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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Humours Of Murder

Title:     The Humours Of Murder
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Almost everyone who has committed a murder knows that the business has its tragic side. Whether it also has its comic side is a question that has been raised since the production of Sir James Barrie's play, The Adored One. This, as most people are aware, is a farce about a lady who kills a man by pushing him out of a railway carriage because he will not allow the window to be shut. Some of the critics have protested that the theme is too grim for light entertainment. They are, most of them, probably, lovers of fresh air, who foresee a new danger in railway travel if women--creatures already enjoying the possession of an extremely feeble moral sense--are taught to regard the murder of a hygienic fellow-passenger as a laughing matter. Some years ago, when The Playboy of the Western World was first put on the stage in Dublin, there were similar denunciations of the idea of making a comedy of murder. It was then considered, however, that nobody outside Ireland could take murder so seriously as to miss seeing the joke of it. As a matter of fact, I believe the average respectable man all the world over would side in his heart with the Dublin demonstrators. Murder is, after all, one of the oldest institutions on earth. It dates from the second generation of the human race. It is almost as venerable as a sin can be, and to treat it flippantly is as shocking to comfortable ears as the blasphemies of a boy. Everybody knows how Baudelaire used to shock the citizens of Brussels by opening his conversation in cafes in a raised voice with the words: "The night I killed my father." He has himself related how he began the thing as a joke in order to punish the Belgians for believing everything he said. "Exasperated by always being believed," he wrote, "I spread the report that I had killed my father, and that I had eaten him, and that if I had been allowed to escape from France it was only on account of the services I had rendered to the French police, and I was BELIEVED!"

That is the penalty of the jester on serious subjects like murder. He is nearly always believed. The very mention of prepense death puts a great many people into a solemn mood that is hostile to wit and humour and any kind of facetiousness. I have met men and women, for instance, who were quite unable to see the entertaining side of cannibalism. Gilbert's ballad of the Nancy Lee, about the cook who gradually ate all the rest of the crew, moves them not to laughter but to horror. When the cook, or somebody else, as he gobbles one of his mates, enthusiastically exclaims: "Oh, how like pig!" they merely shudder. Those of us who are amused, on the other hand, are so only because we are not such inveterate realists as our neighbours. We treat comic murders as Charles Lamb treated comic cuckoldries. We regard them as happening, not in our world of realities, but in a kind of no-man's-land of humour. If it were not so, we should probably be as shocked as anyone else--those of us, that is, who are old-fashioned enough to consider murder and adultery as on the whole reprehensible. Luckily, human beings in the mass have gradually developed an artistic sense which enables them to leave the world of serious facts for the world of comic pretences at a moment's notice. And even the strictest humanitarian can smile with a good conscience at the most hideous of the tortures--"something with boiling oil in it"--discussed in the paper-fan world of The Mikado. I can imagine a sensitive child's being sharply disturbed by the punishments that at one time seem to be in store for so many of the characters in the opera. But for the rest of us Gilbert's Japan is as unreal as a nest of insects, where even the crimes seem funny. In the same way we have made a child's joke of Bluebeard, whose prototype was at least as atrocious a character as Jack the Ripper. Perhaps, in some distant island of the South Seas, where Europe is sufficiently remote to be unreal, the children are already enjoying the humours of Jack the Ripper in the local substitute for the Christmas pantomime.

Even a real murder, however, may strike one as amusing, if only it has about it something incongruous. A thousand people have laughed for one who has wept over Wainwright's murder of Helen Abercrombie, not because it was not a filthy deed, but because the murderer, on being reproached for it, uttered his famous reply: "Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles." Here it is the incongruity between the deed and the excuse for it that appeals to our sense of humour. We laugh at it as we would laugh at Milton's Satan if we saw him dressed in baby clothes. Similarly, when Peer Gynt and the Cook fight after the shipwreck for possession of the place of safety on the upturned boat, and Peer in effect murders the Cook, the situation is comic because of the incongruity between what is said and what is done. Take, for instance, the Lord's Prayer scene:

THE COOK (slipping): I'm drowning!

PEER (seizing him): By this wisp of hair
I'll hold you; say your Lord's Prayer, quick!

THE COOK: I can't remember; all turns black----

PEER: Come, the essentials in a word!

THE COOK: Give us this day----!

PEER: Skip that part, Cook.
You'll get all you need, safe enough.

