In Pursuit of Laughter

By Agnes Repplier
[Houghton Mifflin, $2.75]
‘WHAT, God not laugh!’ exclaimed Dean Stanley. ‘ How did He make the crab, then? But God did not endow His people with this jubilant gift. Perhaps He willed so not to do, for laughter, deep-throated, satisfying laughter, is an escape from living. The animated author of The Beggar’s Opera felt that all things showed life a jest, and jesters know that in laughter lies the true security from madness; but we, more thoughtful and less wise, think of living as too real and too earnest a pursuit to allow the consciousness of it to evaporate in laughter. Moderns, we hardly know what it means, think sourly of it. To us, as to the Israelite, it is the crackling of thorns under a pot. Protestantism, with its Hebrew inheritance, has always cold-shouldered it, though Martin Luther, who loved both wine and women, knew its meaning well. The Catholic Church, always on easier and less formal terms with God, has never felt it hostile to Salvation, and in the Ages of Faith laughter was unrestrained as it had not been since Pan caught sight of the first Christian spire.
For full two generations Miss Agnes Repplier has not ceased to be a bright and finished ornament of American Letters. Who matches her in craftsmanship? Who excels her in discipline, in the honest withholding of praise, or in its just bestowal? She is the inheritor of a more ancient excellence than ours, and among Americans she has become a sort of contemporary ancestor, a summation of the best that has gone before. She it is who traces the ‘ Pursuit of Laughter, and her quest is recorded in a book of delight to be read and digested with smiles, but not with laughter, for laughter is dead and this book is its epitaph.
’England has never been Merry England,’she quotes from Andrew Lang, ‘since everybody learned to read,’ but there was a time before that when men loved life, and took its natural ending less cheerlessly than now. Then laughter rang through the world, sometimes loud, sometimes low, but always unrestrained. God felt in it no disrespect. The Virgin loved to hear it. Was ever anything more charming than Miss Repplier’s tale of Saint Thomas Aquinas? ‘Hurrying as fast as so heavy a man could hurry along the corridor of the Monastery to Vespers, as he passed the statue of the Blessed Virgin it opened its lips and said admonishingly, “Thomas, you are late,”to which the Saint replied, also admonishingly, “ Mary, it is the Hour of Silence!‘”
The next centuries laid the weight of learning on the land, and laughter sickened. Puritanism came, and laughter died. It quickened under the Restoration, but then it had become stage laughter with a falsetto note in it. The ordered world of the eighteenth century made laughter possible again, but manners frowned upon it. ‘A man of parts and fashion,’ said Lord Chesterfield, ‘is seen to smile, but never heard to laugh.’
In the nineteenth century laughter was made glorious by Sam Weller, and Miss Repplier’s chapters on the infectious humorists, Theodore Hook, Sydney Smith, and Tom Hood, bear witness to the catholicity of her humor. She illumines the comic spirit of the twentieth by recalling the classic notice posted in the New York Stock Exchange when Theodore Roosevelt went on his hunting trip to Africa: —
and her valedictory is a perfect and polished tribute to the elusive genius of laughter which through the ages has been so relentlessly pursued.
With the brevity that fashions wit, the author’s comments run glistening through her narrative. ‘The Declaration of Independence,’ she remarks, ‘ was ushered into the world with as good a witticism from as accomplished a wit as history has recorded.’ Again, ‘The Calvinistie Synod expressed its conviction that Satan was responsible for the English Liturgy, of which he might have been reasonably proud.’ And still again, of our deficiency of fun in the face of our tolerance of the ‘funnies’: ‘The appalling grin with which men and women are photographed for the press is as remote from gaiety as from reason.’
Only to those who have struggled and suffered and risen to struggle on is vouchsafed the understanding of laughter.
On this hapless earth
There’s small sincerity of mirth,
And laughter oft is but an art
To drown the outcry of the heart.
Miss Repplier knows the meaning of life — and the meaning of laughter which illumines it.