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´╗┐Title: Le rire. English - Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Author: Bergson, Henri, 1859-1941
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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LAUGHTER

AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE COMIC


BY HENRI BERGSON


MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE PROFESSOR AT THE COLLEGE DE FRANCE



AUTHORISED TRANSLATION

BY CLOUDESLEY BRERETON L. ES L. (PARIS), M.A. (CANTAB) AND FRED
ROTHWELL B.A. (LONDON)



TRANSLATORS' PREFACE


This work, by Professor Bergson, has been revised in detail by the
author himself, and the present translation is the only authorised one.
For this ungrudging labour of revision, for the thoroughness with which
it has been carried out, and for personal sympathy in many a difficulty
of word and phrase, we desire to offer our grateful acknowledgment to
Professor Bergson. It may be pointed out that the essay on Laughter
originally appeared in a series of three articles in one of the leading
magazines in France, the Revue de Paris. This will account for the
relatively simple form of the work and the comparative absence of
technical terms. It will also explain why the author has confined
himself to exposing and illustrating his novel theory of the comic
without entering into a detailed discussion of other explanations
already in the field. He none the less indicates, when discussing
sundry examples, why the principal theories, to which they have given
rise, appear to him inadequate. To quote only a few, one may mention
those based on contrast, exaggeration, and degradation.

The book has been highly successful in France, where it is in its
seventh edition. It has been translated into Russian, Polish, and
Swedish. German and Hungarian translations are under preparation. Its
success is due partly to the novelty of the explanation offered of the
comic, and partly also to the fact that the author incidentally
discusses questions of still greater interest and importance. Thus, one
of the best known and most frequently quoted passages of the book is
that portion of the last chapter in which the author outlines a general
theory of art.

C. B. F. R.



CONTENTS


CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL--THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND
MOVEMENTS--EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC


CHAPTER II

THE COMIC ELEMENT IN SITUATIONS AND THE COMIC ELEMENT IN WORDS


CHAPTER III

THE COMIC IN CHARACTER



CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL--THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND
MOVEMENTS--EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC.


What does laughter mean? What is the basal element in the laughable?
What common ground can we find between the grimace of a merry-andrew, a
play upon words, an equivocal situation in a burlesque and a scene of
high comedy? What method of distillation will yield us invariably the
same essence from which so many different products borrow either their
obtrusive odour or their delicate perfume? The greatest of thinkers,
from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this little problem, which has a
knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to
bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation. Our
excuse for attacking the problem in our turn must lie in the fact that
we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition.
We regard it, above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be,
we shall treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine
ourselves to watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible
gradations from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the
strangest metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen. Maybe
we may gain from this prolonged contact, for the matter of that,
something more flexible than an abstract definition,--a practical,
intimate acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship. And
maybe we may also find that, unintentionally, we have made an
acquaintance that is useful. For the comic spirit has a logic of its
own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its
madness. It dreams, I admit, but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions
that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social
group. Can it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human
imagination works, and more particularly social, collective, and
popular imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it
not also have something of its own to tell us about art and life?

At the outset we shall put forward three observations which we look
upon as fundamental. They have less bearing on the actually comic than
on the field within which it must be sought.


I

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic
does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN. A landscape
may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it
will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because
you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may
laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not
the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,--the
human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so
important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a
greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man
as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him
as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some
lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some
resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.

Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the
ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as
though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it
fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and
unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no
greater foe than emotion. I do not mean that we could not laugh at a
person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection,
but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of
court and impose silence upon our pity. In a society composed of pure
intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps
there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune
and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally
prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter.
Try, for a moment, to become interested in everything that is being
said and done; act, in imagination, with those who act, and feel with
those who feel; in a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as
though at the touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of
objects assume importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now
step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama
will turn into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the
sound of music, in a room where dancing is going on, for the dancers at
once to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar
test? Should we not see many of them suddenly pass from grave to gay,
on isolating them from the accompanying music of sentiment? To produce
the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something like a
momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure
and simple.

This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other
intelligences. And here is the third fact to which attention should be
drawn. You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself
isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,
Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined
sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating
from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in
successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this
reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a
circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one.
Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. It may, perchance, have
happened to you, when seated in a railway carriage or at table d'hote,
to hear travellers relating to one another stories which must have been
comic to them, for they laughed heartily. Had you been one of their
company, you would have laughed like them; but, as you were not, you
had no desire whatever to do so. A man who was once asked why he did
not weep at a sermon, when everybody else was shedding tears, replied:
"I don't belong to the parish!" What that man thought of tears would be
still more true of laughter. However spontaneous it seems, laughter
always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with
other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the
fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!
On the other hand, how often has the remark been made that many comic
effects are incapable of translation from one language to another,
because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social
group! It is through not understanding the importance of this double
fact that the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in which
the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange, isolated
phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human activity. Hence
those definitions which tend to make the comic into an abstract
relation between ideas: "an intellectual contrast," "a palpable
absurdity," etc.,--definitions which, even were they really suitable to
every form of the comic, would not in the least explain why the comic
makes us laugh. How, indeed, should it come about that this particular
logical relation, as soon as it is perceived, contracts, expands and
shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations leave the body unaffected?
It is not from this point of view that we shall approach the problem.
To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural
environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the
utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at
once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must
answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL
signification.

Let us clearly mark the point towards which our three preliminary
observations are converging. The comic will come into being, it
appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of
their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play
nothing but their intelligence. What, now, is the particular point on
which their attention will have to be concentrated, and what will here
be the function of intelligence? To reply to these questions will be at
once to come to closer grips with the problem. But here a few examples
have become indispensable.


II

A man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by
burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they
suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the
ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary.

Consequently, it is not his sudden change of attitude that raises a
laugh, but rather the involuntary element in this change,--his
clumsiness, in fact. Perhaps there was a stone on the road. He should
have altered his pace or avoided the obstacle. Instead of that, through
lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a kind of physical
obstinacy, AS A RESULT, IN FACT, OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the
muscles continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances
of the case called for something else. That is the reason of the man's
fall, and also of the people's laughter.

Now, take the case of a person who attends to the petty occupations of
his everyday life with mathematical precision. The objects around him,
however, have all been tampered with by a mischievous wag, the result
being that when he dips his pen into the inkstand he draws it out all
covered with mud, when he fancies he is sitting down on a solid chair
he finds himself sprawling on the floor, in a word his actions are all
topsy-turvy or mere beating the air, while in every case the effect is
invariably one of momentum. Habit has given the impulse: what was
wanted was to check the movement or deflect it. He did nothing of the
sort, but continued like a machine in the same straight line. The
victim, then, of a practical joke is in a position similar to that of a
runner who falls,--he is comic for the same reason. The laughable
element in both cases consists of a certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY,
just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the
living pliableness of a human being. The only difference in the two
cases is that the former happened of itself, whilst the latter was
obtained artificially. In the first instance, the passer-by does
nothing but look on, but in the second the mischievous wag intervenes.

All the same, in both cases the result has been brought about by an
external circumstance. The comic is therefore accidental: it remains,
so to speak, in superficial contact with the person. How is it to
penetrate within? The necessary conditions will be fulfilled when
mechanical rigidity no longer requires for its manifestation a
stumbling-block which either the hazard of circumstance or human
knavery has set in its way, but extracts by natural processes, from its
own store, an inexhaustible series of opportunities for externally
revealing its presence. Suppose, then, we imagine a mind always
thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a
song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to
ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both senses and
intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to see what is
no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to say what is no
longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to a past and
therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct
in accordance with the reality which is present. This time the comic
will take up its abode in the person himself; it is the person who will
supply it with everything--matter and form, cause and opportunity. Is
it then surprising that the absent-minded individual--for this is the
character we have just been describing--has usually fired the
imagination of comic authors? When La Bruyere came across this
particular type, he realised, on analysing it, that he had got hold of
a recipe for the wholesale manufacture of comic effects. As a matter of
fact he overdid it, and gave us far too lengthy and detailed a
description of Menalque, coming back to his subject, dwelling and
expatiating on it beyond all bounds. The very facility of the subject
fascinated him. Absentmindedness, indeed, is not perhaps the actual
fountain-head of the comic, but surely it is contiguous to a certain
stream of facts and fancies which flows straight from the
fountain-head. It is situated, so to say, on one of the great natural
watersheds of laughter.

Now, the effect of absentmindedness may gather strength in its turn.
There is a general law, the first example of which we have just
encountered, and which we will formulate in the following terms: when a
certain comic effect has its origin in a certain cause, the more
natural we regard the cause to be, the more comic shall we find the
effect. Even now we laugh at absentmindedness when presented to us as a
simple fact. Still more laughable will be the absentmindedness we have
seen springing up and growing before our very eyes, with whose origin
we are acquainted and whose life-history we can reconstruct. To choose
a definite example: suppose a man has taken to reading nothing but
romances of love and chivalry. Attracted and fascinated by his heroes,
his thoughts and intentions gradually turn more and more towards them,
till one fine day we find him walking among us like a somnambulist. His
actions are distractions. But then his distractions can be traced back
to a definite, positive cause. They are no longer cases of ABSENCE of
mind, pure and simple; they find their explanation in the PRESENCE of
the individual in quite definite, though imaginary, surroundings.
Doubtless a fall is always a fall, but it is one thing to tumble into a
well because you were looking anywhere but in front of you, it is quite
another thing to fall into it because you were intent upon a star. It
was certainly a star at which Don Quixote was gazing. How profound is
the comic element in the over-romantic, Utopian bent of mind! And yet,
if you reintroduce the idea of absentmindedness, which acts as a
go-between, you will see this profound comic element uniting with the
most superficial type. Yes, indeed, these whimsical wild enthusiasts,
these madmen who are yet so strangely reasonable, excite us to laughter
by playing on the same chords within ourselves, by setting in motion
the same inner mechanism, as does the victim of a practical joke or the
passer-by who slips down in the street. They, too, are runners who fall
and simple souls who are being hoaxed--runners after the ideal who
stumble over realities, child-like dreamers for whom life delights to
lie in wait. But, above all, they are past-masters in absentmindedness,
with this superiority over their fellows that their absentmindedness is
systematic and organised around one central idea, and that their
mishaps are also quite coherent, thanks to the inexorable logic which
reality applies to the correction of dreams, so that they kindle in
those around them, by a series of cumulative effects, a hilarity
capable of unlimited expansion.

Now, let us go a little further. Might not certain vices have the same
relation to character that the rigidity of a fixed idea has to
intellect? Whether as a moral kink or a crooked twist given to the
will, vice has often the appearance of a curvature of the soul.
Doubtless there are vices into which the soul plunges deeply with all
its pregnant potency, which it rejuvenates and drags along with it into
a moving circle of reincarnations. Those are tragic vices. But the vice
capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought
from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. It
lends us its own rigidity instead of borrowing from us our flexibility.
We do not render it more complicated; on the contrary, it simplifies
us. Here, as we shall see later on in the concluding section of this
study, lies the essential difference between comedy and drama. A drama,
even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely
incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten, their
general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all,
but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated; hence, the title
of a drama can seldom be anything else than a proper noun. On the other
hand, many comedies have a common noun as their title: l'Avare, le
Joueur, etc. Were you asked to think of a play capable of being called
le Jaloux, for instance, you would find that Sganarelle or George
Dandin would occur to your mind, but not Othello: le Jaloux could only
be the title of a comedy. The reason is that, however intimately vice,
when comic, is associated with persons, it none the less retains its
simple, independent existence, it remains the central character,
present though invisible, to which the characters in flesh and blood on
the stage are attached. At times it delights in dragging them down with
its own weight and making them share in its tumbles. More frequently,
however, it plays on them as on an instrument or pulls the strings as
though they were puppets. Look closely: you will find that the art of
the comic poet consists in making us so well acquainted with the
particular vice, in introducing us, the spectators, to such a degree of
intimacy with it, that in the end we get hold of some of the strings of
the marionette with which he is playing, and actually work them
ourselves; this it is that explains part of the pleasure we feel. Here,
too, it is really a kind of automatism that makes us laugh--an
automatism, as we have already remarked, closely akin to mere
absentmindedness. To realise this more fully, it need only be noted
that a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his
ignorance of himself. The comic person is unconscious. As though
wearing the ring of Gyges with reverse effect, he becomes invisible to
himself while remaining visible to all the world. A character in a
tragedy will make no change in his conduct because he will know how it
is judged by us; he may continue therein, even though fully conscious
of what he is and feeling keenly the horror he inspires in us. But a
defect that is ridiculous, as soon as it feels itself to be so,
endeavours to modify itself, or at least to appear as though it did.
Were Harpagon to see us laugh at his miserliness, I do not say that he
would get rid of it, but he would either show it less or show it
differently. Indeed, it is in this sense only that laughter "corrects
men's manners." It makes us at once endeavour to appear what we ought
to be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being.

It is unnecessary to carry this analysis any further. From the runner
who falls to the simpleton who is hoaxed, from a state of being hoaxed
to one of absentmindedness, from absentmindedness to wild enthusiasm,
from wild enthusiasm to various distortions of character and will, we
have followed the line of progress along which the comic becomes more
and more deeply imbedded in the person, yet without ceasing, in its
subtler manifestations, to recall to us some trace of what we noticed
in its grosser forms, an effect of automatism and of inelasticity. Now
we can obtain a first glimpse--a distant one, it is true, and still
hazy and confused--of the laughable side of human nature and of the
ordinary function of laughter.

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert
attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together
with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt
ourselves in consequence. TENSION and ELASTICITY are two forces,
mutually complementary, which life brings into play. If these two
forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent, we have
sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they are lacking
in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency, every variety
of insanity. Finally, if they are lacking in the character, we have
cases of the gravest inadaptability to social life, which are the
sources of misery and at times the causes of crime. Once these elements
of inferiority that affect the serious side of existence are
removed--and they tend to eliminate themselves in what has been called
the struggle for life--the person can live, and that in common with
other persons. But society asks for something more; it is not satisfied
with simply living, it insists on living well. What it now has to dread
is that each one of us, content with paying attention to what affects
the essentials of life, will, so far as the rest is concerned, give way
to the easy automatism of acquired habits. Another thing it must fear
is that the members of whom it is made up, instead of aiming after an
increasingly delicate adjustment of wills which will fit more and more
perfectly into one another, will confine themselves to respecting
simply the fundamental conditions of this adjustment: a cut-and-dried
agreement among the persons will not satisfy it, it insists on a
constant striving after reciprocal adaptation. Society will therefore
be suspicious of all INELASTICITY of character, of mind and even of
body, because it is the possible sign of a slumbering activity as well
as of an activity with separatist tendencies, that inclines to swerve
from the common centre round which society gravitates: in short,
because it is the sign of an eccentricity. And yet, society cannot
intervene at this stage by material repression, since it is not
affected in a material fashion. It is confronted with something that
makes it uneasy, but only as a symptom--scarcely a threat, at the very
most a gesture. A gesture, therefore, will be its reply. Laughter must
be something of this kind, a sort of SOCIAL GESTURE. By the fear which
it inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in
mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might
retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down
whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical
inelasticity. Laughter, then, does not belong to the province of
esthetics alone, since unconsciously (and even immorally in many
particular instances) it pursues a utilitarian aim of general
improvement. And yet there is something esthetic about it, since the
comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed from
the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of
art. In a word, if a circle be drawn round those actions and
dispositions--implied in individual or social life--to which their
natural consequences bring their own penalties, there remains outside
this sphere of emotion and struggle--and within a neutral zone in which
man simply exposes himself to man's curiosity--a certain rigidity of
body, mind and character, that society would still like to get rid of
in order to obtain from its members the greatest possible degree of
elasticity and sociability. This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is
its corrective.

Still, we must not accept this formula as a definition of the comic. It
is suitable only for cases that are elementary, theoretical and
perfect, in which the comic is free from all adulteration. Nor do we
offer it, either, as an explanation. We prefer to make it, if you will,
the leitmotiv which is to accompany all our explanations. We must ever
keep it in mind, though without dwelling on it too much, somewhat as a
skilful fencer must think of the discontinuous movements of the lesson
whilst his body is given up to the continuity of the fencing-match. We
will now endeavour to reconstruct the sequence of comic forms, taking
up again the thread that leads from the horseplay of a clown up to the
most refined effects of comedy, following this thread in its often
unforeseen windings, halting at intervals to look around, and finally
getting back, if possible, to the point at which the thread is dangling
and where we shall perhaps find--since the comic oscillates between
life and art--the general relation that art bears to life.


III

Let us begin at the simplest point. What is a comic physiognomy? Where
does a ridiculous expression of the face come from? And what is, in
this case, the distinction between the comic and the ugly? Thus stated,
the question could scarcely be answered in any other than an arbitrary
fashion. Simple though it may appear, it is, even now, too subtle to
allow of a direct attack. We should have to begin with a definition of
ugliness, and then discover what addition the comic makes to it; now,
ugliness is not much easier to analyse than is beauty. However, we will
employ an artifice which will often stand us in good stead. We will
exaggerate the problem, so to speak, by magnifying the effect to the
point of making the cause visible. Suppose, then, we intensify ugliness
to the point of deformity, and study the transition from the deformed
to the ridiculous.

Now, certain deformities undoubtedly possess over others the sorry
privilege of causing some persons to laugh; some hunchbacks, for
instance, will excite laughter. Without at this point entering into
useless details, we will simply ask the reader to think of a number of
deformities, and then to divide them into two groups: on the one hand,
those which nature has directed towards the ridiculous; and on the
other, those which absolutely diverge from it. No doubt he will hit
upon the following law: A deformity that may become comic is a
deformity that a normally built person, could successfully imitate.

Is it not, then, the case that the hunchback suggests the appearance of
a person who holds himself badly? His back seems to have contracted an
ugly stoop. By a kind of physical obstinacy, by rigidity, in a word, it
persists in the habit it has contracted. Try to see with your eyes
alone. Avoid reflection, and above all, do not reason. Abandon all your
prepossessions; seek to recapture a fresh, direct and primitive
impression. The vision you will reacquire will be one of this kind. You
will have before you a man bent on cultivating a certain rigid
attitude--whose body, if one may use the expression, is one vast grin.

Now, let us go back to the point we wished to clear up. By toning down
a deformity that is laughable, we ought to obtain an ugliness that is
comic. A laughable expression of the face, then, is one that will make
us think of something rigid and, so to speak, coagulated, in the wonted
mobility of the face. What we shall see will be an ingrained twitching
or a fixed grimace. It may be objected that every habitual expression
of the face, even when graceful and beautiful, gives us this same
impression of something stereotyped? Here an important distinction must
be drawn. When we speak of expressive beauty or even expressive
ugliness, when we say that a face possesses expression, we mean
expression that may be stable, but which we conjecture to be mobile. It
maintains, in the midst of its fixity, a certain indecision in which
are obscurely portrayed all possible shades of the state of mind it
expresses, just as the sunny promise of a warm day manifests itself in
the haze of a spring morning. But a comic expression of the face is one
that promises nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent
grimace. One would say that the person's whole moral life has
crystallised into this particular cast of features. This is the reason
why a face is all the more comic, the more nearly it suggests to us the
idea of some simple mechanical action in which its personality would
for ever be absorbed. Some faces seem to be always engaged in weeping,
others in laughing or whistling, others, again, in eternally blowing an
imaginary trumpet, and these are the most comic faces of all. Here
again is exemplified the law according to which the more natural the
explanation of the cause, the more comic is the effect. Automatism,
inelasticity, habit that has been contracted and maintained, are
clearly the causes why a face makes us laugh. But this effect gains in
intensity when we are able to connect these characteristics with some
deep-seated cause, a certain fundamental absentmindedness, as though
the soul had allowed itself to be fascinated and hypnotised by the
materiality of a simple action.

We shall now understand the comic element in caricature. However
regular we may imagine a face to be, however harmonious its lines and
supple its movements, their adjustment is never altogether perfect:
there will always be discoverable the signs of some impending bias, the
vague suggestion of a possible grimace, in short some favourite
distortion towards which nature seems to be particularly inclined. The
art of the caricaturist consists in detecting this, at times,
imperceptible tendency, and in rendering it visible to all eyes by
magnifying it. He makes his models grimace, as they would do themselves
if they went to the end of their tether. Beneath the skin-deep harmony
of form, he divines the deep-seated recalcitrance of matter. He
realises disproportions and deformations which must have existed in
nature as mere inclinations, but which have not succeeded in coming to
a head, being held in check by a higher force. His art, which has a
touch of the diabolical, raises up the demon who had been overthrown by
the angel. Certainly, it is an art that exaggerates, and yet the
definition would be very far from complete were exaggeration alone
alleged to be its aim and object, for there exist caricatures that are
more lifelike than portraits, caricatures in which the exaggeration is
scarcely noticeable, whilst, inversely, it is quite possible to
exaggerate to excess without obtaining a real caricature. For
exaggeration to be comic, it must not appear as an aim, but rather as a
means that the artist is using in order to make manifest to our eyes
the distortions which he sees in embryo. It is this process of
distortion that is of moment and interest. And that is precisely why we
shall look for it even in those elements of the face that are incapable
of movement, in the curve of a nose or the shape of an ear. For, in our
eyes, form is always the outline of a movement. The caricaturist who
alters the size of a nose, but respects its ground plan, lengthening
it, for instance, in the very direction in which it was being
lengthened by nature, is really making the nose indulge in a grin.
Henceforth we shall always look upon the original as having determined
to lengthen itself and start grinning. In this sense, one might say
that Nature herself often meets with the successes of a caricaturist.
In the movement through which she has slit that mouth, curtailed that
chin and bulged out that cheek, she would appear to have succeeded in
completing the intended grimace, thus outwitting the restraining
supervision of a more reasonable force. In that case, the face we laugh
at is, so to speak, its own caricature.

