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Nadim El Ghezal Frederic Sztrakos

English humour
First part : theoretical analysis

Autonomous project supervised by Petra Norroy June 2003

Comment reconnatre l'humour anglais de l'humour franais? L'humour anglais souligne avec amertume et dsespoir l'absurdit du monde. L'humour franais se rit de ma belle-mre. Pierre Desproges, Les Etrangers

Table of contents

I Etymology of humour...................................... 4 II - Evolution of English humour .......................... 5 III - The Art of humour ......................................... 8 IV - Bibliography ................................................ 12

I Etymology of humour
The Latin word humor is a medical term which has a translation in every civilized language after the 16th century. It refers to the humours theory, inherited from the Greeks: Hippocrates of Cos spoke about four basic temperaments. Each temperament corresponded to the predominance of one humour in the human body. Later, Galien explained all the diseases with the imbalance of the humours, which became the foundation of the medicine of the middleages. At the end of the middle-ages, lots of European scientists criticized Galiens theory. The controversies made the word humour so fashionable that, at the beginning of the 17th century, it became a word without precise meaning, usually used to say commonplaces, just like climate or Kafkaesque nowadays. A character of Shakespeares Henry V, Nym, uses it as a hackneyed meaningless expression. In the 18th century, the content of the word became so important that it reached the breaking point of its semantic resistance. A new concept appeared: the ancestor of what we call humour today. Since, an aesthetic of English humour would be constructed and theorized in English literature. Under the influence of England, most European languages adopted the modern signification of the word humour during the 18th century: however, the French Academy would not accept it until 1932. The meaning of humour has been evolving in different ways according to the countries. This is why it is so difficult to give it a definition. English humour is unique to England, like endemic species, and its originality may be owed to the insularity of the country. Ben Jonson, a contemporary writer of Shakespeare, uses the theory of humours to give a definition of humour very close to madness1. Jonson keeps the idea of temperament behind the word humour, but discovers a comical utilisation mode of humours. As Louis Cazamian said, Jonson has the merit of being behind the semantic association of comic and humour: He destroyed any feeling which could always survive that the physical servitude implied by the medical meaning of humour is a tragic element, better adapted to the pathos than to the comedy. He gave to the word and to the notion a sharply funny atmosphere. The association so concluded between the humours and the laugh was full of consequences, much more than he could imagine.2 What Jonson means with humour can be found sometimes in Molieres plays; yet nobody outside of England has formulated it like Jonson, who will not be read in
1 2

Ben Jonson, Every Man Out of his Humour Louis Cazamian, The development of English humor

France before the middle of the 18th century. Thats why humour stays on its island for 150 years: it is adopted by English people who make of it a tradition, a national feature, felt as coming from the depth of the English soul.

II - Evolution of English humour

In Every Man Out of his Humour, Ben Jonson uses characters who are out of step with their humour (temperament) because of the drama : they have a double nature. This duality is a continuous reality in the story of ideas in England : sad optimism and happy pessimism are the main ingredients of English people. The French Anglicist Floris Delattre interprets it as the result of the mixing of French enjoyment for life and Anglo-Saxon morosity during the Norman invasion3. This interpretation is a little fanciful but it is amazing to notice how this duality of temperament marks the history of England: contradictory mights are epitomized by jonsonian humours, men who concentrate all the excentricity of a political and moral attitude, like in a comedy. The natural and smiling consciousness of our own character among others, of our excentricity, is precisely the sense of humour. Stephen Potter calls this ability the English Reflex, which is part of the social life frame in his opinion4. The sense of humour is one of the most valuable goods English education has passed on. However, it quickly became the luxury of upperclasses, a recognition sign for real gentlemen. It became so conformist that it finally broke loose from the humour: the sense of humour, prized by the Victorian society, was still humourous but no longer all the humour. The humour is rather a conscious excentricity than a conventional attitude: this is a reflex which less corresponds to the Victorian bourgeoisie than to the humanist thought. We can find in Sir Thomas Mores Utopia this revealing sentence: while I am trying to heal the others madness, I must be as foolish as them.5 The real sense of humour is devoid of any influence of class: a character of Shakespeares Henry IV, Falstaff, gives its infallible recipe in a remarkable expression: a jest with a sad brow.6 A great illustration of this golden rule can be found in Robert Burtons Anatomy of Melancholy : this big philosophical and medical treaty about melancholy is a perfect hoax. On the medical level, the book is not without interest; however, under its imperturbable gravity, it
3 4

