Written April 2012

Dear All,

How shall we define the wayward and mysterious and outcast thing that we term humour – that is forever a pillar-to-post outcast from the stern laws of reality, and yet forms so intimate a part of (and even embodies) all truth about which there is an eternal ring?” Herman Charles Bosman’s introduction to the essay ‘Humour and Wit’.

Every time I re-read A Cask of Jerepigo: Sketches and Essays (Human & Rousseau, 1964) I look forward to that gem on page 167 in which Bosman writes about what is quintessentially Bosman, ‘humour’. As he points out, if it is true that “humour is born out of the emotions and wit springs from the intellect, then I would naturally be prone to look upon wit as being to some extent an intruder, I, who am by nature suspicious of the intellect, fancy that in its dark recesses there lurks a specious cunning (in wit) whose purpose is to gloss over with trickery the soul’s deficiencies”. But “humour is something that stands apart from (any social use and psycho-physiological functioning) ibid. Humour must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.”

Frank Muir in The Oxford Book of Humour Prose proposes a useful way to classify wit, buffoonery and humour. In the introduction to that entertaining collection he suggests that wit is concerned with ideas, buffoonery with deeds, and humour with people. Incidentally, Muir also makes the claim that the English originated humour, quoting Sir William Temple’s 1690 essay titled ‘Of Poetry’ in the collection Miscellanea II, but I don’t think that to be generally true. Certainly wit, buffoonery, satire, sarcasm and irony all have cultural connotations that make them characteristic of certain peoples and periods; but humour, as I like to think of it, is universal and timeless. As can be seen in the table by Fowler, the province of humour is ‘human nature’ and the audience for humour is ‘the sympathetic’. Perhaps it is just that the English were the first to develop the expression and acceptance of humour, an expression that does not reject, but that embraces the oddities, embarrassments and eccentricities of human behaviour.

Table from Fowler's Modern English Usage, 2nd ed. Reprinted 1980

It is often suggested that modern mass media, mainly television – that chewing-gum for the eyes – has put an end to our access to fine humour. It is suggested that the barrage of bland, crude and easily accessible comedy to which we are subjected in films, TV and YouTube will make sure that we never again will look upon the likes of the golden-age humourists such as Dickens, Twain, O. Henry and Bosman. I don’t think that to be true… humour has always been part of us, and always will; although I readily concede that modern living has made it much more difficult to find people of great humour. It is a sad thing that the clutter and noise of interconnectivity drowns humour. That is because the expression of humour is always subtle, quiet and gentle. Humour never takes centre-stage, it never forces its way into the conversation.

Voltaire by Huber (watercolour)

So, how do we find the expression of humour? To be honest, I am not sure, but I recognise it when I see it… it looks like Huber’s magnificent watercolour of Voltaire, that friend of mankind, smiling the smile of reason. And as I look at this marvellous face I am reminded of the story attributed to Voltaire who, when on his deathbed, was asked if he rejected the Devil and all His works? Voltaire apparently replied, “This is no time for making new enemies.”