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The Secret of Laughter

LaughingMan [1]9,356 words

Editor’s Note:

Since humor is one of the New Right’s most powerful weapons, we should welcome anything that might sharpen our attack, including a theoretical explanation of the nature of humor itself. Anthony M. Ludovici’s 1932 book The Secret of Laughter presents an entirely convincing theory of humor inspired by Thomas Hobbes and Charles Darwin. 

I have reproduced three essential chapters, omitting Ludovici’s notes and editing out a couple of unnecessary examples. The full text is online at AnthonyMLudovici.com [2] and a condensation of the entire argument is found in John Day’s Ludovici anthology The Lost Philosopher [3]

Chapter 1

I am going to suggest that there is something sinister in laughter. But by this I do not mean that it is necessarily bad. Many very desirable things have either had sinister beginnings, or else have their sinister side. Nevertheless, when we know the sinister side of laughter, although we may not, like Henry I., dismiss it for ever from our gamut of expressions, at least we shall be in a position to understand its function and the meaning of the present high esteem in which humour is held.

Before I concentrate on the main theme, however, I should like to illustrate my use of two terms — “superior adaptation” and “unconscious” by a few examples.

In the Battle of the Frogs and the Mice, which some have ascribed to Homer, a mouse, stopping on the bank of a pond to drink, is invited by a frog to pay him a visit. The mouse consents and mounts the frog’s back to go to the latter’s castle. In the middle of the pond, however, an otter frightens the frog, who dives, and the mouse is left to drown. Now, from the moment the mouse mounts the frog’s back, it is the frog, in spite of his inferior position, who enjoys, as compared with the mouse, superior adaptation in the sense in which I am going to use the term in this book.

In La Fontaine’s fable of The Fox and the Stork, you will remember that a fox invites a stork to dinner and offers the food in two flat platters, from which he alone is in a position to eat the food. By way of retaliation the stork then returns the invitation and offers the food in two narrow-necked vases into which he alone can introduce his long, slender beak. At the first meal it is the fox, and at the second the stork, who enjoys superior adaptation in the sense in which I propose to use the term.

[. . .]

The term “unconscious” I shall use in the sense usually meant when people speak of blinking by an “unconscious” reaction when an arm or stick is suddenly raised in front of them. The sense in which I propose to use it is also well illustrated by an incident in Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth. There, one of the male characters is tracked down by spies to a certain inn. But they find that the only guest at the inn is a woman. One of them, suspecting that the woman is really a man in disguise, tries the ruse of flinging a coin into her lap, and from the spontaneous closing of her knees (a reaction that would not be spontaneous in a woman accustomed to skirts and the obstruction they would offer to a falling coin) he concludes that the woman, as he suspected, is really a man in disguise. The spontaneous closing of the knees was the man’s “unconscious” response, in my present sense.

Now one of the main difficulties in investigating the meaning of laughter consists in the great variety of circumstances in which a laugh seems a suitable expression. For instance:

(a) A small child, hard pressed by a pursuer, laughs when it reaches safety in the folds of its mother’s dress. There is nothing obviously funny or humorous, however, in running to safety.

(b) A young woman, knowing herself to be well dressed, smiles constantly, and laughs at the slightest provocation. There is nothing obviously funny or humorous about being well dressed. On the contrary, it is often more funny and humorous not to be well dressed.

(c) We are told that the gods on Olympus burst into loud laughter when they saw Hephæstos hobbling lamely from one to another offering them nectar. Hephæstos was the crippled ugly god.

(d) We are told that David Garrick once broke down in a tragic scene because he was laughing so much at a man in the front who, owing to the heat, had placed his wig on his dog’s head.

(e) Children and some adults laugh to see Harlequin belabouring the clown.

(f) Some people laugh to hear other people speaking a foreign language, or speaking their own language in an odd way. Much of the success of Harry Lauder in London was due to this human peculiarity.

(g) Many people have difficulty in not laughing at someone who loses his hat in the wind and proceeds to grope about for it, at great personal risk, under the bonnets of cars and the heads of horses.

(h) On the other hand, that same person will laugh while he is trying to recover his hat, and will look anxiously and laugh at those near him when he first loses it.

(i) Once on a damp, greasy day, in Old Bond Street, where the pavement has two different levels, a smartly-dressed woman, evidently unfamiliar with the two levels, fell in front of me. Her handbag dropped on the flags and sprang open, money rolled in all directions, and I noticed that her white gloves, her silk stockings and the skirt of her dress were badly soiled. And yet, the whole time that I and a few others assisted her to her feet and helped her to recover her property, she never once stopped laughing. Now it cannot be funny or humorous to fall and soil one’s clothes in the street.

(j) We laugh when we inhale nitrous oxide.

(k) We also laugh at a mere absurdity, as, for instance, when we are told that two lions, kept in adjoining cages, broke through the partition separating them, and in their fury mauled each other until only the tips of their tails were left.

(l) Again, the more dignified the person is who has a fall, the more we laugh. A ragged, bedraggled tramp falling in the dust or mud is not nearly as funny as one of His Majesty’s judges, or a bishop performing the same antic.
Sydney Smith, writing over a hundred years ago, gives a curious instance of this. He says:

“If a tradesman of a corpulent and respectable appearance, with habiliments somewhat ostentatious, were to slide gently into the mud and decorate a pea-green coat, I am afraid we should have the barbarity to laugh. If his hat and wig, like treacherous servants, were to desert their fallen master, it certainly would not diminish our propensity to laugh. . . . But if instead of this we were to observe a dustman falling into the mud, it would hardly attract any attention.”

