By Dustin Martinez,2014-08-16 15:12
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    On the sense of humor

    [1] I doubt whether the importance of humor has been fully appreciated, or the possibility of its use in changing the quality and character of our entire cultural lifethe place of humor in politics,

    humor in scholarship, and humor in life. Because its function is chemical, rather than physical, it alters the basic texture of our thought and experience. Its importance in national life we can take for granted. The inability to laugh cost the former Kaiser Wilhelm an empire, or as an American might say, cost the German people billions of dollars. Wilhelm Hohenzollern probably could laugh in his private life, but he always looked so terribly impressive with his upturned mustache in

    public, as if he was always angry with somebody. And then the quality of his laughter and the things he laughed atlaughter at victory, at success, at getting on top of otherswere just as

    important factors in determining his life fortune. Germany lost the war because Wilhelm Hohenzollern did not know when to laugh, or what to laugh at. His dreams were not restrained by laughter.

     [2] It seems to me the worst comment on dictatorships is that presidents of democracies can

    laugh, while dictators always look so seriouswith a protruding jaw, a determined chin, and a

    pouched lower lip, as if they were doing something terribly important and the world could not be saved, except by them. Franklin D. Roosevelt often smiles in publicgood for him, and good for

    the American people who like to see their president smile. But where are the smiles of the European dictators? Or don’t their people want to see them smile? Or must they indeed look either frightened, or dignified, or angry, or in any case look frightfully serious in order to keep themselves in the saddle? ...

    [3] We are not indulging in idle fooling now, discussing the smiles of dictators; it is terribly serious when our rulers do not smile, because they have got all the guns. On the other hand, the tremendous importance of humor in politics can be realized only when we picture for ourselves a world of joking rulers. Send, for instance, five or six of the world’s best humorists to an international conference, and give them the plenipotentiary powers of autocrats, and the world will be saved. As humor necessarily goes with good sense and the reasonable spirit, plus some exceptionally subtle powers of the mind in detecting inconsistencies and follies and bad logic, and as this is the highest form of human intelligence, we may be sure that each nation will thus be

    represented at the conference by its sanest and soundest mind. Let Shaw represent Ireland, Stephen Leacock represent Canada; G. K. Chesterton is dead, but P. G. Wodehouse or Aldous Huxley may represent England. Will Rogers is dead, otherwise he would make a fine diplomat representing the US; we can have in his stead Robert Benchley or Heywood Broun. There will be others from Italy and France and Germany and Russia. Send these people to a conference on the eve of a great war, and see if they can start a European war, no matter how hard they try. Can you imagine this *bunch of international diplomats starting a war or even plotting for one? The sense of humor forbids it. All people are too serious and half-insane when they declare a war against another people. They are so sure that they are right and that God is on their side. The humorists, gifted with better horse-sense, don’t think so. You will find George Bernard Shaw shouting that Ireland is wrong, and a Berlin cartoonist protesting that the mistake is all theirs, and Heywood Broun claiming the largest share of *bungling for America, while Stephen Leacock in the chair makes a general apology for mankind, gently reminding us that in the matter of stupidity and sheer foolishness no nation can claim itself to be the superior of others. How in the name of humor are we going to start a war under these conditions?

     [4] For who have started wars for us? The ambitious, the able, the clever, the *scheming, the cautious, the *sagacious, the *haughty, the over-patriotic, the people *inspired with the desire to

    serve mankind, people who have a “career” to carve and an “impression” to make on the world, who expect and hope to look down the ages from the eyes of a bronze figure sitting on a bronze horse in some square. Curiously, the able, the clever, and the ambitious and haughty are at the same time the most cowardly and muddleheaded, lacking in the courage and depth and subtlety of the humorists. They are forever dealing with trivialities, while the humorists with their greater

    sweep of mind can *envisage larger things. As it is, a diplomat who does not whisper in a low voice and look properly scared and *intimidated and correct and cautious is no diplomat at all... But we don’t even have to have a conference of international humorists to save the world. There is

    a sufficient stock of this desirable commodity called a sense of humor in all of us. When Europe seems to be on the *brink of a catastrophic war, we may still send to the conferences our worst

    diplomats, the most “experienced” and self-assured, the most ambitious, the most whispering,

    most intimidated and correct and properly scared, even the most anxious to “serve” mankind. If it be required that, at the opening of every morning and afternoon session, ten minutes be devoted to

    the showing of a Mickey Mouse picture, at which all the diplomats are compelled to be present, any war can still be *averted .

