The Gamut of Humour
In this article Arthur Conan Doyle discusses the subjectivity and value of humour. He also talks about different types of humour and differences between British and American humour.
The Gamut of Humour
What is one man's treat is another man's poison. Everyone has his own conception of humour, and neither by prayer, argument, or menace, is he to be budged from it. You may convert your neighbour in religion, you may persuade him in politics, you may bend and twist him in every opinion that he has got, but you never yet succeeded in making him see any merit in a joke if his own unaided wits did not detect and appreciate it. Humour-blindness of the mind is like colour-blindness of the eye. Nine very genuine forms of humour may be clearly seen, and the tenth, equally genuine, ignored, as the victim of Daltonism may respond to every other colour, but be absolutely blind to green. The green-blind folk are only three per cent, and the rest have a complete range. In the other case I believe the proportions are reversed.
And then the self-sufficiency of the humour-blind mind! On all else he may be diffident, but on this no shade of doubt ever crosses his mind. What is not humorous to him is not humour. All the world may be laughing around him, but that only proves that all the world are foolish. The more they laugh the more foolish they prove themselves, and the more he hugs his own gravity to his soul. He is proud of his own defect, like the folk in the South American goitre village who derided the travellers who had no goitre.
I should like to arrange a gamut of humour, and test appreciation as one tests a singer's voice. My range would include, we will say, twenty distinct types, and the man who could relish them all would have gained the right to call himself a catholic critic. At one end I should commence with the finer forms of wit, and work onwards to the most robust kinds or humour. Meredith's "Adrian Harley" should be my starting point, and such a writer as Artemus Ward or the Danbury Newsman my final one. Between these extremes the order might run — Holmes, Barrie, Stevenson, Lamb, Thackeray, Anstey, from one end, and Bret Harte, Dickens, Burnand, Jerome, and Mark Twain, at the other. There are so many good names that there would be a difficulty about the middle ones. But when the list was completed it would really become something in the nature of an exact scientific test. The man who appreciated the first ten, we will say — who preferred the wits to the humourists — would have his little sneer at his brother in blindness who was tickled by the last ten and could see nothing in the others; but the minority who enjoyed the complete twenty would hold the scales between them. A critic would be a number seven man or a number nine man, according to his limitations. But I am afraid we should need decimals to express the position of some critics whose work I have read.
English writers are more witty than humorous; Americans more humorous than witty. You smile with the one, and you laugh with the other. What a rare thing it has been since Dickens' time to get a hearty laugh out of an English book — to have to stop reading and laugh your fill. There is plenty of fun, delicate, smile-provoking, charming, but never pushed quite to the laughing point. Mr. Burnand and Mr. Jerome are the only two writers I know on this side who may be relied upon for a really hearty laugh — a helpless, soul-satisfying laugh.
There are two books which have done incalculable good, "Happy Thoughts" and "Three Men in a Boat." They are simply tonics in a cover circulating about through the English-speaking world — cheering up the depressed, changing the thoughts of the tired man, consoling the mourner. Of course, all good books do these things; but the two I mean more than most because they are so essentially cheery. Could we focus to a point all the benefit which comes from such works, their effect upon the sick, the weary, and the watchers, we would understand more clearly that the humourist is the philanthropist of literature.
I have a case in my mind as I write. Two years ago a dear sister fell a victim to influenza in Lisbon, and her two younger sisters who had nursed her were left after her death tired out with watching and anxiety, and yet with their nerves so over-stretched that they could not take the rest which would restore them. I sent them "Three Men in a Boat," and I had reason to bless the thought which made me do so. So it happened to me, and doubtless it has happened to many, and with many books; but when we think of it we cannot but realise that humour is a very tender and precious thing, not to be sneered and snorted at by the number ten man or the number eleven man because his brain is cramped in one direction, but rather to be encouraged to assume every novel shape which can adapt it to the infinite variety of the human mind.
A. CONAN DOYLE.