(m) We never laugh at a horse, a child or an old woman who falls.

(n) We laugh when we are embarrassed. In fact, the typical mannerism of all timid and ill-adapted young people on the stage is a perpetual simper or laugh.

(o) We laugh at any mishap that may occur to a performer on the stage. Voltaire actually said: “I have noticed that a whole theatre audience never laughs loudly as one man except when a mishap occurs to one of the performers.”

Once, I believe it was at the Coliseum, I saw Sir Frank Benson walk on to recite a speech from one of Shakespeare’s historical plays. He was in the garb of some ancient knight or noble, and as he approached the footlights he tripped over his long sword. The whole audience rocked with laughter, and although he bravely shouted the speech he had to deliver, nothing would compose the house to seriousness, and at last he had to retire discomfited.

(p) We laugh at schoolboy howlers. But — and this is most important — we only laugh if the howler is one which our own unaided knowledge enables us to recognise as such. When we hear a schoolboy refer to the bridge spanning the Menai Straits as a “tubercular bridge,” we may laugh. We may also laugh when we hear him describe an oculist as a fish with long legs. When, however, the howler concerns some science or language with which we are not familiar, we cannot laugh, except out of courtesy to the interpreter, even when the howler is carefully explained to us. Why is a mistake we know of our own knowledge to be a mistake, funny, and a mistake we know through someone else’s knowledge to be a mistake, not funny?

(q) We laugh at a pun.

(r) We laugh more heartily and loudly at a joke or a pun in a foreign language, which we happen to understand, than at a joke of equal merit in our own language. De Quincey thought that many scholars had, as the result of a like infirmity, grossly exaggerated the value of certain classical writers.

(s) We laugh when tickled.

(t) We smile or laugh when we meet a friend. But even when an enemy passes and we are in company, we also take care to smile or laugh, to indicate to the enemy that we are no worse off for his absence from our circle.

(u) Although a joke may be really funny, we rarely if ever think it so if it is against ourselves.

[ . . .]

(v) When we slip in trying to reach a platform, or knock our heads by accident in front of a crowd, we provoke loud laughter; but it offends us to be laughed at. Even animals, according to some people, are annoyed at being laughed at.

(w) We laugh at a surprise, or an expectation that ends in nothing. Many investigators have believed this kind of laugh to be the only kind.

(x) We laugh at an incongruity (Schopenhauer’s example under (k)).

(y) We laugh at a good nonsense picture by Lear or Bateman.

(z) We laugh at mere caricature.

(A) We laugh at disguises.

(B) We laugh when others laugh.

(C) We laugh at a good ruse, a good trick, a good case of diamond cut diamond, and at a witticism.

(D) We laugh at good mimicry or imitation.

(E) We laugh in what we conceive to be an intellectual way, when, in a public debate, one disputant cracks a joke against his opponent, and we then regard the disputant who has had the joke cracked against him as defeated in the argument.

(F) We laugh at mere indecencies, or at scenes, reference and stories actually indecent, bordering on the indecent, or reminiscent of the indecent, on the stage, in books, and in daily life. Men, after dinner, when the ladies have retired, habitually laugh at indecent and salacious stories.

I have now given thirty-two examples of laughter, in which the expression is associated with different circumstances. There seems, at first glance, to be very little connexion between these various laughs — between, for instance, the laugh of embarrassment, the exaggerated laugh at the joke in a foreign language, and the laugh provoked by nitrous oxide; but seeing that all the examples I have given provoke the same expression — laughter — it would seem that some common factor must connect them, and that if we find this common factor, we shall know the nature of laughter and what causes it.

I have deliberately omitted the laughter of hysteria and the laughter of insanity resulting from the methodical feet-tickling which is alleged to be a form of torture among the Chinese. This I did because both are morbid, and not enough is known about them to enable a description of the mental processes involved to be made. The abuse of a normal reaction in the case of methodical and persistent feet-tickling may or may not lead to insanity; but if it does it would have no more to do with normal laughter than the production of tears by the stimulus of a freshly-cut onion has to do with normal weeping. It would come under the head of mechanical stimulus and purely mechanical reaction, it would not interest us as enquirers into the nature and function of laughter as a social expression, and would be explained along the lines of Herbert Spencer’s Physiology of Laughter. As to hysterical laughter, we know that it is commonly associated with sex-repression or sex-starvation — hence the implied sex-connexion in the name. But whether the hysterical fit of laughter is provoked by an exalted state of mind, by a consciousness of increased power, or not, we do not know. I suspect that it is.

It is obvious that unless we can discover an explanation or definition of laughter that will account for all the kinds of laughter I have enumerated, it will not be an explanation or definition at all. Even to leave one example of normal laughter out would suffice to ruin the definition.

[. . .]

From Chapter 3

Thomas Hobbes is a very much underrated thinker. So little trouble has been taken to do him justice on this point of laughter alone, that whole chapters and books have been written against him by men who have not even taken the pains to consider “subjective laughter” as an important aspect of laughter, and who have not even once referred to it in their discussion of the subject. So angered have they been by their own hasty and narrow reading of his meaning, and so anxious have they felt to rescue laughter from his hands, that, just as Puritans can deal with life only by amputating and limiting it, so they are able to deal with laughter only by shutting their eyes to many of its most important aspects.

