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9 March 2022

From the NS archive: The irreverent laugh

14 February 1931: The latest hostile critic of laughter is Mr HG Wells.

By New Statesman

Laughter possesses a power, whether that is to criticise, to mock, to celebrate – or, as this author argues, to reduce to irreverence. In this article from 1931, the latest hostile critic of laughter is HG Wells. His work “The Science of Life”, written with Julian Huxley and GP Wells, was known as the first modern textbook of biology. The author of this piece muses on the disparity between the ordinary man and science, a world that man will never truly understand. When faced with this unknown, the ordinary man is reduced to laughter: “his very ignorance makes a great deal of science foreign to him and therefore, in a measure, funny”. Throughout the piece the author asks whether laughter can cause harm, concluding: “The only real harm that can come of laughter is harm to the man himself, if he turns aside from all poetry with an inane giggle and from all science with the laugh of an imbecile.”

Laughter has in almost all ages been suspected of irreverence. There are many people who hate to hear laughter in church, and it is all that they can do to forgive even a preacher of genius for evoking the idiot noises of mirth in an atmosphere so sacred. The extreme Puritans did not like to hear anyone laughing unrestrainedly anywhere at all on Sunday. Sensitive lovers of poetry have shuddered to hear their idols parodied. Even people who enjoy laughing are often resentful if they themselves are laughed at. And there are probably few of us who have not some special subject at which it distresses us to hear other people laughing. I know a humourist who flares up if he hears anybody making a joke about Mr. Epstein. There are others who cannot bear to hear a witticism at the expense of Proust. I myself am easily shocked by jokes about murders unless the murders happened a long time ago or a long distance away or never happened except in fiction. We all have our hobbies of solemnity. I knew a Scotsman to whom “Annie Laurie”, words and tune, was sacred.

Hatred of laughter is, no doubt, natural enough since so much laughter is derisive. If you laugh at the Times for being taken in by the junior member for Treorchy your laughter is fundamentally an attack on the Times. Similarly, you do not laugh whole-heartedly at the election eccentricities of the Empire Crusade. All laughter of this kind is laughter of belittlement, and indeed one of the chief moral defences of laughter is that it helps to destroy much that deserves to be destroyed. The vices and follies of mankind have not yet been laughed out of existence, being by their nature more difficult to extirpate than horseradish in a garden but it is reasonable to believe that, without laughter, they would have been still sturdier and more universal growths. There are those who maintain that laughter is merely a mark of our helplessness, and that the satirists, while they have contributed to our amusement, have not in fact left the world a pennyworth better than they found it. I doubt whether this theory can be maintained with any show of reason, however, and I fancy the historians are right, who tell us that even the mild satire of Addison exerted a civilising influence on the England of his time.

The latest hostile critic of laughter to appear is Mr. H. G. Wells, who, in The Science of Life, makes the solemn charge against English literature that, from Gullivers Travels to the Pickwick Papers, it has been spitting and jeering at its “greater sister”, science. Mr. Wells, as everybody knows, regards science much as an old-fashioned Scottish Presbyterian regards the Bible: it is to him the book of salvation, and in this faith he has set out to evangelise the world. He would like to see humanity accepting the discoveries of science with as much awe as if they had been brought down from Sinai, and the indifferent mirth of men in an age of biological revelation seems to him like the irreverent imbecility of those who danced round the Golden Calf. Whether scientific knowledge has all the saving power that he attributes to it is a question on which there are different opinions. Many people look on supernatural religion as a source of more important knowledge than even science; and others would deny that more is to be learnt, by them at least, from science than from poetry or the arts. Apart from this, the ordinary man, going about his daily business and his daily recreations, knows that in the intervals of these he has scarcely time to become more than a smatterer in science. Science for him remains a strange world, a world for an occasional holiday visit, and he never can be at home in it, a specialist, a master of knowledge. Hence, while he has a vague respect for the great names of science as for those of statesmanship and the arts, he cannot maintain a persistent burning zeal in regard to it, and he can see no reason why Swift and Dickins should be forgiven to make jokes about science any more than about politics or about religion.

