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The Secret of Laughter

Anthony M. Ludovici

Constable & Co Ltd

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Although, in effect, a new theory of laughter has emerged from the present essay, this was not so much its original object as was the fresh investigation and vindication of a very old theory of laughter which, so it seemed to the author, had too consistently been given scant justice especially by Anglo-Saxon scholars, writers and critics.
        If the reader will only agree to examine this old theory afresh under the author's guidance, it is hoped that he will find, not only that it has been too hastily set aside as inadequate, but also that the discoveries made in the closer consideration of its merits have provided the basis for a more comprehensive and therefore more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon of laughter than has yet been achieved.
        Those who are familiar with Darwin's Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals will remember that in the chapters of the book in which he deals with the question of laughter he was evidently at great pains to dispel the popular and scientific belief that laughter is a purely human expression. As an evolutionist, he was naturally more puzzled than a non-evolutionist would have been by the fact that laughter should suddenly have made its appearance in Man without leaving any traces of its gradual development in those higher animals most closely related to him. To meet the difficulty he therefore advanced one or two somewhat unconvincing reasons for believing that laughter was actually found in certain higher animals, reasons which I cannot help thinking are based upon the incurable

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anthropomorphism of the class of men from whom he obtained some of his information.
        The theory expounded in this book, however, makes the evolution of laughter perfectly clear, and accounts quite satisfactorily for the fact that, as an expression of joy and pleasure, it should be found only in Man.
        This is an age in which laughter and all the means of provoking it stand very much higher than they have ever stood before in public esteem, more particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries. It can hardly be said, therefore, that the subject is uninteresting or untopical; and, seeing that hitherto no satisfactory and all-embracing theory of laughter has been discovered, it is hoped that, in spite of its many unpalatable aspects, and the many idols it demolishes, this new theory may be given at least the serious consideration which has been accorded to many of its predecessors.
        The author has carried the theory about in his mind for many years, lecturing upon it and discussing it with all sorts and conditions of men. But it was only after wide reading, mature reflection and the careful consideration of much bitter criticism received from audiences at lectures, scholars, psychologists, offended humorists and, above all, women, that he decided to record it in book form, as hitherto it had seen the light only in a brief outline published in The Referee of December 30th, 1928. The first suggestion that the theory of laughter here fully expounded should be made accessible to a wider audience than any the author could hope to meet at lectures and debates, was made by the members of the English Mistery, before whom a paper on the Secret of Laughter was read by the author on December 8th, 1931.

                May, 1932.

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It is strange that an age like the present, which is so clamorous in its demand for humour at all costs and on all occasions, should know so little and trouble so little about the nature of laughter.
        Guided by their newspapers and their modern books, the average man and woman (particularly the latter), without any idea or thought of what laughter really is, cling tenaciously to the view that humour is good and desirable, and, what is more, unquestioningly assume the right of making the most damaging remarks about people who lack it, and the most laudatory about people who possess it. In fact, during the Great War, when the journalists had exhausted the last dregs of invective against the German Kaiser, and cast about them for some final and annihilating insult that would express the ultimatum of their own and their readers' loathing and contempt of him, you will remember that they could think of nothing worse than to accuse him of having no sense of humour. And the Anglo-Saxon world rejoiced, because it imagined that this finished him much more effectively than did the revolution in his own country.
        The fact that this view of humour, like most popular views on other subjects, is the outcome of the modern standardisation of opinion, and that the majority of

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people adopt it without knowing how or why, does not prevent the average man and woman (particularly the latter) from displaying every sign of resentment and anger if, to their faces, you question its validity. And from the bitterness and fervour with which they defend humour when its extreme desirability is questioned, you might almost be led to believe that each individual in modern society had independently and by his or her own original effort arrived at the conclusion that humour is a good thing. It is one of the marvels of modern standardisation that those persons seem to be the least aware of it who are its most humble victims.
        A moment's independent and original thought would have led these unconscious victims of standardisation to the conclusion that, quite apart from the meaning of laughter itself, humour was, on its own account, a problem of some complexity, and that it was therefore precarious to concede too hastily that it was necessarily good. For instance, it would have occurred to them that true and passionate lovers are not humorous. If they are thwarted or rebuffed they refuse to see any humour in the situation. In fact, the very ability to look humorously on a situation of this kind would render the depth and sincerity of their passion suspect. This does not, however, prevent the modern world from urging young people to show more humour when they happen to be in such a situation. It would also have occurred to these victims of standardisation that no great creator, teacher or world-builder has ever been a humorist in the modern sense, and that if a modern English or American humorist had been at the elbow of such a man, the usual exhortations to be

