Marcel Schwob (1867-1905)


Laughter is probably destined to disappear. With so many animal species extinct, why should a tic peculiar to one of them persist? This coarse physical proof of our sense of a certain disharmony in the world will have to go by the board in the face of complete skepticism, absolute knowledge, universal pity and respect for all things.

To laugh is suddenly to find oneself disregarding laws: did we then really believe in the world order and a magnificent hierarchy of final causes? And when all anomalies have been linked up with some cosmic mechanism, men will laugh no longer. One can only laugh at individuals. Generalizations do not affect the glottis.

To laugh is to feel superior. When we come to kneeling and making public confessions at crossroads and humbling ourselves the better to love, then we shall have no understanding of the grotesque.

And those who, apart from any grasp of relativity, have made much of the equivalent value of their own existence and that of any dependent or solitary cell, will, without the understanding of it all, begin to hold things and objects in respect. The recognition of the equality of every individual in the universe will never send people’s lips curving over their bicuspids.

Then, when this movement has vanished from the human face, this is perhaps the interpretation that will be placed on it:

“This kind of contraction of the zygomatic muscles was peculiar to man. It was his means of showing at one and the same time his imperfect grasp of the system of the world and his conviction that he was superior to everything else.”

The religion, science and skepticism of the future will contain only a very small part of our labored thinking on these subjects. Furthermore, it is certain that the contraction of the zygomatic muscles will have no place in them. And, to those who in the future will fall in love with the things of the past, I should like to point out the plays of Georges Courteline (1860‑1929) that in our barbaric age provoked the greatest amount of laughter, which will by then have disappeared. I know that men will be astonished by our convulsed months and tear‑filled eyes, our shaking shoulders and twitching bellies, just as we ourselves are astonished by the odd practices of the earliest men; but I earnestly beg enlightened persons to bear in mind how very important is any historical document, of whatever kind it may be. . . .

The biographers of the poet Walt Whitman say that be was never once seen to laugh in his life. He was a gentle, cheerful man, and one who understood all things. Anomalies were not miracles of the absurd to him. He thought himself superior to no living being. Philemon, who died laughing on seeing a donkey eating figs, may be placed at the opposite pole of humanity to the great poet Walt Whitman. Observe that all that made Philemon laugh to such excess was that be was sure be, being a poet, was superior to a donkey; and yet this donkey, supposedly so different from Philemon, was eating the same dessert as he.

We possess a portrait of Walt Whitman in which the old poet, paralyzed and grave‑faced, is compounding the error of a butterfly which has lighted on his arm as on a dead tree trunk.

The tics of humanity are not immutable. Even the gods sometimes change. We have already changed our manner of laughing; you must learn to look with equanimity on the prospect of an age when men will not laugh at all. Those who then want to shape their own lips into such a contraction will get a very good idea of this bygone habit by reading the books of Georges Courteline. And those who wish to laugh now should make baste to do so. We are not yet at the stage of seeking out the pedestal of the Laughter God among ruins. He lives among us. When our statues have fallen and our customs have been swept away, when men number the years in some new era, they will tell each other this simple little legend of him who gave us so much joy:

“He was a charming little divinity of subtle wit and kind heart, who dwelt in Montmartre. He wrote with such grace that coarse words, seeking an indestructible sanctuary, found it in his work.”

(Extract)                                   Translated by Ross Chambers,
Proveditor‑Propagator in Australia and the
Antipodal Islands, GMOGG

SOURCE: Schwob, Marcel. “Laughter,” translated by Ross Chambers, in Evergreen Review Reader 1957-1967: A Ten-Year Anthology (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1968), pp. 299-300.

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