IN a foreign paper, picked up by chance in the periodical room of the Boston Public Library, I came the other day upon the interesting information that there has recently arisen in Milan a school of laughter founded in all seriousness to teach the young idea how to cachinnate. Not that the world has grown so grave as to need instruction in merriment: the matter, it seems, is one of quality rather than quantity. There is enough laughter; but, from the point of view of the higher criticism, it is so poorly laughed as to be almost laughable in itself, if the fact were not so serious. The English laugh badly; we Americans laugh worse; even the French — such is the opinion of the expert observer in charge of the new Milanese institution
— laugh no longer with the charm that was once theirs, but “ lack tone, color, or feeling, as if the whole nation had taken to drinking mineral waters.” Moral: Beware of mineral waters or your laughter will be full of salts.
At first thought, I was inclined to laugh at this institution myself. I did laugh. More than that, I heard myself doing it. It was the first time that I had ever consciously heard myself laugh, and the sound set me thinking, and listening to the laughter of others. So that I now feel, after all, that it would be wiser to take a course in the College of Cachinnation
— and laugh at it afterward. He who laughs last, and so forth. To laugh at those who are secretly and with reason laughing at us for the way we laugh at them, is a fine joke only as long as we don’t grasp both sides of it. The College of Cachinnation, in short, is simply the legitimate continuation of a movement that began with the first music lesson.
But speech — and laughter, by the same token — is still taken for granted by the great majority of otherwise intelligent people. Singing is a different matter, admittedly ornamental, and demanding study and practice; the better the natural voice, the more willingly the family economizes in order to have it properly developed. And it therefore follows that every now and then one meets a young woman who sings like an angel, talks like a parrot, and laughs like a hyena. Singing, in short, is an acquirement (largely admired for the ease and naturalness with which it is finally done), but speaking or laughing is as natural as freckles on the end of the nose, and apparently no more tempting as something to improve by cultivation.
Yet those who describe laughter show plainly enough that the existence of an ideal is even here generally recognized. The novelist usually specifies the kind, and, so to speak, color, of audible merriment. We do actually hear that rippling or that mellow laugh which is the joy of novelists, often enough to know that the novelist does n’t make it up out of his own head; but not often enough to make it a trite and commonplace characteristic when the novelist looks about mentally for something that will add charms to his puppets.
But the attitude of the public mind remains reminiscent of a line in a now defunct school reader, in which some imaginary and hopelessly silly person was made to say, “ There is nothing like fun, is there ? I have n’t any myself, but I do like it in others ” — a statement well calculated to make children solemn and insure quiet in schoolrooms. Such would seem to be our general feeling about the musical quality of laughter: we have n’t any ourselves, but we do like it in those we read about. But human nature rarely embodies this fine self-abnegation. The silly person in the reader did n’t honestly believe himself lacking in fun, nor do the rest of us honestly believe ourselves lacking in harmonic and pleasing cachinnation. We have heard these noises coming out of our mysterious interiors so long and so familiarly that it never occurs to us to examine them critically. “ Teach me to laugh, indeed! ” say we; “ show me something funny and I’ll show you how to laugh.”
Evidently, however, the College of Cachinnation believes in the existence of a thoughtful minority, — and for such is education really intended,— by whom laughter can be taken seriously without being the less spontaneously enjoyable. Other things being equal, nobody will deny that it is better to make a pleasant noise than an ugly one, as is clearly enough shown by the large number of persons who make a living tuning pianos. Nor are the sounds so often subsequently produced by the owners of the pianos any proof to the contrary; they are doing their best, not their worst, although the listener next door may be pardoned for not believing it.
But suppose that the piano-tuner comes frequently enough, and the player has taste enough, and works hard enough, and by degrees begins to acquire a mastery of the instrument so that the listener no longer shudders. Certainly the pleasure of the player does not diminish in proportion as that of the listener increases; and the improvement is not frowned upon, even by her own family, as an affectation— which might happen had she devoted the same amount of time and patience to the technique of the only musical instrument that, willy-nilly, we must all play upon.
This, I take it, is the argument of these Milanese benefactors, — for benefactors they are although the movement is hardly likely to spread immediately enough to benefit many of those now living. Their curriculum presumably includes the chuckle, the giggle, the titter, the ripple, and so on, working up eventually to the howl, snort, and bellow. For misanthropes there should be courses in the variations of bitter laughter — the sardonic titter, the sarcastic ripple, the ironical chuckle. One should be able to combine courses and acquire a characteristic and special kind of laughter: there should be, for example, a suggestion of new-mown hay in the laughter of the farmer who has always lived on the farm, to differentiate his mirth from the worldlier merriment of the gentleman farmer who has made his fortune in the great city and come back to the soil to spend it. In a group of graduates from the College of Cachinnation it would be a real pleasure to serve as a laughing-stock; and as for laughing on the wrong side of the mouth, how much more satisfactory would be that exercise if we could at least feel that we were doing it with a certain degree of technical excellence. Nor need one apologize for these mildly mirthful imaginings — provided one has accepted the principle that laughter, like everything else, is worth the trouble of doing properly. One may imagine that the institution thus successfully provides material for its pupils to practice upon, without resorting to the comic papers.
But here perhaps is the gravest charge that can be brought against the College of Cachinnation: will it not make laughter artificial? In all seriousness, such a danger seems negligible. Counting out the large proportion of laughter that is artificial already, natural laughter would have no more to fear than had music in the case of the neighbor who actually learned to play her piano. Let the College of Cachinnation teach its students to laugh with technical excellence, — in short, to do by art what we all more or less imagine we do by nature, — and the world is still as funny as ever. Education of any kind is an acquired habit, and a habit once thoroughly acquired becomes perfectly natural.