Floris Delattre, La Naissance de lhumour dans la vieille Angleterre, p.289-307 Stephen Potter, Sense of Humour, p.4 5 Thomas More, Utopia (dition anglaise de 1869), p.65 6 Shakespeare, Henry V, acte V, sc.1

reveals preposterous cutting remarks. For instance, as Burton says Jesuits are often physicians in addition to their priesthood, he adds: now, there are lots of them who are, permissu superiorum, surgeon, go-between, souteneur, obstetrician.7 In the 18th century, the intuition of Shakespeare gives rise to an aesthetic of humour: lots of definitions are given for it. Henry Home writes, for instance: the real sense of humour is the characteristic of the author who seems to be earnest but paints things in a color that provokes gaiety and laugh8. Then, humour has nothing to do with its original meaning, nor with an excentricity: it becomes a voluntary construction, either in writing or in character9, always with a comical intention (which was not obvious before.) The humorist is born : I mean, the man we call today a man with a sense of humour. It must be clear that the sense of humour is devoid of any malice, at least concerning the English use (it can be different concerning what we call sens de lhumour in French.) This is the main difference with wit, which can hurt someone. Wit consists in a concise collection of ideas, a quick and smart mode of expression, dear to the upper-class. Freud explains10 that the wit answers to the principle of pleasure. It is a game which cheats the critical reason and social laws in order to find again the euphoria of Childhood, where our instinct was not bullied: witticisms express the deepest human instincts (sexuality, violence) with the precautions the social censorship requires. The wit is also a social need, especially developed during the Victorian austerity, because it was a way to breathe and satisfy human instincts, and a tool for social recognition. Wit makes fun of someone, humour of everyone. Yet, it is not always so easy to distinguish humour and wit: there is sometimes a sense of humour in a witticism, for instance in this sentence from Bradley: Everything happens if you can wait for it; death for one. There is some wit in the concision of the sentence but no ad hominem argument, no violence against someone or something: just a calm acceptance of the absurdity of life, which is very close to Homes definition of humour. Anyway, the wit/humour debate will never end because wit is part of humour. Congreve understood it very well when he noticed that witted people have not necessary any sense of humour, but all the humorists have some wit. In the 19th century, the most important renewal arived with the nonsense: in fact, it is a return to the jonsonian excentricity. With nonsense, the English sense of humour reaches the paroxysm of its madness. According to Albert Laffay, nonsense would be the sense of
7 8

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (d. 1845), p.14 Lord Kames (Home), Elements of Criticism, p.161 9 this distinction belongs to Home himself 10 Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (1905)

humour applied to words11. Nonsense may be the English awareness of the irrational part of the language. Effectively, there is not such an important cult of punning on words in English literature, contrary to French litterature. Indeed, limericks often play with words and some English writers have tried to explore the language: in Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne even trys to explore the typographic language and makes a systematic violation of the literary conventions. But shandyism was never imitated and, in English literature, play on language seem to have rarely chosen the way of punning on words. The play on words, called false wit by Addison or wind of brain by Victor Hugo, was equally despised in both countries, but often used in France despite that: maybe because French literature will not discover nonsense before the end of the 19th century, with Jarry, Fourest and Allais. Anyway, whatever the link may be , it is obvious between humour and nonsense, it is obvious that nonsense is a humour. The sense of humour consists in describing reality while shaming to believe it is ideal, and the nonsense in developing meaningless reasoning while shaming to believe it is logical. The overuse of logic is to nonsense what gravity is to humour. The mathematician Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, is one of the greatest nonsensical writers. His famous character Alice is the expression of his rational anxiety. Alices adventures are the perfect illustration of nonsense : it would be a pity not to quote a passage: Alice went timidly up to the door and knocked. Theres no sort of use in knocking, said the Footman, and that for two reasons. First because Im on the same side of the door as you are; secondly, because theyre making such a noise inside, no one could possibly hear you. And certainly there was a most extraordinary noise going on within a constant howling and sneezing, and every now and then a great crash, as if a dish or kettle had been broken to pieces. Please, then, said Alice, how am I to get in? There might be some sense in your knocking, the Footman went on, without attending to her, if we had the door between us. For instance, if you were inside, you might knock, and I could let you out, you know. He was looking up into the sky all the time he was speaking, and this Alice thought decidedly uncivil. But perhaps he cant help it, she said to herself; his eyes are so very nearly at the top of his head. But at any rate he might answer questions.


Albert Laffay, Anatomie de lhumour et du nonsense, p.137

-How am I to get in? she repeated, aloud. To put the history of English humour in a nutshell, I would say it has a longer maturity than any other and a real originality in its forms of expression (due to the history of English society and literature.) Nowadays, the sense of humour doesnt escape globalisation and it is not so easy to see the difference between two native senses of humour. However the English one has kept a philosophical melancholy, a smiling darkness, a taste for self-mockery which are characteristic of it. The sense of humour is the politeness of despair: if this sentence of Chris Marker should define only one sense of humour, it would be the English one. It is nevertheless the case that no one has succeeded in giving an exhaustive definition of humour, as noticed by Robert Escarpit12 before failing himself.

