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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Humour Of Hoaxes

Title:     The Humour Of Hoaxes
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

It was only the other day that Mr G. A. Birmingham gave us a play about a hoax at the expense of an Irish village, in course of which a statue was erected to an imaginary Irish-American General, the aide-de-camp of the Lord-Lieutenant coming down from Dublin to perform the unveiling ceremony. Lady Gregory, it may be remembered, had previously used a similar theme in The Image. And now comes the story of yet another statue hoax from Paris. On the whole the Paris joke is the best of the three. It was a stroke of genius to invent a great educationist called Hegesippe Simon. One can hardly blame the members of the Chamber of Deputies for falling to the lure of a name like that. Perhaps they should have been warned by the motto which M. Paul Berault, of L'Eclair, the perpetrator of the hoax, quoted from among the sayings of the "precursor" to whom he wished to erect a centenary statue. "The darkness vanishes when the sun rises" is an aphorism which is almost too good to be true. M. Berault, however, relying upon the innocence of human nature, sent a circular to a number of senators and deputies opposed to him in politics, announcing that, "thanks to the liberality of a generous donor, the disciples of Hegesippe Simon have at length been able to collect the funds necessary for the erection of a monument which will rescue the precursor's memory from oblivion," and inviting them to become honorary members of a committee to celebrate the event. Despite the fact that he quoted the sentence about the darkness and the sunrise, thirty of the politicians replied that they would be delighted to help in the centenary rejoicings. M. Berault thereupon published their names with the story of the hoax he had practised on them, and as a result, according to the newspaper correspondents, all Paris has been laughing at the joke, "the good taste of which," adds one of them, "would hardly be relished in England, where other political manners obtain."

With all respect to this patriotic journalist, I am afraid the love of hoaxing and practical joking cannot be limited to the Latin, or even to the Continental races. It is a passion that is as universal as lying, and a good deal older than drinking. It is merely the instinct for lying, indeed, turned to comic account. Christianity, unable to suppress it entirely, had to come to terms with it, and as a result we have one day of the year, the first of April, devoted to the humours of this popular sin. There are many explanations of the origin of All Fools' Day, one of which is that it is a fragmentary memorial of the mock trial of Jesus, and another of which refers it to the belief that it was on the first of April that Noah sent out the dove from the Ark. But the Christian or Hebrew origin of the festival appears to be unlikely in view of the fact that the Hindus have an All Fools' Day of their own, the Huli Festival, on almost exactly the same date. One may take it that it was in origin simply a great natural holiday, on which men enjoyed the license of lying as they enjoy the license of drinking on a Bank Holiday. There is no other sport for which humanity would be more likely to desire the occasional sanction of Church and State than the sport of making fools of our neighbours. We must have fools if we cannot have heroes. Some people, who are enthusiasts for destruction, indeed, would give us fools and knaves in the place of our heroes, and have even an idea that they would be serving some moral end in doing so. It is on an iconoclastic eagerness of one kind or another that nearly all hoaxing and practical joking is based. It consists chiefly in taking somebody down a peg. The boy who used to shout "Wolf!", however, may have been merely an excessively artistic youth who enjoyed watching the varied expressions on the faces of the sweating and disillusioned passersby who ran to his assistance. Obviously, a man's face is a dozen times more interesting to look at when it is crimson with frustrate virtue than when it is placid with thoughts of the price of pigs.

This is not to justify the morality of hoaxing. It is to explain it as an art for art's sake. Murder can, and has, been defended on the same grounds. It is to be feared, however, that few hoaxers or murderers can be named who pursued their hobby in the disinterested spirit of artists. In most cases there is some motive of cruelty or dislike. One would not go to the trouble of murdering and hoaxing people if it did not hurt or vex somebody or other. Those who invent hoaxes are first cousins of the boy who ties kettles or lighted torches to cats' tails. It is the terror of the cat that amuses him. If the cat purred as the instruments of torture were fitted on to it the boy would feel that he had serious cause for complaint. There is, no doubt, a great deal of the cruelty of boys which is experimental rather than malicious--the practice of blowing up frogs, for instance. But, for the most part, it must be admitted, a spice of cruelty is counted a gain in human amusements. This is called thoughtlessness in boys, but it is a deliberate enthusiasm in primitive man, out of which we have to be slowly civilised. There is probably no more popular game with the infancy of the streets than covering a brick with an old hat in the hope that some glorious fool will come along who will kick hat and brick together, and go limping and swearing on his way. One might easily produce a host of similar instances of the humour of the small boy who looks so like an angel and behaves so like a devil. There are, it may be, thousands of small boys who never perpetrated an act of such cheerful malice in their lives. But even they have usually some other outlet for their comic cruelty. The half of comic literature depends upon someone's getting cudgelled or ducked in a well, or subjected to some pain. It is one of the paradoxes of comedy, indeed, that, even when we like the hero of it, we also like to see him hurt and humiliated. We are glad when Don Quixote is beaten to a jelly, and when his teeth are knocked down his throat. We rejoice at every discomfort that befalls poor Parson Adams. Humour, even when it reaches the pitch of genius, has still about it much of the elemental cruelty of the boy who arranges a pin upon the point of which his friend may sit down, or who pulls away a chair and sends someone sprawling.