I shall now quote Hobbes, and if the reader will bear with me, I hope, in the sequel, to be able to show how completely satisfactory and therefore comprehensive his explanation is.

Hobbes writes:

There is a passion that hath no name; but the sign of it is that distortion of the countenance which we call laughter, which is always joy; but what joy, what we think, and wherein we triumph when we laugh, is not hitherto declared by any. That it consisteth in wit, or, as they call it, in the jest, experience confuteth; for men laugh at mischances and indecencies, wherein there lieth not wit or jest at all. And foreasmuch as the same thing is not more ridiculous when it groweth stale or usual, whatsoever it be that moveth laughter, it must be new and unexpected. Men laugh often, especially such as are greedy of applause from everything they do well, at their own actions performed never so little beyond their expectations; as also at their own jests; and in this case it is manifest, that the passion of laughter proceedeth from a sudden conception of some ability in himself that laugheth. Also men laugh at the infirmities of others, by comparison wherewith their own abilities are set off and illustrated. Also men laugh at jests, the wit whereof consisteth in the elegant discovery and conveying to our minds of some absurdity of another: and in this case also the passion proceedeth from the sudden imagination of our own odds and eminency: for what is else the recommending of ourselves to our own good opinion, by comparison with another man’s infirmity or absurdity? For when a jest is broken upon ourselves, or friends of whose dishonour we participate, we never laugh thereat. I may therefore , conclude that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly: for men laugh at the follies of themselves past, when they come suddenly to remembrance, except they bring with them any present dishonour. It is no wonder therefore that men take heinously to be laughed at or derided, that is triumphed over. Laughter without offence must be at absurdities and infirmities abstracted from persons, and where all the company may laugh together: for laughing to one’s self putteth all the rest into jealousy and examination of themselves. Besides, it is in vain glory, and an argument of little worth, to think the infirmity of another sufficient matter for his triumph.

Elsewhere, Hobbes, writing on the same subject, says:

‘Sudden glory’ is the passion which maketh those ‘grimaces’ called ‘laughter’; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleaseth them or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves. And it is incident most to them that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others is a sign of pusillanimity. For of great minds one of the proper works is to help and free others from scorn, and compare themselves only with the unstable.

Now, here, although I do not claim that we have a perfect verbal statement of the exhaustive definition of laughter, I do maintain, in opposition to most Anglo-Saxon critics and thinkers, that we have an exhaustive definition, because — and these are facts overlooked by all Anglo-Saxon critics of the great philosopher — in Hobbes’s explanation, not only is the old field of the ancients retained, but it is greatly extended to include both the series of laughs which are subjective, all the laughs which are objective, and, in addition, a satisfactory reason why laughter can offend, and why some people laugh excessively.

It is characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon critics of Hobbes, that they consistently shirk the explanation of two aspects of laughter — its subjective aspect and its sting. They withdraw the sting on the one hand by saying that men do not laugh from any feeling of superiority, and then, when they are obliged to admit that laughter can and does offend when it is directed against one, they are naturally at a loss to account for the offence. Some of them, including the Frenchman, Bergson, as we have seen, actually take the sting for granted without attempting to explain it.

Laughter is self-glory. So we can now understand why a person can laugh apparently at nothing, that is to say, unprovoked by any external stimulus, or the memory of any external stimulus. Not one of the men in the first section (including, of course, Bergson), and hardly any already quoted above in the second section, thought of this kind of laugh. We can now also understand all those laughs in which there is definite outside provocation; for, although Hobbes quite unnecessarily limits the series of these external stimuli, those externally provoked laughs not mentioned by him are, as I hope to show, implicit in his two words “self-glory.”

If, therefore, Hobbes’s definition of laughter has hitherto been found one-sided and inadequate, I suggest that it is owing to the fact that most critics and writers have themselves deliberately limited it. Instantly angered by the uncharitable and “selfish” appearance of the words “self-glory,” they gave the definition no further thought and condemned it.

And yet, with Hobbes’s definition of laughter before us, we can understand so much that was obscure before. We can now see why the schoolboy, standing stripped in the sunlight on a sandy shore, laughs and laughs heartily — at nothing! We can see why a young girl knowing herself to be faultlessly attired, will laugh at the most inadequate provocation. Why the same young girl will laugh with sincere and convincing heartiness at the clumsiest remark made by the handsome young man who admires her, and will hardly notice the profound witticism of the plain man who has apparently not noticed her. Nothing said by Bergson gets anywhere near explaining such laughs as these. There is not, in fact, an example I have given which cannot be explained by Hobbes’s definition.

But this is not all; for Hobbes’s explanation also clears up the mystery about the offensive character of laughter when it is directed against one — a mystery carefully ignored not only by Bergson but also by all those who oppose Hobbes — and it gives us a most important and valuable hint concerning the kind of people who laugh most. This last contribution to the subject alone sets Hobbes head and shoulders above most moderns in the matter of psychological insight.[. . .]

Chapter 4

Except for Hobbes’s explanation in Human Nature, we are still without any hint of the reason why laughter may and often does offend — why, as Bergson puts it, “it intimidates by humiliating.”

Why do all of us, including the animals, dislike laughter directed at us, and instinctively know, without ever being told, that it is offensive? Why, in fact, do we contort our faces as we do, when we laugh, and why is this expression universally understood as one that may humiliate?