III - The Art of humour

When Falstaff speaks of a jest with a sad brow, what should we understand? Does he mean a manner of being, social behaviour, which would imply that the sense of humour is linked to affectivity? Or is it an intellectual sense of humour, a rhetorical mechanism to egg people to laugh? In Falstaffs case, it is obviously a way to get the prince amused, but it is not inconsistent with the existence of an emotionalist humour13. For example, Burton is rather emotionalist when he exorcizes his melancholy with a touch of irony against the Jesuits buried in a serious account. However, most analyses of humour are intellectualist. According to Louis Cazamian, humour is a break in judgement;14 he makes the distinction between four kinds of judgement: moral, emotional, comical and philosophical. Amoral humour is often immoral, in Wildes plays for instance: Lady Bracknell doesnt hesitate to ask the orphan Jack for precise details about his painful state and even expects him to make an effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex.15 Humour with breaking of emotional judgement is very common too. It consists in ignoring the sensibility of the public, as does scatology. The break in comical judgement occurs when we play with the contrast between the gravity of the tone and the comedy of the subject. Lastly, humour with breaking of philosophical judgement corresponds to a loss of the faculty of generalization, an infantilization deleting
12 13

Robert Escarpit, LHumour, p.5 Robert Escarpit speaks about an emotionalist and an intellectualist humour 14 Louis Cazamian, op. cit. 15 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of being earnest (1895)

ability of abstraction, like Sterne in Tristram Shandy. The intellectualist theory of L. Cazamian is infortunately too reducing. As we saw previously, the sense of humour is very kindly, contrary to other forms of comedy: the man with a sense of humor mocks himself rather than the others. So, the sense of humour is a tolerant and pityful laugh : it is not only mechanic, it is linked to affectivity. Swifts Modest Proposal is a famous instance of the English sense of humour which was even quoted in LEncyclopdie in 1778. This text was written in order to alert the English opinion to the intolerable misery in Ireland. With the tone of a political economy professor, Swift explains how to avoid famine by eating children: I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child, well nursed, is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout [] I have reckoned, upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh twelve pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, will increase to twenty-eight pounds. I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children [] I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggars child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four fifths of the farmers) to be about two shilling per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcase of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he has only some particular friend or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants; the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child [] I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public goog of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by

which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past chidbearing.16 The basis of this implacable demonstration is, as says R. Escarpit, a suspended obviousness: we do not eat children. When we ignore this principle, the whole vision of the world Swift proposes becomes nonsensical. If a cannibal had read this Proposal, he would have found it very interesting and not funny at all As we explained before, The sense of humour corresponds to a civilisation, a cultural frame: it is often national, but it can be characteristic of very small groups (cf private jokes.) Besides, the publics nationality is not the only code necessary to understanding the sense of humour. It requires the support of the auditory: the public must absolutely understand it is ironical. We can find Swifts Proposal very humorous while we do not laugh when we read Mein Kampf. Therefore, if we were convinced that Swift was a mad economist that really considered eating children, we would be shocked. That is why the sense of humour requires clarity about the good intention of which it is animated. It is the role of the conniving wink. The bigger the effect, the more the humorous gap will be obvious. The wink can also consist in an implicit reference, or in the use of wit, as used by Swift in his Proposal when he points the egoism of landlords in the second paragraph. So, humour consists in an anomaly in front of a background of normality, and it is always made of tensions and reassurances, even if the reassurances become rarer when the humour is darker. This is indissociable from the idea that humour is a national matter, as we have kept repeating for a while. Yet, does there not exist a superior sense of humour which would transcend all the cultural frames? I think it could be the case of this sense of humour which laughs at the nonsense of life: this exorcism of the existential anxiety has nothing to do with national particularisms. It belongs to the whole of humanity. This sense of humour is well illustrated by Samuel Beckett: he is like a man sentenced to death who laughs at his executioner, or asks for the sterilized guillotine which is evoked in Becketts Murphy17. The book begins with a typical grinding and resigned irony: the sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. In Becketts work, the nonsense is consubstantial to the existence. This universal humour Beckett epitomizes is of course associated to a necessary impassiveness, and also to a nearly scientific meticulousness. The taste for details is not humorous in itself, but is a universal amplifier of humour. Dahl18 uses meticulous description in his novels so that

Jonathan Swift, Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public (1729) 17 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (1938), p.120 18 Roald Dahl is an English writer, very famous -and often despised- because of his books for children and erotic stories. He is not so famous as a novelist, yet he is a great one.


