Laughter as a Mode of Expression

— Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Essay on the Physiology of Laughter is an admirable account of the phenomenon so far as it is spontaneous and solitary. It omits, however (since it is dealing only with the natural origin), a whole side of the subject; namely, the voluntary and social side. Its explanation of the origin of laughter, it will be remembered, is, in brief, as follows : A state of mental tension is suddenly interrupted ; the flow of nervous energy is pent up, and seeks escape; it finds its easiest outlet into muscular action ; and those muscles most habituated to express feeling will act, in the order of frequency of exercise, for this purpose. So we have first the light muscles about the mouth relaxing into a smile; then the vocal chords vibrating in a full laugh ; then the whole body, if the emotion goes so far, swayed or convulsed. It is in a similar way that the pleased dog first wags his tail, then barks, then capers about his master. Of the sources of irresistible human merriment, a good example cited is that of a loud sneeze between the andante and the allegro of a Beethoven symphony. Here a massive stream of nervous energy, steadily flowing in the listeners, is suddenly checked; the new and trivial object of attention furnishes outlet for but a small portion of the current ; the pent - up remainder escapes through a burst of merriment.

This serves excellently as an explanation wherever the laughter would have occurred spontaneously to a man alone by himself. Whether the cited example of the sneeze be a case of this kind may be doubtful. Suppose a listener, for instance, to be sitting in his own chamber at an open window, close by the concert-room, but cut off from sight or hearing of the audience. It would be a matter for experiment in what precise way such a parenthetical sneeze would affect him. There are plenty of cases, however, where a man does laugh all by himself, or a group of men without any reference to each other, in which Mr. Spencer’s account of the matter is satisfactory. But is there not, also, a large class of instances of smiles and laughter, and even of mirthful bodily contortions, which come under the head of voluntary means of expression ?

In the first place, there is the presentation smile of society. You are presented to a lady, who not only bows to show that she puts herself at your feet, and perhaps gives her hand to show that she does not mean to pull hair or scratch (I still follow the doubtless correct evolution theory of ceremonials), but she “ smiles and smiles ” to show that her mood is one of sweet amiability, and that you are therefore, for the present, safe.

Then there is the pretty, pearly, rippling laugh, with which your “ nutbrown ” anecdote, which has been heard already twice this evening, is received. Here, certainly, there is no pent-up cascade of emotion that seeks for an outlet. The sweet lady’s laugh is partly for your sake, that you may feel the soft thrill of self-applause ; and partly for her own, because she knows she laughs well. She pulls it exactly as if it were a stop in an organ.

Then there is the bitter laugh of the sad, sad young man, who wishes to impress upon your mind the hollowness that all things have for him; and the well-managed smile of Jaques, the elder cynic, who thinks thus to wither your youthful aspirations, and at the same time to suggest his own unfathomed deeps of cruel disillusion.

I have always been fond of those familiar lines from the Deserted Village : —

“ Sweet was the sound, when oft at evening’s close
Up yonder hill the village murmur rose;
There, as I passed with careless steps and slow,
The mingling notes came softened from below :
The swain responsive as the milkmaid sung,
The sober herd that lowed to meet their young, The noisy geese that gabbled o’er the pool,
The playful children just let loose from school,
The watch-dog’s voice that bayed the whispering wind,
And the loud laugh that spoke the vacant mind.”

Living, as I do, on a village street, I have abundant opportunity to hear this “ village murmur ” of the poet. But alas! it is not so “ sweet ” to my ear. My “ yonder hill ” is not high enough or far enough off. If I did not think parodies were wicked, the lines would get confused in my mind, and I should spleenfully chant the “ howl responsive as the hoodlum sung,” the “ tipsy herd that tried to cuff their young,” the “ playful gamblers gabbling o’er their pool,” the “noisy goslings just let loose from school.”

And this “ loud laugh ” of the street loafer — well do we know it, and cordially do we abominate it, as it fills the village air, night and day, like the laugh of a parrot, or a hyena, or an idiot. But I have doubted whether the poet’s theory of the origin of this detestable phenomenon is quite sufficient. The “ loud laugh ” does, no doubt, denote a “vacant mind,” — vacant, that is to say, of any useful ideas or civilized emotions ; but is it not often, also, the intentional expression of something in the mind ? If you take the trouble to observe it carefully (and it is a pity if existence in a peripheral village were not sometimes assuaged by a bit of valuable observation of the human subject in the wild state), you will notice that the street-laugh is made as loud as possible, with evident intention. The pavement hyena does not laugh from any spontaneous bubbling-up of merry emotions ; he laughs to be heard. Generally, I think, the motive is derision. Sometimes it may be from a desire to express a sentiment of “ Who’s afraid ? ” This laugh of bravado we are acquainted with elsewhere than on the street. Perhaps, also, the drawing-room, and especially the domestic drawing-room, may not be wholly unfamiliar with the laugh of derision. But it finds its congenial atmosphere about the doors of bar-rooms, and among the sidewalk satellites of the village grocery.

Of course it may be truthfully said that these forms of artificial laughter are, after all, imitative of natural forms that go back, in the last analysis, to the origin first mentioned. But their subsequent uses for various shades of intentional expression are worth further observation.