To sum up, whatever be the doctrine to which our reason assents, our
imagination has a very clear-cut philosophy of its own: in every human
form it sees the effort of a soul which is shaping matter, a soul which
is infinitely supple and perpetually in motion, subject to no law of
gravitation, for it is not the earth that attracts it. This soul
imparts a portion of its winged lightness to the body it animates: the
immateriality which thus passes into matter is what is called
gracefulness. Matter, however, is obstinate and resists. It draws to
itself the ever-alert activity of this higher principle, would fain
convert it to its own inertia and cause it to revert to mere
automatism. It would fain immobilise the intelligently varied movements
of the body in stupidly contracted grooves, stereotype in permanent
grimaces the fleeting expressions of the face, in short imprint on the
whole person such an attitude as to make it appear immersed and
absorbed in the materiality of some mechanical occupation instead of
ceaselessly renewing its vitality by keeping in touch with a living
ideal. Where matter thus succeeds in dulling the outward life of the
soul, in petrifying its movements and thwarting its gracefulness, it
achieves, at the expense of the body, an effect that is comic. If,
then, at this point we wished to define the comic by comparing it with
its contrary, we should have to contrast it with gracefulness even more
than with beauty. It partakes rather of the unsprightly than of the
unsightly, of RIGIDNESS rather than of UGLINESS.


IV

We will now pass from the comic element in FORMS to that in GESTURES
and MOVEMENTS. Let us at once state the law which seems to govern all
the phenomena of this kind. It may indeed be deduced without any
difficulty from the considerations stated above. THE ATTITUDES,
GESTURES AND MOVEMENTS OF THE HUMAN BODY ARE LAUGHABLE IN EXACT
PROPORTION AS THAT BODY REMINDS US OF A MERE MACHINE. There is no need
to follow this law through the details of its immediate applications,
which are innumerable. To verify it directly, it would be sufficient to
study closely the work of comic artists, eliminating entirely the
element of caricature, and omitting that portion of the comic which is
not inherent in the drawing itself. For, obviously, the comic element
in a drawing is often a borrowed one, for which the text supplies all
the stock-in-trade. I mean that the artist may be his own understudy in
the shape of a satirist, or even a playwright, and that then we laugh
far less at the drawings themselves than at the satire or comic
incident they represent. But if we devote our whole attention to the
drawing with the firm resolve to think of nothing else, we shall
probably find that it is generally comic in proportion to the
clearness, as well as the subtleness, with which it enables us to see a
man as a jointed puppet. The suggestion must be a clear one, for inside
the person we must distinctly perceive, as though through a glass, a
set-up mechanism. But the suggestion must also be a subtle one, for the
general appearance of the person, whose every limb has been made rigid
as a machine, must continue to give us the impression of a living
being. The more exactly these two images, that of a person and that of
a machine, fit into each other, the more striking is the comic effect,
and the more consummate the art of the draughtsman. The originality of
a comic artist is thus expressed in the special kind of life he imparts
to a mere puppet.

We will, however, leave on one side the immediate application of the
principle, and at this point insist only on the more remote
consequences. The illusion of a machine working in the inside of the
person is a thing that only crops up amid a host of amusing effects;
but for the most part it is a fleeting glimpse, that is immediately
lost in the laughter it provokes. To render it permanent, analysis and
reflection must be called into play.

In a public speaker, for instance, we find that gesture vies with
speech. Jealous of the latter, gesture closely dogs the speaker's
thought, demanding also to act as interpreter. Well and good; but then
it must pledge itself to follow thought through all the phases of its
development. An idea is something that grows, buds, blossoms and ripens
from the beginning to the end of a speech. It never halts, never
repeats itself. It must be changing every moment, for to cease to
change would be to cease to live. Then let gesture display a like
animation! Let it accept the fundamental law of life, which is the
complete negation of repetition! But I find that a certain movement of
head or arm, a movement always the same, seems to return at regular
intervals. If I notice it and it succeeds in diverting my attention, if
I wait for it to occur and it occurs when I expect it, then
involuntarily I laugh. Why? Because I now have before me a machine that
works automatically. This is no longer life, it is automatism
established in life and imitating it. It belongs to the comic.

This is also the reason why gestures, at which we never dreamt of
laughing, become laughable when imitated by another individual. The
most elaborate explanations have been offered for this extremely simple
fact. A little reflection, however, will show that our mental state is
ever changing, and that if our gestures faithfully followed these inner
movements, if they were as fully alive as we, they would never repeat
themselves, and so would keep imitation at bay. We begin, then, to
become imitable only when we cease to be ourselves. I mean our gestures
can only be imitated in their mechanical uniformity, and therefore
exactly in what is alien to our living personality. To imitate any one
is to bring out the element of automatism he has allowed to creep into
his person. And as this is the very essence of the ludicrous, it is no
wonder that imitation gives rise to laughter.

Still, if the imitation of gestures is intrinsically laughable, it will
become even more so when it busies itself in deflecting them, though
without altering their form, towards some mechanical occupation, such
as sawing wood, striking on an anvil, or tugging away at an imaginary
bell-rope. Not that vulgarity is the essence of the comic,--although
certainly it is to some extent an ingredient,--but rather that the
incriminated gesture seems more frankly mechanical when it can be
connected with a simple operation, as though it were intentionally
mechanical. To suggest this mechanical interpretation ought to be one
of the favourite devices of parody. We have reached this result through
deduction, but I imagine clowns have long had an intuition of the fact.

This seems to me the solution of the little riddle propounded by Pascal
in one passage of his Thoughts: "Two faces that are alike, although
neither of them excites laughter by itself, make us laugh when
together, on account of their likeness." It might just as well be said:
"The gestures of a public speaker, no one of which is laughable by
itself, excite laughter by their repetition." The truth is that a
really living life should never repeat itself. Wherever there is
repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some mechanism at
work behind the living. Analyse the impression you get from two faces
that are too much alike, and you will find that you are thinking of two
copies cast in the same mould, or two impressions of the same seal, or
two reproductions of the same negative,--in a word, of some
manufacturing process or other. This deflection of life towards the
mechanical is here the real cause of laughter.

And laughter will be more pronounced still, if we find on the stage not
merely two characters, as in the example from Pascal, but several, nay,
as great a number as possible, the image of one another, who come and
go, dance and gesticulate together, simultaneously striking the same
attitudes and tossing their arms about in the same manner. This time,
we distinctly think of marionettes. Invisible threads seem to us to be
joining arms to arms, legs to legs, each muscle in one face to its
fellow-muscle in the other: by reason of the absolute uniformity which
prevails, the very litheness of the bodies seems to stiffen as we gaze,
and the actors themselves seem transformed into automata. Such, at
least, appears to be the artifice underlying this somewhat obvious form
of amusement. I daresay the performers have never read Pascal, but what
they do is merely to realise to the full the suggestions contained in
Pascal's words. If, as is undoubtedly the case, laughter is caused in
the second instance by the hallucination of a mechanical effect, it
must already have been so, though in more subtle fashion, in the first.

Continuing along this path, we dimly perceive the increasingly
important and far-reaching consequences of the law we have just stated.
We faintly catch still more fugitive glimpses of mechanical effects,
glimpses suggested by man's complex actions, no longer merely by his
gestures. We instinctively feel that the usual devices of comedy, the
periodical repetition of a word or a scene, the systematic inversion of
the parts, the geometrical development of a farcical misunderstanding,
and many other stage contrivances, must derive their comic force from
the same source,--the art of the playwright probably consisting in
setting before us an obvious clockwork arrangement of human events,
while carefully preserving an outward aspect of probability and thereby
retaining something of the suppleness of life. But we must not
forestall results which will be duly disclosed in the course of our
analysis.


V

Before going further, let us halt a moment and glance around. As we
hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to
derive every comic effect from one simple formula. The formula exists
well enough in a certain sense, but its development does not follow a
straightforward course. What I mean is that the process of deduction
ought from time to time to stop and study certain culminating effects,
and that these effects each appear as models round which new effects
resembling them take their places in a circle. These latter are not
deductions from the formula, but are comic through their relationship
with those that are. To quote Pascal again, I see no objection, at this
stage, to defining the process by the curve which that geometrician
studied under the name of roulette or cycloid,--the curve traced by a
point in the circumference of a wheel when the carriage is advancing in
a straight line: this point turns like the wheel, though it advances
like the carriage. Or else we might think of an immense avenue such as
are to be seen in the forest of Fontainebleau, with crosses at
intervals to indicate the cross-ways: at each of these we shall walk
round the cross, explore for a while the paths that open out before us,
and then return to our original course. Now, we have just reached one
of these mental crossways. Something mechanical encrusted on the
living, will represent a cross at which we must halt, a central image
from which the imagination branches off in different directions. What
are these directions? There appear to be three main ones. We will
follow them one after the other, and then continue our onward course.

1. In the first place, this view of the mechanical and the living
dovetailed into each other makes us incline towards the vaguer image of
SOME RIGIDITY OR OTHER applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward
attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness. Here we
perceive how easy it is for a garment to become ridiculous. It might
almost be said that every fashion is laughable in some respect. Only,
when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we are so accustomed
to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form one with the
individual wearing it. We do not separate them in imagination. The idea
no longer occurs to us to contrast the inert rigidity of the covering
with the living suppleness of the object covered: consequently, the
comic here remains in a latent condition. It will only succeed in
emerging when the natural incompatibility is so deep-seated between the
covering and the covered that even an immemorial association fails to
cement this union: a case in point is our head and top hat. Suppose,
however, some eccentric individual dresses himself in the fashion of
former times: our attention is immediately drawn to the clothes
themselves, we absolutely distinguish them from the individual, we say
that the latter IS DISGUISING HIMSELF,--as though every article of
clothing were not a disguise!--and the laughable aspect of fashion
comes out of the shadow into the light.

Here we are beginning to catch a faint glimpse of the highly intricate
difficulties raised by this problem of the comic. One of the reasons
that must have given rise to many erroneous or unsatisfactory theories
of laughter is that many things are comic de jure without being comic
de facto, the continuity of custom having deadened within them the
comic quality. A sudden dissolution of continuity is needed, a break
with fashion, for this quality to revive. Hence the impression that
this dissolution of continuity is the parent of the comic, whereas all
it does is to bring it to our notice. Hence, again, the explanation of
laughter by surprise, contrast, etc., definitions which would equally
apply to a host of cases in which we have no inclination whatever to
laugh. The truth of the matter is far from being so simple. But to
return to our idea of disguise, which, as we have just shown, has been
entrusted with the special mandate of arousing laughter. It will not be
out of place to investigate the uses it makes of this power.

Why do we laugh at a head of hair which has changed from dark to blond?
What is there comic about a rubicund nose? And why does one laugh at a
negro? The question would appear to be an embarrassing one, for it has
been asked by successive psychologists such as Hecker, Kraepelin and
Lipps, and all have given different replies. And yet I rather fancy the
correct answer was suggested to me one day in the street by an ordinary
cabby, who applied the expression "unwashed" to the negro fare he was
driving. Unwashed! Does not this mean that a black face, in our
imagination, is one daubed over with ink or soot? If so, then a red
nose can only be one which has received a coating of vermilion. And so
we see that the notion of disguise has passed on something of its comic
quality to instances in which there is actually no disguise, though
there might be.

In the former set of examples, although his usual dress was distinct
from the individual, it appeared in our mind to form one with him,
because we had become accustomed to the sight. In the latter, although
the black or red colour is indeed inherent in the skin, we look upon it
as artificially laid on, because it surprises us.

But here we meet with a fresh crop of difficulties in the theory of the
comic. Such a proposition as the following: "My usual dress forms part
of my body" is absurd in the eyes of reason. Yet imagination looks upon
it as true. "A red nose is a painted nose," "A negro is a white man in
disguise," are also absurd to the reason which rationalises; but they
are gospel truths to pure imagination. So there is a logic of the
imagination which is not the logic of reason, one which at times is
even opposed to the latter,--with which, however, philosophy must
reckon, not only in the study of the comic, but in every other
investigation of the same kind. It is something like the logic of
dreams, though of dreams that have not been left to the whim of
individual fancy, being the dreams dreamt by the whole of society. In
order to reconstruct this hidden logic, a special kind of effort is
needed, by which the outer crust of carefully stratified judgments and
firmly established ideas will be lifted, and we shall behold in the
depths of our mind, like a sheet of subterranean water, the flow of an
unbroken stream of images which pass from one into another. This
interpenetration of images does not come about by chance. It obeys
laws, or rather habits, which hold the same relation to imagination
that logic does to thought.

Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case in
hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also
comic. So, by analogy, any disguise is seen to become comic, not only
that of a man, but that of society also, and even the disguise of
nature.

Let us start with nature. You laugh at a dog that is half-clipped, at a
bed of artificially coloured flowers, at a wood in which the trees are
plastered over with election addresses, etc. Look for the reason, and
you will see that you are once more thinking of a masquerade. Here,
however, the comic element is very faint; it is too far from its
source. If you wish to strengthen it, you must go back to the source
itself and contrast the derived image, that of a masquerade, with the
original one, which, be it remembered, was that of a mechanical
tampering with life. In "a nature that is mechanically tampered with"
we possess a thoroughly comic theme, on which fancy will be able to
play ever so many variations with the certainty of successfully
provoking the heartiest hilarity. You may call to mind that amusing
passage in Tartarin Sur Les Alpes, in which Bompard makes Tartarin--and
therefore also the reader to some slight extent--accept the idea of a
Switzerland choke-full of machinery like the basement of the opera, and
run by a company which maintains a series of waterfalls, glaciers and
artificial crevasses. The same theme reappears, though transposed in
quite another key, in the Novel Notes of the English humorist, Jerome
K. Jerome. An elderly Lady Bountiful, who does not want her deeds of
charity to take up too much of her time, provides homes within easy
hail of her mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been
specially manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest
folk who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of
their failing, etc. There are comic phrases in which this theme is
audible, like a distant echo, coupled with an ingenuousness, whether
sincere or affected, which acts as accompaniment. Take, as an instance,
the remark made by a lady whom Cassini, the astronomer, had invited to
see an eclipse of the moon. Arriving too late, she said, "M. de
Cassini, I know, will have the goodness to begin it all over again, to
please me." Or, take again the exclamation of one of Gondiinet's
characters on arriving in a town and learning that there is an extinct
volcano in the neighbourhood, "They had a volcano, and they have let it
go out!"

Let us go on to society. As we are both in and of it, we cannot help
treating it as a living being. Any image, then, suggestive of the
notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to
speak, will be laughable. Now, such a notion is formed when we perceive
anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the surface of
living society. There we have rigidity over again, clashing with the
inner suppleness of life. The ceremonial side of social life must,
therefore, always include a latent comic element, which is only waiting
for an opportunity to burst into full view. It might be said that
ceremonies are to the social body what clothing is to the individual
body: they owe their seriousness to the fact that they are identified,
in our minds, with the serious object with which custom associates
them, and when we isolate them in imagination, they forthwith lose
their seriousness. For any ceremony, then, to become comic, it is
enough that our attention be fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and
that we neglect its matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its
form. Every one knows how easily the comic spirit exercises its
ingenuity on social actions of a stereotyped nature, from an ordinary
prize-distribution to the solemn sitting of a court of justice. Any
form or formula is a ready-made frame into which the comic element may
be fitted.

Here, again, the comic will be emphasised by bringing it nearer to its
source. From the idea of travesty, a derived one, we must go back to
the original idea, that of a mechanism superposed upon life. Already,
the stiff and starched formality of any ceremonial suggests to us an
image of this kind. For, as soon as we forget the serious object of a
solemnity or a ceremony, those taking part in it give us the impression
of puppets in motion. Their mobility seems to adopt as a model the
immobility of a formula. It becomes automatism. But complete automatism
is only reached in the official, for instance, who performs his duty
like a mere machine, or again in the unconsciousness that marks an
administrative regulation working with inexorable fatality, and setting
itself up for a law of nature. Quite by chance, when reading the
newspaper, I came across a specimen of the comic of this type. Twenty
years ago, a large steamer was wrecked off the coast at Dieppe. With
considerable difficulty some of the passengers were rescued in a boat.
A few custom-house officers, who had courageously rushed to their
assistance, began by asking them "if they had anything to declare." We
find something similar, though the idea is a more subtle one, in the
remark of an M.P. when questioning the Home Secretary on the morrow of
a terrible murder which took place in a railway carriage: "The
assassin, after despatching his victim, must have got out the wrong
side of the train, thereby infringing the Company's rules."

A mechanical element introduced into nature and an automatic regulation
of society, such, then, are the two types of laughable effects at which
we have arrived. It remains for us, in conclusion, to combine them and
see what the result will be.

The result of the combination will evidently be a human regulation of
affairs usurping the place of the laws of nature. We may call to mind
the answer Sganarelle gave Geronte when the latter remarked that the
heart was on the left side and the liver on the right: "Yes, it was so
formerly, but we have altered all that; now, we practise medicine in
quite a new way." We may also recall the consultation between M. de
Pourceaugnac's two doctors: "The arguments you have used are so erudite
and elegant that it is impossible for the patient not to be
hypochondriacally melancholic; or, even if he were not, he must surely
become so because of the elegance of the things you have said and the
accuracy of your reasoning." We might multiply examples, for all we
need do would be to call up Moliere's doctors, one after the other.
However far, moreover, comic fancy may seem to go, reality at times
undertakes to improve upon it. It was suggested to a contemporary
philosopher, an out-and-out arguer, that his arguments, though
irreproachable in their deductions, had experience against them. He put
an end to the discussion by merely remarking, "Experience is in the
wrong." The truth is, this idea of regulating life as a matter of
business routine is more widespread than might be imagined; it is
natural in its way, although we have just obtained it by an artificial
process of reconstruction. One might say that it gives us the very
quintessence of pedantry, which, at bottom, is nothing else than art
pretending to outdo nature.

To sum up, then, we have one and the same effect, which assumes ever
subtler forms as it passes from the idea of an artificial MECHANISATION
of the human body, if such an expression is permissible, to that of any
substitution whatsoever of the artificial for the natural. A less and
less rigorous logic, that more and more resembles the logic of
dreamland, transfers the same relationship into higher and higher
spheres, between increasingly immaterial terms, till in the end we find
a mere administrative enactment occupying the same relation to a
natural or moral law that a ready-made garment, for instance, does to
the living body. We have now gone right to the end of the first of the
three directions we had to follow. Let us turn to the second and see
where it will lead us.

2. Our starting-point is again "something mechanical encrusted upon the
living." Where did the comic come from in this case? It came from the
fact that the living body became rigid, like a machine. Accordingly, it
seemed to us that the living body ought to be the perfection of
suppleness, the ever-alert activity of a principle always at work. But
this activity would really belong to the soul rather than to the body.
It would be the very flame of life, kindled within us by a higher
principle and perceived through the body, as if through a glass. When
we see only gracefulness and suppleness in the living body, it is
because we disregard in it the elements of weight, of resistance, and,
in a word, of matter; we forget its materiality and think only of its
vitality, a vitality which we regard as derived from the very principle
of intellectual and moral life, Let us suppose, however, that our
attention is drawn to this material side of the body; that, so far from
sharing in the lightness and subtlety of the principle with which it is
animated, the body is no more in our eyes than a heavy and cumbersome
vesture, a kind of irksome ballast which holds down to earth a soul
eager to rise aloft. Then the body will become to the soul what, as we
have just seen, the garment was to the body itself--inert matter dumped
down upon living energy. The impression of the comic will be produced
as soon as we have a clear apprehension of this putting the one on the
other. And we shall experience it most strongly when we are shown the
soul TANTALISED by the needs of the body: on the one hand, the moral
personality with its intelligently varied energy, and, on the other,
the stupidly monotonous body, perpetually obstructing everything with
its machine-like obstinacy. The more paltry and uniformly repeated
these claims of the body, the more striking will be the result. But
that is only a matter of degree, and the general law of these phenomena
may be formulated as follows: ANY INCIDENT IS COMIC THAT CALLS OUR
ATTENTION TO THE PHYSICAL IN A PERSON WHEN IT IS THE MORAL SIDE THAT IS
CONCERNED.

Why do we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most
pathetic moment of his speech? Where lies the comic element in this
sentence, taken from a funeral speech and quoted by a German
philosopher: "He was virtuous and plump"? It lies in the fact that our
attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body. Similar
instances abound in daily life, but if you do not care to take the
trouble to look for them, you have only to open at random a volume of
Labiche, and you will be almost certain to light upon an effect of this
kind. Now, we have a speaker whose most eloquent sentences are cut
short by the twinges of a bad tooth; now, one of the characters who
never begins to speak without stopping in the middle to complain of his
shoes being too small, or his belt too tight, etc. A PERSON EMBARRASSED
BY HIS BODY is the image suggested to us in all these examples. The
reason that excessive stoutness is laughable is probably because it
calls up an image of the same kind. I almost think that this too is
what sometime makes bashfulness somewhat ridiculous. The bashful man
rather gives the impression of a person embarrassed by his body,
looking round for some convenient cloak-room in which to deposit it.

