Images de page

said of Cassius; and when they do smile, their smile, like his, so admirably described by Shakspeare, has little in it of the full glorying and eminency of laughter, but is

"of such a sort,

As if they mock'd themselves, and scorn'd their spirit,
That could be moved to smile at anything."

The mere stupidity of any one, when there is no vanity of pretension to contrast with it, does not make us laugh; yet if laughter arose from the mere triumph of personal superiority, there would surely, in this case, be equal reason for selfish exultation; and a company of blockheads should be the gayest of all society. In any brilliant piece of wit, it is to the images or thought suggested, in ready eloquence, that we look, without regard to him who is its author; unless, indeed, in those cases in which the very character or situation of the speaker may of itself produce a sort of ludicrousness, by its incongruity with the gravity or levity of what is said. There is scarcely any thing which is more ludicrous than a happy parody; and though the author of the parody may be allowed to feel some triumph over the original author,—if even his playful metamorphose of what is dignified and excellent can be termed a triumph, which is rather an amusement than a victory; this triumph certainly cannot be felt by the mere hearers, since their pleasure is always greater in proportion, not to the infirmity of which Hobbes speaks, but to the excellence of the original, without great merit in which, or supposed great merit, the parody itself could not be felt as having any claim to our laughter or our praise. A parody on any dull verses would, indeed, be still duller than the dullness which it ridicules.

It is not any proud comparison, therefore, which constitutes what is termed the ludicrous; but, even in the proudest of such comparisons, some other circumstance or circumstances. It is the combination of general incongruity with partial and unexpected congruity of the mere images themselves, which may indeed in some cases lead to this triumph as an auxiliary pleasure, but which has an immediate and independent pleasure of its own—a pleasure arising from the discovery of unsuspected resemblance in objects

Julius Cæsar.-Act I. Scene 2.

formerly conceived to be known to us, or unsuspected difference in objects formerly regarded as highly similar.

Nothing is felt as truly ludicrous in which there is not an unexpected congruity developed in images that were before supposed to be opposite in kind, or some equally unexpected incongruity in images supposed to be congruous; and the sudden perception of these discrepancies and agreements may be said to be that which constitutes the ludicrousness; the gay emotions being immediately subsequent to the mere perception of the unexpected relation.

The congruities and incongruities, which give rise to this emotion, may be either in mere language, or in the thoughts and images which language expresses, or, in many cases, in the very objects of our direct perception.

On the first of these,-the resemblance of mere sounds, in puns, and other trifling verbal analogies of the same class, it is unnecessary for me to dwell at present, as they before came under our review, when I treated of the influence of verbal similarities on the spontaneous suggestions of our trains of thought. How truly the ludicrousness of the pun consists in the unexpected similarity of discrepant images, is shewn by the greater or less pleasure which it affords, in proportion as the images themselves are more or less discrepant,-being greatest, therefore, when there is a complete opposition, with the exception of that single tie of similar sound which is found unexpectedly to connect them. When the images themselves are congruous, so as to seem capable of being suggested by their own congruities, the pun is scarcely felt, or rather there is nothing felt to which the name of pun can be given.

But though the unsuspected connection of objects, by their resemblances of mere sound, as in puns, and all the small varieties of verbal and literal wit, may be uniformly ludicrous, this is far from being the case with the other species of unsuspected resemblance, in relations of thought to thought, or of existing things. It is necessary, therefore, to form some limitation of the general proposition as to the ludicrousness of relations which we perceive suddenly and unexpectedly, the only circumstance which as yet we have supposed to be necessary to the rise of the emotion.

In the first place, an exception must be made in the case of

[blocks in formation]

scientific truths. When it is discovered, in chemistry, or in any other physical science, that there truly have been relations of ob jects or events, which were not suspected by us before, there is no feeling of ludicrousness, though the substances found to have some common property should be opposite in every other respect. What could be more unexpected, or more incongruous with our previous conceptions of the specific gravity of metals, than the discovery, that the lightest of all substances, which are not in the state of an ærial fluid, is a metal, the base of another substance with which we had been long acquainted? Yet, though we were astonished at such a discovery, we felt no tendency whatever to laugh. The relation, in short, did not seem to us to involve any thing ludicrous.

