ON THE COMIC
by TATYANA LYUBIMOVA
The comic is a basic aesthetic category covering the varied experiences of social consciousness in cognizing the world. While daringly violating the laws of verisimilitude and playing havoc with customary connections and notions, the comic resolutely remains on the side of common sense. It is inexhaustible in its shadings—from easy jollity and entertainment to scathing mockery and satire, from crude farce to refined forms of irony and humour. The difficulty of defining the comic constantly stressed by researchers derives precisely from the fact that extremely diverse phenomena can be the subject matter of the comic; like Proteus, the comic object constantly changes its aspect. The theories of Aristotle and, partly, of Henri Bergson can be regarded as "object" theories of the comic. Their definitions of the comic rest on the characterisation of the object through contrast and contradiction, through "error and ugliness which are, however, painless and harmless",1 as Aristotle puts it.
There are widespread theories of the comic that concentrate on the psychological mechanisms of laughter such as unexpectedness, defeated expectation, the feeling of superiority, malice, pride, economy of mental energy, etc. These psychological theories are of some use for aesthetics, but they treat of the comic, above all, in terms of concrete experience of the emotion of laughter and not in terms of generally valid forms of social consciousness fixed in one way or another in culture (in art, folklore, widespread amusements, festivals, etc.). Of the greatest interest for aesthetics, though, is the study of the comic as socially coloured laughter objectified in certain forms of culture. Essential characteristics of the comic as the universally accessible and meaningful laughable can be clarified even in the course of a purely empirical consideration of its aspects, of situations connected with the comic, and of their typical resolutions.
The comic is compared not only with other aesthetic catego-
[bottom of p. 200]
ries but also with related concepts such as the ridiculous, the strange, etc. The relation between the comic and the funny is most clearly outlined in the works of E. Souriau and E. Aubouin.2 A similar parallel can be drawn between tears and the tragic. In one case (laughter and tears), the reference is to psychological expression of emotions, while in the other (the comic and the tragic), to an aesthetic concept in regard of the cultural form that is capable of evoking the corresponding emotions, experiences, or ideas. However, laughter (just as tears) functions not only as a subjective reaction to the comic (or, respectively, the tragic) but also as a kind of emotional "lead" to it. For emotionally undeveloped individuals, the comic is nonexistent. The comic is not the opposite of the funny—it possesses a higher aesthetic quality. Naturally, aesthetics does not study the comic as hilarious experiences of an individual but its typical laws, in particular those that are expressed in art. Unlike psychological theories of laughter, aesthetic theories are not concerned with the nature of laughter, they are not concerned with its physiology or biological features but, as we have pointed out above, with its cultural forms. Everything that has meaning to man can be the subject-matter of the comic—everything that admits of playing with meaning that affords pleasure and a suitable emotional reaction. Action and its meaning mediate the relations between subject and object. Action is linked with the technique of the comic, while meaning, with perception of the comic. The technique of the comic is intended to pray with meaning, to stimulate the play of meanings, both visual and conceptual, in such a way as to produce a positive emotional reaction, laughter, in the perceiver.
The existing theories of the comic can be classified in different ways. Thus D. Victoroff3 offers a classification comprising three types of theories. The first type covers intellectualist conceptions which stress such characteristics inherent in the comic as contradictions, contrasts, and unexpectedness of recognition. Intellectualist theories insist that the experience of the comic muffles or even completely rules out all the other emotions. ("The comic demands . . . a sort of temporary anesthesia of the heart. It addresses itself to pure intelligence," is the view of Henri Bergson4.) The second type of theories is represented by the theory of degradation, which stresses the feeling of superiority, pride, vengefulness, etc., on the part of the laughing person or, in the case of an object, the discovery of the base behind the lofty, of the paltry behind the great, of the ugly behind the beautiful, of the absurd behind the obvious. In the opinion of Sigmund
Freud, for instance, a comic object manifests something childish which the subject regards as something lower than his real Ego; Bergson believes that the comic indicates a reduction of the living to the dead. Here also belong the theories of Thomas Hobbes, Alexander Ben, and Theodor Lipps. The consequences of theories of this type are obvious. The first of these consequences is neglect for the comic of the jolly, kindly, disinterested type, for the joyously laughable that has the same rights as the comic based on negation. Besides, these conceptions stress the significance of the comic as "punishment by laughter", assuming that only destructive laughter acquires invaluable social and moral significance and the capacity to castigate, if not correct, vices. The adherents of the degradation theory have proved to be unreceptive to laughter that unites. But already Beaumarchais’s comedies showed that the comic does not merely reject old institutions but also proposes new values. There is also a great deal of careless, jolly, amused laughter in popular festivals, fairy-tales, riddles and songs. The third type of the theories of the comic stresses precisely this element of amusement. The interpretation of the comic suggested in the present article—the comic as a special type of playing upon meanings—combines all three of the elements pointed out here, for the goals. of this play may vary in social significance but it must always produce the emotion of laughter of varying degree of intensity.