This is just why the tragic poet is so careful to avoid anything
calculated to attract attention to the material side of his heroes. No
sooner does anxiety about the body manifest itself than the intrusion
of a comic element is to be feared. On this account, the hero in a
tragedy does not eat or drink or warm himself. He does not even sit
down any more than can be helped. To sit down in the middle of a fine
speech would imply that you remembered you had a body. Napoleon, who
was a psychologist when he wished to be so, had noticed that the
transition from tragedy to comedy is effected simply by sitting down.
In the "Journal inedit" of Baron Gourgaud--when speaking of an
interview with the Queen of Prussia after the battle of Iena--he
expresses himself in the following terms: "She received me in tragic
fashion like Chimene: Justice! Sire, Justice! Magdeburg! Thus she
continued in a way most embarrassing to me. Finally, to make her change
her style, I requested her to take a seat. This is the best method for
cutting short a tragic scene, for as soon as you are seated it all
becomes comedy."

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING
PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general--THE
MANNER SEEKING TO OUTDO THE MATTER, THE LETTER AIMING AT OUSTING THE
SPIRIT. Is it not perchance this idea that comedy is trying to suggest
to us when holding up a profession to ridicule? It makes the lawyer,
the magistrate and the doctor speak as though health and justice were
of little moment,--the main point being that we should have lawyers,
magistrates and doctors, and that all outward formalities pertaining to
these professions should be scrupulously respected. And so we find the
means substituted for the end, the manner for the matter; no longer is
it the profession that is made for the public, but rather the public
for the profession. Constant attention to form and the mechanical
application of rules here bring about a kind of professional automatism
analogous to that imposed upon the soul by the habits of the body, and
equally laughable. Numerous are the examples of this on the stage.
Without entering into details of the variations executed on this theme,
let us quote two or three passages in which the theme itself is set
forth in all its simplicity. "You are only bound to treat people
according to form," says Doctor Diafoirus in the "Malade imaginaire".
Again, says Doctor Bahis, in "L'Amour medecin": "It is better to die
through following the rules than to recover through violating them." In
the same play, Desfonandres had previously said: "We must always
observe the formalities of professional etiquette, whatever may
happen." And the reason is given by Tomes, his colleague: "A dead man
is but a dead man, but the non-observance of a formality causes a
notable prejudice to the whole faculty." Brid'oison's words, though.
embodying a rather different idea, are none the less significant:
"F-form, mind you, f-form. A man laughs at a judge in a morning coat,
and yet he would quake with dread at the mere sight of an attorney in
his gown. F-form, all a matter of f-form."

Here we have the first illustration of a law which will appear with
increasing distinctness as we proceed with our task. When a musician
strikes a note on an instrument, other notes start up of themselves,
not so loud as the first, yet connected with it by certain definite
relations, which coalesce with it and determine its quality. These are
what are called in physics the overtones of the fundamental note. It
would seem that comic fancy, even in its most far-fetched inventions,
obeys a similar law. For instance, consider this comic note: appearance
seeking to triumph over reality. If our analysis is correct, this note
must have as its overtones the body tantalising the mind, the body
taking precedence of the mind. No sooner, then, does the comic poet
strike the first note than he will add the second on to it,
involuntarily and instinctively. In other words, HE WILL DUPLICATE WHAT
IS RIDICULOUS PROFESSIONALLY WITH SOMETHING THAT IS RIDICULOUS
PHYSICALLY.

When Brid'oison the judge comes stammering on to the stage, is he not
actually preparing us, by this very stammering, to understand the
phenomenon of intellectual ossification we are about to witness? What
bond of secret relationship can there be between the physical defect
and the moral infirmity? It is difficult to say; yet we feel that the
relationship is there, though we cannot express it in words. Perhaps
the situation required that this judging machine should also appear
before us as a talking machine. However it may be, no other overtone
could more perfectly have completed the fundamental note.

When Moliere introduces to us the two ridiculous doctors, Bahis and
Macroton, in L'Amour medecin, he makes one of them speak very slowly,
as though scanning his words syllable by syllable, whilst the other
stutters. We find the same contrast between the two lawyers in Monsieur
de Pourceaugnac. In the rhythm of speech is generally to be found the
physical peculiarity that is destined to complete the element of
professional ridicule. When the author has failed to suggest a defect
of this kind, it is seldom the case that the actor does not
instinctively invent one.

Consequently, there is a natural relationship, which we equally
naturally recognise, between the two images we have been comparing with
each other, the mind crystallising in certain grooves, and the body
losing its elasticity through the influence of certain defects. Whether
or not our attention be diverted from the matter to the manner, or from
the moral to the physical, in both cases the same sort of impression is
conveyed to our imagination; in both, then, the comic is of the same
kind. Here, once more, it has been our aim to follow the natural trend
of the movement of the imagination. This trend or direction, it may be
remembered, was the second of those offered to us, starting from a
central image. A third and final path remains unexplored, along which
we will now proceed.

3. Let us then return, for the last time, to our central image:
something mechanical encrusted on something living. Here, the living
being under discussion was a human being, a person. A mechanical
arrangement, on the other hand, is a thing. What, therefore, incited
laughter was the momentary transformation of a person into a thing, if
one considers the image from this standpoint. Let us then pass from the
exact idea of a machine to the vaguer one of a thing in general. We
shall have a fresh series of laughable images which will be obtained by
taking a blurred impression, so to speak, of the outlines of the former
and will bring us to this new law: WE LAUGH EVERY TIME A PERSON GIVES
US THE IMPRESSION OF BEING A THING.

We laugh at Sancho Panza tumbled into a bed-quilt and tossed into the
air like a football. We laugh at Baron Munchausen turned into a
cannon-ball and travelling through space. But certain tricks of circus
clowns might afford a still more precise exemplification of the same
law. True, we should have to eliminate the jokes, mere interpolations
by the clown into his main theme, and keep in mind only the theme
itself, that is to say, the divers attitudes, capers and movements
which form the strictly "clownish" element in the clown's art. On two
occasions only have I been able to observe this style of the comic in
its unadulterated state, and in both I received the same impression.
The first time, the clowns came and went, collided, fell and jumped up
again in a uniformly accelerated rhythm, visibly intent upon affecting
a CRESCENDO. And it was more and more to the jumping up again, the
REBOUND, that the attention of the public was attracted. Gradually, one
lost sight of the fact that they were men of flesh and blood like
ourselves; one began to think of bundles of all sorts, falling and
knocking against each other. Then the vision assumed a more definite
aspect. The forms grew rounder, the bodies rolled together and seemed
to pick themselves up like balls. Then at last appeared the image
towards which the whole of this scene had doubtless been unconsciously
evolving--large rubber balls hurled against one another in every
direction. The second scene, though even coarser than the first, was no
less instructive. There came on the stage two men, each with an
enormous head, bald as a billiard ball. In their hands they carried
large sticks which each, in turn, brought down on to the other's
cranium. Here, again, a certain gradation was observable. After each
blow, the bodies seemed to grow heavier and more unyielding,
overpowered by an increasing degree of rigidity. Then came the return
blow, in each case heavier and more resounding than the last, coming,
too, after a longer interval. The skulls gave forth a formidable ring
throughout the silent house. At last the two bodies, each quite rigid
and as straight as an arrow, slowly bent over towards each other, the
sticks came crashing down for the last time on to the two heads with a
thud as of enormous mallets falling upon oaken beams, and the pair lay
prone upon the ground. At that instant appeared in all its vividness
the suggestion that the two artists had gradually driven into the
imagination of the spectators: "We are about to become ...we have now
become solid wooden dummies."

A kind of dim, vague instinct may enable even an uncultured mind to get
an inkling here of the subtler results of psychological science. We
know that it is possible to call up hallucinatory visions in a
hypnotised subject by simple suggestion. If he be told that a bird is
perched on his hand, he will see the bird and watch it fly away. The
idea suggested, however, is far from being always accepted with like
docility. Not infrequently, the mesmeriser only succeeds in getting an
idea into his subject's head by slow degrees through a carefully
graduated series of hints. He will then start with objects really
perceived by the subject, and will endeavour to make the perception of
these objects more and more indefinite; then, step by step, he will
bring out of this state of mental chaos the precise form of the object
of which he wishes to create an hallucination. Something of the kind
happens to many people when dropping off to sleep; they see those
coloured, fluid, shapeless masses, which occupy the field of vision,
insensibly solidifying into distinct objects.

Consequently, the gradual passing from the dim and vague to the clear
and distinct is the method of suggestion par excellence. I fancy it
might be found to be at the root of a good many comic suggestions,
especially in the coarser forms of the comic, in which the
transformation of a person into a thing seems to be taking place before
our eyes. But there are other and more subtle methods in use, among
poets, for instance, which perhaps unconsciously lead to the same end.
By a certain arrangement of rhythm, rhyme and assonance, it is possible
to lull the imagination, to rock it to and fro between like and like
with a regular see-saw motion, and thus prepare it submissively to
accept the vision suggested. Listen to these few lines of Regnard, and
see whether something like the fleeting image of a DOLL does not cross
the field of your imagination:

... Plus, il doit a maints particuliers La somme de dix mil une livre
une obole, Pour l'avoir sans relache un an sur sa parole Habille,
voiture, chauffe, chausse, gante, Alimente, rase, desaltere, porte.

[Footnote: Further, he owes to many an honest wight Item-the sum two
thousand pounds, one farthing, For having on his simple word of honour
Sans intermission for an entire year Clothed him, conveyed him, warmed
him, shod him, gloved him, Fed him and shaved him, quenched his thirst
and borne him.]

Is not something of the same kind found in the following sally of
Figaro's (though here an attempt is perhaps made to suggest the image
of an animal rather than that of a thing): "Quel homme est-ce?--C'est
un beau, gros, court, jeune vieillard, gris pommele, ruse, rase, blase,
qui guette et furette, et gronde et geint tout a la fois." [Footnote:
"What sort of man is here?--He is a handsome, stout, short, youthful
old gentleman, iron-grey, an artful knave, clean shaved, clean 'used
up,' who spies and pries and growls and groans all in the same breath."]

Now, between these coarse scenes and these subtle suggestions there is
room for a countless number of amusing effects, for all those that can
be obtained by talking about persons as one would do about mere things.
We will only select one or two instances from the plays of Labiche, in
which they are legion.

Just as M. Perrichon is getting into the railway carriage, he makes
certain of not forgetting any of his parcels: "Four, five, six, my wife
seven, my daughter eight, and myself nine." In another play, a fond
father is boasting of his daughter's learning in the following terms:
"She will tell you, without faltering, all the kings of France that
have occurred." This phrase, "that have occurred," though not exactly
transforming the kings into mere things, likens them, all the same, to
events of an impersonal nature.

As regards this latter example, note that it is unnecessary to complete
the identification of the person with the thing in order to ensure a
comic effect. It is sufficient for us to start in this direction by
feigning, for instance, to confuse the person with the function he
exercises. I will only quote a sentence spoken by a village mayor in
one of About's novels: "The prefect, who has always shown us the same
kindness, though he has been changed several times since 1847..."

All these witticisms are constructed on the same model. We might make
up any number of them, when once we are in possession of the recipe.
But the art of the story-teller or the playwright does not merely
consist in concocting jokes. The difficulty lies in giving to a joke
its power of suggestion, i.e. in making it acceptable. And we only do
accept it either because it seems to be the natural product of a
particular state of mind or because it is in keeping with the
circumstances of the case. For instance, we are aware that M. Perrichon
is greatly excited on the occasion of his first railway journey. The
expression "to occur" is one that must have cropped up a good many
times in the lessons repeated by the girl before her father; it makes
us think of such a repetition. Lastly, admiration of the governmental
machine might, at a pinch, be extended to the point of making us
believe that no change takes place in the prefect when he changes his
name, and that the function gets carried on independently of the
functionary.

We have now reached a point very far from the original cause of
laughter. Many a comic form, that cannot be explained by itself, can
indeed only be understood from its resemblance to another, which only
makes us laugh by reason of its relationship with a third, and so on
indefinitely, so that psychological analysis, however luminous and
searching, will go astray unless it holds the thread along which the
comic impression has travelled from one end of the series to the other.
Where does this progressive continuity come from? What can be the
driving force, the strange impulse which causes the comic to glide thus
from image to image, farther and farther away from the starting-point,
until it is broken up and lost in infinitely remote analogies? But what
is that force which divides and subdivides the branches of a tree into
smaller boughs and its roots into radicles? An inexorable law dooms
every living energy, during the brief interval allotted to it in time,
to cover the widest possible extent in space. Now, comic fancy is
indeed a living energy, a strange plant that has nourished on the stony
portions of the social soil, until such time as culture should allow it
to vie with the most refined products of art. True, we are far from
great art in the examples of the comic we have just been reviewing. But
we shall draw nearer to it, though without attaining to it completely,
in the following chapter. Below art, we find artifice, and it is this
zone of artifice, midway between nature and art, that we are now about
to enter. We are going to deal with the comic playwright and the wit.



CHAPTER II

THE COMIC ELEMENT IN SITUATIONS AND THE COMIC ELEMENT IN WORDS


I

We have studied the comic element in forms, in attitudes, and in
movements generally; now let us look for it in actions and in
situations. We encounter, indeed, this kind of comic readily enough in
everyday life. It is not here, however, that it best lends itself to
analysis. Assuming that the stage is both a magnified and a simplified
view of life, we shall find that comedy is capable of furnishing us
with more information than real life on this particular part of our
subject. Perhaps we ought even to carry simplification still farther,
and, going back to our earliest recollections, try to discover, in the
games that amused us as children, the first faint traces of the
combinations that make us laugh as grown-up persons. We are too apt to
speak of our feelings of pleasure and of pain as though full grown at
birth, as though each one of them had not a history of its own. Above
all, we are too apt to ignore the childish element, so to speak, latent
in most of our joyful emotions. And yet, how many of our present
pleasures, were we to examine them closely, would shrink into nothing
more than memories of past ones! What would there be left of many of
our emotions were we to reduce them to the exact quantum of pure
feeling they contain, by subtracting from them all that is merely
reminiscence? Indeed, it seems possible that, after a certain age, we
become impervious to all fresh or novel forms of joy, and the sweetest
pleasures of the middle-aged man are perhaps nothing more than a
revival of the sensations of childhood, a balmy zephyr wafted in
fainter and fainter breaths by a past that is ever receding. In any
case, whatever reply we give to this broad question, one thing is
certain: there can be no break in continuity between the child's
delight in games and that of the grown-up person. Now, comedy is a
game, a game that imitates life. And since, in the games of the child
when working its dolls and puppets, many of the movements are produced
by strings, ought we not to find those same strings, somewhat frayed by
wear, reappearing as the threads that knot together the situations in a
comedy? Let us, then, start with the games of a child, and follow the
imperceptible process by which, as he grows himself, he makes his
puppets grow, inspires them with life, and finally brings them to an
ambiguous state in which, without ceasing to be puppets, they have yet
become human beings. We thus obtain characters of a comedy type. And
upon them we can test the truth of the law of which all our preceding
analyses gave an inkling, a law in accordance with which we will define
all broadly comic situations in general. ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND
EVENTS IS COMIC WHICH GIVES US, IN A SINGLE COMBINATION, THE ILLUSION
OF LIFE AND THE DISTINCT IMPRESSION OF A MECHANICAL ARRANGEMENT.

1. THE JACK-IN-THE-BOX.--As children we have all played with the little
man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he jumps up
again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush him down
beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying. It is hard
to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but the kind of
amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a struggle between two
stubborn elements, one of which, being simply mechanical, generally
ends by giving in to the other, which treats it as a plaything. A cat
playing with a mouse, which from time to time she releases like a
spring, only to pull it up short with a stroke of her paw, indulges in
the same kind of amusement.

We will now pass on to the theatre, beginning with a Punch and Judy
show. No sooner does the policeman put in an appearance on the stage
than, naturally enough, he receives a blow which fells him. He springs
to his feet, a second blow lays him flat. A repetition of the offence
is followed by a repetition of the punishment. Up and down the
constable flops and hops with the uniform rhythm of the bending and
release of a spring, whilst the spectators laugh louder and louder.

Now, let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an idea
that is first expressed, then repressed, and then expressed again; a
stream of words that bursts forth, is checked, and keeps on starting
afresh. Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force,
counteracted by another, equally pertinacious. This vision, however,
will have discarded a portion of its materiality. No longer is it Punch
and Judy that we are watching, but rather a real comedy.

Many a comic scene may indeed be referred to this simple type. For
instance, in the scene of the Mariage force between Sganarelle and
Pancrace, the entire vis comica lies in the conflict set up between the
idea of Sganarelle, who wishes to make the philosopher listen to him,
and the obstinacy of the philosopher, a regular talking-machine working
automatically. As the scene progresses, the image of the
Jack-in-the-box becomes more apparent, so that at last the characters
themselves adopt its movements,--Sganarelle pushing Pancrace, each time
he shows himself, back into the wings, Pancrace returning to the stage
after each repulse to continue his patter. And when Sganarelle finally
drives Pancrace back and shuts him up inside the house--inside the box,
one is tempted to say--a window suddenly flies open, and the head of
the philosopher again appears as though it had burst open the lid of a
box.

The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth of
Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its vials of
wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that flesh is heir
to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as though to silence
Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being, as it were, thrust
back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by a spring, he rebounds
on to the stage with a fresh curse on his lips. The self-same
exclamation: "Monsieur Purgon!" recurs at regular beats, and, as it
were, marks the TEMPO of this little scene.

Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is bent,
released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central element, and
we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic
comedy,--REPETITION.

Why is it there is something comic in the repetition of a word on the
stage? No theory of the ludicrous seems to offer a satisfactory answer
to this very simple question. Nor can an answer be found so long as we
look for the explanation of an amusing word or phrase in the phrase or
word itself, apart from all it suggests to us. Nowhere will the usual
method prove to be so inadequate as here. With the exception, however,
of a few special instances to which we shall recur later, the
repetition of a word is never laughable in itself. It makes us laugh
only because it symbolises a special play of moral elements, this play
itself being the symbol of an altogether material diversion. It is the
diversion of the cat with the mouse, the diversion of the child pushing
back the Jack-in-the-box, time after time, to the bottom of his
box,--but in a refined and spiritualised form, transferred to the realm
of feelings and ideas. Let us then state the law which, we think,
defines the main comic varieties of word-repetition on the stage: IN A
COMIC REPETITION OF WORDS WE GENERALLY FIND TWO TERMS: A REPRESSED
FEELING WHICH GOES OFF LIKE A SPRING, AND AN IDEA THAT DELIGHTS IN
REPRESSING THE FEELING ANEW.

When Dorine is telling Orgon of his wife's illness, and the latter
continually interrupts him with inquiries as to the health of Tartuffe,
the question: "Et tartuffe?" repeated every few moments, affords us the
distinct sensation of a spring being released. This spring Dorine
delights in pushing back, each time she resumes her account of Elmire's
illness. And when Scapin informs old Geronte that his son has been
taken prisoner on the famous galley, and that a ransom must be paid
without delay, he is playing with the avarice of Geronte exactly as
Dorine does with the infatuation of Orgon. The old man's avarice is no
sooner repressed than up it springs again automatically, and it is this
automatism that Moliere tries to indicate by the mechanical repetition
of a sentence expressing regret at the money that would have to be
forthcoming: "What the deuce did he want in that galley?" The same
criticism is applicable to the scene in which Valere points out to
Harpagon the wrong he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man
she did not love. "No dowry wanted!" interrupts the miserly Harpagon
every few moments. Behind this exclamation, which recurs automatically,
we faintly discern a complete repeating-machine set going by a fixed
idea.

At times this mechanism is less easy to detect, and here we encounter a
fresh difficulty in the theory of the comic. Sometimes the whole
interest of a scene lies in one character playing a double part, the
intervening speaker acting as a mere prism, so to speak, through which
the dual personality is developed. We run the risk, then, of going
astray if we look for the secret of the effect in what we see and
hear,--in the external scene played by the characters,--and not in the
altogether inner comedy of which this scene is no more than the outer
refraction. For instance, when Alceste stubbornly repeats the words, "I
don't say that!" on Oronte asking him if he thinks his poetry bad, the
repetition is laughable, though evidently Oronte is not now playing
with Alceste at the game we have just described. We must be careful,
however, for, in reality, we have two men in Alceste: on the one hand,
the "misanthropist" who has vowed henceforth to call a spade a spade,
and on the other the gentleman who cannot unlearn, in a trice, the
usual forms of politeness, or even, it may be, just the honest fellow
who, when called upon to put his words into practice, shrinks from
wounding another's self-esteem or hurting his feelings. Accordingly,
the real scene is not between Alceste and Oronte, it is between Alceste
and himself. The one Alceste would fain blurt out the truth, and the
other stops his mouth just as he is on the point of telling everything.
Each "I don't say that!" reveals a growing effort to repress something
that strives and struggles to get out. And so the tone in which the
phrase is uttered gets more and more violent, Alceste becoming more and
more angry--not with Oronte, as he thinks--but with himself. The
tension of the spring is continually being renewed and reinforced until
it at last goes off with a bang. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same
identical mechanism of repetition.

