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Volume 9, Issue 2: The Puritan Eye

Humor and Wit

R.L. Dabney (1820-1898)

We have here ["the witty"] a sensibility whose trivial character, as apprehended by most persons, makes it unworthy of serious analysis. It is, indeed, not a distinctively moral sentiment. But the same may be said of all the sensibilities except those of conscience itself; and the sense of the ludicrous, like the rest, is right, wrong or morally indifferent, according as it is governed aright or misdirected and abused. The ludicrous suggests at once levity. It is often abused until it becomes frivolity. The signs of the sensibility are laughter and smiles and vivacious movements of the body. But it is the source of a great amount of enjoyment to human beings, much of which may be innocent and healthful, and all of which ought to be when unmingled with excess, irreverence, malice and cruelty. Moreover, the sense of the ludicrous is clearly a rational affection. It seems peculiar to human beings. The gambols of some animals clearly disclose a sense of fun or sport, and even of sportive mischief. But we suppose that all animals except man are as incapable of the perception of true wit and of the rational feeling stimulated thereby as of logical or moral relations. The true sense of the ludicrous is distinctly a human attribute; so clearly so that some psychologists have proposed, and that not in jest, to define mankind as "the biped that laughs."

. . . . We found this general rule as to all feelings: that their rise must be conditioned on the presence in the intelligence of some idea or judgment. When we examine our own consciousness and that of our fellow-men we find (so early all psychologists hold) that the ludicrous includes two kindred phases of sentiment--that of the witty and that of the humorous, their two kindred objects being wit and humor. Ordinarily they are both laughable, but distinguishable. The two seem fairly to include all the multifarious objects which excite the pleasure of the ludicrous. It should also be stated that both elements, that of the witty and that of the humorous, may be present together in the object of our laughter. Then the sentiment of the ludicrous takes on its most pungent and pleasant form. . . .
All the writers acknowledge that there is some difference between pure wit, and especially serious wit, and the humorous. There is much confusion and difference between them in saying what the distinctive element of the humorous is. No one was better qualified than the famous wit and humorist, Sidney Smith, to form an opinion on this point. I adopt his view, that while the element prominent in the witty thought is the sudden and unexpected display of resemblance between ideas, the chief characteristic of humor is, that it is the sudden and unexpected recognition of incongruity between the ideas brought together. We see a large man walking in a pompous and consequential way on the sleety path, and next he lies sprawling on the ground. The sudden incongruity of his dignity and his awkward fall is supremely humorous. So the jocular mimicry of the graceful or elevated person by one young or insignificant, for purposes of ridicule, strikes us as humorous, because with the aptness of the resemblance we see the incongruity of the grave speeches and acts mimicked with the levity of the mimic's person and object. The Irishman's bull strikes us as humorous because of the incongruity between the literal sense of his words and his designed meaning. But wit and humor may both appear in the same ideas. As an instance we may cite the illustration of our Saviour, the gnat and the camel. Not only is there vivid wit in the parallel of the two animals to the two classes of sins, but a startling incongruity in the image of the huge, sprawling beast going down the dainty throat of the Pharisee. Doubtless the audience, while charmed by the logical wit, were compelled to laugh at the humor of this contrast. . . .
But one of the most important points about this analysis is to show how closely the sentiment of the ludicrous is allied to wonder. I told you that we should find them near akin; perhaps so near as to be capable of a resolution into the same elements. We saw that wonder is a vivid, instinctive and pleasurable sensibility, arising immediately upon the cognition of something new and surprising. But novelty, surprise, unexpectedness in the relation of congruity or incongruity flashed upon the mind, we discover to be the cause of the ludicrous. It may almost be described as a phase of wonder. The ludicrous is but laughing wonder; wonder circumstanced somewhat differently as to the relation of the objects seen in the mind and their gravity. . . .
It only remains to speak of the "final cause" of the sensibility of the ludicrous. One obvious result is to add much innocent enjoyment to rational life and to brighten and warm the social bond between mankind. But its intellectual consequences are much more serious and valuable. This sensibility assists the attention, lightens the labors of abstraction, and makes truth vivid and pleasing. Thus it very seriously assists us in the acquisition and memory of truth; for what is so easily and pleasantly learned is never forgotten.

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