his twist ends are more effective. In Three Men in a boat, Jerome K. Jerome uses four chapters purely for the preparation of the three protagonists travel: they try to foresee everything. Will they take or not a liquid paraffin stove? Is it necessary, on the other hand, to add some cheese in the supply food? Each of these questions causes the most serious debates in the world and the arguments are put in perspective with unusual anecdotes In the cinema, the Monty Pythons epitomize this absolute and superior sense of humour which laughs at the nonsense of life and speaks about swallows, sex, religion or death with the same British impassiveness. The movie called Meaning of life shows a very acute consciousness of this nonsense: the title itself is a masterpiece of irony and provocation. In the second part of this work, the instance of the Monty Pythons will illustrate this complex alchemy of impassivity, breaks in judgements, irony, connivance and meticulousness, which is the art of humour : in fact, a philosophical behaviour very close to Descartes methodical doubt, since there is the same will to avoid conformism.


IV - Bibliography

J. Addison, S. Beckett, E. Bruyas

The Spectator n35, Londres, 10 avril 1971. Murphy, Londres, Pan Books, 1973
& D. Jamet,

Rires Glossaire ,

LAleph n4, 1998-2003, Pourquoi nous ne pouvons dfinir lhumour , Revue Germanique, 2e anne, Paris, Alcan, 1906 ; repris dans LHumour anglais, Paris, Didier, 1942.
L. Cazamian,

The Development of English Humor, Durham (North Carolina), Duke University Press, 1952.
F. Delattre, La naissance de lhumour dans la vieille Angleterre , Revue angloamricaine, Paris, 1927. V. Effenberg, R. Escarpit,

L. Cazamian,

Vivoj humoru v modernism umeni , Divadlo n6, Prague, juin 1965.

LHumour, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, coll. Que sais-je ? ,

S. Freud,

Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Londres, Penguin Books, 1991.

A. Kazerouni,

Kritik ber Humor, technische Studien und Schulsysteme in Allgemeinen, Berlin, Meckern Verlag, 1968. Anatomie de lhumour et du nonsense, Paris, Masson et Cie, coll. Documents de Littrature et de Civilisation anglaises , 1970. LArc-en-ciel des humours, Paris, Librairie Gnrale Franaise, coll. Livre de

A. Laffay,

D. Noguez,

Poche , 2000.
J. Swift,

Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public, 1729.


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6. COLLECTIONS OF DOCUMENTS You may make a collection consisting of the Document and other documents released under this License, and replace the individual copies of this License in the various documents with a single copy that is included in the collection, provided that you follow the rules of this License for verbatim copying of each of the documents in all other respects. You may extract a single document from such a collection, and distribute it individually under this License, provided you insert a copy of this License into the extracted document, and follow this License in all other respects regarding verbatim copying of that document.

7. AGGREGATION WITH INDEPENDENT WORKS A compilation of the Document or its derivatives with other separate and independent documents or works, in or on a volume of a storage or distribution medium, is called an "aggregate" if the copyright resulting from the compilation is not used to limit the legal rights of the compilation's users beyond what the individual works permit. When the Document is included in an aggregate, this License does not apply to the other works in the aggregate which are not themselves derivative works of the Document. If the Cover Text requirement of section 3 is applicable to these copies of the Document, then if the Document is less than one half of the entire aggregate, the Document's Cover Texts may be placed on covers that bracket the Document within the aggregate, or the electronic equivalent of covers if the Document is in electronic form. Otherwise they must appear on printed covers that bracket the whole aggregate.

8. TRANSLATION Translation is considered a kind of modification, so you may

distribute translations of the Document under the terms of section 4. Replacing Invariant Sections with translations requires special permission from their copyright holders, but you may include translations of some or all Invariant Sections in addition to the original versions of these Invariant Sections. You may include a translation of this License, and all the license notices in the Document, and any Warranty Disclaimers, provided that you also include the original English version of this License and the original versions of those notices and disclaimers. In case of a disagreement between the translation and the original version of this License or a notice or disclaimer, the original version will prevail. If a section in the Document is Entitled "Acknowledgements", "Dedications", or "History", the requirement (section 4) to Preserve its Title (section 1) will typically require changing the actual title.

9. TERMINATION You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Document except as expressly provided for under this License. Any other attempt to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Document is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License. However, parties who have received copies, or rights, from you under this License will not have their licenses terminated so long as such parties remain in full compliance.

10. FUTURE REVISIONS OF THIS LICENSE The Free Software Foundation may publish new, revised versions of the GNU Free Documentation License from time to time. Such new versions will be similar in spirit to the present version, but may differ in detail to address new problems or concerns. See Each version of the License is given a distinguishing version number. If the Document specifies that a particular numbered version of this License "or any later version" applies to it, you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that specified version or of any later version that has been published (not as a draft) by the Free Software Foundation. If the Document does not specify a version number of this License, you may choose any version ever published (not as a draft) by the Free Software Foundation.