For a man to make a resolution never henceforth to say what he does not
think, even though he "openly defy the whole human race," is not
necessarily laughable; it is only a phase of life at its highest and
best. For another man, through amiability, selfishness, or disdain, to
prefer to flatter people is only another phase of life; there is
nothing in it to make us laugh. You may even combine these two men into
one, and arrange that the individual waver between offensive frankness
and delusive politeness, this duel between two opposing feelings will
not even then be comic, rather it will appear the essence of
seriousness if these two feelings through their very distinctness
complete each other, develop side by side, and make up between them a
composite mental condition, adopting, in short, a modus vivendi which
merely gives us the complex impression of life. But imagine these two
feelings as INELASTIC and unvarying elements in a really living man,
make him oscillate from one to the other; above all, arrange that this
oscillation becomes entirely mechanical by adopting the well-known form
of some habitual, simple, childish contrivance: then you will get the
image we have so far found in all laughable objects, SOMETHING
MECHANICAL IN SOMETHING LIVING; in fact, something comic.

We have dwelt on this first image, the Jack-in-the-box, sufficiently to
show how comic fancy gradually converts a material mechanism into a
moral one. Now we will consider one or two other games, confining
ourselves to their most striking aspects.

2. THE DANCING-JACK.--There are innumerable comedies in which one of
the characters thinks he is speaking and acting freely, and,
consequently, retains all the essentials of life, whereas, viewed from
a certain standpoint, he appears as a mere toy in the hands of another
who is playing with him. The transition is easily made, from the
dancing-jack which a child works with a string, to Geronte and Argante
manipulated by Scapin. Listen to Scapin himself: "The MACHINE is all
there"; and again: "Providence has brought them into my net," etc.
Instinctively, and because one would rather be a cheat than be cheated,
in imagination at all events, the spectator sides with the knaves; and
for the rest of the time, like a child who has persuaded his playmate
to lend him his doll, he takes hold of the strings himself and makes
the marionette come and go on the stage as he pleases. But this latter
condition is not indispensable; we can remain outside the pale of what
is taking place if only we retain the distinct impression of a
mechanical arrangement. This is what happens whenever one of the
characters vacillates between two contrary opinions, each in turn
appealing to him, as when Panurge asks Tom, Dick, and Harry whether or
no he ought to get married. Note that, in such a case, a comic author
is always careful to PERSONIFY the two opposing decisions. For, if
there is no spectator, there must at all events be actors to hold the
strings.

All that is serious in life comes from our freedom. The feelings we
have matured, the passions we have brooded over, the actions we have
weighed, decided upon, and carried through, in short, all that comes
from us and is our very own, these are the things that give life its
ofttimes dramatic and generally grave aspect. What, then, is requisite
to transform all this into a comedy? Merely to fancy that our seeming,
freedom conceals the strings of a dancing-Jack, and that we are, as the
poet says,

... humble marionettes The wires of which are pulled by Fate.
[Footnote: ... d'humbles marionnettes Dont le fil est aux mains de la
Necessite. SULLY-PRUDHOMME.]

So there is not a real, a serious, or even a dramatic scene that fancy
cannot render comic by simply calling forth this image. Nor is there a
game for which a wider field lies open.

3. THE SNOW-BALL.--The farther we proceed in this investigation into
the methods of comedy, the more clearly we see the part played by
childhood's memories. These memories refer, perhaps, less to any
special game than to the mechanical device of which that game is a
particular instance. The same general device, moreover, may be met with
in widely different games, just as the same operatic air is found in
many different arrangements and variations. What is here of importance
and is retained in the mind, what passes by imperceptible stages from
the games of a child to those of a man, is the mental diagram, the
skeleton outline of the combination, or, if you like, the abstract
formula of which these games are particular illustrations. Take, for
instance, the rolling snow-ball, which increases in size as it moves
along. We might just as well think of toy soldiers standing behind one
another. Push the first and it tumbles down on the second, this latter
knocks down the third, and the state of things goes from bad to worse
until they all lie prone on the floor. Or again, take a house of cards
that has been built up with infinite care: the first you touch seems
uncertain whether to move or not, its tottering neighbour comes to a
quicker decision, and the work of destruction, gathering momentum as it
goes on, rushes headlong to the final collapse.

These instances are all different, but they suggest the same abstract
vision, that of an effect which grows by arithmetical progression, so
that the cause, insignificant at the outset, culminates by a necessary
evolution in a result as important as it is unexpected. Now let us open
a children's picture-book; we shall find this arrangement already on
the high road to becoming comic. Here, for instance--in one of the
comic chap-books picked up by chance--we have a caller rushing
violently into a drawing-room; he knocks against a lady, who upsets her
cup of tea over an old gentleman, who slips against a glass window
which falls in the street on to the head of a constable, who sets the
whole police force agog, etc. The same arrangement reappears in many a
picture intended for grownup persons. In the "stories without words"
sketched by humorous artists we are often shown an object which moves
from place to place, and persons who are closely connected with it, so
that through a series of scenes a change in the position of the object
mechanically brings about increasingly serious changes in the situation
of the persons. Let us now turn to comedy. Many a droll scene, many a
comedy even, may be referred to this simple type. Read the speech of
Chicanneau in the Plaideurs: here we find lawsuits within lawsuits, and
the mechanism works faster and faster--Racine produces in us this
feeling of increasing acceleration by crowding his law terms ever
closer together--until the lawsuit over a truss of hay costs the
plaintiff the best part of his fortune. And again the same arrangement
occurs in certain scenes of Don Quixote; for instance, in the inn
scene, where, by an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances, the
mule-driver strikes Sancho, who belabours Maritornes, upon whom the
innkeeper falls, etc. Finally, let us pass to the light comedy of
to-day. Need we call to mind all the forms in which this same
combination appears? There is one that is employed rather frequently.
For instance, a certain thing, say a letter, happens to be of supreme
importance to a certain person and must be recovered at all costs. This
thing, which always vanishes just when you think you have caught it,
pervades the entire play, "rolling up" increasingly serious and
unexpected incidents as it proceeds. All this is far more like a
child's game than appears at first blush. Once more the effect produced
is that of the snowball.

It is the characteristic of a mechanical combination to be generally
REVERSIBLE. A child is delighted when he sees the ball in a game of
ninepins knocking down everything in its way and spreading havoc in all
directions; he laughs louder than ever when the ball returns to its
starting-point after twists and turns and waverings of every kind. In
other words, the mechanism just described is laughable even when
rectilinear, it is much more so on becoming circular and when every
effort the player makes, by a fatal interaction of cause and effect,
merely results in bringing it back to the same spot. Now, a
considerable number of light comedies revolve round this idea. An
Italian straw hat has been eaten up by a horse. [Footnote: Un Chapeau
de paille d'Italie (Labiche).] There is only one other hat like it in
the whole of Paris; it MUST be secured regardless of cost. This hat,
which always slips away at the moment its capture seems inevitable,
keeps the principal character on the run, and through him all the
others who hang, so to say, on to his coat tails, like a magnet which,
by a successive series of attractions, draws along in its train the
grains of iron filings that hang on to each other. And when at last,
after all sorts of difficulties, the goal seems in sight, it is found
that the hat so ardently sought is precisely the one that has been
eaten. The same voyage of discovery is depicted in another equally
well-known comedy of Labiche. [Footnote: La Cagnotte.] The curtain
rises on an old bachelor and an old maid, acquaintances of long
standing, at the moment of enjoying their daily rubber. Each of them,
unknown to the other, has applied to the same matrimonial agency.
Through innumerable difficulties, one mishap following on the heels of
another, they hurry along, side by side, right through the play, to the
interview which brings them back, purely and simply, into each other's
presence. We have the same circular effect, the same return to the
starting-point, in a more recent play. [Footnote: Les Surprises du
divorce.] A henpecked husband imagines he has escaped by divorce from
the clutches of his wife and his mother-in-law. He marries again, when,
lo and behold, the double combination of marriage and divorce brings
back to him his former wife in the aggravated form of a second
mother-in-law!

When we think how intense and how common is this type of the comic, we
understand why it has fascinated the imagination of certain
philosophers. To cover a good deal of ground only to come back
unwittingly to the starting-point, is to make a great effort for a
result that is nil. So we might be tempted to define the comic in this
latter fashion. And such, indeed, seems to be the idea of Herbert
Spencer: according to him, laughter is the indication of an effort
which suddenly encounters a void. Kant had already said something of
the kind: "Laughter is the result of an expectation, which, of a
sudden, ends in nothing." No doubt these definitions would apply to the
last few examples given, although, even then, the formula needs the
addition of sundry limitations, for we often make an ineffectual effort
which is in no way provocative of laughter. While, however, the last
few examples are illustrations of a great cause resulting in a small
effect, we quoted others, immediately before, which might be defined
inversely as a great effect springing from a small cause. The truth is,
this second definition has scarcely more validity than the first. Lack
of proportion between cause and effect, whether appearing in one or in
the other, is never the direct source of laughter. What we do laugh at
is something that this lack of proportion may in certain cases
disclose, namely, a particular mechanical arrangement which it reveals
to us, as through a glass, at the back of the series of effects and
causes. Disregard this arrangement, and you let go the only clue
capable of guiding you through the labyrinth of the comic. Any
hypothesis you otherwise would select, while possibly applicable to a
few carefully chosen cases, is liable at any moment to be met and
overthrown by the first unsuitable instance that comes along.

But why is it we laugh at this mechanical arrangement? It is doubtless
strange that the history of a person or of a group should sometimes
appear like a game worked by strings, or gearings, or springs; but from
what source does the special character of this strangeness arise? What
is it that makes it laughable? To this question, which we have already
propounded in various forms, our answer must always be the same. The
rigid mechanism which we occasionally detect, as a foreign body, in the
living continuity of human affairs is of peculiar interest to us as
being a kind of ABSENTMINDEDNESS on the part of life. Were events
unceasingly mindful of their own course, there would be no
coincidences, no conjunctures and no circular series; everything would
evolve and progress continuously. And were all men always attentive to
life, were we constantly keeping in touch with others as well as with
ourselves, nothing within us would ever appear as due to the working of
strings or springs. The comic is that side of a person which reveals
his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which, through its
peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of
automatism, of movement without life. Consequently it expresses an
individual or collective imperfection which calls for an immediate
corrective. This corrective is laughter, a social gesture that singles
out and represses a special kind of absentmindedness in men and in
events.

But this in turn tempts us to make further investigations. So far, we
have spent our time in rediscovering, in the diversions of the grownup
man, those mechanical combinations which amused him as a child. Our
methods, in fact, have been entirely empirical. Let us now attempt to
frame a full and methodical theory, by seeking, as it were, at the
fountainhead, the changeless and simple archetypes of the manifold and
transient practices of the comic stage. Comedy, we said, combines
events so as to introduce mechanism into the outer forms of life. Let
us now ascertain in what essential characteristics life, when viewed
from without, seems to contrast with mere mechanism. We shall only
have, then, to turn to the opposite characteristics, in order to
discover the abstract formula, this time a general and complete one,
for every real and possible method of comedy.

Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in
space. Regarded in time, it is the continuous evolution of a being ever
growing older; it never goes backwards and never repeats anything.
Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexisting elements so closely
interdependent, so exclusively made for one another, that not one of
them could, at the same time, belong to two different organisms: each
living being is a closed system of phenomena, incapable of interfering
with other systems. A continual change of aspect, the irreversibility
of the order of phenomena, the perfect individuality of a perfectly
self-contained series: such, then, are the outward
characteristics--whether real or apparent is of little moment--which
distinguish the living from the merely mechanical. Let us take the
counterpart of each of these: we shall obtain three processes which
might be called REPETITION, INVERSION, and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF
SERIES. Now, it is easy to see that these are also the methods of light
comedy, and that no others are possible.

As a matter of fact, we could discover them, as ingredients of varying
importance, in the composition of all the scenes we have just been
considering, and, a fortiori, in the children's games, the mechanism of
which they reproduce. The requisite analysis would, however, delay us
too long, and it is more profitable to study them in their purity by
taking fresh examples. Nothing could be easier, for it is in their pure
state that they are found both in classic comedy and in contemporary
plays.

1. REPETITION.-Our present problem no longer deals, like the preceding
one, with a word or a sentence repeated by an individual, but rather
with a situation, that is, a combination of circumstances, which recurs
several times in its original form and thus contrasts with the changing
stream of life. Everyday experience supplies us with this type of the
comic, though only in a rudimentary state. Thus, you meet a friend in
the street whom you have not seen for an age; there is nothing comic in
the situation. If, however, you meet, him again the same day, and then
a third and a fourth time, you may laugh at the "coincidence." Now,
picture to yourself a series of imaginary events which affords a
tolerably fair illusion of life, and within this ever-moving series
imagine one and the same scene reproduced either by the same characters
or by different ones: again you will have a coincidence, though a far
more extraordinary one.

Such are the repetitions produced on the stage. They are the more
laughable in proportion as the scene repeated is more complex and more
naturally introduced--two conditions which seem mutually exclusive, and
which the play-writer must be clever enough to reconcile.

Contemporary light comedy employs this method in every shape and form.
One of the best-known examples consists in bringing a group of
characters, act after act, into the most varied surroundings, so as to
reproduce, under ever fresh circumstances, one and the same series of
incidents or accidents more or less symmetrically identical.

In several of Moliere's plays we find one and the same arrangement of
events repeated right through the comedy from beginning to end. Thus,
the Ecole des femmes does nothing more than reproduce and repeat a
single incident in three tempi: first tempo, Horace tells Arnolphe of
the plan he has devised to deceive Agnes's guardian, who turns out to
be Arnolphe himself; second tempo, Arnolphe thinks he has checkmated
the move; third tempo, Agnes contrives that Horace gets all the benefit
of Arnolphe's precautionary measures. There is the same symmetrical
repetition in the Ecole des marts, in L'Etourdi, and above all in
George Dandin, where the same effect in three tempi is again met with:
first tempo, George Dandin discovers that his wife is unfaithful;
second tempo, he summons his father--and mother-in-law to his
assistance; third tempo, it is George Dandin himself, after all, who
has to apologise.

At times the same scene is reproduced with groups of different
characters. Then it not infrequently happens that the first group
consists of masters and the second of servants. The latter repeat in
another key a scene already played by the former, though the rendering
is naturally less refined. A part of the Depit amoureux is constructed
on this plan, as is also Amphitryon. In an amusing little comedy of
Benedix, Der Eigensinn, the order is inverted: we have the masters
reproducing a scene of stubbornness in which their servants have set
the example.

But, quite irrespective of the characters who serve as pegs for the
arrangement of symmetrical situations, there seems to be a wide gulf
between classic comedy and the theatre of to-day. Both aim at
introducing a certain mathematical order into events, while none the
less maintaining their aspect of likelihood, that is to say, of life.
But the means they employ are different. The majority of light comedies
of our day seek to mesmerise directly the mind of the spectator. For,
however extraordinary the coincidence, it becomes acceptable from the
very fact that it is accepted; and we do accept it, if we have been
gradually prepared for its reception. Such is often the procedure
adopted by contemporary authors. In Moliere's plays, on the contrary,
it is the moods of the persons on the stage, not of the audience, that
make repetition seem natural. Each of the characters represents a
certain force applied in a certain direction, and it is because these
forces, constant in direction, necessarily combine together in the same
way, that the same situation is reproduced. Thus interpreted, the
comedy of situation is akin to the comedy of character. It deserves to
be called classic, if classic art is indeed that which does not claim
to derive from the effect more than it has put into the cause.

2. Inversion.--This second method has so much analogy with the first
that we will merely define it without insisting on illustrations.
Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if you
reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic scene.
The double rescue scene in Le Voyage de M. Perrichon belongs to this
class. [Footnote: Labiche, "Le Voyage de M. Perrichon."] There is no
necessity, however, for both the identical scenes to be played before
us. We may be shown only one, provided the other is really in our
minds. Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the
magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at
everything that comes under the heading of "topsyturvydom." Not
infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which
he is the first to be caught. The plot of the villain who is the victim
of his own villainy, or the cheat cheated, forms the stock-in-trade of
a good many plays. We find this even in primitive farce. Lawyer
Pathelin tells his client of a trick to outwit the magistrate; the
client employs the self-same trick to avoid paying the lawyer. A
termagant of a wife insists upon her husband doing all the housework;
she has put down each separate item on a "rota." Now let her fall into
a copper, her husband will refuse to drag her out, for "that is not
down on his 'rota.'" In modern literature we meet with hundreds of
variations on the theme of the robber robbed. In every case the root
idea involves an inversion of roles, and a situation which recoils on
the head of its author.

Here we apparently find the confirmation of a law, some illustrations
of which we have already pointed out. When a comic scene has been
reproduced a number of times, it reaches the stage of being a classical
type or model. It becomes amusing in itself, quite apart from the
causes which render it amusing. Henceforth, new scenes, which are not
comic de jure, may become amusing de facto, on account of their partial
resemblance to this model. They call up in our mind a more or less
confused image which we know to be comical. They range themselves in a
category representing an officially recognised type of the comic. The
scene of the "robber robbed" belongs to this class. It casts over a
host of other scenes a reflection of the comic element it contains. In
the end it renders comic any mishap that befalls one through one's own
fault, no matter what the fault or mishap may be,--nay, an allusion to
this mishap, a single word that recalls it, is sufficient. There would
be nothing amusing in the saying, "It serves you right, George Dandin,"
were it not for the comic overtones that take up and re-echo it.

3. We have dwelt at considerable length on repetition and inversion; we
now come to the reciprocal interference [Footnote: The word
"interference" has here the meaning given to it in Optics, where it
indicates the partial superposition and neutralisation, by each other,
of two series of light-waves.] of series. This is a comic effect, the
precise formula of which is very difficult to disentangle, by reason of
the extraordinary variety of forms in which it appears on the stage.
Perhaps it might be defined as follows: A situation is invariably comic
when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of
events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different
meanings at the same time.

You will at once think of an equivocal situation. And the equivocal
situation is indeed one which permits of two different meanings at the
same time, the one merely plausible, which is put forward by the
actors, the other a real one, which is given by the public. We see the
real meaning of the situation, because care has been taken to show us
every aspect of it; but each of the actors knows only one of these
aspects: hence the mistakes they make and the erroneous judgments they
pass both on what is going on around them and on what they are doing
themselves. We proceed from this erroneous judgment to the correct one,
we waver between the possible meaning and the real, and it is this
mental seesaw between two contrary interpretations which is at first
apparent in the enjoyment we derive from an equivocal situation. It is
natural that certain philosophers should have been specially struck by
this mental instability, and that some of them should regard the very
essence of the ludicrous as consisting in the collision or coincidence
of two judgments that contradict each other. Their definition, however,
is far from meeting every case, and even when it does, it defines--not
the principle of the ludicrous, but only one of its more or less
distant consequences. Indeed, it is easy to see that the stage-made
misunderstanding is nothing but a particular instance of a far more
general phenomenon,--the reciprocal interference of independent series,
and that, moreover, it is not laughable in itself, but only as a sign
of such an interference.

As a matter of fact, each of the characters in every stage-made
misunderstanding has his setting in an appropriate series of events
which he correctly interprets as far as he is concerned, and which give
the key-note to his words and actions. Each of the series peculiar to
the several characters develop independently, but at a certain moment
they meet under such conditions that the actions and words that belong
to one might just as well belong to another. Hence arise the
misunderstandings and the equivocal nature of the situation. But this
latter is not laughable in itself, it is so only because it reveals the
coincidence of the two independent series. The proof of this lies in
the fact that the author must be continually taxing his ingenuity to
recall our attention to the double fact of independence and
coincidence. This he generally succeeds in doing by constantly renewing
the vain threat of dissolving partnership between the two coinciding
series. Every moment the whole thing threatens to break down, but
manages to get patched up again; it is this diversion that excites
laughter, far more than the oscillation of the mind between two
contradictory ideas. It makes us laugh because it reveals to us the
reciprocal interference of two independent series, the real source of
the comic effect.

And so the stage-made misunderstanding is nothing more than one
particular instance, one means--perhaps the most artificial--of
illustrating the reciprocal interference of series, but it is not the
only one. Instead of two contemporary series, you might take one series
of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the present:
if the two series happen to coincide in our imagination, there will be
no resulting cross-purposes, and yet the same comic effect will
continue to take place. Think of Bonivard, captive in the Castle of
Chillon: one series of facts. Now picture to yourself Tartarin,
travelling in Switzerland, arrested and imprisoned: second series,
independent of the former. Now let Tartarin be manacled to Bonivard's
chain, thus making the two stories seem for a moment to coincide, and
you will get a very amusing scene, one of the most amusing that
Daudet's imagination has pictured. [Tartarin sur les Alpes, by Daudet.]
Numerous incidents of the mock-heroic style, if analysed, would reveal
the same elements. The transposition from the ancient to the
modern--always a laughable one--draws its inspiration from the same
idea. Labiche has made use of this method in every shape and form.
Sometimes he begins by building up the series separately, and then
delights in making them interfere with one another: he takes an
independent group--a wedding-party, for instance--and throws them into
altogether unconnected surroundings, into which certain coincidences
allow of their being foisted for the time being. Sometimes he keeps one
and the same set of characters right through the play, but contrives
that certain of these characters have something to conceal--have, in
fact, a secret understanding on the point--in short, play a smaller
comedy within the principal one: at one moment, one of the two comedies
is on the point of upsetting the other; the next, everything comes
right and the coincidence between the two series is restored.
Sometimes, even, he introduces into the actual series a purely
immaterial series of events, an inconvenient past, for instance, that
some one has an interest in concealing, but which is continually
cropping up in the present, and on each occasion is successfully
brought into line with situations with which it seemed destined to play
havoc. But in every case we find the two independent series, and also
their partial coincidence.

