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The Man Who Laughs by C. P. W.

The degree of culture and good breeding which a man possesses may be very correctly determined by the way he laughs. The primeval savage, from whom we trace descent, was distinguished above everything else by his demonstrativeness; and there is much in our present type of social manners and conduct which betrays our barbarous origin. The brute-like sounds that escape from the human throat in the exercise of laughter, the coarse guffaw, the hoarse chuckle, and the high, cackling tones in which many of the feminine half of the world express their sense of amusement, attest very painfully the animal nature within us. It was Emerson, I believe, who expressed a dislike of all loud laughter; and it is difficult to imagine the scene or occasion which could draw from that serene and even-minded philosopher a broader expression of amusement than that conveyed in the "inscrutable smile" which Whipple describes as his most characteristic feature. Yet Emerson was by no means wanting in appreciation of the comic. On the contrary, he had an abiding sense of humor, and it was this—a keen and lively perception of the grotesque, derived as part of his Yankee inheritance—that kept him from uniting in many of the extravagant reform movements of the day. Few of us, however, even under the sanction of an Emerson, would wish to dispense with all sound of laughter.

The memory of a friend's voice, in which certain laughing notes and tones are inextricably mingled with the graver inflections of common speech, is almost as dear as the vision of his countenance or the warm pressure of his hand. Yet among such remembrances we hold others, of those from whom the sound of open laughter is seldom heard, the absence of which, however, denotes no diminished sense of the humorous and amusing. A quick, responsive smile, a flash or glance of the eye, a kindling countenance, serve as substitutes for true laughter, and we do not miss the sound of that which is supplied in a finer and often truer quality.

The freest, purest laughter is that of childhood, which is as spontaneous as the song of birds. It is impossible that the laughter of older people should retain this sound of perfect music. Knowledge of life and the world has entered in to mar the natural harmonics of the human voice, which not all the skill and efforts of the vocal culturists can ever again restore. It is only those who in attaining the years and stature of manhood have retained the nature of the child, its first unconscious truth and simplicity, whose laughter is wholly pleasant to hear. I recall the laugh of a friend which corresponds to this description, a laugh as pure and melodious, as guiltless of premeditated art or intention, as the notes of the rising lark; yet its owner is a man of wide worldly experience. It is natural that I, who know my friend so well, should find in this peculiarly happy laugh of his the sign and test of that type of high, sincere manhood which he represents; but it is a dangerous business, this attempting to define the character and disposition of people by the turn of an eyelid, the curve of a lip, or a particular vocal shade and inflection. Not only has Art learned to imitate Nature very closely, but Nature herself plays many a trick upon our credulity in matters of this kind. Upon a woman who owns no higher motive than low and selfish cunning she bestows the musical tones of a seraph, as she sheathes the sharp claws of all her feline progeny in cases of softest fur. Rosamond Vincy is not the only example which might be furnished, either in or out of print, in proof that a low, soft voice, that excellent thing in woman, may have a wrongly persuasive accent, luring to disappointment and death, like the Lorelei's song, to which the harsh tones of the most strong-minded Xantippe are to be preferred.

Still, it does seem that, however right Shakespeare was when he said a man may smile and smile and be a villain still, no real villain could indulge in hearty, spontaneous laughter. Much smiling is one of the thin disguises in which a certain kind of knavery seeks to hide itself, but it is easy to conjecture that the low ruffian type of villain, like that seen in Bill Sykes and Jonas Chuzzlewit, neither laughs nor smiles, being as destitute of the courage to listen to the sound of its own voice as of the wit that summons artifice to its aid in protection of its guilty devices.

The ghastly effect of guilt laughing with constrained glee to hide suspicion of itself from the eyes of innocence is vividly portrayed in Irving's performance of "The Bells," in the scene where Mathias, by a supreme effort of will, joins in Christian's laugh over the supposition that it might have been his, the respected burgomaster's, limekiln in which the body of the Polish Jew was burned. Genuine laughter must spring from a pure and undefiled source. It may not always be of tuneful quality, but it must at least contain the note of sincerity. I have in mind the outbursts of deep-chested sound with which another friend evinces his appreciation of a humorous remark or incident, a laugh which many fastidious people would pronounce too hard and rough by half, bending their heads and darting from under, as if suddenly assailed by some rude nor'wester. But I like the pleasant shock bestowed in those strong, breezy tones, and the feeling of rejuvenation and new expectancy which it imparts.

Another laugh echoes in memory as I write, a girl's laugh this time, not "idle and foolish and sweet," as such have been described, but clear, and strong, and odd almost to the point of the ludicrous, yet charmingly natural withal. A young woman's laugh is apt to begin at the highest note, and, running down the scale, to end in a sigh of mingled relief and exhaustion an octave or so lower down. This particular girl, however, takes the other way, and, running her chromatic neatly up from about middle C, pauses for a breath, and then astonishes her audience by striking off two perfectly attuned notes several degrees higher up, hitting her mark with the ease and deftness of a prima donna. So odd and surprising a laugh is sure to be quickly infectious, and its owner is never at a loss for company in her merriment, while a cheerful temper, unclouded by a shade of envy or suspicion, is not in the least disturbed by the knowledge that others are laughing at as well as with her.

The question of what we shall laugh at deserves more attention than our manner of laughing. "There is nothing," says Goethe, "in which people more betray their character than in what they find to laugh at," adding, "The man of understanding finds almost everything ridiculous, the man of thought scarcely anything." This last corresponds somewhat to a sentiment found in Horace Walpole: "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." With many people laughter seems to be an appetite, which grows by what it feeds on, until all power of discrimination between the finer and the more vulgar forms of wit is lost. Certain it is that the habit of laughter is as easy to fall into as it is dangerous to all social dignity. The muscles of the mouth have a natural upward curve,—a fact which speaks well for the disposition of Mother Nature who made us, and may also be held to signify that there are more things in the world deserving our approval than our condemnation. But the hideous spectacle presented in the contorted visage of Hugo's great character contains a wholesome warning even for us of a later age; for there is a social tyranny, almost as potent as the kingly despotism which ruled the world centuries ago, that would fain shape the features of its victims after one artificial pattern. We laugh too much, from which it necessarily follows that we often laugh at the wrong things, a fault which betrays intellectual weakness as well as moral cupidity. The determining quality in true laughter lies in the degree of innocent mirth it gives expression to; and when jealous satire, envy, or malice add their dissonant note to its sound, its finest effect is destroyed and its opportunity lost.