Hoaxes, at the best, spring from a desire to harry one's neighbour. As a rule, refined men and women have by this time given up the ambition to cause others physical pain, but one still hears of milder annoyances being practised with considerable spirit. It was Theodore Hook, I believe, who originated the practice of hoaxing tradesmen into delivering long caravans of goods at some house or other, to the fury of the householder and the disturbance of traffic. Every now and then the jest is still revived, whereupon everybody condemns it and--laughs at it. That is one of the oddest facts about the hoax as a form of humour. No one has a good word to say for it, and yet everyone who tells you the story of a hoax tells it with a chuckle. Some years ago a young gentleman from one of the Universities palmed himself off on an admiral--was it not?--as the Sultan of Zanzibar, and was entertained as such by the officers on board one of King George's ships. Everybody frowned at the young gentleman's taste, but nobody outside the Navy failed to enjoy the hoax as the best item of the day's news. Similarly, the Koepenick affair set not only all Germany but all Europe laughing. Skill and audacity always delight us for their own sakes; when it is rogueries that are skilful and audacious, they shock us into malicious appreciation. They are adventures standing on their heads. It is difficult not to forgive a clever impostor so long as it is not we on whom he has imposed.

As for the Hegesippe hoax, it may be that there is even an ethical element in our pleasure. Such a hoax as this is a pin stuck in pretentiousness. If it is an imposture, it is an imposture on impostors. One feels that it is good that members of Parliament should be exposed from time to time. Otherwise they might become puffed up. Still, there remains a very good reason why we should oppose a disapproving front to hoaxes of all sorts. We ourselves may be the next victims. Most of us have a Hegesippe Simon in our cupboards. Whether in literature, history, or politics, the human animal is much given to pretending to knowledge that he does not possess. There are some men whom one could inveigle quite easily into a discussion on plays of Shakespeare and Euripides which were never written. I remember how one evening two students concocted a poem beginning with the drivelling line, "I stood upon the rolling of the years," and foisted it on a noisy admirer of Keats as a work of the master. Similarly, in political arguments, one has known a man to invent sayings of Gladstone and Chamberlain without being challenged. This is, of course, not amusing in itself. It becomes amusing only when the other disputants, instead of confessing their ignorance, make a pretence of being acquainted with the invented quotations. It is our dread of appearing ignorant that leads us into the enactment of this kind of lies. We will go to any extreme rather than confess that we have never even heard of Hegesippe Simon. Luckily, Hegesippe Simon happens to be a person who can trip our pretentiousness up. But the senators and deputies who were willing to celebrate the precursor's centenary were probably not humbugs to any greater degree than if they had consented to celebrate the anniversary of Diderot or Rousseau or Alfred de Musset. It is utter imposture, this practice of doing honour to great names which mean less to one than a lump of sugar; and if an end could be put to centenary celebrations in all countries, no great harm would be done to public honesty. On the other hand, most public rejoicings over men of genius would be exceedingly small if all the speeches and applause had to come from the heart without any addition from those who merely like to be in the latest movement. Perhaps the adherents of Hegesippe Simon are necessary in order to make it profitable to be a man of genius at all. They are not only a useful claque, but they pay. That is why even if William Shakespeare, Anatole France, and Bergson are only other and better known names for Hegesippe, it would be madness to destroy such enthusiasm as has gathered round them. M. Berault, by his light-hearted hoax on his political opponents, has struck at the very roots of popular homage to men of genius.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Humour Of Hoaxes