We will not carry any further this analysis of the methods of light
comedy. Whether we find reciprocal interference of series, inversion,
or repetition, we see that the objective is always the same--to obtain
what we have called a MECHANISATION of life. You take a set of actions
and relations and repeat it as it is, or turn it upside down, or
transfer it bodily to another set with which it partially
coincides--all these being processes that consist in looking upon life
as a repeating mechanism, with reversible action and interchangeable
parts. Actual life is comedy just so far as it produces, in a natural
fashion, actions of the same kind,--consequently, just so far as it
forgets itself, for were it always on the alert, it would be
ever-changing continuity, irrevertible progress, undivided unity. And
so the ludicrous in events may be defined as absentmindedness in
things, just as the ludicrous in an individual character always results
from some fundamental absentmindedness in the person, as we have
already intimated and shall prove later on. This absentmindedness in
events, however, is exceptional. Its results are slight. At any rate it
is incurable, so that it is useless to laugh at it. Therefore the idea
would never have occurred to any one of exaggerating that
absentmindedness, of converting it into a system and creating an art
for it, if laughter were not always a pleasure and mankind did not
pounce upon the slightest excuse for indulging in it. This is the real
explanation of light comedy, which holds the same relation to actual
life as does a jointed dancing-doll to a man walking,--being, as it is,
an artificial exaggeration of a natural rigidity in things. The thread
that binds it to actual life is a very fragile one. It is scarcely more
than a game which, like all games, depends on a previously accepted
convention. Comedy in character strikes far deeper roots into life.
With that kind of comedy we shall deal more particularly in the final
portion of our investigation. But we must first analyse a certain type
of the comic, in many respects similar to that of light comedy: the
comic in words.


II

There may be something artificial in making a special category for the
comic in words, since most of the varieties of the comic that we have
examined so far were produced through the medium of language. We must
make a distinction, however, between the comic EXPRESSED and the comic
CREATED by language. The former could, if necessary, be translated from
one language into another, though at the cost of losing the greater
portion of its significance when introduced into a fresh society
different in manners, in literature, and above all in association of
ideas. But it is generally impossible to translate the latter. It owes
its entire being to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of
the words. It does not set forth, by means of language, special cases
of absentmindedness in man or in events. It lays stress on lapses of
attention in language itself. In this case, it is language itself that
becomes comic.

Comic sayings, however, are not a matter of spontaneous generation; if
we laugh at them, we are equally entitled to laugh at their author.
This latter condition, however, is not indispensable, since the saying
or expression has a comic virtue of its own. This is proved by the fact
that we find it very difficult, in the majority of these cases, to say
whom we are laughing at, although at times we have a dim, vague feeling
that there is some one in the background.

Moreover, the person implicated is not always the speaker. Here it
seems as though we should draw an important distinction between the
WITTY (SPIRITUEL) and the COMIC. A word is said to be comic when it
makes us laugh at the person who utters it, and witty when it makes us
laugh either at a third party or at ourselves. But in most cases we can
hardly make up our minds whether the word is comic or witty. All that
we can say is that it is laughable.

Before proceeding, it might be well to examine more closely what is
meant by ESPRIT. A witty saying makes us at least smile; consequently,
no investigation into laughter would be complete did it not get to the
bottom of the nature of wit and throw light on the underlying idea. It
is to be feared, however, that this extremely subtle essence is one
that evaporates when exposed to the light.

Let us first make a distinction between the two meanings of the word
wit ESPRIT, the broader one and the more restricted. In the broader
meaning of the word, it would seem that what is called wit is a certain
DRAMATIC way of thinking. Instead of treating his ideas as mere
symbols, the wit sees them, he hears them and, above all, makes them
converse with one another like persons. He puts them on the stage, and
himself, to some extent, into the bargain. A witty nation is, of
necessity, a nation enamoured of the theatre. In every wit there is
something of a poet--just as in every good reader there is the making
of an actor. This comparison is made purposely, because a proportion
might easily be established between the four terms. In order to read
well we need only the intellectual side of the actor's art; but in
order to act well one must be an actor in all one's soul and body. In
just the same way, poetic creation calls for some degree of
self-forgetfulness, whilst the wit does not usually err in this
respect. We always get a glimpse of the latter behind what he says and
does. He is not wholly engrossed in the business, because he only
brings his intelligence into play. So any poet may reveal himself as a
wit when he pleases. To do this there will be no need for him to
acquire anything; it seems rather as though he would have to give up
something. He would simply have to let his ideas hold converse with one
another "for nothing, for the mere joy of the thing!" [Footnote: "Pour
rien, pour le plaisir" is a quotation from Victor Hugo's Marion
Delorme] He would only have to unfasten the double bond which keeps his
ideas in touch with his feelings and his soul in touch with life. In
short, he would turn into a wit by simply resolving to be no longer a
poet in feeling, but only in intelligence.

But if wit consists, for the most part, in seeing things SUB SPECIE
THEATRI, it is evidently capable of being specially directed to one
variety of dramatic art, namely, comedy. Here we have a more restricted
meaning of the term, and, moreover, the only one that interests us from
the point of view of the theory of laughter. What is here called WIT is
a gift for dashing off comic scenes in a few strokes--dashing them off,
however, so subtly, delicately and rapidly, that all is over as soon as
we begin to notice them.

Who are the actors in these scenes? With whom has the wit to deal?
First of all, with his interlocutors themselves, when his witticism is
a direct retort to one of them. Often with an absent person whom he
supposes to have spoken and to whom he is replying. Still oftener, with
the whole world,--in the ordinary meaning of the term,--which he takes
to task, twisting a current idea into a paradox, or making use of a
hackneyed phrase, or parodying some quotation or proverb. If we compare
these scenes in miniature with one another, we find they are almost
always variations of a comic theme with which we are well acquainted,
that of the "robber robbed." You take up a metaphor, a phrase, an
argument, and turn it against the man who is, or might be, its author,
so that he is made to say what he did not mean to say and lets himself
be caught, to some extent, in the toils of language. But the theme of
the "robber robbed" is not the only possible one. We have gone over
many varieties of the comic, and there is not one of them that is
incapable of being volatilised into a witticism.

Every witty remark, then, lends itself to an analysis, whose chemical
formula, so to say, we are now in a position to state. It runs as
follows: Take the remark, first enlarge it into a regular scene, then
find out the category of the comic to which the scene evidently
belongs: by this means you reduce the witty remark to its simplest
elements and obtain a full explanation of it.

Let us apply this method to a classic example. "Your chest hurts me"
(J'AI MAL A VOTRE POITRINE) wrote Mme. de Sevigne to her ailing
daughter--clearly a witty saying. If our theory is correct, we need
only lay stress upon the saying, enlarge and magnify it, and we shall
see it expand into a comic scene. Now, we find this very scene, ready
made, in the AMOUR MEDECIN of Moliere. The sham doctor, Clitandre, who
has been summoned to attend Sganarelle's daughter, contents himself
with feeling Sganarelle's own pulse, whereupon, relying on the sympathy
there must be between father and daughter, he unhesitatingly concludes:
"Your daughter is very ill!" Here we have the transition from the witty
to the comical. To complete our analysis, then, all we have to do is to
discover what there is comical in the idea of giving a diagnosis of the
child after sounding the father or the mother. Well, we know that one
essential form of comic fancy lies in picturing to ourselves a living
person as a kind of jointed dancing-doll, and that frequently, with the
object of inducing us to form this mental picture, we are shown two or
more persons speaking and acting as though attached to one another by
invisible strings. Is not this the idea here suggested when we are led
to materialise, so to speak, the sympathy we postulate as existing
between father and daughter?

We now see how it is that writers on wit have perforce confined
themselves to commenting on the extraordinary complexity of the things
denoted by the term without ever succeeding in defining it. There are
many ways of being witty, almost as many as there are of being the
reverse. How can we detect what they have in common with one another,
unless we first determine the general relationship between the witty
and the comic? Once, however, this relationship is cleared up,
everything is plain sailing. We then find the same connection between
the comic and the witty as exists between a regular scene and the
fugitive suggestion of a possible one. Hence, however numerous the
forms assumed by the comic, wit will possess an equal number of
corresponding varieties. So that the comic, in all its forms, is what
should be defined first, by discovering (a task which is already quite
difficult enough) the clue that leads from one form to the other. By
that very operation wit will have been analysed, and will then appear
as nothing more than the comic in a highly volatile state. To follow
the opposite plan, however, and attempt directly to evolve a formula
for wit, would be courting certain failure. What should we think of a
chemist who, having ever so many jars of a certain substance in his
laboratory, would prefer getting that substance from the atmosphere, in
which merely infinitesimal traces of its vapour are to be found?

But this comparison between the witty and the comic is also indicative
of the line we must take in studying the comic in words. On the one
hand, indeed, we find there is no essential difference between a word
that is comic and one that is witty; on the other hand, the latter,
although connected with a figure of speech, invariably calls up the
image, dim or distinct, of a comic scene. This amounts to saying that
the comic in speech should correspond, point by point, with the comic
in actions and in situations, and is nothing more, if one may so
express oneself, than their projection on to the plane of words. So let
us return to the comic in actions and in situations, consider the chief
methods by which it is obtained, and apply them to the choice of words
and the building up of sentences. We shall thus have every possible
form of the comic in words as well as every variety of wit.

1. Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or
doing, as a result of inelasticity or momentum, is, as we are aware,
one of the main sources of the comic. Thus, absentmindedness is
essentially laughable, and so we laugh at anything rigid, ready-made,
mechanical in gesture, attitude and even facial expression. Do we find
this kind of rigidity in language also? No doubt we do, since language
contains ready-made formulas and stereotyped phrases. The man who
always expressed himself in such terms would invariably be comic. But
if an isolated phrase is to be comic in itself, when once separated
from the person who utters it, it must be something more than
ready-made, it must bear within itself some sign which tells us, beyond
the possibility of doubt, that it was uttered automatically. This can
only happen when the phrase embodies some evident absurdity, either a
palpable error or a contradiction in terms. Hence the following general
rule: A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS
FITTED INTO A WELL-ESTABLISHED PHRASE-FORM.

"Ce sabre est le plus beau jour de ma vie," said M. Prudhomme.
Translate the phrase into English or German and it becomes purely
absurd, though it is comic enough in French. The reason is that "le
plus beau jour de ma vie" is one of those ready-made phrase-endings to
which a Frenchman's ear is accustomed. To make it comic, then, we need
only clearly indicate the automatism of the person who utters it. This
is what we get when we introduce an absurdity into the phrase. Here the
absurdity is by no means the source of the comic, it is only a very
simple and effective means of making it obvious.

We have quoted only one saying of M. Prudhomme, but the majority of
those attributed to him belong to the same class. M. Prudhomme is a man
of ready-made phrases. And as there are ready-made phrases in all
languages, M. Prudhomme is always capable of being transposed, though
seldom of being translated. At times the commonplace phrase, under
cover of which the absurdity slips in, is not so readily noticeable. "I
don't like working between meals," said a lazy lout. There would be
nothing amusing in the saying did there not exist that salutary precept
in the realm of hygiene: "One should not eat between meals."

Sometimes, too, the effect is a complicated one. Instead of one
commonplace phrase-form, there are two or three which are dovetailed
into each other. Take, for instance, the remark of one of the
characters in a play by Labiche, "Only God has the right to kill His
fellow-creature." It would seem that advantage is here taken of two
separate familiar sayings; "It is God who disposes of the lives of
men," and, "It is criminal for a man to kill his fellow-creature." But
the two sayings are combined so as to deceive the ear and leave the
impression of being one of those hackneyed sentences that are accepted
as a matter of course. Hence our attention nods, until we are suddenly
aroused by the absurdity of the meaning. These examples suffice to show
how one of the most important types of the comic can be projected--in a
simplified form--on the plane of speech. We will now proceed to a form
which is not so general.

2. "We laugh if our attention is diverted to the physical in a person
when it is the moral that is in question," is a law we laid down in the
first part of this work. Let us apply it to language. Most words might
be said to have a PHYSICAL and a MORAL meaning, according as they are
interpreted literally or figuratively. Every word, indeed, begins by
denoting a concrete object or a material action; but by degrees the
meaning of the word is refined into an abstract relation or a pure
idea. If, then, the above law holds good here, it should be stated as
follows: "A comic effect is obtained whenever we pretend to take
literally an expression which was used figuratively"; or, "Once our
attention is fixed on the material aspect of a metaphor, the idea
expressed becomes comic."

In the phrase, "Tous les arts sont freres" (all the arts are brothers),
the word "frere" (brother) is used metaphorically to indicate a more or
less striking resemblance. The word is so often used in this way, that
when we hear it we do not think of the concrete, the material
connection implied in every relationship. We should notice it more if
we were told that "Tous les arts sont cousins," for the word "cousin"
is not so often employed in a figurative sense; that is why the word
here already assumes a slight tinge of the comic. But let us go further
still, and suppose that our attention is attracted to the material side
of the metaphor by the choice of a relationship which is incompatible
with the gender of the two words composing the metaphorical expression:
we get a laughable result. Such is the well-known saying, also
attributed to M. Prudhomme, "Tous les arts (masculine) sont soeurs
(feminine)." "He is always running after a joke," was said in
Boufflers' presence regarding a very conceited fellow. Had Boufflers
replied, "He won't catch it," that would have been the beginning of a
witty saying, though nothing more than the beginning, for the word
"catch" is interpreted figuratively almost as often as the word "run";
nor does it compel us more strongly than the latter to materialise the
image of two runners, the one at the heels of the other. In order that
the rejoinder may appear to be a thoroughly witty one, we must borrow
from the language of sport an expression so vivid and concrete that we
cannot refrain from witnessing the race in good earnest. This is what
Boufflers does when he retorts, "I'll back the joke!"

We said that wit often consists in extending the idea of one's
interlocutor to the point of making him express the opposite of what he
thinks and getting him, so to say, entrapt by his own words. We must
now add that this trap is almost always some metaphor or comparison the
concrete aspect of which is turned against him. You may remember the
dialogue between a mother and her son in the Faux Bonshommes: "My dear
boy, gambling on 'Change is very risky. You win one day and lose the
next."--"Well, then, I will gamble only every other day." In the same
play too we find the following edifying conversation between two
company-promoters: "Is this a very honourable thing we are doing? These
unfortunate shareholders, you see, we are taking the money out of their
very pockets...."--"Well, out of what do you expect us to take it?"

An amusing result is likewise obtainable whenever a symbol or an emblem
is expanded on its concrete side, and a pretence is made of retaining
the same symbolical value for this expansion as for the emblem itself.
In a very lively comedy we are introduced to a Monte Carlo official,
whose uniform is covered with medals, although he has only received a
single decoration. "You see, I staked my medal on a number at
roulette," he said, "and as the number turned up, I was entitled to
thirty-six times my stake." This reasoning is very similar to that
offered by Giboyer in the Effrontes. Criticism is made of a bride of
forty summers who is wearing orange-blossoms with her wedding costume:
"Why, she was entitled to oranges, let alone orange-blossoms!" remarked
Giboyer.

But we should never cease were we to take one by one all the laws we
have stated, and try to prove them on what we have called the plane of
language. We had better confine ourselves to the three general
propositions of the preceding section. We have shown that "series of
events" may become comic either by repetition, by inversion, or by
reciprocal interference. Now we shall see that this is also the case
with series of words.

To take series of events and repeat them in another key or another
environment, or to invert them whilst still leaving them a certain
meaning, or mix them up so that their respective meanings jostle one
another, is invariably comic, as we have already said, for it is
getting life to submit to be treated as a machine. But thought, too, is
a living thing. And language, the translation of thought, should be
just as living. We may thus surmise that a phrase is likely to become
comic if, though reversed, it still makes sense, or if it expresses
equally well two quite independent sets of ideas, or, finally, if it
has been obtained by transposing an idea into some key other than its
own. Such, indeed, are the three fundamental laws of what might be
called THE COMIC TRANSFORMATION OF SENTENCES, as we shall show by a few
examples.

Let it first be said that these three laws are far from being of equal
importance as regards the theory of the ludicrous. INVERSION is the
least interesting of the three. It must be easy of application,
however, for it is noticeable that, no sooner do professional wits hear
a sentence spoken than they experiment to see if a meaning cannot be
obtained by reversing it,--by putting, for instance, the subject in
place of the object, and the object in place of the subject. It is not
unusual for this device to be employed for refuting an idea in more or
less humorous terms. One of the characters in a comedy of Labiche
shouts out to his neighbour on the floor above, who is in the habit of
dirtying his balcony, "What do you mean by emptying your pipe on to my
terrace?" The neighbour retorts, "What do you mean by putting your
terrace under my pipe?" There is no necessity to dwell upon this kind
of wit, instances of which could easily be multiplied. The RECIPROCAL
INTERFERENCE of two sets of ideas in the same sentence is an
inexhaustible source of amusing varieties. There are many ways of
bringing about this interference, I mean of bracketing in the same
expression two independent meanings that apparently tally. The least
reputable of these ways is the pun. In the pun, the same sentence
appears to offer two independent meanings, but it is only an
appearance; in reality there are two different sentences made up of
different words, but claiming to be one and the same because both have
the same sound. We pass from the pun, by imperceptible stages, to the
true play upon words. Here there is really one and the same sentence
through which two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are
confronted with only one series of words; but advantage is taken of the
different meanings a word may have, especially when used figuratively
instead of literally. So that in fact there is often only a slight
difference between the play upon words on the one hand, and a poetic
metaphor or an illuminating comparison on the other. Whereas an
illuminating comparison and a striking image always seem to reveal the
close harmony that exists between language and nature, regarded as two
parallel forms of life, the play upon words makes us think somehow of a
negligence on the part of language, which, for the time being, seems to
have forgotten its real function and now claims to accommodate things
to itself instead of accommodating itself to things. And so the play
upon words always betrays a momentary LAPSE OF ATTENTION in language,
and it is precisely on that account that it is amusing.

INVERSION and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE, after all, are only a certain
playfulness of the mind which ends at playing upon words. The comic in
TRANSPOSITION is much more far-reaching. Indeed, transposition is to
ordinary language what repetition is to comedy.

We said that repetition is the favourite method of classic comedy. It
consists in so arranging events that a scene is reproduced either
between the same characters under fresh circumstances or between fresh
characters under the same circumstances. Thus we have, repeated by
lackeys in less dignified language, a scene already played by their
masters. Now, imagine ideas expressed in suitable style and thus placed
in the setting of their natural environment. If you think of some
arrangement whereby they are transferred to fresh surroundings, while
maintaining their mutual relations, or, in other words, if you can
induce them to express themselves in an altogether different style and
to transpose themselves into another key, you will have language itself
playing a comedy--language itself made comic. There will be no need,
moreover, actually to set before us both expressions of the same ideas,
the transposed expression and the natural one. For we are acquainted
with the natural one--the one which we should have chosen
instinctively. So it will be enough if the effort of comic invention
bears on the other, and on the other alone. No sooner is the second set
before us than we spontaneously supply the first. Hence the following
general rule: A COMIC EFFECT IS ALWAYS OBTAINABLE BY TRANSPOSING THE
NATURE EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA INTO ANOTHER KEY.

The means of transposition are so many and varied, language affords so
rich a continuity of themes and the comic is here capable of passing
through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid buffoonery
up to the loftiest forms of humour and irony, that we shall forego the
attempt to make out a complete list. Having stated the rule, we will
simply, here and there, verify its main applications.

In the first place, we may distinguish two keys at the extreme ends of
the scale, the solemn and the familiar. The most obvious effects are
obtained by merely transposing the one into the other, which thus
provides us with two opposite currents of comic fancy.

Transpose the solemn into the familiar and the result is parody. The
effect of parody, thus defined, extends to instances in which the idea
expressed in familiar terms is one that, if only in deference to
custom, ought to be pitched in another key. Take as an example the
following description of the dawn, quoted by Jean Paul Richter: "The
sky was beginning to change from black to red, like a lobster being
boiled." Note that the expression of old-world matters in terms of
modern life produces the same effect, by reason of the halo of poetry
which surrounds classical antiquity.

It is doubtless the comic in parody that has suggested to some
philosophers, and in particular to Alexander Bain, the idea of defining
the comic, in general, as a species of DEGRADATION. They describe the
laughable as causing something to appear mean that was formerly
dignified. But if our analysis is correct, degradation is only one form
of transposition, and transposition itself only one of the means of
obtaining laughter. There is a host of others, and the source of
laughter must be sought for much further back. Moreover, without going
so far, we see that while the transposition from solemn to trivial,
from better to worse, is comic, the inverse transposition may be even
more so.

It is met with as often as the other, and, apparently, we may
distinguish two main forms of it, according as it refers to the
PHYSICAL DIMENSIONS of an object or to its MORAL VALUE.

