Laughing with Leacock

Almost two weeks ago I was doing the usual with a Monday evening. Conducting a reading/discussion group with a small gathering of seniors. Some of the writing of Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), Canadian humourist, economist, political scientist, historian.

I remember my delight back in high school and early college wandering through his works, filled with gentle irony and gentle punches at the Canadian psyche. Nonsense Novels, Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy.

Our family had visited the summer homestead on Lake Couchiching near Orillia and had enjoyed the memorabilia in the home and the beautiful woodland walk out onto a projection of land from the shoreline. This would have been a delightful change of pace from the bustle of McGill University where Leacock taught.

I had chosen for the seniors a famous portion from "Sunshine Sketches" chronicling the Canada Day marine disaster aboard the Mariposa Belle. This excursion was a must in the town as far as community gatherings went. Heading down to an island for a picnic. But in the writing there is the sense of impending doom, as if the reader might get to observe first-hand another Lusitania. Oh, but hadn't the writer made it clear? The lake is remarkably shallow. A sinking would only fizz out the boiler as the craft settled in the muck. Rescue flares were launched over this "dreadful inconvenience" and the real risks were subsequently faced by rescuers in mostly abandoned, rotting old craft which all started to go under as well! That slow-dawning surprise, coupled with some classic on-board characters (minister, teacher, banker, mortician, church volunteers, service club executives) constituted the only humour in the sketch.

As I read it to my elderly friends I felt like the stand-up comedian "dying" part-way through his bit at the Comedy Club. Nobody was getting it! Some were sleeping. What had changed with this classic Canadian fare, that even I was disappointed? In desperation I went to another classic chapter, My Financial Career, telling of the writer's introductory visit to a bank and of all the embarrassment which he experienced, causing him to take his money home. Again silence without smiles from the group.

Simply stated our collective sense of humour has changed and largely through exposure to television and movies. It is now more bombastic, caustic, ridiculous, profane, eclectic, prejudicial. It is angrier and intends to do damage. It uses debased language. It is Godless. And we have fed upon it as a means of escape for decades. Additionally, these days no one has the patience to remember or to develop a good story. And if it is at our collective expense, forget it. We are either too insecure, or too pre-occupied or too politically correct. We seldom operate as community.

Stephen would be disappointed with all of this, but probably would still find a way to expose it... gently.


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