouses a feeling almost of inimical contempt. The sallies of Schopenhauer and of Nietszche recently reminded Prof. William James “half the time of the sick shriekings of two dying rats.” And in one of her earlier essays George Eliot dwelt on the elaborate dreariness of the German comedies she had chanced to see. She quoted Goethe’s saying that “nothing is more significant of men’s xx character than what they find laughable,” and she pointed out that Germany had not produced a great wit or a great humorist, excepting only Heine. She added that “whatever may be the stock of fun which Germany yields for home consumption, she has provided little for the palate of other lands.” But in the half-century which has elapsed since the English novelist penned her keen appreciation of Heine, the Germans have forged to the front, and many a reproach once well founded has been taken away from them. Of late their comic playwrights have given us a succession of light and lively pieces which have gone all over the world to increase the gaiety of nations; and in their Fliegende Blätter the Germans have had now for years what is perhaps the best of all comic weeklies, the richest in pictorial humor. On the other hand, it must be admitted that some contemporary German comic writing seems to be the result of a reaction against the supersaturated sentimentality of a certain type of German novel; and some of it is rather the broad expression of the same smug, burgher-like complacency which is the basis of the sentimentality itself.

The valuable German qualities which an unfriendly critic would sum up as phlegmatic stolidity are discoverable abundantly in German humor; and so also are the valuable qualities of the French people easily visible in their far richer comic literature, the history of which is illumined not only by a host of brilliant wits, but also by two of the great humorists of the world — Rabelais and Molière. In Molière, indeed, are concentrated not a few of the best characteristics of the French, their inventive ingenuity, their keen appreciation of character, their shrewd common-sense, their playful mockery, and their sincere hatred of hypocrisy. Where an Englishman boasts of his virtue, a Frenchman boasts of xxi his vices; and there is often as little foundation for the one as for the other. Behind the gross and extravagant fun of Rabelais, underneath it, sustaining it, is a frank believe in the perfectibility of humanity, a hearty recognition of the good there is in mankind. And this also supports the large and generous comedy of Molière, in whose plays, farcical or philosophic as they may be, we can always see the workings of the social instinct, of the idea of solidarity, which is a dominant factor of French civilization.

Molière, perhaps it needs to be noted, was not a wit, but a humorist. From all his plays there is scarcely to be collected a single witticism existing for its own sake, such as abound in Shakespeare’s comedies. Molière can be witty on occasion; but his wit is always under control, and it is kept at the service of character and plot. His fun is at times almost as bold, as robust, and as exuberant as the humor of Rabelais, and it is even more genial. His humor is rarely divorced from good-humor, and it is always frank. It is never sneaking and insidious; it is never disintegrating, like the irony of that arch-wit, M. de Voltaire, or of his twentieth-century disciple, M. Anatole France. Delightful as is their playfulness, charming in its grace and ease, fascination in its certainty of attack, it is dangerous also, and destructive. At bottom, Voltaire assumed an aristocratic attitude, while Molière is fundamentally democratic; and perhaps this is one reason why we are sometimes inclined to wonder whether wit does not tend inevitably to cruelty, while humor is more likely to be kindly and even gentle.

A humorist again, and not a wit, is the gentle and kindly Cervantes; and yet, being a Spaniard, he reveals now and again more or less that callousness which is the most obvious characteristic of the picaresque novels, those romances of xxii roguery wherein we are invited to find entertainment in brutal practical joking and in the discomfiture of physical deformity. “Don Quixote” sets before us the rude contrast between the real and the ideal; and it shows us sharply — in Lowell’s apt phrase — “the perpetual and comic contradiction between the spiritual and the natural man in actual life.” So noble is the misguided knight, and so caressing has been the touch of his creator, that we moderns do not quite like certain of the later episodes in which Don Quixote is forced to figure to his disadvantage, and which make us feel that the author is not dealing reverently with the creature of his own imagination. And if we venture to blame Cervantes for this, we are but paying him the compliment of taking his humorous mouthpiece more seriously than he took it himself. To his contemporaries, who devoured the story greedily, it seems to have been accepted as a mere jest-book, as a narrative of mirth-provoking misadventure; and the century had gone before its deeper qualities began to be recognized. And even now there are Spaniards who do not altogether relish the book in which the figures of the lofty-minded knight and of his simple squire are set over against each other, bodying forth, once for all, the elevated idealism and the frank realism, which are the two extremes of the national character. Coleridge, with his swiftness of insight, declared that “the genius of the Spanish people is exquisitely subtle, without being at all acute; hence there is so much humor and so little wit in their literature. The genius of the Italians, on the contrary, is acute, profound, and sensual, but not subtle; hence what they think to be humorous is merely witty.”

More illuminative than the humor of the Italians is that of the Russians, a humor rarely laughter-evoking, often xxiii sad, frequently grim, sometimes almost savage, and always unlike that of any other people — as Russia itself is unlike any other country. It is the humor of a patient folk, long-suffering under a rule that is rarely relaxed, submissive with the despondency of those who have little hope of improvement, and scarcely even the desire for it, and who have been schooled by the centuries to take things as they come and to make the best of them. In the humorous literature of Russia there is little of the lightness and brightness and briskness which we find among the French; there is rather a saturnine slyness, the heritage of generations of serfdom. Of all the great novelists of the nineteenth century, of all that marvelous company who have recorded for us what manner of men our fathers were, there are none greater than Turgeniev and Tolstoy — and there are none in whose writings there is so little that moves to laughter.

Every man laughs in his own fashion and in accordance with the customs of his race and of his age. He may laugh little, like the Russian, or he may be swift to see a joke, like the American; but none the less is man the only biped that knows how to laugh at all, and it is our gift of laughter, as much as anything else, which sets us apart from the bests of the field. The gift is precious, and not to be hidden in a napkin. “Whoever and wherever and however situated a man is,” said Beecher, “he must watch three things — sleeping, digestion, and laughing. They are three indispensable necessities.” They belong together, and laughter is not the least of the three.



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