Except for Hobbes, nobody gives any solution of these problems, although the new wording of Hobbes’s self-glory covers the right explanation. But, first of all, let us thoroughly clear up the fact that laughter can be, and often is, felt as an offence. This is one of the stumbling-blocks to those writers like Max Eastman, whose one anxiety is to purge laughter of every trace of unpleasantness. No one, indeed, has made a more valiant effort than Max Eastman to champion laughter as an innocent, charming and delightful pastime. In fact, so anxious is he about this one object, that he does not mind in the least how confused and incoherent his arguments become, provided that, at the end of it all, he is able to rise above his mist of verbiage and claim that he has done his best by laughter.

And what is his best? His best cannot, unfortunately, remove the sting from the action of being laughed at. He, therefore, finds himself in the following dilemma:

Having removed the sting from one end of laughter — that is to say, from the motivation and causation of the laugh — and having refused to recognise in it anything but Voltaire’s “joyfulness,” he is naturally puzzled to discover and explain why the other end — the person laughed at — still feels a sting.

I may say, forthwith, that nothing could be more hopelessly muddled and incoherent than the reasoning of those who thus try to refute Hobbes. Those readers who know Max Eastman’s book and also J. C. Gregory’s will understand what I mean.

Take, for instance, this passage in Eastman which sums up at this point his arguments against Hobbes’s superiority theory:

I suspect that the reason why so many philosophers have deemed all laughter to be of the derisive flavour (Hobbes never deemed all laughter to be of the derisive flavour) is that they dreaded the prick of it . . . the reason why we hate to be laughed at is that we experience a feeling of inferiority, on such occasions, that is indeed logical and involved in the essence of the case. For no matter how truly the laughers may hasten to assure us that they are not hostile, but only happy — they feel no scorn but rather a delightful love of our blunder — still there remains the fact that we are inferior.

Yes, but, Mr. Eastman, why inferior, if there is no superiority expressed in laughter?

Why need the laughers hasten to assure us that they love our blunder, and that they do not mean to offend, unless there really is a sting in this kind of laughter, which you alone imagined you had removed?

The complete muddle revealed in this passage from Eastman is sufficient to show the hopeless dilemma of those who would rule all superiority out of laughter.

When, therefore, Mr. Eastman continues in the same strain to speak of Hobbes’s “erroneous theory,” after having made it perfectly plain that he has not even been able to learn from it what he obviously does not know, one is apt to close his book on his none too ingenious or ingenuous special pleading, and to turn all the more reverently to the great father of modern English philosophy.

It should be sufficient for our purpose that a writer as anxious as Mr. Eastman is to prove the innocence of laughter, is nevertheless bound in honesty to admit that he who is laughed at fee/s inferior. But let us hear what a much greater authority says on this subject.

James Sully, who was aware of the unreasoning fury provoked in many people by a superficial reading of Hobbes’s explanation of laughter, wrote as follows:

There are one or two facts which seem to me to point to the conclusion that superiority is implied in, if not tacitly claimed by, the forms of laughter which have a distinctly personal aim. One of these is the familiar fact that anything in the shape of a feeling of inferiority to, or even of respect for, the laughable person, inhibits the laughter of the contemplator. . . . If no superiority is implied in our common laughternat others, how does it come about that we all have so very obstinate a dislike to be made its object?

This seems to me to be final. Nothing could be more fair and judicial than Sully’s examination of the problem of laughter, even if it be admitted that it is on the whole unenlightening. When, therefore, we bring the results of our own experience, as we cannot help doing, to Sully’s support, it seems undeniable that, at least in that laughter which is directed at us, we are all conscious of a sting — a sting that is explained by the feeling of inferiority that such laughter makes us feel. And although it yet remains to be shown in what way superior adaptation is felt and expressed in all other examples of laughter — even in those forms in which no obvious act of comparison is implied or demonstrable — we may confidently admit at once that in that form of laughter (and it covers a wide field) in which the expression is directed at a human object, a claim of superiority is as a rule involved and certainly felt by the person who laughs.

Returning now to our original question why laughter has this effect, we find ourselves confronted by a much more difficult problem.

To say that because laughter is the expression of superior adaptation, therefore it offends, would be to argue in a circle and to assume too much. It would amount to assuming, for instance, that every creature, including some of our more intelligent domestic animals, is aware that laughter is the expression of superior adaptation, and therefore, by implication, that it makes the object laughed at appear inferiorly adapted. But how could human beings and domestic animals immediately and instinctively know that laughter is the expression of superior adaptation.

Can it be possible, however, that, in the facial contortions themselves, there is some signal, some instinctively recognisable message, the precise burden of which has been forgotten by man, but which he unconsciously, and animals instinctively, read as a sign of superior adaptation and therefore a menace to their own adaptation.

In the first chapter I said that, since laughter is provoked by a diversity of causes, among which I mentioned some purely subjective states, there must be something that is common to every laugh and every cause of laughter, that is to say, we must be able to show an intimate connection between the laugh of the embarrassed lady in Bond Street (example (i), Chapter I) and that of the child seeking safety in the folds of its mother’s skirt (example (a)), as well as the laugh of the same child when it sees the clown belaboured by Harlequin (example (e)), and that of the man who inhales nitrous oxide (example (j)).

As, however, there often appears to be nothing in common between the circumstances occasioning these four kinds of laughter (not to mention the rest of my thirty-two examples) it seems as if we must change our ground, and turn from the circumstances to the expression itself.

