Thomas Dickie has written an interesting book entitled Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental 18th Century reviewed in the London Review of Books by Thomas Keymer http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n15/thomas-keymer/freaks-dwarfs-and-boors. The 18th Century is most often thought of as the Age of Enlightenment which provided our own Founding Fathers with the philosophical foundation for the new republic but it was also an era in which laughing at deformity, misery, rape, and all manners of shortness, fatness, and ugliness was commonplace. Two questions are posed by the book, but neither are sufficiently answered.
Was the 18th Century, despite its historic intellectual contributions, the emergence of revolutionary democracy, and its remarkable rejection of medieval superstition and cant, stupid, unevolved, and still culturally backward? Second, if the century was none of these things, then why did it unabashedly revel in what we would consider today as unacceptable, unenlightened behavior? Is there something about such jokes and hilarity that serves a purpose which has disappeared today? Or do we all laugh inwardly at ‘freaks, dwarfs, and boors’?
Compassion was invented in the 18th century, or so the story goes. Sensibility and sympathy were the wellspring of benevolent action and the glue of society (Adam Smith). There were no qualities more admirable ‘than beneficence and humanity … or whatever proceeds from a tender sympathy with others’ (David Hume). Fashionable poems deplored slavery and child labour, and wrung tears from the public on behalf of the distressed. Sterne assured his readers that his purpose in A Sentimental Journey (1768) ‘was to teach us to love the world and our fellow creatures better than we do – so it runs most upon those gentler passions and affections, which aid so much to it.’
Not everyone was sympathetic to forms of woe – especially to deformities. In Cruelty and Laughter, Simon Dickie mounts a compelling case against what he calls ‘the politeness-sensibility paradigm’, by resurrecting a jeering counter-discourse that revelled in human suffering and physical affliction.
With their unrepentant nastiness and gloating delight in other people’s pain, the ubiquitous jestbooks gleefully up-end the official values of the age. The humanitarian sensibilities we associate with the Enlightenment are nowhere to be seen. In compilations with titles like England’s Witty and Ingenious Jester, The Buck’s Pocket Companion and Fun for the Parlour, blind women are walked into walls, crutches are stolen from one-legged beggars, dwarfs are picked up and tossed from windows and starving paupers are fed shit pies.
This phenomenon was not, Dickie argues, simply a persistent holdover from the traditions of a more crude, rural, unsophisticated medieval age. Not only was ‘jesting’ alive and well in the Tudor period, but it was vibrant, popular, and flaunted in the 18th Century.
Dickie also insists that 18th-century jestbooks weren’t just blasts from a barbarous past. They were produced in greater numbers than ever, replenished by new material that statistically outweighed the old. With their pointedly contemporary settings and reference points, their topical jokes about London theatre, parliamentary business and the latest fashions, many went out of their way to flaunt their modernity.
Nor were these jestbooks popular only with the lower classes – to Falstaff and his cronies at the Boar’s Head Tavern – but to the aristocracy as well, the very class that produced out of its ranks the achievements of the Enlightenment:
The content [for upper class readers] were conspicuously upmarket productions, well printed on good paper, decorated with engraved frontispieces and rococo ornaments, and priced so as to exclude all but genteel readers with disposable income. The content matched the price point: uppity tailors bilked by fashionable clients, dim footmen humiliated by boorish sparks, the shiftless poor getting their comeuppance from high-born pranksters. Evidence survives in sale catalogues, library stamps and personal inscriptions of strong demand among the elite for works of this kind. They were consumed not only by dilettantes or libertines, like Horace Walpole, John Wilkes and James Boswell, but also by landowners, clerics and society hostesses – Hester Thrale, Samuel Johnson’s confidante, owned several jestbooks and comic miscellanies.
The most Dickie allows himself is a shudder of donnish distaste: ‘One wonders how anyone could have laughed.’ Yet laugh they did. The thriving subgenre of ‘ramble novels’ with titles like Adventures of a Rake and Memoirs of the Noted Buckhorse has none of the subversive richness of Darnton’s libertine bestsellers, and most are no more than episodic vehicles in which a boorish prankster-hero causes havoc and inflicts humiliation wherever he goes. Far from avoiding these novels, elite readers went at them with relish
The jestbooks and their sexual humor and rape jokes were popular with men and women alike.
Women not only consumed but energetically produced jokes about victims enjoying rape or being humiliated in court. Jestbook assumptions are central to works like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ‘Virtue in Danger’, a sarcastic ballad on a real-life society case of 1721, and to the startling premise of Eliza Haywood’s novel of 1727, The Lucky Rape. Decades later more decorous women writers were still using the basic tropes of misogynist humour. Comic scenarios about scheming maidservants and bogus chastity were routine in the novels of Charlotte Lennox, who once acted on her feeling that hussies were there to be beaten, and had to defend herself at the Middlesex Sessions. Even Jane Austen said of a neighbour’s late-term miscarriage: ‘I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.’