     [5] This I *conceive to be the chemical function of humor: to change the character of our thought. I rather think that it goes to the very root of culture, and opens a way to the coming of the Reasonable Age in the future human world. For humanity I can visualize no greater ideal than that of the Reasonable Age. For that after all is the only important thing, the arrival of a race of men *imbued with a greater reasonable spirit, with greater *prevalence of good sense, simple

    thinking, a peaceable temper and a *cultured outlook. The ideal world for mankind will not be

    a rational world, nor a perfect world in any sense, but a world in which imperfections are readily

    perceived and quarrels reasonably settled. For mankind, that is frankly the best we can hope for and the noblest dream that we can reasonably expect to come true. This seems to imply several things: a simplicity of thinking, a *gaiety in philosophy and a subtle common sense, which will make this reasonable culture possible. Now it happens that subtle common sense, gaiety of philosophy and simplicity of thinking are characteristic of humor and must arise from it.

     [6] It is difficult to imagine this kind of a new world because our present world is so different. On the whole, our life is too complex, our scholarship too serious, our philosophy too *somber,

    and our thoughts too involved. This seriousness and this involved complexity of our thought and scholarship make the present world such an unhappy one today.

     [7] Now it must be taken for granted that simplicity of life and thought is the highest and *sanest ideal for civilization and culture, that when a civilization loses simplicity and the sophisticated do not return to unsophistication, civilization becomes increasingly full of troubles and degenerates.

    Man then becomes the slave of the ideas, thoughts, ambitions and social systems that are his own product. Mankind, overburdened with this load of ideas and ambitions and social systems, seems unable to rise above them. Luckily, however, there is a power of the human mind which can

    transcend all these ideas, thoughts and ambitions and treat them with a smile, and this power is the subtlety of the humorist. Humorists handle thoughts and ideas as golf or *billiard champions handle their balls, or as cow boy champions handle their *lariats. There is an ease, a sureness, a lightness of touch, that comes from mastery. After all, only he who handles his ideas lightly is master of his ideas, and only he who is master of his ideas is not enslaved by them. Seriousness,

    after all, is only a sign of effort, and effort is a sign of imperfect mastery. A serious writer is

awkward and ill at ease in the realm of ideas as a *nouveau riche is awkward, ill at ease and

    self-conscious in society. He is serious because he has not come to feel at home with his ideas.

     [8] Simplicity, then, paradoxically is the outward sign and symbol of depth of thought. It seems to me simplicity is about the most difficult thing to achieve in scholarship and writing. How

    difficult is clarity of thought, and yet it is only as thought becomes clear that simplicity is possible. When we see a writer *belaboring an idea we may be sure that the idea is *belaboring him. This

    is proved by the general fact that the lectures of a young college assistant instructor, freshly graduated with high honors, are generally *abstruse and involved, and true simplicity of thought

    and ease of expression are to be found only in the words of the older professors. When a young

    professor does not talk in *pedantic language, he is then positively *brilliant , and much may be expected of him. What is involved in the progress from *technicality to simplicity, from the specialist to the thinker, is essentially a process of digestion of knowledge, a process that I compare strictly to *metabolism. No learned scholar can present to us his specialized knowledge

    in simple human terms until he has digested that knowledge himself and brought it into relation with his observations of life. Between the hours of his *arduous pursuit of knowledge (let us say

    the psychological knowledge of William James), I feel there is many a “pause that refreshes,” like a cool drink after a long fatiguing journey. In that pause many a truly human specialist will ask himself the all important question, “What on earth am I talking about?” Simplicity presupposes

    digestion and also maturity: as we grow older, our thoughts become clearer, insignificant and perhaps false aspects of a question are *lopped off and cease to disturb us, ideas take on more

    definite shapes and long trains of thought gradually shape themselves into a convenient formula which suggests itself to us one fine morning, and we arrive at that true luminosity of knowledge which is called wisdom. There is no longer a sense of effort, and truth becomes simple to

    understand because it becomes clear, and the reader gets that supreme pleasure of feeling that truth itself is simple and its formulation natural. This naturalness of thought and style, which is so much

    admired by Chinese poets and critics, is often spoken of as a process of gradually maturing development. As we speak of the growing maturity of Su Tungpo’s prose, we say that he has “gradually approached naturalness”-a style that has *shed off its youthful love of *pomposity,

    *pedantry, *virtuosity and literary *showmanship.

    [9] Now it is natural that the sense of humor nourishes this simplicity of thinking. Generally, a

humorist keeps closer touch with facts, while a theorist dwells more on ideas, and it is only when

    one is dealing with ideas in themselves that his thoughts get incredibly complex. The humorist, on the other hand, indulges in flashes of common sense or wit, which show up the contradictions of

    our ideas with reality with lightning speed, thus greatly simplifying matters. Constant contact with reality gives the humorist a bounce, and also a lightness and subtlety. All forms of pose, sham,

    learned nonsense, academic stupidity and social humbug are politely but effectively shown the door. Man becomes wise because man becomes subtle and witty. All is simple. All is clear. It is for

    this reason that I believe a sane and reasonable spirit, characterized by simplicity of living and thinking, can be achieved only when there is a very much greater prevalence of humorous


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