Now Darwin observed that, in laughter, “the upper teeth are commonly exposed” — that is to say, that in laughing, we show teeth. But, while we may be the only animals that laugh, we are by no means the only animals that have occasion to show teeth. And, if we are convinced evolutionists, and believe that, just as sounds and expressions of anger, distress, alarm, kindly interest and friendliness are more or less alike all through the order of mammals (if they were not, animals of different species would never understand one another, or man as promptly as they do), there must be some origin and parallel in the animal kingdom to our own laughter, and more particularly to the facial expression of showing teeth. Nor need we be baffled by the fact that showing teeth among animals may appear at first sight to mean something very different from what it is with us, seeing that we have long ceased to use our teeth as they use them, whether in killing prey, battle, or merely danger-signalling. Now animals show teeth, that is to say, they make a deliberate display of teeth, only when they wish to warn a fellow, a foe, or man, of the danger of pursuing certain tactics too far. The display of teeth, or fangs, by the cat when hissing, by the dog when growling, by the serpent when attacked or approached, and by an angry horse, if translated into words would amount to this: “Here are my weapons; if you come any nearer, if you pursue these hostile tactics, or carry even the present ragging too far, I shall use them on you!”

The teeth gleam. They are visible to the attacking or merely threatening foe. They are the animals’ arsenal of weapons, its equipment for war, for survival in the struggle for existence. But weapons and equipment for war and for survival are, in the jungle at least, the chief concrete factor in the claim of superior adaptation. To display teeth, therefore, is to make a claim of superior adaptation. It may be only bluff, as when the terrified kitten displays her teeth to a collie dog or an airedale; but at least the desperate claim she makes to superior adaptation frequently enables her to accomplish her object, which is to warn off the enemy without the danger of an actual trial of strength. True, she arches her back as well and her hair stands on end; but her climax of “frightfulness” is reached at the moment when she exposes her fangs, and when this manoeuvre succeeds, as it frequently does, and as it must have done millions of times in her line of ancestry in the past, we can imagine her intense satisfaction and her consequent attachment to the expression which leads to such hairbreadth escapes.

Now, if we have really descended from the animals, is it not difficult to suppose that this habit of millions of years, so useful, so deeply ingrained, so intimately associated with success and survival, should have passed entirely out of our gamut of expressions, should have been utterly lost, seeing that it reaches back as far as the reptilian period, before any mammal existed? Is it not much more likely that, with the increasing use of external weapons, accessory arms — spears, arrows, bludgeons, tomahawks, etc. — the showing of teeth (like the using of them in fighting) while retaining its instinctive association, the expression of superior adaptation, should have become volatilised, spiritualised, and been transferred to all those manifold and complex situations in society in which gregarious animals either find or feel themselves superiorly adapted, or merely lay a false claim to such a position by means of bluff? And is it not exceedingly probable, if the expression was retained as a mere claim tosuperior adaptation in general, that its original relation to mere warfare, or the threat of warfare, should now be completely forgotten?

In short, is it not likely that, with the vast majority of men, even the precise though general notion of superior adaptation must now have become unconscious, only to have left consciously associated with the expression a feeling of pleasure, of triumph, or success, either genuine or feigned?
This certainly explains the immediate and instinctive recognition of laughter as an expression that may intimidate and humiliate; it is the only explanation of laughter that can possibly account for the animal’s dislike of it; for obviously, to the animal, a show of teeth has not ceased to mean a show of weapons, and if we accept this theory we have accounted for a very important quality of laughter, which men like Bergson, Eastman and Gregory carelessly take for granted.

It is strange that this showing of teeth in expressing the emotions that accompany laughter, should never hitherto have been regarded as one of the principal mysteries connected with laughter and should never have been investigated as a possible key to the solution of the problem. But it seems probable that the reluctance which most modern Anglo-Saxon thinkers have shown to accept Hobbes’s definition, which hitherto has never had its possibilities fully explored, has been the cause of this oversight.

At all events, if now, instead of the term “laugh” we proceed to use, in regard to all the examples of laughter I have given, the term “show teeth” (meaning a display signalling superior adaptation), we shall find, not only that it explains everything, but also that the number of further examples which it fits may be extended indefinitely.

Even the sounds accompanying laughter, that cachinnation which is always distinctly guttural — Darwin noticed that it came “from deep down in the throat” — may be merely a specific variation of the hiss of the cat and of its remote ancestor the reptile, at the time of the display of fangs; while anyone whose attention has been called to monkeys fiercely fighting, by the cackling sound they make, must have seen, on beholding their exposed teeth, the connection between their expression and human laughter, although the circumstances of each seem on the surface so different.

Chapter 5

I now propose to test the definition by means of the examples given in Chapter I, though before I start it may be well to emphasise the fact that, whereas all laughter is the expression of superior adaptation, all states of superior adaptation do not necessarily lead to laughter, and also that whereas the explanation I have given of the facial expression in laughter seems to account for the origin of laughter, the definition of laughter would still stand, even if the explanation of the expression could not be sustained.

The letters in brackets correspond to those prefixed to each example in Chapter I, so that there will be no need to repeat the examples in extenso.

(a) To find safety at its mother’s side after being chased, is to find superior adaptation; therefore the signal of superior adaptation — showing teeth — is instinctively made.

(b) To know oneself well dressed is to be conscious of superior adaptation. Self-glory, not necessarily resulting from any comparison, is therefore felt, and the slightest provocation broadens the perpetual smile into a complete display of teeth.

