THE DIVINE COMEDY – WELL, HUMAN REALLY.
Dedicated to the memory of Max Anacker, global citizen with a distinguished career in Chemical Engineering, denizen of Climate Etc and Serf Under-ground Journal, witty and wise.
While laughter and the nature of the comic have been the subject of many earnest studies, I do not propose to burden the reader, or myself, in their detailed pursuit. Rather a selection supported by illustration from the cornucopia of comedy, examples from film, the cartoonist armoury and from the litera-chure.
Extracts on Laughter.
# ‘The most striking thing about the people of the Western Desert was their ready laughter.’The neighboring Aranda men used to say of them, ‘They are always laughing. They can’t help it.’
(Carl Strehlow in ‘The Songlines’ Bruce Chatwn, (Picador) P305.)
# ‘That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitations, sinners that we are …Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God.’
(Blind prophet The Venerable Jorge in ‘The Name of the Rose,’ Umberto Eco. (Picador) p 474.)
# ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’
(Mr Bennet in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ Jane Austen, (Penguin) p 343.)
Theories on Laughter.
# The Superiority Theory of Aristotle focusing on the darker side of comedy, specifically that we laugh in response to our elevation over others’ unfortunate situations or social standing. Tsk!
# The Relief Theory of Sigmund Freud that focuses on laughter and humour as a form of emotional release, funneling energy away from pent up emotions and, you guessed it, sexual repression.
# The Incongruity Theory of Immanuel Kant in which something funny revolves around derailed expectations or an effective, unpredictable punchline that takes us by surprise.
Then there’s Henry Bergson’s theory in his essay, ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic,’ which includes some of the above, particularly the incongruous, and more, ‘with no aim of imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition,’ instead seeking ‘a practical acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship.’ … Say, I like that.
So what does Bergson’s long acquaintance with the comic uncover? Herewith some extracts and let’s see how they fit with the divine comedy, well ‘human’ comedy actually.
Henri Bergson on Comedy.
‘The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly HUMAN. 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.’
‘Here I would put out a symptom equally worthy of notice, the ABSENCE of FEELING which usually accompanies laughter, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion.’
… Hmm, more of this later.
‘To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all, we must determine the utility of its function, which is a SOCIAL one.’
Say, could laughter, as an evolved instinctive response, be linked to social survival, kinda’ like the zig-zag dance of the Stickleback in me previous edition on ‘Virtue and the Selfish Gene?’ Jest askin’.
James Thurber Cartoons ‘The Overt Act ‘and ‘The Battle on the Stairs.’
James Thurber ‘The Thinker.’
So what do we laugh at? Seems what makes us laugh is a rigidity of attitude, ‘closely akin to mere absentmindedness. …The rigidity is the comic and laughter is the correction. What life and society require of us is a constantly close 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 consequences.’
Maxwell Smart, always good for a laugh concerning a comic inelasticity of mind. Take his calling for the ‘Cone of Silence’ in his private talks with the Chief.You might almost consider it a fetish.
The Maxwell Smart single dimension character demonstrates a difference between comedy and tragedy in presentation of character, the generic in comedy, compared with individual decisions in tragedy. While the vices in each may be similar, ‘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. We do not render it more complicated, on the contrary, it simplifies us.’
Think Jane Austen’s cannon of comic characters, Mr Collins, Mary Bennet, Mrs Elton, deficient in self awareness, defined by self satisfaction.
‘The whole party were assembled … and Mrs Elton in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting or talking. Strawberries and only strawberries, could now be thought of and spoken of. “The best fruit in England – everybody’s favourite – always wholesome. – These the finest beds and finest sorts. Delightful to gather for one’s self – the only way of really enjoying them .Morning decidedly the best time – never tired – every sort good – hautboys very scarce -Chili preferred – white wood finest flavour of all – price of strawberries in London – abundance about Bristol – Maple Grove – cultivation – beds – when to be renewed – gardeners thinking exactly different – no general rule – gardeners never to be put out of their way – delicious fruit – only too rich to be eaten much of – inferior to cherries – currants more refreshing – only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping – glaring sun – tired to death – could bear it no longer – must go and sit in the shade.’
(‘Emma’ Ch17. The Strawberry Picnic.)
Many comedies have a generic name as their title whereas ‘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 but a proper noun.’
