[Excerpted from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED by G. K. Chesterton; an etext
in progress, from an edition by John Lane Company, New York, 1909.]

A writer in the YORKSHIRE EVENING POST is very angry indeed with my
performances in this column.  His precise terms of reproach are,
"Mr. G. K. Chesterton is not a humourist: not even a Cockney humourist."
I do not mind his saying that I am not a humourist--in which (to tell the
truth) I think he is quite right.  But I do resent his saying that I am
not a Cockney.  That envenomed arrow, I admit, went home.  If a French
writer said of me, "he is no metaphysician: not even an English
metaphysician," I could swallow the insult to my metaphysics, but I
should feel angry about the insult to my country.  So I do not urge that
I am a humourist; but I do insist that I am a Cockney.  If I were a
humourist, I should certainly be a Cockney humourist; if I were a saint,
I should certainly be a Cockney saint.  I need not recite the splendid
catalogue of Cockney saints who have written their names on our noble
old City churches.  I need not trouble you with the long list of the
Cockney humourists who have discharged their bills (or failed to
discharge them) in our noble old City taverns.  We can weep together
over the pathos of the poor Yorkshireman, whose county has never
produced some humour not intelligble to the rest of the world.  And we
can smile together when he says that somebody or other is "not even" a
Cockney humourist like Samuel Johnson or Charles Lamb.  It is surely
sufficiently obvious that all the best humour that exists in our
language is Cockney humour.  Chaucer was a Cockney; he had his house
close to the Abbey.  Dickens was a Cockney; he said he could not think
without the London streets.  The London taverns heard always the
quaintest conversation, whether it was Ben Jonson's at the Mermaid or
Sam Johnson's at the Cock.  Even in our own time it may be noted that
the most vital and genuine humour is still written about London.  Of
this type is the mild and humane irony which marks Mr. Pett Ridge's
studies of the small grey streets.  Of this type is the simple but
smashing laughter of the best tales of Mr. W. W. Jacobs, telling of the
smoke and sparkle of the Thames.  No; I concede that I am not a Cockney
humourist.  No; I am not worthy to be.  Some time, after sad and
strenuous after-lives; some time, after fierce and apocalyptic
incarnations; in some strange world beyond the stars, I may become at
last a Cockney humourist.  In that potential paradise I may walk among
the Cockney humourists, if not an equal, at least a companion.  I may
feel for a moment on my shoulder the hearty hand of Dryden and thread
the labyrinths of the sweet insanity of Lamb.  But that could only be
if I were not only much cleverer, but much better than I am.  Before I
reach that sphere I shall have left behind, perhaps, the sphere that
is inhabited by angels, and even passed that which is appropriated
exclusively to the use of Yorkshiremen.

No; London is in this matter attacked upon its strongest ground.  London
is the largest of the bloated modern cities; London is the smokiest;
London is the dirtiest; London is, if you will, the most sombre; London
is, if you will, the most miserable.  But London is certainly the most
amusing and the most amused.  You may prove that we have the most
tragedy; the fact remains that we have the most comedy, that we have the
most farce. We have at the very worst a splendid hypocrisy of humour.
We conceal our sorrow behind a screaming derision.  You speak of people
who laugh through their tears; it is our boast that we only weep through
our laughter. There remains always this great boast, perhaps the
greatest boast that is possible to human nature.  I mean the great boast
that the most unhappy part of our population is also the most hilarious
part.  The poor can forget that social problem which we (the moderately
rich) ought never to forget.  Blessed are the poor; for they alone have
not the poor always with them.  The honest poor can sometimes forget
poverty.  The honest rich can never forget it.

I believe firmly in the value of all vulgar notions, especially of
vulgar jokes.  When once you have got hold of a vulgar joke, you may be
certain that you have got hold of a subtle and spiritual idea.  The men
who made the joke saw something deep which they could not express except
by something silly and emphatic.  They saw something delicate which they
could only express by something indelicate.  I remember that Mr. Max
Beerbohm (who has every merit except democracy) attempted to analyse the
jokes at which the mob laughs.  He divided them into three sections:
jokes about bodily humiliation, jokes about things alien, such as
foreigners, and jokes about bad cheese.  Mr. Max Beerbohn thought he
understood the first two forms; but I am not sure that he did.  In order
to understand vulgar humour it is not enough to be humorous.  One must
also be vulgar, as I am.  And in the first case it is surely obvious
that it is not merely at the fact of something being hurt that we laugh
(as I trust we do) when a Prime Minister sits on his hat.  If that were
so we should laugh whenever we saw a funeral.  We do not laugh at the
mere fact of something falling down; there is nothing humorous about
leaves falling or the sun going down.  When our house falls down we do
not laugh.  All the birds of the air might drop around us in a perpetual
shower like a hailstorm without arousing a smile.  If you really ask
yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you
will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately
religious.  All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are
really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of
Man.  They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all
the things around him and yet is at their mercy.

Quite equally subtle and spiritual is the idea at the back of laughing
at foreigners.  It concerns the almost torturing mirth of a thing being
like oneself and yet not like oneself.  Nobody laughs at what is
entirely foreign; nobody laughs at a palm tree.  But it is funny to see
the familiar image of God disguised behind the black beard of a
Frenchman of the black face of a Negro.  There is nothing funny in the
sounds that are wholly inhuman, the howling of wild beasts or of the
wind.  But if a man begins to talk like oneself, but all the syllables
come out different, then if one is a man one feels inclined to laugh,
though if one is a gentleman one resists the inclination.