(c) The other gods of Olympus enjoyed superior adaptation as compared with Hephæstos, and therefore gave the signal of it. (But in regard to this kind of superior adaptation, it should always be borne in mind that it is not constantly, at all stages of human evolution or even at all stages of the same man’s life, necessarily expressed by laughter, that is to say, signalled by showing teeth. Physical superior adaptation tends to be felt less acutely by adults than by children, by cultivated than by uncultivated peoples, by the educated than by the uneducated. Thus, as Meredith observed — and he had no idea of the theory of laughter outlined here — “We know the degree of refinement in men by the matter they will laugh at.” The Chinaman, the schoolboy and the savage are much more inclined to laugh at a person falling down and hurting himself than the cultivated man, whose claim to superior adaptation resides in things more purely spiritual — scholarship, taste, science, etc., and who will laugh only at things which provoke the sense of superior adaptation in a more subtle and non-physical manner.)

(d) As Bergson points out, we laugh only at the human. It is the humanising of the dog, by giving him a wig and converting him into an ugly and grotesque little man, that causes the animal to become an object provoking the onlooker to signal superior adaptation by showing teeth.

(e) The child in its stall is not being belaboured and shows teeth because it wishes to signal that it is enjoying superior adaptation to the clown. (The same remarks apply here as in the parenthesis to (c).)

(f) Ignorant people are inclined to imagine that their country, their language, their customs, are necessarily the most rational, and therefore show teeth at anyone betraying another nativity, another language, another custom. Moreover, to be unable to master as completely as they do something “which is such a commonplace with them as their own language, suggests a childish failing and naturally an inferiority. In the first case, the very sounds of a foreign language suggest, to the ignorant, the inane gibbering of infants and lunatics, and the mob are therefore inclined to show teeth when they overhear foreigners speaking.

(g) We feel inclined to show teeth because we are instinctively impelled to signal superior adaptation to the extent of having our own hats on. (The same remarks apply here as in the parenthesis to (c).)

(h) He shows teeth, because, knowing instinctively that it is the signal of superior adaptation, he tries out of vanity to bluff you into thinking his adaptation is still superior, and thus to damp your own feelings of superior adaptation and quell your laughter. It is all quite unconscious, both in him and in the crowd.

(i) The lady in Bond Street showed teeth all the time out of pure self-defence or vanity. Although her adaptation was for the moment conspicuously inferior, she quite unconsciously gave the signal of superior adaptation for the same reasons actuating the man under (h).

(j) Sir Arthur Mitchell, who investigated this matter, quotes the opinions of men like Southey, Coleridge, Lowell, Edgeworth and Kinglake, all of whom declared that breathing the gas caused the most pleasant sensations; often they spoke of the pleasure as being quite strong. Now pleasure has from the beginning of time been rooted in feelings of superior adaptation.

(k) Here is a case of the liberation from the customary constraints, or rigid laws of reason and logic, and since every form of liberation is a state of superior adaptation, it leads to showing teeth. All nonsense comes under this head, and leads to the order of laughter which Hobbes, in his explanation, says arises from “absurdities” and “infirmities abstracted from persons.”

(l) The more dignified a person is, the more he challenges by comparison our own claim to superior adaptation; consequently the more relieved do we feel when his superior adaptation is reduced under our eyes for a moment. This, of course, does not apply to a case where we are emotionally related to the superior person by great reverence, respect or love, because then another emotion conflicts with our single-minded contemplation of the mishap befalling him. (Same remarks apply here as in the parenthesis to (c).)

(m) We fear no competition or rivalry from a horse, a child, an old woman, or an old man. They do not threaten our adaptation, consequently we are not conscious of our superior adaptation when they fall. But a child may show teeth when another child falls, because possibilities of rivalry are present. One must be very low in the scale of human evolution to feel superior adaptation on witnessing the fall of an animal. (See, however, the parenthesis to (c).)

(n) We show teeth when embarrassed, because we feel our adaptation is inferior, and we wish to convince the company that it is not inferior. (See (h) and (i).)

(o) The mishap to a performer on the stage places him in a position of twofold inferiority; because, not only does he cease to be master of the character he is acting, but he also ceases to be master of himself qua man. (See, however, the parenthesis to (c).)

(p) We show teeth only at the schoolboy howlers which we can recognise as such by our own unaided knowledge, because to know them as such through subsequent explanation is tacitly to confess that we might have been guilty of them ourselves — so that what might have been a position of superior adaptation becomes, if knowledge fails us, a position of inferior adaptation.

(q) We show teeth at a pun, in the first place because the repetition of similar sounding words in one sentence is, as Bergson points out, sometimes unintentional and a sign of absent-mindedness (that is to say, inferior adaptation). Alexander Bain also suggests two further reasons. In the grasping of a pun there is self-glory (superior adaptation) at having noticed the play on the words, and there is triumph (superior adaptation) over the degradation of a nobler word.

For instance, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. (Part II, Act I, Scene 2), Falstaff and the Prince of Wales are ragging each other.

Says Falstaff: And I prithee, sweet wag, when thou art king, as God save thy grace — majesty I should say, for grace thou wilt have none, —

Prince: What none?

Falstaff: No, by my troth, not so much as will serve to be a prologue to an egg and butter.

In this triple pun, grace as a prayer, is degraded twice — first by being confused with grace (a form of address) and secondly by recalling grace, elegance in form and manner.

