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1856 / London

A German Comedy is Like a German Sentence


Perhaps the nearest approach nature has given us to a complete analysis, in which wit is as thoroughly exhausted of humor as possible, and humor as bare as possible of wit, is in the typical Frenchman and the typical German. Voltaire, the intensest example of pure wit, fails in most of his fictions from his lack of humor. “Micromégas” is a perfect tale, because, as it deals chiefly with philosophic ideas and does not touch the marrow of human feeling and life, the writer’s wit and wisdom were all-sufficient for his purpose. Not so with Candide. Here Voltaire had to give pictures of life as well as to convey philosophic truth and satire, and here we feel the want of humor. The sense of the ludicrous is continually defeated by disgust, and the scenes, instead of presenting us with an amusing or agreeable picture, are only the frame for a witticism. On the other hand, German humor generally shows no sense of measure, no instinctive tact; it is either floundering and clumsy as the antics of a leviathan, or laborious and interminable as a Lapland day, in which one loses all hope that the stars and quiet will ever come. For this reason Jean Paul, the greatest of German humorists, is unendurable to many readers, and frequently tiresome to all. Here, as elsewhere, the German shows the absence of that delicate perception, that sensibility to gradation, which is the essence of tact and taste and the necessary concomitant of wit. All his subtlety is reserved for the region of metaphysics. He has the finest nose for empiricism in philosophical doctrine, but the presence of more or less tobacco smoke in the air he breathes is imperceptible to him. To the typical German it is indifferent whether his door lock will catch, whether his teacup is more or less than an inch thick, whether or not his book has every other leaf unstitched, whether his neighbor’s conversation is more or less of a shout, whether he pronounces b or p, t or d, whether or not his adored one’s teeth are few and far between. He has the same sort of insensibility to gradations in time. A German comedy is like a German sentence: you see no reason in its structure why it should ever come to an end, and you accept the conclusion as an arrangement of Providence rather than of the author. We have heard Germans use the word Langeweile, the equivalent for ennui, and we have secretly wondered what it can be that produces ennui in a German. Not the longest of long tragedies, for we have known him to pronounce that “most captivating”; not the heaviest of heavy books, for he delights in that “thoroughly”; not the slowest of journeys in a postchaise, for the slower the horses, the more cigars he can smoke before he reaches his journey’s end. German ennui must imply some kind of extremely unknown quantity of stupefaction.

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George Eliot, from “German Wit: Heinrich Heine.” Eliot saw hope for the country’s humor in Heine—“true, this unique German wit is half a Hebrew,” she noted, but his ancestors were raised on “wurst and sauerkraut, so that he is as much a German as a pheasant is an English bird.” Mary Ann Evans first used George Eliot as her pseudonym when publishing a section of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1857. The inspiration for her “first story” came while she was “lying in bed,” and her “thoughts merged themselves into a dreamy doze,” an incident she fictionalized in her novel The Mill on the Floss, published in 1860.

Jests and scoffs do lessen majesty and greatness and should be far from great personages and men of wisdom.
Henry Peacham, 1622
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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