To speak of small things as though they were large is, in a general
way, TO EXAGGERATE. Exaggeration is always comic when prolonged, and
especially when systematic; then, indeed, it appears as one method of
transposition. It excites so much laughter that some writers have been
led to define the comic as exaggeration, just as others have defined it
as degradation. As a matter of fact, exaggeration, like degradation, is
only one form of one kind of the comic. Still, it is a very striking
form. It has given birth to the mock-heroic poem, a rather
old-fashioned device, I admit, though traces of it are still to be
found in persons inclined to exaggerate methodically. It might often be
said of braggadocio that it is its mock-heroic aspect which makes us
laugh.

Far more artificial, but also far more refined, is the transposition
upwards from below when applied to the moral value of things, not to
their physical dimensions. To express in reputable language some
disreputable idea, to take some scandalous situation, some low-class
calling or disgraceful behaviour, and describe them in terms of the
utmost "RESPECTABILITY," is generally comic. The English word is here
purposely employed, as the practice itself is characteristically
English. Many instances of it may be found in Dickens and Thackeray,
and in English literature generally. Let us remark, in passing, that
the intensity of the effect does not here depend on its length. A word
is sometimes sufficient, provided it gives us a glimpse of an entire
system of transposition accepted in certain social circles and reveals,
as it were, a moral organisation of immorality. Take the following
remark made by an official to one of his subordinates in a novel of
Gogol's, "Your peculations are too extensive for an official of your
rank."

Summing up the foregoing, then, there are two extreme terms of
comparison, the very large and the very small, the best and the worst,
between which transposition may be effected in one direction or the
other. Now, if the interval be gradually narrowed, the contrast between
the terms obtained will be less and less violent, and the varieties of
comic transposition more and more subtle.

The most common of these contrasts is perhaps that between the real and
the ideal, between what is and what ought to be. Here again
transposition may take place in either direction. Sometimes we state
what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is
actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we
describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to
believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the
method of HUMOUR. Humour, thus denned, is the counterpart of irony.
Both are forms of satire, but irony is oratorical in its nature, whilst
humour partakes of the scientific. Irony is emphasised the higher we
allow ourselves to be uplifted by the idea of the good that ought to
be: thus irony may grow so hot within us that it becomes a kind of
high-pressure eloquence. On the other hand, humour is the more
emphasised the deeper we go down into an evil that actually is, in
order t o set down its details in the most cold-blooded indifference.
Several authors, Jean Paul amongst them, have noticed that humour
delights in concrete terms, technical details, definite facts. If our
analysis is correct, this is not an accidental trait of humour, it is
its very essence. A humorist is a moralist disguised as a scientist,
something like an anatomist who practises dissection with the sole
object of filling us with disgust; so that humour, in the restricted
sense in which we are here regarding the word, is really a
transposition from the moral to the scientific.

By still further curtailing the interval between the terms transposed,
we may now obtain more and more specialised types of comic
transpositions. Thus, certain professions have a technical vocabulary:
what a wealth of laughable results have been obtained by transposing
the ideas of everyday life into this professional jargon! Equally comic
is the extension of business phraseology to the social relations of
life,--for instance, the phrase of one of Labiche's characters in
allusion to an invitation he has received, "Your kindness of the third
ult.," thus transposing the commercial formula, "Your favour of the
third instant." This class of the comic, moreover, may attain a special
profundity of its own when it discloses not merely a professional
practice, but a fault in character. Recall to mind the scenes in the
Faux Bonshommes and the Famille Benoiton, where marriage is dealt with
as a business affair, and matters of sentiment are set down in strictly
commercial language.

Here, however, we reach the point at which peculiarities of language
really express peculiarities of character, a closer investigation of
which we must hold over to the next chapter. Thus, as might have been
expected and may be seen from the foregoing, the comic in words follows
closely on the comic in situation and is finally merged, along with the
latter, in the comic in character. Language only attains laughable
results because it is a human product, modelled as exactly as possible
on the forms of the human mind. We feel it contains some living element
of our own life; and if this life of language were complete and
perfect, if there were nothing stereotype in it, if, in short, language
were an absolutely unified organism incapable of being split up into
independent organisms, it would evade the comic as would a soul whose
life was one harmonious whole, unruffled as the calm surface of a
peaceful lake. There is no pool, however, which has not some dead
leaves floating on its surface, no human soul upon which there do not
settle habits that make it rigid against itself by making it rigid
against others, no language, in short, so subtle and instinct with
life, so fully alert in each of its parts as to eliminate the
ready-made and oppose the mechanical operations of inversion,
transposition, etc., which one would fain perform upon it as on some
lifeless thing. The rigid, the ready--made, the mechanical, in contrast
with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in
contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free
activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain
correct. We appealed to this idea to give us light at the outset, when
starting upon the analysis of the ludicrous. We have seen it shining at
every decisive turning in our road. With its help, we shall now enter
upon a more important investigation, one that will, we hope, be more
instructive. We purpose, in short, studying comic characters, or rather
determining the essential conditions of comedy in character, while
endeavouring to bring it about that this study may contribute to a
better understanding of the real nature of art and the general relation
between art and life.



CHAPTER III

THE COMIC IN CHARACTER


I

We have followed the comic along many of its winding channels in an
endeavour to discover how it percolates into a form, an attitude, or a
gesture; a situation, an action, or an expression. The analysis of
comic CHARACTERS has now brought us to the most important part of our
task. It would also be the most difficult, had we yielded to the
temptation of defining the laughable by a few striking--and
consequently obvious--examples; for then, in proportion as we advanced
towards the loftiest manifestations of the comic, we should have found
the facts slipping between the over-wide meshes of the definition
intended to retain them. But, as a matter of fact, we have followed the
opposite plan, by throwing light on the subject from above. Convinced
that laughter has a social meaning and import, that the comic
expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society,
and that, in short, there is nothing comic apart from man, we have made
man and character generally our main objective. Our chief difficulty,
therefore, has lain in explaining how we come to laugh at anything else
than character, and by what subtle processes of fertilisation,
combination or amalgamation, the comic can worm its way into a mere
movement, an impersonal situation, or an independent phrase. This is
what we have done so far. We started with the pure metal, and all our
endeavours have been directed solely towards reconstructing the ore. It
is the metal itself we are now about to study. Nothing could be easier,
for this time we have a simple element to deal with. Let us examine it
closely and see how it reacts upon everything else.

There are moods, we said, which move us as soon us as soon as we
perceive them, joys and sorrows with which we sympathise, passions and
vices which call forth painful astonishment, terror or pity, in the
beholder; in short, sentiments that are prolonged in sentimental
overtones from mind to mind. All this concerns the essentials of life.
All this is serious, at times even tragic. Comedy can only begin at the
point where our neighbour's personality ceases to affect us. It begins,
in fact, with what might be called a growing callousness to social
life. Any individual is comic who automatically goes his own way
without troubling himself about getting into touch with the rest of his
fellow-beings. It is the part of laughter to reprove his
absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream. If it is permissible to
compare important things with trivial ones, we would call to mind what
happens when a youth enters one of our military academies. After
getting through the dreaded ordeal of the examination, he finds the has
other ordeals to face, which his seniors have arranged with the object
of fitting him for the new life he is entering upon, or, as they say,
of "breaking him into harness." Every small society that forms within
the larger is thus impelled, by a vague kind of instinct, to devise
some method of discipline or "breaking in," so as to deal with the
rigidity of habits that have been formed elsewhere and have now to
undergo a partial modification. Society, properly so-called, proceeds
in exactly the same way. Each member must be ever attentive to his
social surroundings; he must model himself on his environment; in
short, he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character
as a philosopher in his ivory tower. Therefore society holds suspended
over each individual member, if not the threat of correction, at all
events the prospect of a snubbing, which, although it is slight, is
none the less dreaded. Such must be the function of laughter. Always
rather humiliating for the one against whom it is directed, laughter
is, really and truly, a kind of social "ragging."

Hence the equivocal nature of the comic. It belongs neither altogether
to art nor altogether to life. On the one hand, characters in real life
would never make us laugh were we not capable of watching their
vagaries in the same way as we look down at a play from our seat in a
box; they are only comic in our eyes because they perform a kind of
comedy before us. But, on the other hand, the pleasure caused by
laughter, even on the stage, is not an unadulterated enjoyment; it is
not a pleasure that is exclusively esthetic or altogether
disinterested. It always implies a secret or unconscious intent, if not
of each one of us, at all events of society as a whole. In laughter we
always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to
correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed. This
is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is. The
more sublime the drama, the more profound the analysis to which the
poet has had to subject the raw materials of daily life in order to
obtain the tragic element in its unadulterated form. On the contrary,
it is only in its lower aspects, in light comedy and farce, that comedy
is in striking contrast to reality: the higher it rises, the more it
approximates to life; in fact, there are scenes in real life so closely
bordering on high-class comedy that the stage might adopt them without
changing a single word.

Hence it follows that the elements of comic character on the stage and
in actual life will be the same. What are these elements? We shall find
no difficulty in deducing them. It has often been said that it is the
TRIFLING faults of our fellow-men that make us laugh.

Evidently there is a considerable amount of truth in this opinion;
still, it cannot be regarded as altogether correct. First, as regards
faults, it is no easy matter to draw the line between the trifling and
the serious; maybe it is not because a fault is trifling that it makes
us laugh, but rather because it makes us laugh that we regard it as
trifling, for there is nothing disarms us like laughter. But we may go
even farther, and maintain that there are faults at which we laugh,
even though fully aware that they are serious,--Harpagon's avarice, for
instance. And then, we may as well confess--though somewhat
reluctantly--that we laugh not only at the faults of our fellow-men,
but also, at times, at their good qualities. We laugh at Alceste. The
objection may be urged that it is not the earnestness of Alceste that
is ludicrous, but rather the special aspect which earnestness assumes
in his case, and, in short, a certain eccentricity that mars it in our
eyes. Agreed; but it is none the less true that this eccentricity in
Alceste, at which we laugh, MAKES HIS EARNESTNESS LAUGHABLE, and that
is the main point. So we may conclude that the ludicrous is not always
an indication of a fault, in the moral meaning of the word, and if
critics insist on seeing a fault, even though a trifling one, in the
ludicrous, they must point out what it is here that exactly
distinguishes the trifling from the serious.

The truth is, the comic character may, strictly speaking, be quite in
accord with stern morality. All it has to do is to bring itself into
accord with society. The character of Alceste is that of a thoroughly
honest man. But then he is unsociable, and, on that very account,
ludicrous. A flexible vice may not be so easy to ridicule as a rigid
virtue. It is rigidity that society eyes with suspicion. Consequently,
it is the rigidity of Alceste that makes us laugh, though here rigidity
stands for honesty. The man who withdraws into himself is liable to
ridicule, because the comic is largely made up of this very withdrawal.
This accounts for the comic being so frequently dependent on the
manners or ideas, or, to put it bluntly, on the prejudices, of a
society.

It must be acknowledged, however, to the credit of mankind, that there
is no essential difference between the social ideal and the rule, that
it is the faults of others that make us laugh, provided we add that
they make us laugh by reason of their UNSOCIABILITY rather than of
their IMMORALITY. What, then, are the faults capable of becoming
ludicrous, and in what circumstances do we regard them as being too
serious to be laughed at?

We have already given an implicit answer to this question. The comic,
we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is
incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however trifling, in such
a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is
impossible for us to laugh. On the other hand, take a downright
vice,--even one that is, generally speaking, of an odious nature,--you
may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable contrivance, you arrange so
that it leaves our emotions unaffected. Not that the vice must then be
ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time forth, become so. IT MUST NOT
AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole condition really necessary,
though assuredly it is not sufficient.

But, then, how will the comic poet set to work to prevent our feelings
being moved? The question is an embarrassing one. To clear it up
thoroughly, we should have to enter upon a rather novel line of
investigation, to analyse the artificial sympathy which we bring with
us to the theatre, and determine upon the circumstances in which we
accept and those in which we refuse to share imaginary joys and
sorrows. There is an art of lulling sensibility to sleep and providing
it with dreams, as happens in the case of a mesmerised person. And
there is also an art of throwing a wet blanket upon sympathy at the
very moment it might arise, the result being that the situation, though
a serious one, is not taken seriously. This latter art would appear to
be governed by two methods, which are applied more or less
unconsciously by the comic poet. The first consists in ISOLATING,
within the soul of the character, the feeling attributed to him, and
making it a parasitic organism, so to speak, endowed with an
independent existence. As a general rule, an intense feeling
successively encroaches upon all other mental states and colours them
with its own peculiar hue; if, then, we are made to witness this
gradual impregnation, we finally become impregnated ourselves with a
corresponding emotion. To employ a different image, an emotion may be
said to be dramatic and contagious when all the harmonics in it are
heard along with the fundamental note. It is because the actor thus
thrills throughout his whole being that the spectators themselves feel
the thrill. On the contrary, in the case of emotion that leaves us
indifferent and that is about to become comic, there is always present
a certain rigidity which prevents it from establishing a connection
with the rest of the soul in which it has taken up its abode. This
rigidity may be manifested, when the time comes, by puppet-like
movements, and then it will provoke laughter; but, before that, it had
already alienated our sympathy: how can we put ourselves in tune with a
soul which is not in tune with itself? In Moliere's L'Avare we have a
scene bordering upon drama. It is the one in which the borrower and the
usurer, who have never seen each other, meet face to face and find that
they are son and father. Here we should be in the thick of a drama, if
only greed and fatherly affection, conflicting with each other in the
soul of Harpagon, had effected a more or less original combination. But
such is not the case. No sooner has the interview come to an end than
the father forgets everything. On meeting his son again he barely
alludes to the scene, serious though it has been: "You, my son, whom I
am good enough to forgive your recent escapade, etc." Greed has thus
passed close to all other feelings ABSENTMINDEDLY, without either
touching them or being touched. Although it has taken up its abode in
the soul and become master of the house, none the less it remains a
stranger. Far different would be avarice of a tragic sort. We should
find it attracting and absorbing, transforming and assimilating the
divers energies of the man: feelings and affections, likes and
dislikes, vices and virtues, would all become something into which
avarice would breathe a new kind of life. Such seems to be the first
essential difference between high-class comedy and drama.

There is a second, which is far more obvious and arises out of the
first. When a mental state is depicted to us with the object of making
it dramatic, or even merely of inducing us to take it seriously, it
gradually crystallises into ACTIONS which provide the real measure of
its greatness. Thus, the miser orders his whole life with a view to
acquiring wealth, and the pious hypocrite, though pretending to have
his eyes fixed upon heaven, steers most skilfully his course here
below. Most certainly, comedy does not shut out calculations of this
kind; we need only take as an example the very machinations of
Tartuffe. But that is what comedy has in common with drama; and in
order to keep distinct from it, to prevent our taking a serious action
seriously, in short, in order to prepare us for laughter, comedy
utilises a method, the formula of which may be given as follows:
INSTEAD OF CONCENTRATING OUR ATTENTION ON ACTIONS, COMEDY DIRECTS IT
RATHER TO GESTURES. By GESTURES we here mean the attitudes, the
movements and even the language by which a mental state expresses
itself outwardly without any aim or profit, from no other cause than a
kind of inner itching. Gesture, thus defined, is profoundly different
from action. Action is intentional or, at any rate, conscious; gesture
slips out unawares, it is automatic. In action, the entire person is
engaged; in gesture, an isolated part of the person is expressed,
unknown to, or at least apart from, the whole of the personality.
Lastly--and here is the essential point--action is in exact proportion
to the feeling that inspires it: the one gradually passes into the
other, so that we may allow our sympathy or our aversion to glide along
the line running from feeling to action and become increasingly
interested. About gesture, however, there is something explosive, which
awakes our sensibility when on the point of being lulled to sleep and,
by thus rousing us up, prevents our taking matters seriously. Thus, as
soon as our attention is fixed on gesture and not on action, we are in
the realm of comedy. Did we merely take his actions into account,
Tartuffe would belong to drama: it is only when we take his gestures
into consideration that we find him comic. You may remember how he
comes on to the stage with the words: "Laurent, lock up my hair-shirt
and my scourge." He knows Dorine is listening to him, but doubtless he
would say the same if she were not there. He enters so thoroughly into
the role of a hypocrite that he plays it almost sincerely. In this way,
and this way only, can he become comic. Were it not for this material
sincerity, were it not for the language and attitudes that his
long-standing experience as a hypocrite has transformed into natural
gestures, Tartuffe would be simply odious, because we should only think
of what is meant and willed in his conduct. And so we see why action is
essential in drama, but only accessory in comedy. In a comedy, we feel
any other situation might equally well have been chosen for the purpose
of introducing the character; he would still have been the same man
though the situation were different. But we do not get this impression
in a drama. Here characters and situations are welded together, or
rather, events form part and parcel with the persons, so that were the
drama to tell us a different story, even though the actors kept the
same names, we should in reality be dealing with other persons.

To sum up, whether a character is good or bad is of little moment:
granted he is unsociable, he is capable of becoming comic. We now see
that the seriousness of the case is of no importance either: whether
serious or trifling, it is still capable of making us laugh, provided
that care be taken not to arouse our emotions. Unsociability in the
performer and insensibility in the spectator--such, in a word, are the
two essential conditions. There is a third, implicit in the other two,
which so far it has been the aim of our analysis to bring out.

This third condition is automatism. We have pointed it out from the
outset of this work, continually drawing attention to the following
point: what is essentially laughable is what is done automatically. In
a vice, even in a virtue, the comic is that element by which the person
unwittingly betrays himself--the involuntary gesture or the unconscious
remark. Absentmindedness is always comical. Indeed, the deeper the
absentmindedness the higher the comedy. Systematic absentmindedness,
like that of Don Quixote, is the most comical thing imaginable: it is
the comic itself, drawn as nearly as possible from its very source.
Take any other comic character: however unconscious he may be of what
he says or does, he cannot be comical unless there be some aspect of
his person of which he is unaware, one side of his nature which he
overlooks; on that account alone does he make us laugh. [Footnote: When
the humorist laughs at himself, he is really acting a double part; the
self who laughs is indeed conscious, but not the self who is laughed
at.] Profoundly comic sayings are those artless ones in which some vice
reveals itself in all its nakedness: how could it thus expose itself
were it capable of seeing itself as it is? It is not uncommon for a
comic character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct
and immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for
instance, M. Jourdain's teacher of philosophy flying into a passion
after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket
after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object of
such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the
obliviousness of the characters to their own actions? Inattention to
self, and consequently to others, is what we invariably find. And if we
look at the matter closely, we see that inattention is here equivalent
to what we have called unsociability. The chief cause of rigidity is
the neglect to look around--and more especially within oneself: how can
a man fashion his personality after that of another if he does not
first study others as well as himself? Rigidity, automatism,
absent-mindedness and unsociability are all inextricably entwined; and
all serve as ingredients to the making up of the comic in character.

In a word, if we leave on one side, when dealing with human
personality, that portion which interests our sensibility or appeals to
our feeling, all the rest is capable of becoming comic, and the comic
will be proportioned to the rigidity. We formulated this idea at the
outset of this work. We have verified it in its main results, and have
just applied it to the definition of comedy. Now we must get to closer
quarters, and show how it enables us to delimitate the exact position
comedy occupies among all the other arts. In one sense it might be said
that all character is comic, provided we mean by character the
ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which
resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of
working automatically. It is, if you will, that which causes us to
imitate ourselves. And it is also, for that very reason, that which
enables others to imitate us. Every comic character is a type.
Inversely, every resemblance to a type has something comic in it.
Though we may long have associated with an individual without
discovering anything about him to laugh at, still, if advantage is t
taken of some accidental analogy to dub him with the name of a famous
hero of romance or drama, he will in our eyes border upon the
ridiculous, if only for a moment. And yet this hero of romance may not
be a comic character at all. But then it is comic to be like him. It is
comic to wander out of one's own self. It is comic to fall into a
ready-made category. And what is most comic of all is to become a
category oneself into which others will fall, as into a ready-made
frame; it is to crystallise into a stock character.

Thus, to depict characters, that is to say, general types, is the
object of high-class comedy. This has often been said. But it is as
well to repeat it, since there could be no better definition of comedy.
Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general types, but
we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that aims at the
general; so that once this objective has been attributed to it, we have
said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be. To prove that such
is really the essence of comedy, and that it is in this respect opposed
to tragedy, drama and the other forms of art, we should begin by
defining art in its higher forms: then, gradually coming down to comic
poetry, we should find that this latter is situated on the border-line
between art and life, and that, by the generality of its
subject-matter, it contrasts with the rest of the arts. We cannot here
plunge into so vast a subject of investigation; but we needs must
sketch its main outlines, lest we overlook what, to our mind, is
essential on the comic stage.

