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History of English Humour, Vol. 1 With an Introduction upon Ancient Humour

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Pleasure in Humour—What is Laughter?—Sympathy—First Phases—Gradual Development—Emotional Phase—Laughter of Pleasure—Hostile Laughter—Is there any sense of the Ludicrous in the Lower Animals?—Samson—David—Solomon—Proverbs—Fables.

Few of the blessings we enjoy are of greater value than the gift of humour. The pleasure attendant upon it attracts us together, forms an incentive, and gives a charm to social intercourse, and, unlike the concentrating power of love, scatters bright rays in every direction. That humour is generally associated with enjoyment might be concluded from the fact that the genial and good-natured are generally the most mirthful, and we all have so much personal experience of the gratification it affords, that it seems superfluous to adduce any proofs upon the subject. "Glad" is from the Greek word for laughter, and the word "jocund" comes from a Latin term signifying "pleasant." But we can trace the results of this connection in our daily observation. How comes it to pass that many a man who is the life and soul of social gatherings, and keeps his friends in delighted applause, sits, when alone in his study, grave and sedate, and seldom, if ever, smiles in reading or meditation? Is it not because humour is a source of pleasure? We are not joyously disposed when alone, whereas in society we are ready to give and receive whatever is bright and cheering.

The first question which now presents itself is what is laughter? and our answer must be that it is a change of countenance accompanied by a spasmodic intermittent sound—a modification of the voice—but that we cannot trace its physical origin farther than to attribute it to some effect produced upon the sympathetic nerve, or rather the system of nerves termed respiratory. These communicate with every organ affected in mirth, but the ultimate connection between mind and body is hidden from our view.

In all laughter there is more or less pleasure, except in that of hysteria, when by a sudden shock the course of Nature is reversed, and excessive grief will produce the signs of joy, as extravagant delight will sometimes exhibit those of sorrow. We should also exclude the laughter caused by inhalation of gas, and that of maniacs, which arising from some strange and unaccountable feeling is abnormal and imperfect, and known by a hollow sound peculiar to itself. None of these kinds of laughter are primary, they are but imperfect reflections of our usual modes of expression, and, excepting such cases, we may agree that M. Paffe is correct in observing that "Joy is an indispensable condition of laughter." Dr. Darwin refers to the laughter of idiots to prove that it may be occasioned by pleasure alone. Strangely enough, he quotes as an instance in point the fact of an idiot boy having laughed at receiving a black eye.

Proceeding onwards, we next come to inquire why the sense of humour is expressed by voice and countenance, and does not merely afford a silent and secret delight?...