Why then do we not laugh, in such a case, at the discovery of the resemblance of objects or qualities, which were before regarded by us as not less incongruous than any of the unsuspected relations which are exhibited to us in the quaintest conundrum, that excites our laughter, almost in the very instant in which the strange relation is pointed out? The principal reason of this difference, I conceive, is the importance of the physical relation. The interest attached by us to the discovery of truth occupies the mind too seriously, to allow that light play of thought which is essential to the rise of the gay emotion. In this respect, there is a very striking analogy to a species of animal action, which resembles our emotions of this kind also, in some other striking circumstances, particularly in the tendency to laughter, which is an equal and very curious result of both. If the palm of the hand be gently tickled, when the mind is vacant, the influence of the mechanical operation in this way is very powerful; but, if the faculties be exerted on any interesting subject, the same action on the palm of the hand may take place without any consequent laughter, and even, perhaps, without any consciousness of the process which has been taking place. A new phenomenon, or a new discovered relation, in former phenomena, engages the mind too closely to allow any feeling of ludicrousness, and consequent laughter to arise, -in the same way as those very circumstances would probably be sufficient to prevent the laughter of tickling, if the mechanical cause were applied at the very moment at which we learn the important discovery, and applied precisely in the same manner

as when the strange feeling and the laughter were before the result.

There is another circumstance, that, in the case of a law of nature, however strange and apparently incongruous with our former conceptions its phenomena may be, must have considerable effect in occupying the mind more fully with the discovery;-that it is impossible for the mind to rest in the simple discovery, without rapidly passing in review the various circumstances that seem to us likely to be connected with it in the analogous phenomena, —a state of mind which is of itself most unfavourable to the mirthful emotion. There are, unquestionably, states of mind, during the prevalence of affliction, or any strong passion, in which there is no point in the jest, as there is no pleasure in the very aspect of joy. To the friend returning from the funeral of his friend, we, of course, do not think of uttering any of those common expressions of merriment, in which, at other times, we might occasionally indulge; the natural respect which we feel for sorrow, being sufficient to check the gaiety, or, at least, the appearance of gaiety. But, even though, in violation of that respect, which the sorrowful claim, the happiest effusions of wit were to be poured out, on such an occasion, there would be no answering mirth, in that heart, which, at other times, would have felt and returned the gaiety. What grief, thus manifestly does, other strong interests, that absorb, in like manner, the general feelings of the mind, may well be supposed to do; and we may, therefore, listen to facts, the most seemingly incongruous with our prior knowledge, when our curiosity is awake to their importance, as objects of science, without the slightest disposition to those light emotions, which almost every other incongruity, or fancied incongruity, would have produced.

It may accordingly be remarked, that to those, who have not sufficient elementary knowledge of science, to feel any interest in physical truths, as one connected system, and no habitual desire of exploring the various relations of new phenomena, many of the facts in nature, which have an appearance of incongruity, as first stated, do truly seem ludicrous. If the vulgar were to be told, that they do not see directly the magnitude, or place, or distance of bodies, with their eyes alone, but, in some measure, by the indirect influence of other senses, on which light has no effect what

ever, that the feelings of cold and heat proceed from the same cause, and that there is a great deal of heat in the coldest ice, they would not merely disbelieve what we might say, but they would laugh at what we tell them, as if it were, absolutely ridicu lous. The gravest truths of science would be to them, what the pleasantries of wit are to us.

I may remark, too, as a circumstance of some additional influence, that those who have been conversant with physical inquiries, are always prepared, in some degree, for the discovery of new properties, even in objects the most familiar to them. With their full impression of the infinite variety of the powers of nature, there is scarcely any thing, indeed, which can be said to be truly incongruous with any thing. They are, in some degree, with respect to the physical relations of things, in the same situation as the professed wit, with respect to all the lighter analogies, who is too much accustomed to these in his own gay exercises of fancy, to feel much of the ludicrousness of surprise, when these slight, and seemingly incongruous, relations are developed in the pleasantries of others. It is not from envy or jealousy, certainly not always from envy or jealousy,-that he does not laugh in such a case; but because the relation exhibited is of a kind with which he is too familiar, to share the astonishment that has animated the laughter of all the rest of the circle. The newly discovered congruities or incongruities of wit, in short, are to him, in a great measure, what some strange newly discovered property of a material substance, is to the chemist, or general experimental inquirer.

But whatever may be the cause of the difference of feeling, in this case of seeming anomaly, there can be no question as to the fact itself, that the discovery of a new relation, in Physics,and even of a relation apparently most incongruous with the relations formerly known,-does not produce, in the mind of the scientific observer, or general lover of science, a feeling of any ludicrousness in the discovery itself. The fact, indeed, seems to be reducible, without much difficulty, to the common laws of mind; but still it must be admitted to form an important limitation to the general doctrine of the influence of unexpected, and apparently incongruous, relations, in producing the emotions referred to ludicrousness in their objects.

« PrécédentContinuer »