Again in the schoolboy’s reply to the Scripture question: “What does ‘sick of the palsy’ mean? “we get a similar degradation. The boy says: “It means having the palsy so long that you’re sick of it.”

Here is another instance: “We row in the same boat, you know,” said a comic writer to his friend Douglas Jerrold. “True, my good fellow,” retorted Douglas Jerrold, “we do row in the same boat, but with different skulls.”

The degradation is here obviously the reduction of the noble human cranium to the level of an oar for propelling a boat.

(r) When we understand a joke in a foreign language, we show teeth with more than usual insistence, because we celebrate a twofold triumph — that of understanding the joke and that of understanding the language.

(s) We show teeth when tickled, because, as Dr. Robinson has pointed out, ticklish places are in highly vulnerable and defenceless regions of the body, and the threat to them in tickling is therefore so serious that the relief from inferior adaptation, when it is realised that the threat is not serious, causes a correspondingly high feeling of superior adaptation. Moreover, only intimate associates ever tickle one, and a bodily attention from a very intimate friend is usually met with a feeling of superior adaptation. Added to this is the nervous stimulation, which, particularly in erogenous zones, like the neck, is not unpleasant, and is reminiscent (only racially so in the child, of course) of the eternal and time-honoured familiarities of sex-play, during which a feeling of superior adaptation is constant. It should, however, be remembered that all dogs show teeth when being tickled and rolled on the floor. Evidently, as Dr. Robinson points out, the state of one who is being tickled is a very defenceless one, at any moment the ragging may change to a serious menace, and showing teeth by the passive party has probably therefore been a traditional accompaniment of this play for millions of years before man appeared.

(t) We show teeth on meeting a friend, because we are gregarious animals, and every friend means an access of support, strength and good adaptation. (This particular example, as we have seen above, was explained by Penjon most inadequately, and, strange to say, it is regarded by Mr. J. C. Gregory as a particularly difficult test for theories of laughter.)

When an enemy appears and we are in company, we show teeth — often quite irrelevantly to the conversation we are having — in order to signal to our enemy that we can be superiorly adapted without him, or her, in our lives. When talking to people in the street, if you notice a smile on their faces, or any hilarity, which seems to be out of all proportion to the matter you are discussing, you may usually take it for granted that someone is hovering about to whom your companion wishes to give the impression of superior adaptation.

(u) If we show teeth at a joke against ourselves, we do so only out of vanity, to convince the joker that we are still superiorly adapted, or else that we are good fellows, or “good sports,” or whatever the jargon of the day may be for the gregarious hero. If we are not vain, we either do not show teeth at a joke against ourselves, or else we show them out of courtesy, to encourage the joker. (See, however, (h), (i) and (v).)

(v) This is a variation of (h), (i) and (u).

(w) We show teeth at a surprise or an expectation that ends in nothing, which so many investigators have believed to be the occasion of all laughter, because, for millions of years, surprise and expectation have always meant possible danger, possible inferior adaptation. (The Jack-in-the-box is the classical toy of this kind of comedy.) When, therefore, the surprise or expectation turns out to be harmless, or nothing, we rise suddenly from a state of apprehension (possible inferior adaptation) to a state of confidence and safety (superior adaptation). This covers Spencer and Kant’s descending incongruity, or the expectation that ends in nothing.

(x) We show teeth at an incongruity because it is the characteristic of a mad world, freed from the mental and physical bondage of logic, reason and scientific method; and, in such a world, even if only imagined, we taste once more of the euphoria of irrational infancy (Freud) or merely of the joys of emancipation from reason (Renouvier, Penjon and John Dewey).

(y) We show teeth at a good nonsense picture by Lear or Bateman, because the figure or scene presented either makes certain human beings appear grotesque, or else is possible only in a world that has abolished the constraints of reason. See (x). (The more harassed we are by the complexities of our real existence, the more likely we are to find superior adaptation in such scenes and pictures. Hence the extraordinary and increasing vogue of nonsense, during the gradually increasing complexities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.)

(z) We show teeth at mere caricature because of the reasons under (y), or because we happen to know the people caricatured, and find their least fortunate features so spitefully exaggerated as to render them abnormal, that is to say, inferior people. (It should be noted that “abnormal” always means “sub-normal” to the crowd, who never stop to ascertain whether the aberration from type may not constitute a plus, but always hastily conclude that it constitutes a minus.)

(A) We show teeth at disguises, because they have the power of making the familiar unfamiliar, so that the ascent from inferior adaptation in presence of the unfamiliar, to superior adaptation, operates as in (w); or because disguises transport us to an unreal world — a world of nonsense, a fairy world, or some inadequately explored world of the past, which we imagine to have been better than this (see (x) and (y)); or because a disguise may make a normal human being descend to an inferior being.

(B) We show teeth when others show teeth, because we are gregarious animals, among whom moods are infectious. (We yawn when others yawn. Women cry when they see others cry.) The quality of sympathy does not, as the etymology of the word implies, lead to fellow feeling only for suffering, it imposes on those who possess it — particularly the uncontrolled — every mood that is conspicuous among their fellows.

(C) We show teeth at a good ruse, a good trick, a good case of diamond cut diamond, and also at a “witticism, because we sympathise, or side with the stronger party — the witty or resourceful speaker or trickster — and share his superior adaptation. (We only do so, however, in the case of witticisms, provided the point of the witticism does not hurt or offend our own peculiar susceptibilities. We laugh uproariously at a witticism that conforms with our own fads or beliefs, we hardly smile at one which exposes or assails them. I have tested this again and again with mixed audiences of men and women, by reciting Napoleon’s witticism on the difference between success in war and success in love. Napoleon said: “Success in war means surrounding your enemy, routing him, and driving him from the field. Success in love means — escape.” Without exception the men in the audience have always laughed at this, and the women and girls have always remained coldly silent and grave.

