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Variation-Constancy-Influence of Temperament,Of Ob
servation-Bulls—Want of Knowledge-Effects of Emotion-Unity of the Sense of the Ludicrous.
| S every face in the world is different, so no
\ two minds are exactly similar, although there is great uniformity in the perceptions of the senses and still more in our primary innate ideas. The variety lies in the one case, in the finer lines and expressions of the countenance, and in the other in those delicate shades and combinations of feeling which are influenced more or less by memory, reflection, imagination, by experience, education and temperament, by taste, morality, and religion.
It was no doubt the view of this great diversity of thought that led Quintilian to say that “the topics from which jests may be elicited are not less numerous than those from which thoughts may be derived !” Herbert writes to the same purpose
“ All things are full of jest; nothing that's plain
But may be witty, if thou hast the vein.'
But we are not in the vein except sometimes, and under peculiar circumstances, so that, practically, few sayings are humorous.
It is more difficult to assert that there are any jests which would be appreciated by all. The statement that “some phases of life must stir humour in any man of sanity,” is probably too wide. There is little of this universality in the ludicrous, but we shall have some reason for thinking that there is a certain constancy in the mental feeling which awakens it. It is also fixed with regard to each individual. If we had sufficient knowledge, we could predict exactly whether a man would be amused at a certain story, and we sometimes say “Tell that to Mr. -- it will amuse him.” But if his nature were not so disposed, no exertions on his part or ours could make him enjoy it. The ludicrous is dependent upon feelings or circumstances, but not upon the will. It is peculiarly involuntary as those know who have tried to smother a laugh. The utmost advance we can make towards making ourselves mirthful is by changing our circumstances. It is said that if a man were to look at people dancing with his ears stopped, the figures moving without accompaniment would seem ludicrous to him, but his merriment would not be great because he
would know the strangeness he observed was not real but caused by his own intentional act. We may say that for a thing to appear ludicrous to a man which does not seem so at present, he must change the character of his mind.
There is another kind of constancy which should here be noticed. Some hnmorous sayings survive for long periods, and occasionally are adopted in foreign countries. In some cases they have immortalized a name, in others we know not who originated them, or to whom they first referred. They seem to be the production, as they are the heritage, not of man but of humanity. It is essential to the permanence of humour that it should refer to large classes, and awaken emotions common to many. If Socrates and Xantippe, the philosopher and the shrew, had not represented classes, and an ordinary connection in life, we should have been little amused at their differences.*
Having mentioned these few first aspects in which humour is constant, we now come to the wider field of its variation. It may be said to vary with the age, with the century, with classes of society, with the time of life, nay, it has been asserted, with the very hours
* The saying “ He that fights and runs away, shall live to fight another day," is as old as the days of Menander.
of the day! The simplest mode in which we can demonstrate this character of humour is to consider some of those things which although amusing to others are not so to us, and those which amuse us, but not others; we sometimes regard as ludicrous what is intended to be humorous, sometimes on the other hand we view as humorous what is seriously meant, and sometimes we take gravely what is intended to be amusing
A man may make what he thinks to be a jest, and be neither humorous nor ludicrous, and a man may cause others to laugh without being one or the other; for what he says may be amusing, although he does not intend it to be so, or he may be merely relating some actual occurrence. Occasionally, there is some doubt as to whether we regard things as ludicrous or humorous. This is seen in some proverbs.
But the most common and strongly marked instances of variation are where what is seriously taken by one person is regarded as ludicrous by another. Thus the conception of the qualities desirable in public speaking are very different on this side to the Atlantic from what they are on the other, and what appears to us to partake of the ludicrous, seems to them to be only grand, effective, and appropriate. “ In patriotic eloquence,” says a U.S. journal, “our American stump-speakers beat the world.
They don't stand up and prose away so as to put an audience to sleep, after the lazy genteel aristocratic style of British Parliamentary speechmaking.” This boast is certainly just. There is a vigour about the popular style of American oratory that we are sure has never been equalled in the British Parliament. A paper of the interior in paying a glowing tribute to the eloquence of the Fourth of July orator who officiated in the town where the journal is published, says—“ Although he had a platform ten feet square to orate upon, he got so fired up with patriotism that it wasn't half big enough to hold him: his fist collided three times with the President of the day, besides bunging the eye of the reader of the Declaration, and every person on the stage left it limping.” Such a style of oratory would leave durable impressions, and be felt as well as heard.
It cannot be doubted that our mental state, whether temporary or habitual, exercises a great influence over us in regard to humour. Temperament must modify all our emotional feelings, some are naturally gay and hilarious, some grave and austere, children laugh from little more than exuberance of spirits, and joyousness causes us to seek pleasure, to notice ludicrous combinations which would otherwise escape us,