What is the object of art? Could reality come into direct contact with
sense and consciousness, could we enter into immediate communion with
things and with ourselves, probably art would be useless, or rather we
should all be artists, for then our soul would continually vibrate in
perfect accord with nature. Our eyes, aided by memory, would carve out
in space and fix in time the most inimitable of pictures. Hewn in the
living marble of the human form, fragments of statues, beautiful as the
relics of antique statuary, would strike the passing glance. Deep in
our souls we should hear the strains of our inner life's unbroken
melody,--a music that is ofttimes gay, but more frequently plaintive
and always original. All this is around and within us, and yet no whit
of it do we distinctly perceive. Between nature and ourselves, nay,
between ourselves and our own consciousness a veil is interposed: a
veil that is dense and opaque for the common herd,--thin, almost
transparent, for the artist and the poet. What fairy wove that veil?
Was it done in malice or in friendliness? We had to live, and life
demands that we grasp things in their relations to our own needs. Life
is action. Life implies the acceptance only of the UTILITARIAN side of
things in order to respond to them by appropriate reactions: all other
impressions must be dimmed or else reach us vague and blurred. I look
and I think I see, I listen and I think I hear, I examine myself and I
think I am reading the very depths of my heart. But what I see and hear
of the outer world is purely and simply a selection made by my senses
to serve as a light to my conduct; what I know of myself is what comes
to the surface, what participates in my actions. My senses and my
consciousness, therefore, give me no more than a practical
simplification of reality. In the vision they furnish me of myself and
of things, the differences that are useless to man are obliterated, the
resemblances that are useful to him are emphasised; ways are traced out
for me in advance, along which my activity is to travel. These ways are
the ways which all mankind has trod before me. Things have been
classified with a view to the use I can derive from them. And it is
this classification I perceive, far more clearly than the colour and
the shape of things. Doubtless man is vastly superior to the lower
animals in this respect. It is not very likely that the eye of a wolf
makes any distinction between a kid and a lamb; both appear t o the
wolf as the same identical quarry, alike easy to pounce upon, alike
good to devour. We, for our part, make a distinction between a goat and
a sheep; but can we tell one goat from another, one sheep from another?
The INDIVIDUALITY of things or of beings escapes us, unless it is
materially to our advantage to perceive it. Even when we do take note
of it--as when we distinguish one man from another--it is not the
individuality itself that the eye grasps, i.e., an entirely original
harmony of forms and colours, but only one or two features that will
make practical recognition easier.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we
confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them. This tendency,
the result of need, has become even more pronounced under the influence
of speech; for words--with the exception of proper nouns--all denote
genera. The word, which only takes note of the most ordinary function
and commonplace aspect of the thing, intervenes between it and
ourselves, and would conceal its form from our eyes, were that form not
already masked beneath the necessities that brought the word into
existence. Not only external objects, but even our own mental states,
are screened from us in their inmost, their personal aspect, in the
original life they possess. When we feel love or hatred, when we are
gay or sad, is it really the feeling itself that reaches our
consciousness with those innumerable fleeting shades of meaning and
deep resounding echoes that make it something altogether our own? We
should all, were it so, be novelists or poets or musicians. Mostly,
however, we perceive nothing but the outward display of our mental
state. We catch only the impersonal aspect of our feelings, that aspect
which speech has set down once for all because it is almost the same,
in the same conditions, for all men. Thus, even in our own individual,
individuality escapes our ken. We move amidst generalities and symbols,
as within a tilt-yard in which our force is effectively pitted against
other forces; and fascinated by action, tempted by it, for our own
good, on to the field it has selected, we live in a zone midway between
things and ourselves, externally to things, externally also to
ourselves. From time to time, however, in a fit of absentmindedness,
nature raises up souls that are more detached from life. Not with that
intentional, logical, systematical detachment--the result of reflection
and philosophy--but rather with natural detachment, one innate in the
structure of sense or consciousness, which at once reveals itself by a
virginal manner, so to speak, of seeing, hearing or thinking. Were this
detachment complete, did the soul no longer cleave to action by any of
its perceptions, it would be the soul of an artist such as the world
has never yet seen. It would excel alike in every art at the same time;
or rather, it would fuse them all into one. It would perceive all
things in their native purity: the forms, colours, sounds of the
physical world as well as the subtlest movements of the inner life. But
this is asking too much of nature. Even for such of us as she has made
artists, it is by accident, and on one side only, that she has lifted
the veil. In one direction only has she forgotten to rivet the
perception to the need. And since each direction corresponds to what we
call a SENSE--through one of his senses, and through that sense alone,
is the artist usually wedded to art. Hence, originally, the diversity
of arts. Hence also the speciality of predispositions. This one applies
himself to colours and forms, and since he loves colour for colour and
form for form, since he perceives them for their sake and not for his
own, it is the inner life of things that he sees appearing through
their forms and colours. Little by little he insinuates it into our own
perception, baffled though we may be at the outset. For a few moments
at least, he diverts us from the prejudices of form and colour that
come between ourselves and reality. And thus he realises the loftiest
ambition of art, which here consists in revealing to us nature. Others,
again, retire within themselves. Beneath the thousand rudimentary
actions which are the outward and visible signs of an emotion, behind
the commonplace, conventional expression that both reveals and conceals
an individual mental state, it is the emotion, the original mood, to
which they attain in its undefiled essence. And then, to induce us to
make the same effort ourselves, they contrive to make us see something
of what they have seen: by rhythmical arrangement of words, which thus
become organised and animated with a life of their own, they tell
us--or rather suggest--things that speech was not calculated to
express. Others delve yet deeper still. Beneath these joys and sorrows
which can, at a pinch, be translated into language, they grasp
something that has nothing in common with language, certain rhythms of
life and breath that. are closer to man than his inmost feelings, being
the living law--varying with each individual--of his enthusiasm and
despair, his hopes and regrets. By setting free and emphasising this
music, they force it upon our attention; they compel us, willy-nilly,
to fall in with it, like passers-by who join in a dance. And thus they
impel us to set in motion, in the depths of our being, some secret
chord which was only waiting to thrill. So art, whether it be painting
or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside
the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted
generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order
to bring us face to face with reality itself. It is from a
misunderstanding on this point that the dispute between realism and
idealism in art has arisen. Art is certainly only a more direct vision
of reality. But this purity of perception implies a break with
utilitarian convention, an innate and specially localised
disinterestedness of sense or consciousness, in short, a certain
immateriality of life, which is what has always been called idealism.
So that we might say, without in any way playing upon the meaning of
the words, that realism is in the work when idealism is in the soul,
and that it is only through ideality that we can resume contact with
reality.

Dramatic art forms no exception to this law. What drama goes forth to
discover and brings to light, is a deep-seated reality that is veiled
from us, often in our own interests, by the necessities of life. What
is this reality? What are these necessities? Poetry always expresses
inward states. But amongst these states some arise mainly from contact
with our fellow-men. They are the most intense as well as the most
violent. As contrary electricities attract each other and accumulate
between the two plates of the condenser from which the spark will
presently flash, so, by simply bringing people together, strong
attractions and repulsions take place, followed by an utter loss of
balance, in a word, by that electrification of the soul known as
passion. Were man to give way to the impulse of his natural feelings,
were there neither social nor moral law, these outbursts of violent
feeling would be the ordinary rule in life. But utility demands that
these outbursts should be foreseen and averted. Man must live in
society, and consequently submit to rules. And what interest advises,
reason commands: duty calls, and we have to obey the summons. Under
this dual influence has perforce been formed an outward layer of
feelings and ideas which make for permanence, aim at becoming common to
all men, and cover, when they are not strong enough to extinguish it,
the inner fire of individual passions. The slow progress of mankind in
the direction of an increasingly peaceful social life has gradually
consolidated this layer, just as the life of our planet itself has been
one long effort to cover over with a cool and solid crust the fiery
mass of seething metals. But volcanic eruptions occur. And if the earth
were a living being, as mythology has feigned, most likely when in
repose it would take delight in dreaming of these sudden explosions,
whereby it suddenly resumes possession of its innermost nature. Such is
just the kind of pleasure that is provided for us by drama. Beneath the
quiet humdrum life that reason and society have fashioned for us, it
stirs something within us which luckily does not explode, but which it
makes us feel in its inner tension. It offers nature her revenge upon
society. Sometimes it makes straight for the goal, summoning up to the
surface, from the depths below, passions that produce a general
upheaval. Sometimes it effects a flank movement, as is often the case
in contemporary drama; with a skill that is frequently sophistical, it
shows up the inconsistencies of society; it exaggerates the shams and
shibboleths of the social law; and so indirectly, by merely dissolving
or corroding the outer crust, it again brings us back to the inner
core. But, in both cases, whether it weakens society or strengthens
nature, it has the same end in view: that of laying bare a secret
portion of ourselves,--what might be called the tragic element in our
character.

This is indeed the impression we get after seeing a stirring drama.
What has just interested us is not so much what we have been told about
others as the glimpse we have caught of ourselves--a whole host of
ghostly feelings, emotions and events that would fain have come into
real existence, but, fortunately for us, did not. It also seems as if
an appeal had been made within us to certain ancestral memories
belonging to a far-away past--memories so deep-seated and so foreign to
our present life that this latter, for a moment, seems something unreal
and conventional, for which we shall have to serve a fresh
apprenticeship. So it is indeed a deeper reality that drama draws up
from beneath our superficial and utilitarian attainments, and this art
has the same end in view as all the others.

Hence it follows that art always aims at what is INDIVIDUAL. What the
artist fixes on his canvas is something he has seen at a certain spot,
on a certain day, at a certain hour, with a colouring that will never
be seen again. What the poet sings of is a certain mood which was his,
and his alone, and which will never return. What the dramatist unfolds
before us is the life-history of a soul, a living tissue of feelings
and events--something, in short, which has once happened and can never
be repeated. We may, indeed, give general names to these feelings, but
they cannot be the same thing in another soul. They are INDIVIDUALISED.
Thereby, and thereby only, do they belong to art; for generalities,
symbols or even types, form the current coin of our daily perception.
How, then, does a misunderstanding on this point arise?

The reason lies in the fact that two very different things have been
mistaken for each other: the generality of things and that of the
opinions we come to regarding them. Because a feeling is generally
recognised as true, it does not follow that it is a general feeling.
Nothing could be more unique than the character of Hamlet. Though he
may resemble other men in some respects, it is clearly not on that
account that he interests us most. But he is universally accepted and
regarded as a living character. In this sense only is he universally
true. The same holds good of all the other products of art. Each of
them is unique, and yet, if it bear the stamp of genius, it will come
to be accepted by everybody. Why will it be accepted? And if it is
unique of its kind, by what sign do we know it to be genuine?
Evidently, by the very effort it forces us to make against our
predispositions in order to see sincerely. Sincerity is contagious.
What the artist has seen we shall probably never see again, or at least
never see in exactly the same way; but if he has actually seen it, the
attempt he has made to lift the veil compels our imitation. His work is
an example which we take as a lesson. And the efficacy of the lesson is
the exact standard of the genuineness of the work. Consequently, truth
bears within itself a power of conviction, nay, of conversion, which is
the sign that enables us to recognise it. The greater the work and the
more profound the dimly apprehended truth, the longer may the effect be
in coming, but, on the other hand, the more universal will that effect
tend to become. So the universality here lies in the effect produced,
and not in the cause.

Altogether different is the object of comedy. Here it is in the work
itself that the generality lies. Comedy depicts characters we have
already come across and shall meet with again. It takes note of
similarities. It aims at placing types before our eyes. It even creates
new types, if necessary. In this respect it forms a contrast to all the
other arts.

The very titles of certain classical comedies are significant in
themselves. Le Misanthrope, l'Avare, le Joueur, le Distrait, etc., are
names of whole classes of people; and even when a character comedy has
a proper noun as its title, this proper noun is speedily swept away, by
the very weight of its contents, into the stream of common nouns. We
say "a Tartuffe," but we should never say "a Phedre" or "a Polyeucte."

Above all, a tragic poet will never think of grouping around the chief
character in his play secondary characters to serve as simplified
copies, so to speak, of the former. The hero of a tragedy represents an
individuality unique of its kind. It may be possible to imitate him,
but then we shall be passing, whether consciously or not, from the
tragic to the comic. No one is like him, because he is like no one. But
a remarkable instinct, on the contrary, impels the comic poet, once he
has elaborated his central character, to cause other characters,
displaying the same general traits, to revolve as satellites round him.
Many comedies have either a plural noun or some collective term as
their title. "Les Femmes savantes," "Les Precieuses ridicules," "Le
Monde ou l'on s'ennuie," etc., represent so many rallying points on the
stage adopted by different groups of characters, all belonging to one
identical type. It would be interesting to analyse this tendency in
comedy. Maybe dramatists have caught a glimpse of a fact recently
brought forward by mental pathology, viz. that cranks of the same kind
are drawn, by a secret attraction, to seek each other's company.
Without precisely coming within the province of medicine, the comic
individual, as we have shown, is in some way absentminded, and the
transition from absent-mindedness to crankiness is continuous. But
there is also another reason. If the comic poet's object is to offer us
types, that is to say, characters capable of self-repetition, how can
he set about it better than by showing us, in each instance, several
different copies of the same model? That is just what the naturalist
does in order to define a species. He enumerates and describes its main
varieties.

This essential difference between tragedy and comedy, the former being
concerned with individuals and the latter with classes, is revealed in
yet another way. It appears in the first draft of the work. From the
outset it is manifested by two radically different methods of
observation.

Though the assertion may seem paradoxical, a study of other men is
probably not necessary to the tragic poet. We find some of the great
poets have lived a retiring, homely sort of life, without having a
chance of witnessing around them an outburst of the passions they have
so faithfully depicted. But, supposing even they had witnessed such a
spectacle, it is doubtful whether they would have found it of much use.
For what interests us in the work of the poet is the glimpse we get of
certain profound moods or inner struggles. Now, this glimpse cannot be
obtained from without. Our souls are impenetrable to one another.
Certain signs of passion are all that we ever apperceive externally.
These we interpret--though always, by the way, defectively--only by
analogy with what we have ourselves experienced. So what we experience
is the main point, and we cannot become thoroughly acquainted with
anything but our own heart--supposing we ever get so far. Does this
mean that the poet has experienced what he depicts, that he has gone
through the various situations he makes his characters traverse, and
lived the whole of their inner life? Here, too, the biographies of
poets would contradict such a supposition. How, indeed, could the same
man have been Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and many others? But
then a distinction should perhaps here be made between the personality
WE HAVE and all those we might have had. Our character is the result of
a choice that is continually being renewed. There are points--at all
events there seem to be--all along the way, where we may branch off,
and we perceive many possible directions though we are unable to take
more than one. To retrace one's steps, and follow to the end the
faintly distinguishable directions, appears to be the essential element
in poetic imagination. Of course, Shakespeare was neither Macbeth, nor
Hamlet, nor Othello; still, he MIGHT HAVE BEEN these several characters
if the circumstances of the case on the one hand, and the consent of
his will on the other, had caused to break out into explosive action
what was nothing more than an inner prompting. We are strangely
mistaken as to the part played by poetic imagination, if we think it
pieces together its heroes out of fragments filched from right and
left, as though it were patching together a harlequin's motley. Nothing
living would result from that. Life cannot be recomposed; it can only
be looked at and reproduced. Poetic imagination is but a fuller view of
reality. If the characters created by a poet give us the impression of
life, it is only because they are the poet himself,--multiplication or
division of the poet,--the poet plumbing the depths of his own nature
in so powerful an effort of inner observation that he lays hold of the
potential in the real, and takes up what nature has left as a mere
outline or sketch in his soul in order to make of it a finished work of
art.

Altogether different is the kind of observation from which comedy
springs. It is directed outwards. However interested a dramatist may be
in the comic features of human nature, he will hardly go, I imagine, to
the extent of trying to discover his own. Besides, he would not find
them, for we are never ridiculous except in some point that remains
hidden from our own consciousness. It is on others, then, that such
observation must perforce be practised. But it; will, for this very
reason, assume a character of generality that it cannot have when we
apply it to ourselves. Settling on the surface, it will not be more
than skin-deep, dealing with persons at the point at which they come
into contact and become capable of resembling one another. It will go
no farther. Even if it could, it would not desire to do so, for it
would have nothing to gain in the process.

To penetrate too far into the personality, to couple the outer effect
with causes that are too deep-seated, would mean to endanger and in the
end to sacrifice all that was laughable in the effect. In order that we
may be tempted to laugh at it, we must localise its cause in some
intermediate region of the soul. Consequently, the effect must appear
to us as an average effect, as expressing an average of mankind. And,
like all averages, this one is obtained by bringing together scattered
data, by comparing analogous cases and extracting their essence, in
short by a process of abstraction and generalisation similar to that
which the physicist brings to bear upon facts with the object of
grouping them under laws. In a word, method and object are here of the
same nature as in the inductive sciences, in that observation is always
external and the result always general.

And so we come back, by a roundabout way, to the double conclusion we
reached in the course of our investigations. On the one hand, a person
is never ridiculous except through some mental attribute resembling
absent-mindedness, through something that lives upon him without
forming part of his organism, after the fashion of a parasite; that is
the reason this state of mind is observable from without and capable of
being corrected. But, on the other hand, just because laughter aims at
correcting, it is expedient that the correction should reach as great a
number of persons as possible. This is the reason comic observation
instinctively proceeds to what is general. It chooses such
peculiarities as admit of being reproduced and consequently are not
indissolubly bound up with the individuality of a single person,--a
possibly common sort of uncommonness, so to say,--peculiarities that
are held in common. By transferring them to the stage, it creates works
which doubtless belong to art in that their only visible aim is to
please, but which will be found to contrast with other works of art by
reason of their generality and also of their scarcely confessed or
scarcely conscious intention to correct and instruct. So we were
probably right in saying that comedy lies midway between art and life.
It is not disinterested as genuine art is. By organising laughter,
comedy accepts social life as a natural environment, it even obeys an
impulse of social life. And in this respect it turns its back upon art,
which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature.


II

Now let us see, in the light of what has gone before, the line to take
for creating an ideally comic type of character, comic in itself, in
its origin, and in all its manifestations. It must be deep-rooted, so
as to supply comedy with inexhaustible matter, and yet superficial, in
order that it may remain within the scope of comedy; invisible to its
actual owner, for the comic ever partakes of the unconscious, but
visible to everybody else, so that it may call forth general laughter,
extremely considerate to its own self, so that it may be displayed
without scruple, but troublesome to others, so that they may repress it
without pity; immediately repressible, so that our laughter may not
have been wasted, but sure of reappearing under fresh aspects, so that
laughter may always find something to do; inseparable from social life,
although insufferable to society; capable--in order that it may assume
the greatest imaginable variety of forms--of being tacked on to all the
vices and even to a good many virtues. Truly a goodly number of
elements to fuse together! But a chemist of the soul, entrusted with
this elaborate preparation, would be somewhat disappointed when pouring
out the contents of his retort. He would find he had taken a vast deal
of trouble to compound a mixture which may be found ready-made and free
of expense, for it is as widespread throughout mankind as air
throughout nature.

This mixture is vanity. Probably there is not a single failing that is
more superficial or more deep-rooted. The wounds it receives are never
very serious, and yet they are seldom healed. The services rendered to
it are the most unreal of all services, and yet they are the very ones
that meet with lasting gratitude. It is scarcely a vice, and yet all
the vices are drawn into its orbit and, in proportion as they become
more refined and artificial, tend to be nothing more than a means of
satisfying it. The outcome of social life, since it is an admiration of
ourselves based on the admiration we think we are inspiring in others,
it is even more natural, more universally innate than egoism; for
egoism may be conquered by nature, whereas only by reflection do we get
the better of vanity. It does not seem, indeed, as if men were ever
born modest, unless we dub with the name of modesty a sort of purely
physical bashfulness, which is nearer to pride than is generally
supposed. True modesty can be nothing but a meditation on vanity. It
springs from the sight of others' mistakes and the dread of being
similarly deceived. It is a sort of scientific cautiousness with
respect to what we shall say and think of ourselves. It is made up of
improvements and after-touches. In short, it is an acquired virtue.

It is no easy matter to define the point at which the anxiety to become
modest may be distinguished from the dread of becoming ridiculous. But
surely, at the outset, this dread and this anxiety are one and the same
thing. A complete investigation into the illusions of vanity, and into
the ridicule that clings to them, would cast a strange light upon the
whole theory of laughter. We should find laughter performing, with
mathematical regularity, one of its main functions--that of bringing
back to complete self-consciousness a certain self-admiration which is
almost automatic, and thus obtaining the greatest possible sociability
of characters. We should see that vanity, though it is a natural
product of social life, is an inconvenience to society, just as certain
slight poisons, continually secreted by the human organism, would
destroy it in the long run, if they were not neutralised by other
secretions. Laughter is unceasingly doing work of this kind. In this
respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is
laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is
vanity.

While dealing with the comic in form and movement, we showed how any
simple image, laughable in itself, is capable of worming its way into
other images of a more complex nature and instilling into them
something of its comic essence; thus, the highest forms of the comic
can sometimes be explained by the lowest. The inverse process, however,
is perhaps even more common, and many coarse comic effects are the
direct result of a drop from some very subtle comic element. For
instance, vanity, that higher form of the comic, is an element we are
prone to look for, minutely though unconsciously, in every
manifestation of human activity. We look for it if only to laugh at it.
Indeed, our imagination often locates it where it has no business to
be. Perhaps we must attribute to this source the altogether coarse
comic element in certain effects which psychologists have very
inadequately explained by contrast: a short man bowing his head to pass
beneath a large door; two individuals, one very tall the other a mere
dwarf, gravely walking along arm-in-arm, etc. By scanning narrowly this
latter image, we shall probably find that the shorter of the two
persons seems as though he were trying TO RAISE HIMSELF to the height
of the taller, like the frog that wanted to make itself as large as the
ox.


III

It would be quite impossible to go through all the peculiarities of
character that either coalesce or compete with vanity in order to force
themselves upon the attention of the comic poet. We have shown that all
failings may become laughable, and even, occasionally, many a good
quality. Even though a list of all the peculiarities that have ever
been found ridiculous were drawn up, comedy would manage to add to
them, not indeed by creating artificial ones, but by discovering lines
of comic development that had hitherto gone unnoticed; thus does
imagination isolate ever fresh figures in the intricate design of one
and the same piece of tapestry. The essential condition, as we know, is
that the peculiarity observed should straightway appear as a kind of
CATEGORY into which a number of individuals can step.