His very ignorance makes a great deal of science foreign to him and therefore, in a measure, funny. There was a time when any one mentioning the word “relativity” in an after-dinner speech could be sure of being rewarded with loud laughter. This laughter was not due to incredulity, but to the fact that the word “relativity” conveyed no more to the intelligence of the ordinary man than “abracadabra”. It was not gibberish to the expert, but it was gibberish to the profane. I doubt whether ignorant laughter of this kind has ever done the slightest injury to the spread of knowledge. We ignoramuses who laughed at relativity were merely laughing at ourselves, and, while we laughed, cleverer people than we were creating an intellectual atmosphere in which the theories of Einstein were becoming more and more generally accepted. At the present moment people are laughing at some new Einstein business about a box. I have not the faintest notion what the box business amounts to, but the ordinary man, as he reads about it, feels that he is being told about some new juggling with the universe, and juggling amuses him. Meanwhile, despite the amusement of common mortals, Einstein and his collaborators will no doubt go ahead and advance the bounds of knowledge till the new conceptions have become as old and as unamusing as gravity or the circulation of the blood.

Another scientific novelty of the age that has been the cause of a good deal of innocent mirth is psychoanalysis. Here, however, the laughter has been better informed. For the ordinary man has been a practical psychologist all his life, and a desultory student of human nature. To him it seems that Freud has pushed to excess theories of human nature which have apparently been of use in the cure of mental trouble, and the Oedipus complexes and the rest of them strike him as being ludicrously untrue to life in their general application. The fixed idea, pushed to excess has always been a theme of comedy, and the fixed idea of a man of science can be as comic in its results as that of a Don Quixote or a Mr Dick. Probably, laughter is a real help to science in challenging its extravagances and testing its conclusions where possible by human experience. For science, like literature, has its dross as well as its gold, and, if we can laugh at certain things in Milton and Wordsworth, there is no reason we should not also laugh at certain things in Freud and Voronoff. Even if we assume that rejuvenation is a scientifically indisputable fact, we must admit that the monkey-gland business has its grotesque side, and there was undoubtedly something funny about that meeting to spread the gospel of rejuvenation, which had at the last minute to be cancelled because the lecturer on rejuvenation had suddenly died at a comparatively early age.

Apart from this, if literature is to be allowed to laugh at life, how can we reasonably forbid it to laugh at science, which is only an arrangement of some facts about life? If we ought not to laugh at science, we ought not to laugh at anything, and it is difficult to believe that the world would be richer as a result of the compete disappearance of humour. Besides, human nature is fallible, and it stands to reason that the impulse to imposture and to bogus claims will be found among men of science as well as among politicians and artists. The charlatan will abound for many centuries yet to come, and what better weapon is there to use against him than laughter? Religion did not suffer because men laughed at Tartuffe and Mr. Stiggins, yet the religious were offended by this laughter as Mr. Wells is offended by the laughter at the excesses of science. Molière and Mr. Shaw have laughed at certain tricks and charlatanries to be found in the medical profession, but medical progress was not noticeably checked by this. It was possible to laugh at The Doctor’s Dilemma without losing one’s respect for Sir James Mackenzie. Laughter, indeed, though irreverent, does not destroy our reverence for the men and things that deserve to be revered. Human nature is so complex that it is possible for us even to laugh and to revere at the same moment. Who has not laughed at his dearest friends without any abatement of friendship? If we could not laugh at our friends we should at times, perhaps, find it less easy to tolerate them.

Let us, then, continue to laugh at science, if we feel like it, without any fear that by doing so we are obstructing the progress of knowledge. Knowledge that cannot push its way past a laugh can hardly be worth acquiring. The only real harm that can come of laughter is harm to the man himself, if he turns aside from all poetry with an inane giggle and from all science with the laugh of an imbecile. But even he, perhaps, gets more consolation from his idiotic merriment than he could ever get from the imaginations of the poets and the discoverers. And, apart from that, is not he, too, a ludicrous figure, more comic than “relativity” or the Oedipus complex itself? Let the poets and men of science, instead of becoming exasperated with him, laugh at him in turn with cheerful derision. They will then find it more easy to tolerate him, and will be able to go ahead with their work in higher spirits.

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