The general logical structure of all the theories of the comic, in the view of Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, a Belgian researcher in the comic technique in rhetoric, is ultimately reducible to one of the numerous dichotomies, e.g. mechanical vs living (Bergson); conscious vs subconscious (Freud); the incommensurability of concept and reality, the abstract and the concrete, form and meaning, the general and the unique, idea and will (Schopenhauer); the real vs the irreal (Marius Latour); higher values vs lower values (Charles Lalo); in all these cases, "the comic always consists in discharging one term".5 Several other pairs of terms are then considered: word vs thing, speech vs action, prejudice vs reality, convention vs reality, etc. All theoretical possibilities of interpretation of the comic are thereby exhausted, for all the types of theories mentioned here refer to a certain aspect of the comic or even a special type of the comic.
1. It is correctly noted in intellectualist theories that in the comic we deal with a certain sense, a certain process and content of consciousness; mere absence of sense is an absurdity; a naked contradiction excludes the comic, just as a clear, precise, well-established and firmly known sense does. That does not mean
that the comic is subjective in its very nature. Characteristic of the comic is the objectivity of the real restrictions or conditions producing or inhibiting laughter; in a broader, socio-historical context, it is characterised by the extent objectivity of the social consciousness of which it is a form. There exists an objective, historically given content of consciousness, and that content can be subject to or resist the comic.
2. Degradation theories are concerned with functional employment of the comic by the individual and society for their purposes, mostly as a defence mechanism.
3. The theory of the comic as amusement reveals the necessary element of pleasure or play.
The height of bourgeois aesthetics is, as we know, German classical idealism. The theories of the comic in Kant and Hegel cannot therefore be overlooked. Kant deduced the comic from the play of representations. "But music and material for laughter are two kinds of play with aesthetic ideas or representations of the mind in which ultimately nothing is thought, and which can give lively pleasure merely through their variation. . ."6 Kant then tried to explain pleasure from laughter through its "beneficial influence on health", but the essence of his ideas about laughter, which still retain their precision and witty form, does not lie in his references to "vibrations of the organs" and health but in the fact that he was the first to see laughter as a border with nothing: "Laughter is an affect arising out of a sudden transformation of suspense into nothing."7 In the same way as an absurdity, an error, deceit that are not funny or pleasure-giving in themselves are the boundary of cognition, laughter is the boundary of our play of representations, and it only gives pleasure as an amusing game. This very important observation, which was not developed by Kant himself but was metaphysically interpreted later, should be understood in the sense that the comic object has no development—assuming it is emptiness and nothing, while the laughing subject stops himself before nothing by his laughter. ". . . A joke must always contain something that can deceive for a moment; therefore, when illusion disappears in nothing, the soul looks back again in order to try it again; in this way, through tension and relaxation following each other in rapid succession, it hurries to and fro, from which vacillation results."8 This description certainly produces an impression of obsolescence in form, but in content it is not obsolescent at all.
Kant’s statement admits and even assumes the idea of discontinuity of consciousness; in the tragic a sudden break in everyday consciousness pushes the latter towards some higher truth;
in the same way, in the comic this sudden break, an illusory one, stops the movement of consciousness (in this case, the play of representations) on the border with nothing. Hence the parallel between the comic and the tragic. There is nothing behind laughter; we can continue to laugh, but the comic object, if it is an illusion and nothing, is fully exhausted by recognition. The function of the comic in the sense of social sanction is apparently built on this property of destruction or tearing up of the illusion of the object. But this function is not necessarily realised. This "transformation into nothing" can itself be transformed into something positive: a negation of what is alien in the opinion of a given social group itself becomes an assertion of norms accepted by that group; this effect has also been noted in sociology.
Hegel constructs the notion of the comic on the concept of accident. He means the accident of subjectivity blown up to the proportions of substantial goals, the accidental or contradictory nature of goals taken seriously by the subject, "the use of external coincidences, of which diverse and strange confusion brings about situations in which goals and their implementation, the inner character and its external circumstances form comic contrasts and thus lead to a resolution that is just as comic."9 Hegel expressed many interesting ideas on the subject of satire, which is for him the product of disintegration of the ideal. For this reason, it was impossible in Greece but found its real place in prosaic Rome: "The spirit of the Roman world is the domination of abstraction, of a dead law, the destruction of beauty and merry customs, suppression of family as the immediate, natural morality, and in general the sacrificing of the individual which gives itself up to the state and finds its cold-blooded dignity and intellectual tranquility in obeying the abstract law. The principle of this political virtue with its cold hardness . . . is opposed to true art." Satire, in which "the spirit of virtuous annoyance with the surrounding world tends to find expression in empty recitation", accords with this unpoetic world.10
The originality and beauty of Hegel’s conceptions lies in the fact that he sees the historical appropriateness of a given genre of art, including comedy. He provides, in fact, the correct answer to the question why only some moments in history are marked by masterpieces of comic art, although there is never any scarcity of subjects for laughter, and neither can comic talents be deemed a rarity. Just as tragedy, novel and other genres, the art of comedy needs a historically objective necessity and possibility of emergence.