Finally, even disabled writers enjoyed writing humorously about their deformities or disabilities:
Some of the most hostile mockery of disability came from writers who struggled with it themselves. Fresh from a stage lampoon of Swift’s one-legged bookseller George Faulkner, the actor-playwright Samuel Foote fell from his horse and lost a leg, provoking sly jokes from Johnson about ‘depeditation’ and ironic consolation poems with missing (metrical) feet. Foote replied with a new comedy, The Lame Lover, and took the title role, Sir Luke Limp, himself. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, disfigured by smallpox, traded insults in print with Pope, whose body – or, as she put it, ‘wretched little Carcass’ – had been stunted and twisted in infancy by Pott’s Disease. Christopher Smart, whose Jubilate Agno memorably deplores the vilification he received as a supposed lunatic – ‘For silly fellow! silly fellow! is against me’ – was an indefatigable collector and disseminator of deformity jokes. The famously hideous actor-manager Theophilus Cibber turned his ugliness into a lifelong performance, hamming it up as Pistol, Abel Drugger and the role devised for him by Smart, Mynheer Von Poop-Poop Broomstickado
So, what was going on? In an early book on the psychology of laughter, the author suggests that laughing at the deformed is an affirmation of superiority:
Why is mimicking a person or an animal ludicrous? Because the imitation is of something which is regarded as inferior. We do not laugh at the perfect imitation of a beautiful song, nor do we ridicule the perfect imitation of a human figure whether sculptured or painted, but we laugh at defects, at the representation of awkwardness, of clumsiness, and silliness. In mimicry it is not simply the imitation of any kind of gestures, or of action, or of mannerisms, or of speech, that is regarded as ludicrous, but it is only certain definite manifestations, only certain motor activities or postures that excite laughter. The imitation in mimicry excites our laughter because the gestures, postures, speech, and phrases imitated are considered as silly, senseless, stupid (Boris Sidis The Psychology of Laughter 1913)
Physical deformity was thought to be an indication of moral depravity:
When we mimic persons and their modes of behavior it is to bring out in the language of gestures the moral and mental inferiority, the inner senselessness of the person (Sidis)
Other humor researchers suggest that there is more to humorous disparagement than feelings of superiority:
A second class of humor theories, whose roots lie in classical Greek and Roman rhetorical theory, includes those theories of humor based on malice, hostility, derision, aggression, disparagement, and/or superiority. Included in this group are ethnic, racial, and "dumb" jokes. Scholars, theorists, and researchers who espouse theories of humor based on hostility or malice frequently cite the similarities in bodily positions between
aggressive behavior, such as fighting, and laughter to substantiate their claims (Amy Carrell, University of Central Oklahoma 1998)
Igor Krichtofovitch (Humor Theory 2005) agrees with additional insights:
And don’t most of us experience intense euphoria when a well-placed joke puts our opponent in a funny, unfavorable, frequently demeaning position? Moreover, to do this it’s not at all necessary to demonstrate your real mental superiority. The power of the joke is that it does not necessarily have to be well-argued. Its purpose is to psychologically elevate the joker over his rival, and to place the latter in a foolish position. An important and irrefutable observation to which we will refer many times is the fact that the joker and his target perceive the joke, especially a particularly offensive one, entirely differently. The victim, as a rule, is not up to laughing. And this once more speaks to humor being a type of a weapon in the battle for social status.
According to the theory of psychoanalysis, in certain situations, humor and its derivative laughter play to the aggressive behavior of groups. S. Freud noted that for the tendentious humor, three persons are needed: first, someone who uses laughter (wit); second, a target for aggression; and third, someone who receives the goal of laughter (wit) - the extraction of pleasure (‘I’ and ‘It’).
Freud also supposed humor to be one of the manifestations of instincts – sexual and aggressive. According to Freud, humor is as much a means of the attraction of the female as the magnificent tail of the peacock or the bright comb of the rooster.
There are at least 1000 more citations on humor theory, but a sampling of them show that there is general consensus of the obvious – we laugh at deformity because we are glad we do not look that way, find deformity a caricature of normal life and therefore funny, and have a natural tendency to marginalize ‘the other’.
A simpler theory is that some things are simply funny:
“It seems surprising that people laugh at the misfortune of others. For instance, a man is walking down a winter street, slips, wildly flails his arms, and finally falls. The reaction of the spectators is varied, but after the victim stands up and sheepishly brushes the snow off his clothes, the majority of the on-lookers smiles or laughs – the incident turned out to not be serious. The fall itself turned into a comical event, breaking the monotony of the rhythm of everyday life.”
With this example, Dmitriev (Russian humor theorist) supposes that “the spectator relaxes (nothing grievous or dangerous has happened!) and begins to laugh.” (Krichtofovitch)
If any of these theories are accurate, then we are no different from the citizens of the 18th Century. We moderns all laugh at the same deformities, differences, and distortions of life as our ancestors. We just do it internally instead of externally. Most of us tell the ‘racial, ethnic, and dumb jokes’ referred to above, but save them for friends. Given the times, we are less likely to tell the longer joke (“A woman and a dwarf walked into a bar….”) and give offhanded one-liners; but they are still jokes ‘at the expense’ of someone else. Most of us will have to admit that it feels good, in the current atmosphere of Political Correctness to tell these jokes, make these cracks, and laugh at them.
While one conclusion is obvious – people have laughed at deformity, sexuality, and perversion for millennia and laugh for the same psychological and sociological reasons – the other is not. We have not progressed from the 18th Century as many ‘Progressives’ would have us believe. We have not achieved a cultural superiority thanks to a modern enlightenment and the new understanding of social dynamics. We are the same human beings with the same human nature and psychological and social needs as the Romans, Greeks, and probably the cavemen long before them. We have only decided to repress and submerge our natural inclinations for the sake of an idealistic view of society.
Does that make the inclinations go away? No. Nor does increased tolerance for “disparagement humor” mean that individualized attacks of ridicule should be condoned. They should not; but listening to comedians make us laugh at the very distortions we laugh at in private would only be admitting the truth about ourselves. Laughing at others is no one-way street, for it means tolerating the laughter pointed at us. No one is immune from pointed jokes; and in a way this openness and self-generated tolerance may be a better way to promote real acceptance of everyone.