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USES OF LAUGHTER.
IT IS PLEASURE.
That it is pleasure, or rather the sign of pleasure, who can doubt?
Laughter,” says Addison, “ if we consider how, by unexpected transient glances of joy, it dissipates gloom, must be acknowledged to be a good counterpoise to the spleen, and it seems reasonable that we should be capable of receiving joy from what is no real good to us, since we can receive grief from what is no great evil. It spreads a pleasantry of temper over multitudes at once; and one merry easy mind may by this means diffuse a a like disposition over all who are in company.
There is nothing of which we are more communicative, than a good jest; and many a man, who is incapable of obliging us otherwise, can oblige us by his mirth.”
“ Lycurgus,” says Plutarch,“ sacrificed to the God of Laughter, at Lacedæmon, because he would mingle their feasts and assemblies with mirth, to ease the trouble of their strict and hard life.”
IT IS PLEASURE, WITH THE CONSCIOUSNESS THAT,
ALTHOUGH PAIN MAY EXIST, IT IS NOT CAUSED BY THE LAUGHER.
Although the pleasure by which laughter is produced is frequently attended by pain in the object of the laughter, it is, at least, free from the sportsman's reflection, that the laugher is the cause of the misery by which his pleasure is produced.
We see children laughing at the miseries they inflict on every unfortunate animal, which comes within their power. All savages are ingenious in contriving, and happy in executing the most exquisite tortures; and the common people of all countries are delighted with nothing so much as bull-baitings, prize-fightings, and other spectacles of cruelty and horror. Though civilization may in some degree abate this native ferocity, it can never quite extirpate it; the most polished are not ashamed to be pleased with scenes of little less barbarity, and to the disgrace of human nature, to dignify them with the name of sports. They arm cocks with artificial weapons, which nature had kindly denied to their malevolence, and with shouts of applause and triumph, see them plunge them into each other's hearts; they view with delight the trembling deer and defenceless hare, Aying for hours in the utmost agonies of terror and despair, and at last sinking under fatigue, devoured by their merciless pursuers; they see with joy the beautiful pheasant and harmless partridge drop from their flight, weltering in their blood, or perhaps perishing with wounds and hunger under the cover of some friendly thicket, to which they have in vain retreated for safety: they triumph over the unsuspecting fish, whom they have decoyed by an insi. dious pretence of feeding, and drag him from his native element by a hook fixed to and tearing out his entrails : and, to add to all this, they spare neither labour nor expense to preserve and propagate these innocent animals, for no other end, but to multiply the objects of their persecution.”*
IT DIMINISHES OUR SENSE OF DEFECTS IN ANOTHER
WHICH WE HAVE NOT THE POWER TO REMEDY.
We shed tears from sympathy with real and necessary distress : we burst into laughter from want of sympathy with what is unreasonable and unnecessary. The follies and absurdities that men commit, or the odd accidents that befall them, afford us amusement from the very rejection of false claims upon our sympathy, and end in laughter. If every thing that went wrong, if every vanity or weakness in another gave us a sensible pang, it would be hard indeed; but as long as the disagreeableness of the consequences of a sudden disaster is kept out of sight by the immediate oddity of the circumstances, and the absurdity or unaccountableness of a foolish action is the most striking thing in it, the ludicrous prevails over the pathetic, and we receive pleasure instead of pain from the farce of life which is
• See Jenyns's Disquisitions.
played before us, and which discomposes our gravity as often as it fails to move our anger or our pity.
IT EXPOSES THE RIDICULOUS.
A tall man stood up in the middle of the pit at Covent Garden Theatre, to the great annoyance of all who were behind him. There was a general cry of, “ Sit down, sit down! Turn him out! turn him out!” but it was all in vain; he retained his position. There was a moment's silence. “ Leave him alone, poor fellow,” said an Irishman : “he is a tailor resting himself.”
Wit, whether it be from the pleasure which the mind feels in recovering itself from any artificial gravity, or the pleasure in sudden and public manifestations of any intellectual excellence, or in other causes, has considerable, and, perhaps, improper power in a large assembly.
The bill in the House of Commons for taxing dogs, was rejected by a proposal from a country member to introduce a clause extending it to cats.
“ I will go over to the neutrality,” said Mr. Burke, in a celebrated speech, when threw down the dagger which he said was a specimen of the instruments concealed by the conspirators.—“ It is, I see, the armed neutrality,” said Mr. Sheridan.
When it was proposed, notwithstanding the opposition of Mr. Erskine, that a statue to Lord Melville should be erected in Edinburgh, the majority moved that it should be an equestrian statue, to which Mr. Erskine assented, as there was already an equestrian statue to the Duke of Cumberland, and it would save considerable expence if Lord Melville were put up be
hind his grace.
Ridicule is fit for refuting error and supporting truth, for restraining wrong conduct, and inciting to the practice of what is right. It attacks not the false but the absurd in tenets; its object is not the criminal, but the foolish and silly in conduct; and in doctrine it is level. led against palpable error and absurdity ;—those dogmas, which are beyond the scope of cool reasoning, are within the confines of ridicule. In comedy it has great influence; in tragedy it never legally obtains admittance. Awkwardness, rusticity, ignorance, cowardice, levity, foppery, pedantry and affectation come under its lash. Against murder, cruelty, parricide, ingratitude, perfidy,* to raise a laugh excites disgust. The tragic poet punishes these by taking a different route.
Our passions of every kind lead to wild enthusiastic apprehensions of their several ebjects. When any object seems great in comparison of ourselves, our minds are apt to run into a perfect veneration : when an object appears formidable, a weak mind will run into a panic, an unreasonable, impotent horror. Now in both
• An ancient pagan would have added to this black catalogue the crime of adultery, though in our Christian theatres there is not a more common subject of laughter, than this indeliable reproach of British taste!