Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I got to know the work of G.K. Chesterton first through his Father Brown detective stories and then through his fantastical thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday. Then I started reading his writing on religion, including Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Chesterton's an extremely witty, agile writer, although in nonfiction he may rely excessively on the paradoxical flip, as in the following quotation:

Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." - The Uses of Diversity, 1921

The sentence is smart and witty. Sentences of this kind seem ubiquitous in the books, however, so sometimes one yearns for another mode of rhetoric.

You might not guess as much by considering this photo (above) of G.K., but he was a mirthful (albeit single-minded) defender of mirth. In fact, he claimed mirth was one of the benefits of being Christian, a faith he relentlessly defended, partly through a running argument--in print and on the radio--with G.B. Shaw, famed atheist. At the same time, Chesterton was most interested in egalitarian economics and some forms of socialism, but of course not the forms that dismissed religion. He was in favor of distributing wealth, in other words, and probably would have (and did?) mock the idea of "redistributing" wealth. He may have argued for distributing wealth first and then worrying about "redistribution" later, as the quotation above may suggest.

Based on my imperfect understanding of Chesterton's work, I assume he would attribute the existence of mirth to God's having given it to humans. I'm willing to entertain that possibility, but I think it's also entertaining to ponder whether mirth is something that evolved, along with opposable thumbs, for example. Cats and dogs certainly play, but do they experience mirth? Do primates? (I know: "define mirth.") How much does the human brain have to develop before it generates a sense of mirth, triggers a laugh? No doubt Chesterton would mercilessly and mirthfully skewer my desire to understand mirth through the lens of evolution. In any event, I couldn't help thinking of Chesterton as one reader over my shoulder when I drafted the following poem.

The Birth of Mirth

I don't know how many cells a creature
must possess until it develops a sense
of play as distinguished from or in concert
with function. (My knowledge of science
is a source of mirth to scientists I know.)
Regarding mammals, more particularly
humans, I've deduced with my Left Brain
that at some dim prehistoric parliamentary
meeting of variables, babies started laughing
soon after birth if not before. At that
unfalsifiable point, the mythical door
of mirth opened. What a nice selection.
How funny. Perhaps, like me,

you've laughed at babies who laughed
unprompted, and you felt the quirky purity
of mirth. Maybe sometimes you just want
to go out or stay in and have
a few laughs. Anyway, it's all traceable
(this is a lie) back to the birth of mirth.
How is humor? Why is funny? Mirth must
be. This much we know, or this little.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

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