A Bit of the Gospel According to Stevenson
“ FOR my part,” says Stevenson, in his paper called Truth of Intercourse, “ I can see few things more desirable, after the possession of such radical qualities as honor and humor and pathos, than to have a lively and not a stolid countenance ” . . . follow other desiderata. The phrase “ such radical qualities as honor and humor and pathos ” I have long felt to be, as Stevenson said of an apothegm of Thoreau’s, “ the noblest and most useful passage I remember to have read in any modern author.” To some minds “ romantically dull ” the collocation of honor, humor, and pathos may be startling. Honor all will agree upon ; but why humor, and why pathos ? To take the last term first, because pathos is the necessary and inevitable supplement to real humor. The possessor of a sense of humor without an attendant sense of pathos (in which case the former, to commit an Irishism, is not humor at all) is, according to the presence or absence of intellect, either a wit or a buffoon. Here we may seem to be raising the question of the difference between wit and humor, which early essayists delighted to discuss so gravely and settle so dogmatically. But although definition has become difficult in the light of modern psychology, most of us recognize the difference at once. It may perhaps suffice to say that wit is the intellect at play, and humor, the emotions : this “ play ” is induced in each case by one’s sense of the incongruous, and is expressed in various media appropriate to the occasion, — most frequently in words. But if humor is the emotions at play, we must narrow the definition to the finer and more spiritual emotions (“ spiritual ” more in its French meaning than in its English), in order to make room for buffoonery, which may be termed the play of the grosser and more earthy emotions, expressing themselves more frequently in uncouth actions than in words. “ Horseplay,” the term for buffoonery best sanctioned by long colloquial usage, will bear out my definition, — from one angle, at least; from another, I have often thought the term needlessly rough on the noble animal involved in it. So you might, from one point of view, call Voltaire a wit; Cervantes, both wit and humorist; Rabelais, wit, humorist, and buffoon. But to return to humor. You will see, then, if you think it over, that humor is that quality without which intercourse loses its savor, friendship its tenderness, and love its restfulness. Thus, surely, it is a “ radical ” quality, — next, indeed, to honor.
And it is a far rarer quality than honor, far less frequently to be found. We Americans plume ourselves unconscionably on our sense of humor, and look scarcely with indulgence on what we call our British cousins’ lack of it. But there never was an assumption more Pharisaical. We have great quickness of intellect, which, however, has not yet been aerated enough to express itself in the form of wit, so common to the Gaul; we have an inordinate fondness for buffoonery, which, unlike that of the Italians, has not yet been clarified by any instinctive sense of beauty; and, finally, our humor has not cooled and ripened long enough in the cellar to have the tender mellowness that makes the best English vintage, though small, so choice. We often speak of the dullness of Punch, for which Thackeray wrote and Du Maurier and Sir John Tenniel drew. It may, if you will, be the thin shadow of its former self, but surely it has never descended to the grossness, the crass vulgarity, of our two most widely circulated “ comic ” weeklies. Again, have we Americans, professed humorists, produced any pleasant bits of foolery like the Ingoldsby Legends or the Bab Ballads? (Who of us nowadays reads John Godfrey Saxe ?) Think of the immortal Alice in AVonderland, or, to go nearer the core of one’s heart, Cranford. No American woman (except, possibly, Miss Jewett) has written with the playfulness and tenderness that one so loves in Mrs. Gaskell.
In short, and leaving international argument, it is just this playfulness, combined with tenderness of heart, this real humor, which makes certain authors our best loved friends, however much we reverence a few others, — Stevenson, Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, Fielding, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare. George Eliot, for example, though she had a fair working substitute for humor, really lacked that quality; you may look for it in Macaulay and go hang. But it would be an ungrateful task to adduce other and weightier names, and invite the amazement of the merely literate reader.
I am tempted to wonder if a sense of humor is as infrequent among women as my own experience would lead me to suppose. For I have found far more men endowed with humor than women, just as I have found far more women than men endowed with wit. Perhaps some member of the Club can explain. Meanwhile, horrible as it sounds, I have to confess that I could love (that is, really love) a dog with a sense of humor far better than a woman without one. Some people maintain that dogs have n’t any, but I am too fond of dogs not to know better.
In beating about, however, I have started more hares than I intended. I meant to say little more than this: A man without a sense of humor is occasionally to be respected, often to be feared, and nearly always to be avoided. If he be a writer of books, he may be even a Milton ; if he be a man of action, he may be even a Cromwell; if he be a table companion, he is sure to be a bore, and the meal will become but a sodden revictualing. One can, to be sure, dine with a witty man and delight in him, as one values burnished plate and fine champagne; but the slippered hearth and the fireside pipe are by no means to be shared with him. And so, finally, a man may have honor, combined with every good and perfect gift save one, and with these virtues command our admiration, respect, even reverence; but lacking “ humor and pathos,” all these will profit him nothing if he lay claim to our love.