Tuesday, October 15, 2013

`The Chief Antidote to Pride'

I had forgotten this: “Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee.” That’s Chesterton in his 1905 essay “A Piece of Chalk.” I associate laughter, the honest full-body variety, with mental health, just as I associate the laughter-impaired with dullness and psychic damage.  Even more disturbing is faux-laughter, the well-rehearsed kind perfected by the soulless and socially adept. I have no standing in the matter but wish to nominate Chesterton as patron saint of laughter and sanity. 

I’m reading The Collected Poems of G.K. Chesterton systematically for the first time, cover to cover. This is the Methuen & Co. third edition, published in 1933, three years before the poet’s death. Chesterton’s poems are rhymed and metrically regular. Even during his lifetime his verse was judged old-fashioned, out of step with literary Modernism, yet his poems are never less than entertaining and sometimes rousing. I noticed how often Chesterton mentions laughter, always with approval. In “The Skeleton” he writes: “Here among the flowers I lie / Laughing everlastingly.” In “A Novelty”: “To me, like sudden laughter, / The stars are fresh and gay.” “The Secret People”: “There are no folk in the whole world so helpless or so wise. / There is hunger in our bellies, there is laughter in our eyes.” There’s even a “Ballade of Laughter,” which begins: 

“I count all laughter terrible and true,
A thunder of God given before the Fall,
A flaming sword from which the devils flew,
A red hot poker to make the pedants squall.” 

The third line contains a clue.  For “devils” of any species – fanatics, ideologues, common criminals, bores, boors, boobs – laughter is a reliable repellant. Laughter subverts self-importance, though in his 1928 essay on “Humour” for the Encyclopedia Britannica, Chesterton warns against taking the subject too seriously: “Humour, like wit, is related however indirectly, to truth and the eternal virtues; as it is the greatest incongruity of all to be serious about humour, so it is the worst sort of pomposity to be monotonously proud of humour; for it is itself the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.”

1 comment:

drizzz said...

Speaking of laughter, happy P. G. Wodehouse day!