Imágenes de página

sudden, there leaps something out of it—sharp, and deadly, and incisive—which makes you tremble and recoil. I have insisted, in the beginning of my lecture, on the great power of the ridiculous over the opinions of mankind; including in that term wit, humour, and every other feeling which has laughter for its distinguishing characteristic. I know of no principle which it is of more importance to fix in the minds of young people than that of the most determined resistance to the encroachments of ridicule. Give up to the world, and to the ridicule with which the world enforces its dominion, every trifling question of manner and appearance: it is to toss courage and firmness, to the winds to combat with the mass upon such subjects as these. But learn from the earliest days to inure your principles against the perils of ridicule: you can no more exercise your reason, if you live in the constant dread of laughter, than you can enjoy your life, if you are in the constant terror of death. If you think it right to differ from the times, and to make a stand for any valuable point of morals, do it, however rustic, however antiquated, however pedantic it may appear; — do it, not for insolence, but seriously and grandly,–as a man who wore a soul of his own in his bosom, and did not wait till it was breathed into him by the breath of fashion. Let men call you mean, if you know you are just; hypocritical, if you are honestly religious; pusillanimous, if you feel that you are firm: resistance soon converts unprincipled wit into sincere respect; and no after-time can tear from you those feelings which every man carries within him who has made a noble and successful exertion in a virtuous cause.




HoBBEs defines laughter to be “a sudden glory, arising “from a sudden conception of some eminency in our“selves, by comparison with infirmity of others, or our “own former infirmity.” By infirmity he must mean, I presume, marked and decided inferiority, whether accidental and momentary, or natural and permanent. He cannot, of course, mean by it, what we usually denominate infirmity of body or mind; for it must be obvious, at the first moment, that humour has a much wider range than this. If we were to see a little man walking in the streets with a hat half as big as an umbrella, we should laugh; and that laughter certainly could not be ascribed to the infirmities either of his body or mind: for his diminutive figure, without his disproportionate hat, I shall suppose by hypothesis, to be such as would excite no laughter at all; — and, indeed, an extraordinary large man, with a hat such as is worn by boys of twelve years old, would be an object quite as ludicrous. Taking, therefore, the language of Hobbes to mean the sudden discovery of any inferiority, it will be very easy to show that such is not the explanation of that laughter excited by humour: for I may discover suddenly that a person has lost half-a-crown, –or, that his tooth aches, – or, that his house is not so well built, or

his coat not so well made, as mine; and yet none of these discoveries give me the slightest sensation of the humorous. If it be suggested that these proofs of inferiority are very slight, the theory of Hobbes is still more weakened, by recurring to greater instances of inferiority: for the sudden information that any one of my acquaintance has broken his leg, or is completely ruined in his fortunes, has decidedly very little of humour in it; — at least it is not very customary to be thrown into paroxysms of laughter by such sort of intelligence. It is clear, then, that there are many instances of the sudden discovery of inferiorities and infirmities in others, which excite no laughter; and, therefore, pride is not the explanation of laughter excited by the humorous. It is true, the object of laughter is always inferior to us; but then the converse is not true, – that every one who is inferior to us is an object of laughter: therefore, as some inferiority is ridiculous, and other inferiority not ridiculous, we must, in order to explain the nature of the humorous, endeavour to discover the discriminating cause. This discriminating cause is incongruity, or the conjunction of objects and circumstances not usually combined,—and the conjunction of which is either useless, or what in the common estimation of men would be considered as rather troublesome, and not to be desired. To see a young officer of eighteen years of age come into company in full uniform, and with such a wig as is worn by grave and respectable clergymen advanced in years, would make everybody laugh, because it certainly is a very unusual combination of objects, and such as would not atone for its novelty by any particular purpose of utility to which it was subservient. It is a complete instance of incongruity. Add ten years to the age of this incongruous officer, the incongruity would be very faintly diminished;— make him eighty years of age, and a celebrated military character of the last reign, and the incongruity almost entirely vanishes: I am not sure that we should not be rather more disposed to respect the peculiarity than to laugh at it. As you increase the incongruity, you increase the humour; as you diminish it, you diminish the humour. If a tradesman of a corpulent and respectable appearance, with habiliments somewhat ostentatious, were to slide down gently into the mud, and dedecorate a pea-green coat, I am afraid we should all have the barbarity to laugh. If his hat and wig, like treacherous servants, were to desert their falling master, it certainly would not diminish our propensity to laugh; but if he were to fall into a violent passion, and abuse every body about him, nobody could possibly resist the incongruity of a pea-green tradesman, very respectable, sitting in the mud, and threatening all the passers-by with the effects of his wrath. Here, every incident heightens the humour of the scene: — the gaiety of his tunic, the general respectability of his appearance, the rills of muddy water which trickle down his cheeks, and the harmless violence of his rage | But if, instead of this, we were to observe a dustman falling into the mud, it would hardly attract any attention, because the opposition of ideas is so trifling, and the incongruity so slight. Surprise is as essential to humour as it is to wit. In going intô a foreign country for the first time, we are exceedingly struck with the absurd appearance of some of the ordinary characters we meet with: a very short time, however, completely reconciles us to the phenomena of French abbés and French postilions, and all the variety of figures so remote from those we are accustomed to, and which surprise us so much at our first acquaintance with that country. I do not mean to say, either of one class of the ridiculous or of the other, that perfect novelty is absolutely a necessary ingredient to the production of any degree of pleasure, but that the pleasure arising from humour, diminishes, as the surprise diminishes; — it is less at the second exhibition of any piece of humour than at the first, less at the third than the second, till at last it becomes trite and disgusting. A piece of humour will, however, always bear repetition much better than a piece of wit; because, as humour depends in some degree on manner, there will probably always be in that manner, something sufficiently different from what it was before, to prevent the disagreeable effects of complete sameness. If I say a good thing today, and repeat it again to-morrow in another company, the flash of to-day is as much like the flash of to-morrow as the flash of one musket is like the flash of another; but if I tell a humorous story, there are a thousand little diversities in my voice, manner, language, and gestures, which make it rather a different thing from what it was before, and infuse a tinge of novelty into the repeated narrative. It is by no means, however, sufficient to say of humour, that it is incongruity which excites surprise;— the same limits are necessary here which I have before affixed to wit, —it must excite surprise, and nothing but surprise; for the moment it calls into action any other high and impetuous emotion, all sense of the humorous is immediately at an end. For, to return again to our friend dressed in green, whom we left in the mud, suppose, instead of a common, innocent tumble, he had experienced a very severe fall, and we discovered that he had broken a limb; our laughter is immediately extinguished, and converted into a lively feeling of compassion. The incongruity is precisely as great as it was before; but as it has excited another feeling not compatible with the ridiculous, all mixture of the humorous is at end. The sense of the humorous is as incompatible with tenderness and respect as with compassion. No man would laugh to see a little child fall; and would be shocked to see such an accident happen to an old man, or a woman, or to his father It is an odd case to out,

« AnteriorContinuar »