Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By John Weiss (18181879)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1818. Died there, 1879. Wit, Humor, and Shakespeare. 1876.]
THE QUALITY of wit exists wherever imagination percolates through the understanding: the sediment is the grain-gold of wit. But the quality of humor, depending upon various moral traits, exists only wherever a broad imagination is combined with a sweet and tolerant moral sense that is devoid of malice and all uncharitableness, and at peace with all mankind. A petulant egotism may exist with wit, but never with humor. Sarcasm and satire are the forms which best agree with imperfect moral dispositions. A too prolonged irony has something melancholy and dyspeptic in it, and passes into the blood of a faulty temper even if there be the tonic of an upright moral sense. This moral sense may exist on every meridian of the earth, but it may not appear at literary epochs in solution with the brightest minds. Rabelais seems to be a French exception to the Gallic trait that was noticed so long ago by the great Roman: Comda and argute loqui,belonging to comedy and to the ingenuities of conversation. Humor appears best in conjunction with the temper of Northern Europe, whose early races began with deep impressions of the gravity of things and broke thence into alleviating moods. If it be the primitive trait of a nation to enjoy comic gayeties and the subtle surprises of discourse, it does not readily rise to the moral earnestness which a serious world imposes, and therefore it cannot invent the relief and grave delight of humor.
Sydney Smith uses this word to cover anything that is ridiculous and laughable. So the epithet comic is quite indiscriminately applied. But we ought not to submit to this loose application; for there are plenty of other words to make proper distinctions for us amid our pleasurable moods, and permit us to reserve humor for something which is neither punning, wit, satire, nor comedy. Humor may avail itself of all these mental exercises, but only as a manager casts his stock company to set forth the prevailing spirit of a play. Comedy, for instance, represents sorrows, passions, and annoyances, but shows them without the sombre purpose of tragedy to enforce a supreme will at any cost. All our weaknesses threaten in comedy to result in serious embarrassments, but there is such inexhaustible material for laughter in the whims and follies with which we baffle ourselves and others, that the tragic threat is collared just in time and shaken into pleasure. All kinds of details of our life are represented, which tragedy could never tolerate in its main drift towards the pathos of defeated human wills and broken hearts. Tricks, vices, fatuities, crotchets, vanities, play their game for a stake no higher than the mirth of outwitting each other; and they all pay penalties of a light kind which God exacts smilingly for the sake of keeping our disorders at a minimum. Comedy also funds a great deal of its charm in the unconsciousness of an infirmity. We exhibit ourselves unawares: each one is perfectly understood by everybody but himself; so we plot and vapor through an intrigue with placards on each back, where all but the wearers can indulge their mirth at seeing us parading so innocently with advertisements of our price and quality . Irony is jesting hidden behind gravity. Humor is gravity concealed behind the jest. Our grave and noble tendencies are brought in this world of ours into contact with very ordinary styles of living, which are stubborn; they neither surrender nor give way. Humor steps in to mediate: it seeks to put in the same light and color all the parts of this incongruity, the ideal and the vulgar real; and the constant inference of humor is that all the ideals of right, honor, goodness, manly strength, are serious with a divine purpose.
Even the coarsest and most revolting things can be adopted by this temper and cheerfully assigned to their places in the great plan. Jamie Alexander, the old Scotch grave-digger, had the habit of carrying home fragments of old coffins, long seasoned in the earth which was turned up by his exploring spade. He used to make clocks and fiddles of them, thus coaxing time and tune out of these repulsive tokens of human infirmity. Our mouldiest accessories can furnish material for humor; since a good wit, says Shakespeare, will make use of anything; it will turn diseases to commodity.
We cannot say that man derives this power to resolve contrariety into delight from the divine mind, though we have the habit of saying that every intellectual act must spring from an original source of intelligence, just as affection must have its root in the infinite love. But Deity can have no consciousness of incongruities in creation, because the whole must at every instant be comprehended in the Creator of the whole, who originates the real relation of all its parts and their mutual interdependence. Human dissatisfaction springs from want of this ability to comprehend the whole within one reconciling idea. This incompetency is felt by us because we have an instinct that all dissonant things ought to be reconciled, and can be in some way, but only can be by the finite becoming the infinite. Humor strives to bridge this gulf. It is mans device to pacify his painful sense that so many things appear wrong and evil to him, and so many circumstances inconsistent with our feeling that Deity must have framed the world in a temper of perfect goodness. We get relief by trying to discover the ideas which may effect a temporary reconcilement, to approach as far as we can to the temper of divine impartiality in which all circumstances must have been ordained. That temper passing down through our incompleteness is refracted, broken all up into a tremulousness of human smiles. Nothing that a Creator has the heart to tolerate can disturb him. But where there is no sense of incongruity there can be no sense of humor. That sense is mans expedient to make his mortality endurable. The laughter of man is the contentment of God.