(D) We show teeth at good mimicry or imitation: (1) because of sympathy with the superior adaptation (skill) of the imitators; (2) because of the element of deception which, however, does not deceive us; (3) because, in the case of mimicry of persons, the imitation usually caricatures and therefore belittles them; (4) because when men imitate cats and dogs, elephants, etc., they humanise the beasts (see (d) and (x)); and (5) because of the incongruity — nonsense state — of the situation: here you have a bird, or the sound of a bird, or a cat, or the sound of a cat, and no bird or cat. (See (x).)

(E) We show teeth in a mock intellectual way when, at a public debate, one disputant cracks a joke against his opponent; and we (particularly the less alert intellectually) regard the disputant who has had the joke cracked against him as defeated in the argument, because a crowd cannot help feeling, owing to the instincts associated with showing teeth, that a man or woman against whom they are showing teeth must be inferior. Hence the trick of raising a laugh against your opponent in debate, which was recommended by the Greek Gorgias as early as the fifth century B.C.

(F) The superior adaptation felt by most decent and normal people when they hear stories or references either frankly indecent or bordering on the indecent, is really no different from the superior adaptation felt by the savage and shown by him in roars of laughter, when confronted by a frankly obscene act or display. It is due to the release from a constraint — in this case from one of decency — and to the consequent generation of an intense feeling of freedom and probably also of primitive and infantile irresponsibility and euphoria. It is also due in part to the fact that indecent stories and illusions turn almost exclusively on bodily functions, particularly those of sex, all of which are traditionally associated with superior adaptation. Of course. Puritans who suffer from a neurotic phobia, whether of the functions of the organs of sex, or of some other part of the body, will not feel this superior adaptation, or will repress it. Reminded by the indecent or salacious story, of their neurosis, they will feel more inferiorly adapted than ever, and will not, therefore, show teeth. The kind of obscenity the savage laughs uproariously at, however — for instance, to mention one example at random, that described by E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his able paper on this subject — although more gross than that at which the civilised white man laughs, serves, as Mr. Pritchard shows, the same purpose in savage life. It releases the onlooker from constraints and conventions, the only difference being that the savage is often obliged, not necessarily owing to the greater immorality of his life, but rather to his greater familiarity with the sight of male and female nudity, to resort to more drastic breaches of what the European considers decency.

A number of further examples can now be added.

(G) A child smiles and laughs when it is being teased, a grown-up person does the same when he is being taunted, because each hopes by means of the bluff of showing teeth, to defeat his tormentor by feigning superior adaptation although inferior adaptation is felt. Shakespeare said: “They laugh that win.”

Yes, but they also laugh that lose, if they who lose are anxious to despoil the victor of one of the most precious fruits of his victory — the evidence of inferior adaptation in the vanquished.

(H) People laugh easily and uproariously in a court of law or in any grave assembly, because in surroundings of great solemnity where constraints ‘and great individual restraint are imposed, any excuse to break through the irksome limitations of liberty is seized with unreasoning avidity, and for a moment superior adaptation is tasted and wildly expressed in the instinctive fashion by the most silent and most constrained of those present (the spectators). Hence the absurd ease with which judges, magistrates and presiding commissioners acquire a reputation for wit and humour. Alexander Bain noticed this. (Children have a tendency to laugh in church and at funerals for the same reason.)

(I) People show teeth encouragingly at anyone who has just escaped a serious injury, or who has just been rescued from danger. They hope, by the principle of sympathy to bring someone who is depressed by inferior adaptation speedily back to a consciousness of his superior adaptation. Mothers do this to their children after a fall or an accident that has turned out to be trifling.

(J) Nothing so intrigues a whole company as solitary laughter; because until the cause of the solitary laugh is discovered, everyone present, knowing that he lies under the suspicion of being laughed at, cannot rest until he has cleared up the mystery and set at rest the doubts about his superior adaptation which the solitary laugher has raised. Hence the familiar anxious demand: “Do tell me what you are laughing at!”

In regard to all these thirty-six examples of laughter (except those of feigned or bluff laughter), we should never forget Hobbes’s careful opening statement that laughter “is always joy,” and Darwin’s reminder that the laugher “must be in a happy frame of mind.” It is this element of joy in laughter which misled Voltaire into ruling that laughter was incompatible with “indignation” and “contempt,” and he called it “joyfulness.” As I have already shown, we need take no notice of the word “indignation” in Voltaire’s; because, not only is indignation, in any case, incompatible with any form of laughter (except, perhaps, the feigned or “bluff” kind, and that is doubtful), but it was obviously introduced by Voltaire with a certain lack of candour to make his objection seem more conclusive. What is important is that Hobbes, like his critics, insists on joy always being an accompanying feature of genuine, unfeigned laughter. When, however, we have thoroughly grasped the fact that there is no laughter without superior adaptation, genuine or feigned, what could be more obvious than that joy must be a constant element in genuine laughter? No other emotion but joy could constantly accompany states of superior adaptation; for, as Hobbes, in the sequel to his statement, points out, dejection is wholly appropriated by those states which are the reverse of self-glory — that is to say, inferior adaptation.