Read CHAPTER XIV - HUMOUR of Joyous Gard , free online book, by Arthur Christopher Benson, on

The Castle of Joyous Gard was always full of laughter; not the wild giggling, I think, of reckless people, which the writer of Proverbs said was like the crackling of thorns under a pot; that is a wearisome and even an ugly thing, because it does not mean that people are honestly amused, but have some basely exciting thing in their minds.  Laughter must be light-hearted, not light-minded.  Still less was it the dismal tittering of ill-natured people over mean gossip, which is another of the ugly sounds of life.  No, I think it was rather the laughter of cheerful people, glad to be amused, who hardly knew that they were laughing; that is a wholesome exercise enough.  It was the laughter of men and women, with heavy enough business behind them and before them, but yet able in leisurely hours to find life full of merriment - the voice of joy and health!  And I am sure too that it was not the guarded condescending laughter of saints who do not want to be out of sympathy with their neighbours, and laugh as precisely and punctually as they might respond to a liturgy, if they discover that they are meant to be amused!

Humour is one of the characteristics of Joyous Gard, not humour resolutely cultivated, but the humour which comes from a sane and healthy sense of proportion; and is a sign of light-heartedness rather than a thing aimed at; a thing which flows naturally into the easy spaces of life, because it finds the oddities of life, the peculiarities of people, the incongruities of thought and speech, both charming and delightful.

It is a great misfortune that so many people think it a mark of saintliness to be easily shocked, whereas the greatest saints of all are the people who are never shocked; they may be distressed, they may wish things different; but to be shocked is often nothing but a mark of vanity, a self-conscious desire that others should know how high one’s standard, how sensitive one’s conscience is.  I do not of course mean that one is bound to join in laughter, however coarse a jest may be; but the best-bred and finest-tempered people steer past such moments with a delicate tact; contrive to show that an ugly jest is not so much a thing to be disapproved of and rebuked, as a sign that the jester is not recognising the rights of his company, and outstepping the laws of civility and decency.

It is a very difficult thing to say what humour is, and probably it is a thing that is not worth trying to define.  It resides in the incongruity of speech and behaviour with the surrounding circumstances.

I remember once seeing two tramps disputing by the roadside, with the gravity which is given to human beings by being slightly overcome with drink.  I suppose that one ought not to be amused by the effects of drunkenness, but after all one does not wish people to be drunk that one may be amused.  The two tramps in question were ragged and infinitely disreputable.  Just as I came up, the more tattered of the two flung his hat on the ground, with a lofty gesture like that of a king abdicating, and said, “I’ll go no further with you!” The other said, “Why do you say that?  Why will you go no further with me?” The first replied, “No, I’ll go no further with you!” The other said, “I must know why you will go no further with me - you must tell me that!” The first replied, with great dignity, “Well, I will tell you that!  It lowers my self-respect to be seen with a man like you!”

That is the sort of incongruity I mean.  The tragic solemnity of a man who might have changed clothes with the nearest scarecrow without a perceptible difference, and whose life was evidently not ordered by any excessive self-respect, falling back on the dignity of human nature in order to be rid of a companion as disreputable as himself, is what makes the scene so grotesque, and yet in a sense so impressive, because it shows a lurking standard of conduct which no pitiableness of degradation could obliterate.  I think that is a good illustration of what I mean by humour, because in the presence of such a scene it is possible to have three perfectly distinct emotions.  One may be sorry with all one’s heart that men should fall to such conditions, and feel that it is a stigma on our social machinery that it should be so.  Those two melancholy figures were a sad blot upon the wholesome countryside!  Yet one may also discern a hope in the mere possibility of framing an ideal under such discouraging circumstances, which will be, I have no sort of doubt, a seed of good in the upward progress of the poor soul which grasped it; because indeed I have no doubt that the miserable creature is on an upward path, and that even if there is no prospect for him in this life of anything but a dismal stumbling down into disease and want, yet I do not in the least believe that that is the end of his horizon or his pilgrimage; and thirdly, one may be genuinely and not in the least evilly amused at the contrast between the disreputable squalor of the scene and the lofty claim advanced.  The three emotions are not at all inconsistent.  The pessimistic moralist might say that it was all very shocking, the optimistic moralist might say that it was hopeful, the unreflective humourist might simply be transported by the absurdity; yet not to be amused at such a scene would appear to me to be both dull and priggish.  It seems to me to be a false solemnity to be shocked at any lapses from perfection; a man might as well be shocked at the existence of a poisonous snake or a ravening tiger.  One must “see life steadily and see it whole,” and though we may and must hope that we shall struggle upwards out of the mess, we may still be amused at the dolorous figures we cut in the mire.

I was once in the company of a grave, decorous, and well-dressed person who fell helplessly into a stream off a stepping-stone.  I had no wish that he should fall, and I was perfectly conscious of intense sympathy with his discomfort; but I found the scene quite inexpressibly diverting, and I still simmer with laughter at the recollection of the disappearance of the trim figure, and his furious emergence, like an oozy water-god, from the pool.  It is not in the least an ill-natured laughter.  I did not desire the catastrophe, and I would have prevented it if I could; but it was dreadfully funny for all that; and if a similar thing had happened to myself, I should not resent the enjoyment of the scene by a spectator, so long as I was helped and sympathised with, and the merriment decently repressed before me.