Well yes, ‘Oedipus,’ ‘Othello,’ ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Medea’ versus ‘L’Avare,’ ‘The Miser,’ ‘Le Misanthrope,’ or maybe butcher, baker, lawyer, thief, characters defined by prescribed behavior and habit, so moving us to laughter where tragedy may arouse in us emotions of pity, fear or sympathy.
In Moliere’s L’Avare, the actions of the miser, Harpagon are so controlled by his avarice that it is no sooner repressed than it goes off again like a spring. When Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong that he would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she does not love, then points out the character flaws of this man that Harpagon would compel his daughter to marry, Harpagon exclaims, ‘No dowry wanted!’ as a repeating burst every few minutes.’No dowry wanted!’ His exclamation, recurring so repetitively suggests a machine set going by an automatic mechanism.
Of Comedy in Movement.
‘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 … A RESULT IN FACT OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the muscles continue to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else …’
‘The victim 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.’.
In life, movement never halts but is ever-changing. In comedy movement becomes gesture. The more unconsciously the gesture is repeated, the more puppet-like, the more striking the comic effect.
(JacquesTati ‘ Playtime.’)
Of Comic Physiognomy.
‘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 promises 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 crystallized into this particular set of features. That is 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 be forever absorbed.’
‘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 favorite distortion to which it seems to be particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency, 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.’
Take Off That Mask, Cape, Hat!
In contrast to living supple behavior, Heni Bergson likens comic situations to the mechanical actions of a child’s toy, a marionette or a jack-in-the box.
‘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 also 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 rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object covered.’
‘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.’
Heh, remember those flared trousers and weird hair styles of the nineteen seventies?
‘Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case at hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So by analogy, any disguise, any masquerade, is seen to become comic, not only in a man, but in a society also. See James Thurber, ‘Battle of the Sexes’.
‘Let us go on to society. As we are both in and out 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 life must therefore always include a latent comic element, which is always 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 then we neglect its matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form.’
(Fellini ‘Roma’ Costume Parade.)
The Language of Comedy.
For the language of comedy we must make a distinction between the comic expressed in language and the comic created by language itself. The former could possibly be translated into another language whereas it is generally impossible to translate the latter.
The comic created by language, ‘owes its entire meaning to the structure of the sentence or to the choice of 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 the language itself that becomes comic.’
‘It would seem that what is called wit is a certain DRAMATIC way of thinking about words. 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.’
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
(‘Through the Looking Glass.’ Lewis Carrol.)
And for an isolated phrase to be witty, it must bear some sign within itself of evident absurdity, either a palpable error or contradiction. Take for instance the remark by one of the characters in a play by Labiche, ‘Only God has the right to kill His fellow-creature.’
‘A COMIC MEANING IS INVARIABLY OBTAINED WHEN AN ABSURD IDEA IS FITTED INTO A WELL ESTABLISHED PHRASE FORM. ..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 … This Reciprocal Interference of two sets of ideas in the same sentence is an inexhaustible source of amusing varieties.’
‘Cecily: You, I see from your card, are Uncle Jack’s brother, my wicked cousin Ernest.’
Algernon: Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily.You mustn’t think that I am wicked.
Cecily: If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.’
Algernon: ( looks at her in amazement.) Oh! Of course I have been rather reckless.
Cecily: I am glad to hear it.
Algernon: In fact, now you mention the subject, I have been very bad in my own small way.
(The Importance of Being Ernest. Act 2.)
A comic meaning is also achieved by a process of inversion, by putting the object in place of the subject, for example, in Lewis Carrol’s ‘ Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter poses a riddle: “Why is a raven like a reading desk?”
“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.
” Do you mean that you think that you can find the answer to it?” said the March Hare.
“Exactly so,” said Alice.
“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.”
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least -at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like.”
“You might just as well say,” said the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe.”
‘TRANSPOSING THE NATURAL EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA INTO ANOTHER KEY,’ is another potent source of comedy. ‘The means of transposition are so rich and varied … the comic is here capable of passing through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid buffoonery up to the loftiest form of humour and irony’ Transpose the solemn into the familiar, the result is parody, … make small things large,…exaggeration, is always comic when prolonged and especially when systematic ….
The divine Chaucer, the little to the big, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, a farmyard drama.
Tsk, I haven’t even mentioned the Marx Brothers or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in ‘The Producers!’ 9 … Or Eddie Cantor!