Mr. Max Beerbohm, I remember, professed to understand the first two
forms of popular wit, but said that the third quite stumped him.
He could not see why there should be anything funny about bad cheese.
I can tell him at once.  He has missed the idea because it is subtle
and philosophical, and he was looking for something ignorant and foolish.
Bad cheese is funny because it is (like the foreigner or the man fallen
on the pavement) the type of the transition or transgression across a
great mystical boundary.  Bad cheese symbolises the change from the
inorganic to the organic.  Bad cheese symbolises the startling prodigy
of matter taking on vitality.  It symbolises the origin of life itself.
And it is only about such solemn matters as the origin of life that the
democracy condescends to joke.  Thus, for instance, the democracy jokes
about marriage, because marriage is a part of mankind.  But the
democracy would never deign to joke about Free Love, because Free Love
is a piece of priggishness.

As a matter of fact, it will be generally found that the popular joke is
not true to the letter, but it is true to the spirit.  The vulgar joke
is generally in the oddest way the truth and yet not the fact.  For
instance, it is not in the least true that mothers-in-law are as a class
oppressive and intolerable; most of them are both devoted and useful.
All the mothers-in-law I have ever had were admirable.  Yet the legend
of the comic papers is profoundly true.  It draws attention to the fact
that it is much harder to be a nice mother-in-law than to be nice in
any other conceivable relation of life.  The caricatures have drawn the
worst mother-in-law a monster, by way of expressing the fact that the
best mother-in-law is a problem.  The same is true of the perpetual
jokes in comic papers about shrewish wives and henpecked husbands.
It is all a frantic exaggeration, but it is an exaggeration of a truth;
whereas all the modern mouthings about oppressed women are the
exaggerations of a falsehood.  If you read even the best of the
intellectuals of to-day you will find them saying that in the mass of
the democracy the woman is the chattel of her lord, like his bath or
his bed.  But if you read the comic literature of the democracy you
will find that the lord hides under the bed to escape the wrath of his
chattel.  This is not the fact, but it is much nearer the truth.  Every
man who is married knows quite well, not only that he does not regard
his wife as a chattel, but that no man can conceivably ever have done
so.  The joke stands for an ultimate truth, and that is a subtle truth.
It is not very easy to state correctly.  It can, perhaps, be most
correctly stated by saying that, even if the man is the head of the
house, he knows he is the figure-head.

But the vulgar comic papers are so subtle and true that they are even
prophetic.  If you really want to know what is going to happen to the
future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies,
do not read even Mr. Wells's Utopias for this purpose, though you should
certainly read them if you are fond of good honesty and good English.
If you want to know what will happen, study the pages of SNAPS or PATCHY
BITS as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods.
For, mean and gross as they are, in all seriousness, they contain what
is entirely absent from all Utopias and all the sociological conjectures
of our time: they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest
desires of the English people.  If we are really to find out what the
democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not
in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which
the people studies.

I can give two chance cases in which the common or Cockney joke was a
much better prophecy than the careful observations of the most cultured
observer.  When England was agitated, previous to the last General
Election, about the existence of Chinese labour, there was a distinct
difference between the tone of the politicians and the tone of the
populace.  The politicians who disapproved of Chinese labour were most
careful to explain that they did not in any sense disapprove of Chinese.
According to them, it was a pure question of legal propriety, of whether
certain clauses in the contract of indenture were not inconsistent with
our constitutional traditions: according to them, the case would have
been the same if the people had been Kaffirs or Englishmen.  It all
sounded wonderfully enlightened and lucid; and in comparison the popular
joke looked, of course, very poor.  For the popular joke against the
Chinese labourers was simply that they were Chinese; it was an objection
to an alien type; the popular papers were full of gibes about pigtails
and yellow faces.  It seemed that the Liberal politicians were raising
an intellectual objection to a doubtful document of State; while it
seemed that the Radical populace were merely roaring with idiotic
laughter at the sight of a Chinaman's clothes.  But the popular
instinct was justified, for the vices revealed were Chinese vices.

But there is another case more pleasant and more up to date.  The
popular papers always persisted in representing the New Woman or the
Suffragette as an ugly woman, fat, in spectacles, with bulging clothes,
and generally falling off a bicycle.  As a matter of plain external
fact, there was not a word of truth in this.  The leaders of the
movement of female emancipation are not at all ugly; most of them
are extraordinarily good looking.  Nor are they indifferent to art
or decorative costume; many of them are alarmingly attached to these
things.  Yet the popular instinct was right.  For the popular instinct
was that in this movement, rightly or wrongly, there was an element of
indifference to female dignity, of a quite new willingness of women to
be grotesque.  These women did truly despise the pontifical quality of
woman.  And in our streets and around our Parliament we have seen the
stately woman of art and culture turn into the comic woman of COMIC BITS.
And whether we think the exhibition justifiable or not, the prophecy of
the comic papers is justified; the healthy and vulgar masses were
conscious of a hidden enemy to their traditions who has now come out
into the daylight, that the scriptures might be fulfilled.  For the two
things that a healthy person hates most between heaven and hell are a
woman who is not dignified and a man who is.

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Etext ©1995 Robert Szarka
Last Update: 28 Jun 1995