I think that what is called practical joking, which aims at deliberately producing such situations, is a wholly detestable thing.  But it is one thing to sacrifice another person’s comfort to one’s laughter, and quite another to be amused at what a fire-insurance policy calls the act of God.

And I am very sure of this, that the sane, healthy, well-balanced nature must have a fund of wholesome laughter in him, and that so far from trying to repress a sense of humour, as an unkind, unworthy, inhuman thing, there is no capacity of human nature which makes life so frank and pleasant a business.  There are no companions so delightful as the people for whom one treasures up jests and reminiscences, because one is sure that they will respond to them and enjoy them; and indeed I have found that the power of being irresponsibly amused has come to my aid in the middle of really tragic and awful circumstances, and has relieved the strain more than anything else could have done.

I do not say that humour is a thing to be endlessly indulged and sought after; but to be genuinely amused is a sign of courage and amiability, and a sign too that a man is not self-conscious and self-absorbed.  It ought not to be a settled pre-occupation.  Nothing is more wearisome than the habitual jester, because that signifies that a man is careless and unobservant of the moods of others.  But it is a thing which should be generously and freely mingled with life; and the more sides that a man can see to any situation, the more rich and full his nature is sure to be.

After all, our power of taking a light-hearted view of life is proportional to our interest in it, our belief in it, our hopes of it.  Of course, if we conclude from our little piece of remembered experience, that life is a woeful thing, we shall be apt to do as the old poets thought the nightingale did, to lean our breast against a thorn, that we may suffer the pain which we propose to utter in liquid notes.  But that seems to me a false sentiment and an artificial mode of life, to luxuriate in sorrow; even that is better than being crushed by it; but we may be sure that if we wilfully allow ourselves to be one-sided, it is a delaying of our progress.  All experience comes to us that we may not be one-sided; and if we learn to weep with those that weep, we must remember that it is no less our business to rejoice with those that rejoice.  We are helped beyond measure by those who can tell us and convince us, as poets can, that there is something beautiful in sorrow and loss and severed ties; by those who show us the splendour of courage and patience and endurance; but the true faith is to believe that the end is joy; and we therefore owe perhaps the largest debt of all to those who encourage us to enjoy, to laugh, to smile, to be amused.

And so we must not retire into our fortress simply for lonely visions, sweet contemplation, gentle imagination; there are rooms in our castle fit for that, the little book-lined cell, facing the sunset, the high parlour, where the gay, brisk music comes tripping down from the minstrels’ gallery, the dim chapel for prayer, and the chamber called Peace - where the pilgrim slept till break of day, “and then he awoke and sang”; but there is also the well-lighted hall, with cheerful company coming and going; where we must put our secluded, wistful, sorrowful thought aside, and mingle briskly with the pleasant throng, not steeling ourselves to mirth and movement, but simply glad and grateful to be there.

It was while I was writing these pages that a friend told me that he had recently met a man, a merchant, I think, who did me the honour to discuss my writings at a party and to pronounce an opinion upon them.  He said that I wrote many things which I did not believe, and then stood aside, and was amused in a humorous mood to see that other people believed them.  It would be absurd to be, or even to feel, indignant at such a travesty of my purpose as this, and indeed I think that one is never very indignant at misrepresentation unless one’s mind accuses itself of its being true or partially true.

It is indeed true that I have said things about which I have since changed my mind, as indeed I hope I shall continue to change it, and as swiftly as possible, if I see that the former opinions are not justified.  To be thus criticised is, I think, the perfectly natural penalty of having tried to be serious without being also solemn; there are many people, and many of them very worthy people, like our friend the merchant, who cannot believe one is in earnest if one is not also heavy-handed.  Earnestness is mixed up in their minds with bawling and sweating; and indeed it is quite true that most people who are willing to bawl and sweat in public, feel earnestly about the subjects to which they thus address themselves.  But I do not see that earnestness is in the least incompatible with lightness of touch and even with humour, though I have sometimes been accused of displaying none.  Socrates was in earnest about his ideas, but the penalty he paid for treating them lightly was that he was put to death for being so sceptical.  I should not at all like the idea of being put to death for my ideas; but I am wholly in earnest about them, and have never consciously said anything in which I did not believe.

But I will go one step further and say that I think that many earnest men do great harm to the causes they advocate, because they treat ideas so heavily, and divest them of their charm.  One of the reasons why virtue and goodness are not more attractive is because they get into the hands of people without lightness or humour, and even without courtesy; and thus the pursuit of virtue seems not only to the young, but to many older people, to be a boring occupation, and to be conducted in an atmosphere heavy with disapproval, with dreariness and dulness and tiresomeness hemming the neophyte in, like fat bulls of Bashan.  It is because I should like to rescue goodness, which is the best thing in the world, next to love, from these growing influences, that I have written as I have done; but there is no lurking cynicism in my books at all, and the worst thing I can accuse myself of is a sense of humour, perhaps whimsical and childish, which seems to me to make a pleasant and refreshing companion, as one passes on pilgrimage in search of what I believe to be very high and heavenly things indeed.