THE COOK: Give us this day----

PEER: The same old song!
'Tis plain you were a cook in life----

(THE COOK slips from his grasp.)

THE COOK (sinking): Give us this day our----

PEER: Amen, lad!
To the last gasp you were yourself.
(Draws himself up on to the bottom of the boat.)
So long as there is life there's hope.

It is the paradox that delights us here--the exquisite inappropriateness of Peer's invitation to the Cook to say a prayer before he lets him dip under for the last time, and of the only petition which the Cook can remember in his extremity. The latter amuses us like Mr George Moore's story about the Irish poet who was asked to say a prayer when out in a curragh on Galway Bay during a furious gale, and who astonished the boat's crew by beginning: "Of man's first disobedience and the fruit." Even in The Playboy it is the humours of the inappropriate that make Christy Mahon's narrative of how he slew his da comic. One remembers the sentence in which he first lets the secret of his deed slip out:

CHRISTY: Don't strike me. I killed my poor father, Tuesday was a week, for doing the like of that.

PEGEEN (in blank amazement): Is it killed your father?

CHRISTY (subsiding): With the help of God I did surely, and that the Holy Immaculate Mother may intercede for his soul.

There you have incongruity to a point that shocks an ordinary Christian like a blasphemy. And Christy's reflection, as he finds that the supposed murder has made him a hero--"I'm thinking this night wasn't I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by"--tickles us because it brings a new and incongruous standard to the measurement of moral values. De Quincey's essay, "On Murder considered as one of the Fine Arts," owes its reputation for humour to the same kind of unexpectedness in its table of values. At least, that passage in which the lecturer of the essay describes the warning he gave to a new servant whom he suspected of dabbling in murder plays a delightful topsy-turvy game with our everyday moral world:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think very little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.

Humour is largely a matter of new proportions and unexpected elements. And it visits the gaol as readily as the music-hall, and attends us in our hearse no less than in our perambulator. Self-murder is not in itself a funny subject, but who can remain solemn over the case of the man who put an end to his life because he got tired of all the buttoning and unbuttoning. Similarly, detestable a crime as we may think cannibalism, we cannot help smiling when a traveller notes, as a recent traveller in West Africa did, that human flesh never gives the eater indigestion as the flesh of beasts does. It is--at least, I suppose it is--merely a statement of fact, but it amuses us because it introduces an inappropriate and unexpected element into our consideration of cannibalism.

Perhaps Sir James Barrie would prefer to defend the humour of The Adored One on the ground, not that it is the humour of unreality, but that, like the examples I have quoted, it is the humour of incongruity. And, indeed, we only laugh at Leonora's murder in the train because the reason for it was so disproportionate to the crime. It is not funny for a woman to kill a man because he has beaten her black and blue. It is not funny for her to kill him for his money, or for any other reasonable motive. On the other hand, it would be funny if she killed him for smoking a pipe while wearing a tall hat, or because he said "lay" instead of "lie." It is the unreason of the thing that appeals to us, and no amount of theorising about the immorality of murder can deprive us of our joke. At the same time one is willing to admit the excellence of those people who are so overwhelmed by the exceeding sinfulness of sin that they cannot raise a smile over even the most ridiculous scenes of murder and marital infidelity. I know a great many people who can see nothing comic in the upside-down antics of the drunken; they feel as if in laughing at the absurdities of vice they would be acquiescing in vice. Perhaps they would. Perhaps laughter is given to sinners as a compensation for sins. It makes us tolerant by making us cheerful, and if we could really laugh at murders and all indecencies, we should possibly end in thinking that they are far less black than they are painted. So, I imagine, the unlaughing saints reason. They always visualise sin in its horror in a way that is beyond most of us, and we can respect their gloom. But we who are more complex than the saints--we know well enough that so paradoxical an affair is the human soul that a man may laugh and laugh and keep the Ten Commandments; and we claim the right, on the plea that "my mind to me a kingdom is," of maintaining a court fool in our hearts to parody our royal existence, and so keep it from going stale. In any case, we can no more help laughing than we can help the colour of our hair. That is why we shall go on laughing at the humours of the seven deadly sins, and why old scoundrels like Nero and Gilles de Retz and Henry VIII are likely to remain favourite characters in the comic chapters of human life till the book is burnt and a new volume opens.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Humours Of Murder