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humorous at all costs would have completely crippled all hope and desire to do anything epoch-making.
        Imagine a modern English or American humorist at Luther's elbow at the beginning and during the progress of his struggle. He would have addressed the German reformer more or less as follows: "My dear, good fellow, are you sure you are not taking yourself and this Protestant stunt of yours much too seriously? It's all very well; but just show that you have a sense of humour, don't be so damned certain that you are right, don't be so ridiculously earnest, and you'll find that you'll be able to laugh at your present intensely comic gravity, and the world will laugh with you instead of at you."
        And nothing would have been done.
        But Luther had no modern English or American humorist at his elbow. He therefore took both himself and his mission intensely seriously, and displayed such a total lack of humour that when he stood before his judges all he could exclaim was, "Here I stand. I cannot act otherwise. God help me!"
        Likewise, if Napoleon had had a modern English or American humorist at his side when he left Egypt and embarked on that gigantic enterprise, the reconstruction of anarchical, bleeding and devastated Prance, he would hardly have dared to say what he did say. He would have been obliged at least to pretend that he saw both sides, that he recognised the overpowering disproportion between his absurdly inadequate personality and the stupendous task he was undertaking, and he would have had to crack some paralysing joke about it.

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Instead of this, he said, "I am going to France to drive out the lawyers." And he did!
        Thinking on independently and originally, the victims of thought standardisation would, moreover, have discovered that there is not a joke in the whole of the New Testament, that even the laughter of the Bible is nearly always an expression of scorn and not of mirth (exceptions: Psalms cxxvi, 2, and Job vii, 21), and that no saint, 1 prophet or apostle is ever spoken of as laughing.
        They would have discovered that Christ is everywhere in deadly earnest, taking himself and his mission most seriously, and expecting to be taken seriously, and that if he had not been so serious, if he had fulfilled his mission as many modern reformers have thought fit to fulfil theirs, we should have forgotten all about him to-day, just as we shall have forgotten all about them to-morrow.
        True, Mr. Chesterton, that typical modern and humorist, could not rest in peace while Christ, the all-perfect Being, continued to be regarded as deficient in the most exalted of modern Anglo-Saxon virtues — a sense of humour. To him it seemed almost blasphemy to withhold from the Perfect One this latest hall-mark of perfection. In his book Orthodoxy, therefore, he corrected Christ's orthodox biographers, and to his own intense satisfaction and that of all his equals, expressed the considered opinion that if Christ is not reported to have laughed, it was because he deliberately hid his mirth from men. He was capable of it, of course! But he covered it "constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation." And thus Chesterton

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restored to the Founder of Christianity that quality which had obviously been omitted from the list only by mistake, by an oversight. Christ had a sense of humour after all, and everybody heaved a sigh of relief! 2 How much more reverent and more indicative of a profound understanding of laughter is Lamennais' protest: "Who could ever imagine Christ laughing?" 3
        This extreme example of the modern worship of humour ought surely to have aroused suspicion. But it did not! It merely confirmed all Mr. Chesterton's readers in the belief that humour was eminently desirable.
        Truth to tell, there is in every inspired and passionate innovator a haughty energy which is incompatible with the cowardice and indolence of humour. As, however, this cowardice and indolence in humour are not immediately obvious, the matter must be examined more narrowly.
        What strikes the foreign visitor to our shores most forcibly is that with but few exceptions, such as a religious service, there is now hardly a ceremony or an assembly where humour is not de rigueur; so much so that an after-dinner speech has come to be regarded merely as a means of provoking laughter, and some people — one very well-known London figure among them — reduce the convention to an absurdity by standing up and reciting one after another a whole string of anecdotes, which have no more connexion with the objects of the society giving the dinner, or with the special interests of the diners, than if he had

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picked them at haphazard out of a book. I have been at innumerable dinners where there was only the flimsiest pretence of making a relevant speech. Everybody, including the chairman, merely racked their brains for one or more anecdotes and proceeded to recite them until the lateness of the hour alone brought a welcome end to the dreary business. Illuminating or merely interesting and sustained discussions of any topic or subject of general or even particular moment are almost unknown outside the learned societies, and even they indulge in interesting talks only when they meet for business.
        In private houses no remark is listened to that does not provoke a laugh or a smile, and to attempt to enquire into any political, social, artistic, scientific or moral question, except in a flippant and irresponsible way is considered the worst possible form.
        It is here suggested that, quite apart from the meaning of laughter, cowardice and indolence lie hid in this convention — cowardice in the speaker, because to be earnest and vehement on any question of moment may excite derision without forestalling it (a terrible experience for the vain modern man), and in both the audience and the speaker, because it requires more courage to face a question squarely and to deal with it seriously than to treat it frivolously and flippantly; and indolence because, if the convention were, as it should be, that people must talk interestingly and helpfully or not at all, there would have to be either much more silence than there is, or else much closer consideration of the questions concerning which most people claim to hold opinions. Humour is, therefore,