Now, there are ready-made categories established by society itself, and
necessary to it because it is based on the division of labour. We mean
the various trades, public services and professions. Each particular
profession impresses on its corporate members certain habits of mind
and peculiarities of character in which they resemble each other and
also distinguish themselves from the rest. Small societies are thus
formed within the bosom of Society at large. Doubtless they arise from
the very organisation of Society as a whole. And yet, if they held too
much aloof, there would be a risk of their proving harmful to
sociability.

Now, it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency.
Its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the
individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever
they are met with. Accordingly, we here find a species of the comic
whose varieties might be calculated beforehand. This we shall call the
PROFESSIONAL COMIC.

Instead of taking up these varieties in detail, we prefer to lay stress
upon what they have in common. In the forefront we find professional
vanity. Each one of M. Jourdain's teachers exalts his own art above all
the rest. In a play of Labiche there is a character who cannot
understand how it is possible to be anything else than a timber
merchant. Naturally he is a timber merchant himself. Note that vanity
here tends to merge into SOLEMNITY, in proportion to the degree of
quackery there is in the profession under consideration. For it is a
remarkable fact that the more questionable an art, science or
occupation is, the more those who practise it are inclined to regard
themselves as invested with a kind of priesthood and to claim that all
should bow before its mysteries. Useful professions are clearly meant
for the public, but those whose utility is more dubious can only
justify their existence by assuming that the public is meant for them:
now, this is just the illusion that lies at the root of solemnity.
Almost everything comic in Moliere's doctors comes from this source.
They treat the patient as though he had been made for the doctors, and
nature herself as an appendage to medicine.

Another form of this comic rigidity is what may be called PROFESSIONAL
CALLOUSNESS. The comic character is so tightly jammed into the rigid
frame of his functions that he has no room to move or to be moved like
other men. Only call to mind the answer Isabelle receives from Perrin
Dandin, the judge, when she asks him how he can bear to look on when
the poor wretches are being tortured: Bah! cela fait toujours passer
une heure ou deux.

[Footnote: Bah! it always helps to while away an hour or two.]

Does not Tartuffe also manifest a sort of professional callousness when
he says--it is true, by the mouth of Orgon: Et je verrais mourir frere,
enfants, mere et femme, Que je m'en soucierais autant que de cela!

[Footnote: Let brother, children, mother and wife all die, what should
I care!]

The device most in use, however, for making a profession ludicrous is
to confine it, so to say, within the four corners of its own particular
jargon. Judge, doctor and soldier are made to apply the language of
law, medicine and strategy to the everyday affairs of life, as though
they had became incapable of talking like ordinary people. As a rule,
this kind of the ludicrous is rather coarse. It becomes more refined,
however, as we have already said, if it reveals some peculiarity of
character in addition to a professional habit. We will instance only
Regnard's Joueur, who expresses himself with the utmost originality in
terms borrowed from gambling, giving his valet the name of Hector, and
calling his betrothed Pallas, du nom connu de la Dame de Pique;
[Footnote: Pallas, from the well-known name of the Queen of Spades.] or
Moliere's Femmes savantes, where the comic element evidently consists
largely in the translation of ideas of a scientific nature into terms
of feminine sensibility: "Epicure me plait..." (Epicurus is charming),
"J'aime les tourbillons" (I dote on vortices), etc. You have only to
read the third act to find that Armande, Philaminte and Belise almost
invariably express themselves in this style.

Proceeding further in the same direction, we discover that there is
also such a thing as a professional logic, i.e. certain ways of
reasoning that are customary in certain circles, which are valid for
these circles, but untrue for the rest of the public. Now, the contrast
between these two kinds of logic--one particular, the other
universal--produces comic effects of a special nature, on which we may
advantageously dwell at greater length. Here we touch upon a point of
some consequence in the theory of laughter. We propose, therefore, to
give the question a wider scope and consider it in its most general
aspect.


IV

Eager as we have been to discover the deep-seated cause of the comic,
we have so far had to neglect one of its most striking phenomena. We
refer to the logic peculiar to the comic character and the comic group,
a strange kind of logic, which, in some cases, may include a good deal
of absurdity.

Theophile Gautier said that the comic in its extreme form was the logic
of the absurd. More than one philosophy of laughter revolves round a
like idea. Every comic effect, it is said, implies contradiction in
some of its aspects. What makes us laugh is alleged to be the absurd
realised in concrete shape, a "palpable absurdity";--or, again, an
apparent absurdity, which we swallow for the moment only to rectify it
immediately afterwards;--or, better still, something absurd from one
point of view though capable of a natural explanation from another,
etc. All these theories may contain some portion of the truth; but, in
the first place, they apply only to certain rather obvious comic
effects, and then, even where they do apply, they evidently take no
account of the characteristic element of the laughable, that is, the
PARTICULAR KIND of absurdity the comic contains when it does contain
something absurd. Is an immediate proof of this desired? You have only
to choose one of these definitions and make up effects in accordance
with the formula: twice out of every three times there will be nothing
laughable in the effect obtained. So we see that absurdity, when met
with in the comic, is not absurdity IN GENERAL. It is an absurdity of a
definite kind. It does not create the comic; rather, we might say that
the comic infuses into it its own particular essence. It is not a
cause, but an effect--an effect of a very special kind, which reflects
the special nature of its cause. Now, this cause is known to us;
consequently we shall have no trouble in understanding the nature of
the effect.

Assume, when out for a country walk, that you notice on the top of a
hill something that bears a faint resemblance to a large motionless
body with revolving arms. So far you do not know what it is, but you
begin to search amongst your IDEAS--that is to say, in the present
instance, amongst the recollections at your disposal--for that
recollection which will best fit in with what you see. Almost
immediately the image of a windmill comes into your mind: the object
before you is a windmill. No matter if, before leaving the house, you
have just been reading fairy-tales telling of giants with enormous
arms; for although common sense consists mainly in being able to
remember, it consists even more in being able to forget. Common sense
represents the endeavour of a mind continually adapting itself anew and
changing ideas when it changes objects. It is the mobility of the
intelligence conforming exactly to the mobility of things. It is the
moving continuity of our attention to life. But now, let us take Don
Quixote setting out for the wars. The romances he has been reading all
tell of knights encountering, on the way, giant adversaries. He
therefore must needs encounter a giant. This idea of a giant is a
privileged recollection which has taken its abode in his mind and lies
there in wait, motionless, watching for an opportunity to sally forth
and become embodied in a thing. It IS BENT on entering the material
world, and so the very first object he sees bearing the faintest
resemblance to a giant is invested with the form of one. Thus Don
Quixote sees giants where we see windmills. This is comical; it is also
absurd. But is it a mere absurdity,--an absurdity of an indefinite kind?

It is a very special inversion of common sense. It consists in seeking
to mould things on an idea of one's own, instead of moulding one's
ideas on things,--in seeing before us what we are thinking of, instead
of thinking of what we see. Good sense would have us leave all our
memories in their proper rank and file; then the appropriate memory
will every time answer the summons of the situation of the moment and
serve only to interpret it. But in Don Quixote, on the contrary, there
is one group of memories in command of all the rest and dominating the
character itself: thus it is reality that now has to bow to
imagination, its only function being to supply fancy with a body. Once
the illusion has been created, Don Quixote develops it logically enough
in all its consequences; he proceeds with the certainty and precision
of a somnambulist who is acting his dream. Such, then, is the origin of
his delusions, and such the particular logic which controls this
particular absurdity. Now, is this logic peculiar to Don Quixote?

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of
mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through
automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which
compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight
along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen. In Moliere's plays how
many comic scenes can be reduced to this simple type: A CHARACTER
FOLLOWING UP HIS ONE IDEA, and continually recurring to it in spite of
incessant interruptions! The transition seems to take place
imperceptibly from the man who will listen to nothing to the one who
will see nothing, and from this latter to the one who sees only what he
wants to see. A stubborn spirit ends by adjusting things to its own way
of thinking, instead of accommodating its thoughts to the things. So
every comic character is on the highroad to the above-mentioned
illusion, and Don Quixote furnishes us with the general type of comic
absurdity.

Is there a name for this inversion of common sense? Doubtless it may be
found, in either an acute or a chronic form, in certain types of
insanity. In many of its aspects it resembles a fixed idea. But neither
insanity in general, nor fixed ideas in particular, are provocative of
laughter: they are diseases, and arouse our pity.

Laughter, as we have seen, is incompatible with emotion. If there
exists a madness that is laughable, it can only be one compatible with
the general health of the mind,--a sane type of madness, one might say.
Now, there is a sane state of the mind that resembles madness in every
respect, in which we find the same associations of ideas as we do in
lunacy, the same peculiar logic as in a fixed idea. This state is that
of dreams. So either our analysis is incorrect, or it must be capable
of being stated in the following theorem: Comic absurdity is of the
same nature as that of dreams.

The behaviour of the intellect in a dream is exactly what we have just
been describing. The mind, enamoured of itself, now seeks in the outer
world nothing more than a pretext for realising its imaginations. A
confused murmur of sounds still reaches the ear, colours enter the
field of vision, the senses are not completely shut in. But the
dreamer, instead of appealing to the whole of his recollections for the
interpretation of what his senses perceive, makes use of what he
perceives to give substance to the particular recollection he favours:
thus, according to the mood of the dreamer and the idea that fills his
imagination at the time, a gust of wind blowing down the chimney
becomes the howl of a wild beast or a tuneful melody. Such is the
ordinary mechanism of illusion in dreams.

Now, if comic illusion is similar to dream illusion, if the logic of
the comic is the logic of dreams, we may expect to discover in the
logic of the laughable all the peculiarities of dream logic. Here,
again, we shall find an illustration of the law with which we are well
acquainted: given one form of the laughable, other forms that are
lacking in the same comic essence become laughable from their outward
resemblance to the first. Indeed, it is not difficult to see that any
PLAY OF IDEAS may afford us amusement if only it bring back to mind,
more or less distinctly, the play of dreamland.

We shall first call attention to a certain general relaxation of the
rules of reasoning. The reasonings at which we laugh are those we know
to be false, but which we might accept as true were we to hear them in
a dream. They counterfeit true reasoning just sufficiently to deceive a
mind dropping off to sleep. There is still an element of logic in them,
if you will, but it is a logic lacking in tension and, for that very
reason, affording us relief from intellectual effort. Many "witticisms"
are reasonings of this kind, considerably abridged reasonings, of which
we are given only the beginning and the end. Such play upon ideas
evolves in the direction of a play upon words in proportion as the
relations set up between the ideas become more superficial: gradually
we come to take no account of the meaning of the words we hear, but
only of their sound. It might be instructive to compare with dreams
certain comic scenes in which one of the characters systematically
repeats in a nonsensical fashion what another character whispers in his
ear. If you fall asleep with people talking round you, you sometimes
find that what they say gradually becomes devoid of meaning, that the
sounds get distorted, as it were, and recombine in a haphazard fashion
to form in your mind the strangest of meanings, and that you are
reproducing between yourself and the different speakers the scene
between Petit-Jean and The Prompter. [Footnote: Les Plaideurs (Racine).]

There are also COMIC OBSESSIONS that seem to bear a great resemblance
to dream obsessions. Who has not had the experience of seeing the same
image appear in several successive dreams, assuming a plausible meaning
in each of them, whereas these dreams had no other point in common.
Effects of repetition sometimes present this special form on the stage
or in fiction: some of them, in fact, sound as though they belonged to
a dream. It may be the same with the burden of many a song: it
persistently recurs, always unchanged, at the end of every verse, each
time with a different meaning.

Not infrequently do we notice in dreams a particular CRESCENDO, a weird
effect that grows more pronounced as we proceed. The first concession
extorted from reason introduces a second; and this one, another of a
more serious nature; and so on till the crowning absurdity is reached.
Now, this progress towards the absurd produces on the dreamer a very
peculiar sensation. Such is probably the experience of the tippler when
he feels himself pleasantly drifting into a state of blankness in which
neither reason nor propriety has any meaning for him. Now, consider
whether some of Moliere's plays would not produce the same sensation:
for instance, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, which, after beginning almost
reasonably, develops into a sequence of all sorts of absurdities.
Consider also the Bourgeois gentilhomme, where the different characters
seem to allow themselves to be caught up in a very whirlwind of madness
as the play proceeds. "If it is possible to find a man more completely
mad, I will go and publish it in Rome." This sentence, which warns us
that the play is over, rouses us from the increasingly extravagant
dream into which, along with M. Jourdain, we have been sinking.

But, above all, there is a special madness that is peculiar to dreams.
There are certain special contradictions so natural to the imagination
of a dreamer, and so absurd to the reason of a man wide-awake, that it
would be impossible to give a full and correct idea of their nature to
anyone who had not experienced them. We allude to the strange fusion
that a dream often effects between two persons who henceforth form only
one and yet remain distinct. Generally one of these is the dreamer
himself. He feels he has not ceased to be what he is; yet he has become
someone else. He is himself, and not himself. He hears himself speak
and sees himself act, but he feels that some other "he" has borrowed
his body and stolen his voice. Or perhaps he is conscious of speaking
and acting as usual, but he speaks of himself as a stranger with whom
he has nothing in common; he has stepped out of his own self. Does it
not seem as though we found this same extraordinary confusion in many a
comic scene? I am not speaking of Amphitryon, in which play the
confusion is perhaps suggested to the mind of the spectator, though the
bulk of the comic effect proceeds rather from what we have already
called a "reciprocal interference of two series." I am speaking of the
extravagant and comic reasonings in which we really meet with this
confusion in its pure form, though it requires some looking into to
pick it out. For instance, listen to Mark Twain's replies to the
reporter who called to interview him:

QUESTION. Isn't that a brother of yours? ANSWER. Oh! yes, yes, yes! Now
you remind me of it, that WAS a brother of mine. That's William--BILL
we called him. Poor old Bill!

Q. Why? Is he dead, then? A. Ah! well, I suppose so. We never could
tell. There was a great mystery about it.

Q. That is sad, very sad. He disappeared, then? A. Well, yes, in a sort
of general way. We buried him.

Q. BURIED him! BURIED him, without knowing whether he was dead or not?
A. Oh no! Not that. He was dead enough.

Q. Well, I confess that I can't understand this. If you buried him, and
you knew he was dead--A. No! no! We only thought he was.

Q. Oh, I see! He came to life again? A. I bet he didn't.

Q. Well, I never heard anything like this. SOMEBODY was dead. SOMEBODY
was buried. Now, where was the mystery? A. Ah! that's just it! That's
it exactly. You see, we were twins,--defunct and I,--and we got mixed
in the bath-tub when we were only two weeks old, and one of us was
drowned. But we didn't know which. Some think it was Bill. Some think
it was me.

Q. Well, that is remarkable. What do YOU think? A. Goodness knows! I
would give whole worlds to know. This solemn, this awful tragedy has
cast a gloom over my whole life. But I will tell you a secret now,
which I have never revealed to any creature before. One of us had a
peculiar mark,--a large mole on the back of his left hand: that was ME.
THAT CHILD WAS THE ONE THAT WAS DROWNED! ... etc., etc.

A close examination will show us that the absurdity of this dialogue is
by no means an absurdity of an ordinary type. It would disappear were
not the speaker himself one of the twins in the story. It results
entirely from the fact that Mark Twain asserts he is one of these
twins, whilst all the time he talks as though he were a third person
who tells the tale. In many of our dreams we adopt exactly the same
method.


V

Regarded from this latter point of view, the comic seems to show itself
in a form somewhat different from the one we lately attributed to it.
Up to this point, we have regarded laughter as first and foremost a
means of correction. If you take the series of comic varieties and
isolate the predominant types at long intervals, you will find that all
the intervening varieties borrow their comic quality from their
resemblance to these types, and that the types themselves are so many
models of impertinence with regard to society. To these impertinences
society retorts by laughter, an even greater impertinence. So evidently
there is nothing very benevolent in laughter. It seems rather inclined
to return evil for evil.

But this is not what we are immediately struck by in our first
impression of the laughable. The comic character is often one with
whom, to begin with, our mind, or rather our body, sympathises. By this
is meant that we put ourselves for a very short time in his place,
adopt his gestures, words, arid actions, and, if amused by anything
laughable in him, invite him, in imagination, to share his amusement
with us; in fact, we treat him first as a playmate. So, in the laugher
we find a "hail-fellow-well-met" spirit--as far, at least, as
appearances go--which it would be wrong of us not to take into
consideration. In particular, there is in laughter a movement of
relaxation which has often been noticed, and the reason of which we
must try to discover. Nowhere is this impression more noticeable than
in the last few examples. In them, indeed, we shall find its
explanation.

When the comic character automatically follows up his idea, he
ultimately thinks, speaks and acts as though he were dreaming. Now, a
dream is a relaxation. To remain in touch with things and men, to see
nothing but what is existent and think nothing but what is consistent,
demands a continuous effort of intellectual tension. This effort is
common sense. And to remain sensible is, indeed, to remain at work. But
to detach oneself from things and yet continue to perceive images, to
break away from logic and yet continue to string together ideas, is to
indulge in play or, if you prefer, in dolce far niente. So, comic
absurdity gives us from the outset the impression of playing with
ideas. Our first impulse is to join in the game. That relieves us from
the strain of thinking. Now, the same might be said of the other forms
of the laughable. Deep-rooted in the comic, there is always a tendency,
we said, to take the line of least resistance, generally that of habit.
The comic character no longer tries to be ceaselessly adapting and
readapting himself to the society of which he is a member. He slackens
in the attention that is due to life. He more or less resembles the
absentminded. Maybe his will is here even more concerned than his
intellect, and there is not so much a want of attention as a lack of
tension; still, in some way or another, he is absent, away from his
work, taking it easy. He abandons social convention, as indeed--in the
case we have just been considering--he abandoned logic. Here, too, our
first impulse is to accept the invitation to take it easy. For a short
time, at all events, we join in the game. And that relieves us from the
strain of living.

But we rest only for a short time. The sympathy that is capable of
entering into the impression of the comic is a very fleeting one. It
also comes from a lapse in attention. Thus, a stern father may at times
forget himself and join in some prank his child is playing, only to
check himself at once in order to correct it.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it
must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is
directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken
with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy
or kindness.

Shall we be told that the motive, at all events; may be a good one,
that we often punish because we love, and that laughter, by checking
the outer manifestations of certain failings, thus causes the person
laughed at to correct these failings and thereby improve himself
inwardly?

Much might be said on this point. As a general rule, and speaking
roughly, laughter doubtless exercises a useful function. Indeed, the
whole of our analysis points to this fact. But it does not therefore
follow that laughter always hits the mark or is invariably inspired by
sentiments of kindness or even of justice.

To be certain of always hitting the mark, it would have to proceed from
an act of reflection. Now, laughter is simply the result of a mechanism
set up in us by nature or, what is almost the same thing, by our long
acquaintance with social life. It goes off spontaneously and returns
tit for tat. It has no time to look where it hits. Laughter punishes
certain failing's somewhat as disease punishes certain forms of excess,
striking down some who are innocent and sparing some who are guilty,
aiming at a general result and incapable of dealing separately with
each individual case. And so it is with everything that comes to pass
by natural means instead of happening by conscious reflection. An
average of justice may show itself in the total result, though the
details, taken separately, often point to anything but justice.

In this sense, laughter cannot be absolutely just. Nor should it be
kind-hearted either. Its function is to intimidate by humiliating. Now,
it would not succeed in doing this, had not nature implanted for that
very purpose, even in the best of men, a spark of spitefulness or, at
all events, of mischief. Perhaps we had better not investigate this
point too closely, for we should not find anything very flattering to
ourselves. We should see that this movement of relaxation or expansion
is nothing but a prelude to laughter, that the laugher immediately
retires within himself, more self-assertive and conceited than ever,
and is evidently disposed to look upon another's personality as a
marionette of which he pulls the strings. In this presumptuousness we
speedily discern a degree of egoism and, behind this latter, something
less spontaneous and more bitter, the beginnings of a curious pessimism
which becomes the more pronounced as the laugher more closely analyses
his laughter.

Here, as elsewhere, nature has utilised evil with a view to good. It is
more especially the good that has engaged our attention throughout this
work. We have seen that the more society improves, the more plastic is
the adaptability it obtains from its members; while the greater the
tendency towards increasing stability below, the more does it force to
the surface the disturbing elements inseparable from so vast a bulk;
and thus laughter performs a useful function by emphasising the form of
these significant undulations. Such is also the truceless warfare of
the waves on the surface of the sea, whilst profound peace reigns in
the depths below. The billows clash and collide with each other, as
they strive to find their level. A fringe of snow-white foam, feathery
and frolicsome, follows their changing outlines. From time to time, the
receding wave leaves behind a remnant of foam on the sandy beach. The
child, who plays hard by, picks up a handful, and, the next moment, is
astonished to find that nothing remains in his grasp but a few drops of
water, water that is far more brackish, far more bitter than that of
the wave which brought it. Laughter comes into being in the self-same
fashion. It indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life. It
instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. It, also, is
afroth with a saline base. Like froth, it sparkles. It is gaiety
itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste may find
that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.



[THE END]





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