A Laugh a Year

Jonathan Beckman

  • The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Colin Jones
    Oxford, 231 pp, £22.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 871581 8

In 1685, Louis XIV’s few surviving teeth were in such a parlous state that they required extraction, but the dentist operated so ineptly that he also removed a large section of one of the king’s maxillae. Louis endured the pain and inconvenience well enough even though, according to his chief physician, ‘every time the king drank or gargled, the liquid came up through his nose, from where it issued forth like a fountain.’ It was only after the cavity became infected that the royal surgeon took extreme action: he cauterised the wound and the king drank decorously again. Nearly 110 years later, soldiers loyal to the National Convention entered the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to arrest Robespierre. In the mêlée a bullet splintered his mandible. As he stepped onto the scaffold later that day, the bandage holding his face together was ripped off and he appeared, Michelet wrote, ‘pale, hideous, his mouth wide open and his teeth falling to the ground’. In the years between, Colin Jones shows, another, barely perceptible revolution occurred: polite society accepted the open-mouthed smile.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie’ (1786).
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s ‘Self-Portrait with Her Daughter Julie’ (1786).

Wariness of the laugh (le rire) among classical and religious authorities had cast a shadow of disapproval over its diminutive, the smile (le sourire). Aristotle may have noted that laughing distinguished mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom, but that didn’t mean it was to be encouraged. ‘The passion of Laughter is nothyng but a suddaine Glory arising from the suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others,’ Hobbes wrote (though when off duty he was, Aubrey said, a man of ‘merry humour’). Laughter was valuable as a reproach for absurd or wicked behaviour, but it could easily become improper. Laurent Joubert, a 16th-century doctor, makes laughter sound as unwelcome as a heart attack, what with

the redness of the face, the sweat that sometimes comes out of the entire body, the sparkling of the eyes with the effusion of tears, the rising of the veins in the forehead and throat, the coughing, the expelling of what was in the mouth and nose, the shaking of the chest, shoulders, arms, thighs, legs and the whole body, like a convulsion, the great pain in the ribs, sides and abdomen, the emptying of the bowels and bladder, the weakness of the heart for want of breath.

The Counter-Reformation had evoked gloomy visions of man’s fallen state. Jesus, it was argued, had never laughed and it ill behoved you to do so given that your soul was hanging in the balance. Jones cites the Abbé Thiers’s Traité des jeux, which allowed ‘discreet laughter’, though ‘preferably not on workdays, Sundays, holy days, and during Lent and Advent’. Though Erasmus praised folly, he also wrote, following Ecclesiasticus, that ‘the wise man is hardly heard laughing at all.’ The worst mistake one could make was ‘showing all one’s teeth’ while laughing – dogs showed their teeth.

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