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the lazier principle to adopt in approaching all questions, and that is why muddle is visibly increasing everywhere. Because the humorous mind shirks the heavy task of solving thorny problems and prefers to make people laugh about them.
        In the public and professional modern humorist, however, the vice of cowardice becomes so deeply interwoven with his technique of appeal, it is so essentially a part of his stock-in-trade, that the wonder is that more people are not aware of it. I refer, naturally, only to those public humorists who attract attention, and wish to attract attention, by dealing with questions of great moment to humanity.
        To come forward with ideas, either of reform or of iconoclastic novelty, is dangerous and unpopular. Crucifixion, spiritual or physical, ostracism, or at least hatred, is the popular reaction. The man who does this seriously and earnestly, stakes his life, or at the very least his prestige, on the undertaking. If he is not stoned, crucified, driven beyond the pale, or starved, he may be laughed at, jeered at, guyed! Nothing lends itself more readily to ridicule than passionate earnestness. But those men whom we associate with lasting and fundamental reforms in the past, risked all this. They risked crucifixion, the stake, the block, everything, even being laughed at!
        But your modern humorist reformer is a coward. He wants things both ways. He longs for the laurels of the epoch-making reformer and iconoclast, he hankers after the reputation of the deep and earnest thinker, but his vanity shrinks, not so much from the

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thought of naked exposure on the cross, or in the stocks, but from — laughter!
        This is a risk he refuses to run. He therefore forestalls laughter. He makes it his business to convince his hearers that he is not in earnest. He advances with his weighty proposals in his mind, but with a broad smile on his lips and, if possible, a laugh and a fool's cap ready to hand, before he attacks his thorny problems. If, therefore, the crowd laughs, it is because he wishes them to laugh. He has commanded their laughter. Consequently he cannot be the victim of it.
        This is the new type of saint, prophet and sage. It is an Anglo-Saxon invention. But a new Anglo-Saxon method of keeping alive the memory of these new saints, prophets and sages will have to be invented also, for posterity will never be able to remember them by anything they have achieved.
        There are, however, other peculiarities about humour which might puzzle the victims of standardised opinion if ever they thought independently about it. By studying recent history they would have discovered that as fast as the clamour for humour has swelled the quality of national achievement has depreciated, muddle in national affairs has increased, the stamina of the nation has declined, and the spectacle of national glory has become retrospective rather than contemporary. They would have discovered that, in the days when Englishmen still had so little sense of humour that they kissed each other and wept in public, there was more manliness, more independence, and above all more self-reliance in the country than there

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is to-day. Finally, they would have discovered that because men have a sense of humour nowadays, and consequently never dream of taking themselves or their convictions or their desires or anything that is theirs very seriously, they are exceedingly easy to lead and to control, and that this accounts for the ardent and irrational attachment to humour displayed by almost all Anglo-Saxon women. The man with a sense of humour will always climb down; he takes nothing, least of all his authority, seriously; consequently, if his wife very much wishes to tread on him, as she generally does, she finds that she meets with no determined resistance. Nobody fires up more angrily than the cultured Anglo-Saxon woman when she hears the sense of humour attacked. Without in the least understanding the reason for the general worship of humour, she knows very definitely that she is defending one of the first prerequisites other power, her dominion. She has two most effective bludgeons with which to stun her menfolk into docile stupor if ever they stand seriously and firmly by one of their opinions or desires. The one is to accuse them of'. selfishness (this, owing to abuse, is beginning to lose its coercive power), and the other is to question their sense of humour. This immediately secures subjection, because no modern man can suffer this accusation to remain hanging over his head.
        Quite apart from the meaning of laughter, then, it is obvious that all is not as absolutely clear as it might seem about this matter of humour. Not that I mean to imply that humour has no place in social life, or has not its immense value as a recreation and some-

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times a refuge. I merely question the desirability of its ubiquitousness to-day, and suggest that its extraordinary vogue is in need of some explanation. There must be some reason, even apart from that advanced in regard to women, why the clamour for it should be so universal and unabating.
        At all events, even if we dismiss all the above considerations as of no consequence, we still cannot be satisfied that humour is so eminently desirable, in season and out of season, whether in discussing grave or frivolous matters, unless we know something about the meaning of laughter and of the condition people are in when they demand laughter as insistently as it is being demanded to-day.
        To discover the meaning of laughter and its evolution, as also to ascertain the condition mankind is in when it demands laughter with such neurasthenic insistence as it does at present, is the two-fold object of the following chapters.



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