The Point of the Jest (Fragment)

Clark Ashton Smith

Have I ever "seen a ghost?" Have I had reason, at any time, to suspect the presence or existence of the supernatural? Have I, as a doctor, during forty years' practice, found any evidence testamental to the survival of personality after death?

Your questions, like so many questions, are easier to ask than to answer. I can only say that I have never had the fortune to meet any such phenomena, as have filled with sworn accounts and affidavits the files of psychical research. I can claim no acquaintance with dematerialized entities. Ectoplasmic hands, filmy phantoms, poltergeists, elementals, banshees and their ilk, have shown toward me a consistent coyness and aloofness.

I did, however, once encounter something that was hard to explain. It may have a bearing on the subject under discussion. I use the subjunctive tense advisedly, since I cannot be sure. At any rate, the case was one for which I have found no parallel in medical experience.

You will understand me when I speak with a certain caution and reserve. No one would welcome strong and valid proof of post-mortem existence more willingly than I. But one must beware of rash and forward deductions, and conclusions not wholly confirmable by accepted science.

Well, here is the story — which, incidentally, concerns a rather famous writer of stories, the humorist and fantasist, Morton Sallier. I knew Sallier quite well as a friend during the last decade of his life, and attended him professionally in the brief illness that proved fatal.

Sallier, as is well known, came of New England stock with a remote French Calvinist derivation. Mentally, his Non-conformist forbears may have bequeathed an independence and a recalcitrance which, in Sallier, were manifested toward everything. Physically he had bred true to the autochthonous Yankee type, being spare, tough, long-limbed and long-featured. But he had not, as it turned out, inherited the ancestral longevity.

Only in the broadest ironic sense could he have been called good-looking. His pop-eyes, suggesting an exothalmic tendency, gave him an air of solemn and perennial astonishment. Moreover, he was buck-toothed, and had the habit of drawing his thin upper lip tautly down as if to hide the defect. He seldom grinned, and never really laughed. I have, however, heard him chuckle on occasion. The chuckle seemed reserved for the bawdiest Rabelaisian jokes, or for that outré kind of humor in which the horrific or macabre topples over into the absurd. It came usually after an interval, during which he appeared to be pondering the story's point with the inscrutability of a Buddha contemplating his umbilicus. It was a chuckle that startled the unaccustomed hearer — harsh, strident, derisive, like a blue-jay's squawk.

Behind the motley of Sallier's temperament, I soon surmised the jester's melancholy. His humor was a hundred-tinted rainbow... but, at the rainbow's end, there is often a graveyard rather than a pot of gold ....

I must not digress. I am neither biographer nor psychoanalyst. Nor am I a literary critic, who could speak competently of Sallier's writings. Anyway, this should be needless: his books have been translated into more languages than those of the Confusion of Tongues, and one might say that no humorist has come closer to girdling the globe with laughter and chuckles.

I am merely telling an anecdote. But perhaps I should find place for some mention of the book that Sallier had long meditated, but never found time to write: The Anatomy of Humor.

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Printed on: October 29, 2020