V.S. Naipaul, that clever and often wise man, once laid down: ‘One always writes comedy at the moment of deepest hysteria.’ Well, where’s the comedy now? There is certainly plenty of hysteria. Old Theodore Roosevelt used to say: ‘Men are seldom more unreasonable than when they lose their money. They do not seek to apportion blame by any rational process but, like a wounded snake, strike out against what is most prominent in their line of vision.’ I notice that the OED, as a rule politically correct, thinks hysteria is chiefly female: ‘Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus… Former names for the disease were vapours and hysteric passion.’ Women certainly laugh more than men, more frequently too, a form of anti-hysteria therapy Nancy Mitford called ‘shrieks’.
We first hear of it in Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis, one of my favourite biblical scenes, taking place outside and within Abraham’s tent. John Frederick Lewis, so good at tents, ought to have painted it. Angels, one of whom turns out to be God, visit the patriarch, and God tells him that Sarah, his elderly wife, will conceive and bear him an heir. Sarah, within and rustling up a meal for the visitors, overhears this. She ‘laughed within herself, saying, “After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”’ God overheard this laugh, not so much a shriek, more a snort, and resented it. He recognised it was not a joyous laugh, more sardonic, cynical and sceptical. It seemed to doubt his powers to order babies, and he angrily asked aloud: ‘Is anything too hard for the Lord?’ Sarah denied her snort: ‘“I laughed not,” for she was afraid. And he said: “Nay; but thou didst laugh.”’ This is the first recorded laugh in history, and the scene is so vivid it makes one believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament, or at least in the imaginative talents of those ancient Hebrews. Also, it is interesting to note that the first joke arose out of what can only be called the sex war: God is a tremendously male figure in the OT. It may be, indeed, that Sarah’s laugh reflected resentment that God had not given her a child before.
That would square with the view shared by most philosophers and analysts that laughter contains an element of aggression. Hobbes thought it was vainglorious. He wrote in Leviathan (1651): ‘The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.’ Henri Bergson, the French oeuftête who wrote a famous essay on the subject, insisted: ‘In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate and so to correct our neighbour.’ That is why, for instance, the otherwise genial Charles Lamb, playing whist with his much-loved but scruffy young friend Martin Burney, said: ‘If dirt were trumps, what hands you would hold!’ Max Beerbohm added: ‘There are two elements in the public’s humour: delight in suffering, contempt for the unfamiliar.’ Arthur Koestler, in the best short essay on laughing I know, printed in the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (under ‘humour and wit’) speaks of the laugh as a ‘trigger-releaser’, letting out ‘vast amounts of stored emotions, derived from various often unconscious sources: repressed sadism, sexual tumescence, unavowed fear, even boredom’.
The German-speaking world has wormed its way into the problem of laughter with deadly seriousness, as one would expect. Kant pondered deeply on the topic and came up with this definition: ‘A laugh is the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.’ Freud took up the view of Herbert Spenser that laughter was a case of emotions being translated into bodily movements; Freud argued that, since emotions were repressed, the tension was relieved when the muscles of the lips follow the line of least resistance in a smile, so ‘laughter is a form of respiratory gymnastics’.
Odd that German philosophers should go into the matter so earnestly (Hegel, Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein all had things to say about it), when humour is not the first thing you think of when contemplating the Teutonic intellect, massive though it may be. (I am told that all jokes have to be explained to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.) Some important Germans are recorded as passing through life without laughing: Frederick Barbarossa, for example, and Schiller’s aunt. Von Moltke, the great 19th-century military strategist, only laughed twice in his life: once when told a certain French fortress was impregnable, and once when his mother-in-law died. Martin Heidegger, whom many believe to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century (he is impenetrable, I find, though I once understood his main point for about half an hour, until my mind crumbled), laughed only once. That was when, on a picnic in the Hartz mountains, Ernst Jünger bent over to pick up a sauerkraut roll, and split his lederhosen with a tremendous crack. But after ‘a fierce shout of mirth’, Heidegger checked himself, and ‘his expression reverted to its habitual ferocity’.
Germans of course are funniest when un-aware they are provoking mirth. Paddy Leigh Fermor, that grand repository of recondite anecdotes, told me that Colonel-Count Von Rausching, the officer commanding the famous Prussian cavalry regiment, the Death’s Head Hussars, became worried, about the year 1900, by the way his subalterns were laughing. He summoned a meeting in the mess and told them: ‘There is a right and a wrong way to laugh. I do not want my young officers sniggering, or tittering, or yelping or guffawing, like tradesmen or Jews or Poles. There is only one admissible way for a military gentleman to laugh, and that is by a short, sharp ejaculation. Thus: “Ha!” Understand? Now, let us see if you can do it properly. Ready? One, two, three, Ha! One, two, three, Ha! Very gut! Now once more: Ha! And again, Ha! So now you know how to laugh. Never let me hear any of you snigger again.’
What about the English, then? William Cory, the famous (or notorious, he was sacked for pederasty) Eton master, used to say: ‘If two or three Englishmen are together any length of time and do not laugh, something has gone wrong.’ Of course he lived before New Labour. Indeed his maxim does not always apply to politicians generally. Take the case of Gladstone. As Margot Asquith put it: ‘Mr Gladstone was not exactly lacking in a sense of humour. But he was not often in the mood to be amused.’ This particularly applied if Disraeli were ever in the vicinity. However they were once observed, and heard, laughing together behind the Speaker’s chair. What happened was this. Disraeli knew that Gladstone and Browning greatly admired each other. He had been reading a volume of Browning’s collected poems, and had spotted a curious error towards the end of ‘Pippa Passes’. Browning was a very learned man, for a poet, so learned that he did not often consult others to correct any mistakes. He thought the word ‘twat’ was an item of a nun’s vestments, instead of a vulgar word for the female pudenda. So towards the end of the poem, Disraeli found, were the lines
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns …
Disraeli pointed this out to the G.O.M., hoping to stump him. Instead, Gladstone laughed uproariously. Afterwards, he was asked: ‘What was the joke?’ But Gladstone would not tell. The moment had passed, and he never laughed with Disraeli again.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 1, 2008Tags: German Humour, Merkel