It was Hegel’s profound historicity that enabled him to trace
a new problem—the relationship between definite necessary aesthetic categories (the beautiful, the lofty, the tragic, the comic) and the historically emerging and disappearing genres; in particular, he considered the mode in which the spirit of an epoch focuses and crystallises the dispersed elements of the comic into a special genre. Hegel associated the comic only with the comedies of Aristophanes, applying the term "funny" to anything that can provoke laughter. Of course, we accept the modern use of the term "the comic" as the generic concept for extremely varied phenomena capable of arousing laughter. We are dealing here with different uses of the term itself; what is now considered under the heading of the comic was covered in Hegel by "subjectivity" repulsing reality and by the accidental. This confusion of the meanings of words explains a certain lack of attention for Hegel’s conception of the comic, or its reduction to mere opposition of form and content.
That which Voltaire called wit was described by Hegel as "subjective humour".11 That is not the only example. Even in these days, the terminology of the domain of the comic is not yet stable: one and the same concept is sometimes defined in different terms or, on the contrary, a single term denotes different concepts. And yet, it is possible to establish the principal parameters and forms of the extensive, varied and changeable sphere of the comic. Thus if we refer to the general mood or tone of the play, we largely use the term "humour". Or consider the instantaneous reversal of meaning in speech and gestures, or a more complex situation, which gives pleasure either by the play with meaning, the skill displayed in that play, or by the "resolution into nothing" (Kant) of the apparent difficulty in meaning, most often by the form itself of the unexpected semantic shift— which is the basis of wit. In irony, playing with meaning does not consist in its open reversal but in retaining a definite duality of meaning: the obvious meaning is opposed to a concealed one, but the concealed or true meaning is assumed to be accessible to the perceiver.
The comic and sits varieties occur in almost all genres and kinds of art, although some of them are more amenable to it than others. Of this nature are, in particular, The arts connected with language and speech, since language is intended precisely for the rendering of meaning. That is why descriptions of genres using the comic or built on the comic effect should accept the division into the literary vs extraliterary comic. Mixed genres— funny pictures, cartoons, clownery accompanied by verbal text, or the more complex genre of screen comedy, can all rely on a
conflict of textual meaning with that of visual images. The difference in the level of the literary and extraliterary comic is strikingly manifested in the art of clownery. A circus clown uses elementary forms of laughter, his purpose is to make people laugh, the more intense the laughter the better the clown—and "making decent people laugh is hard work" (Moliere). Absurdity, exaggeration, throwing the joke back at its author, exaggerated efforts unsuited to the object of the efforts, precision of the errors themselves, and other devices of clownery are based on the intuition of gestures and concrete actions. Our anticipation of the development of the gesture is defeated, we are amused and pleased by the safety and precision of the deceit—so we laugh. The play is here at the level of intuition, of meaning-feeling, of visible, directly perceived meaning combined with a positive emotion.
In literature, where visible meaning is ousted by the meaning of speech and concepts, similar devices—exaggeration, reversal of meaning, absurdity, etc.—form the basis for farce and grotesque; they are also often used in traditional comedy, only here their material is word, not gesture. It is therefore difficult to create a comic image of the clown himself. In the complex genres like literature, the cinema, drama, the figure of the clown is shown from the reverse side, so to speak (cf. Heinrich Boll’s The Clown’s View, Ingmar Bergman’s The Evening of the Clowns, etc.). Ironic individuals, rogues, buffoons and cheats— these widespread comic characters—differ from the clown in that they deal with the word or with a complex action, a situation, and not with directly perceived meaning, they do not create meaning-feeling or involve us in playing with it.
Great virtuosity, subtlety and complexity of expression of the comic can be achieved in the extraliterary forms of the comic; and on the contrary, the simplest, monosyllabic jokes can occur in literary masterpieces, as in Aristophanes. However, it is in literature that we usually encounter the most subtle forms of the comic. Thus irony—a form of the subtle comic—is entirely a literary form. It has been variously expressed in the history of thought. It can be likened to playing at the truth, to labyrinthine consciousness; it is a crypto-philosophy, a pseudo-ratiocination destroying itself.
Classical irony, the irony of Socrates, is a mode of leading the interlocutor to an aporeia; it brings him out of the state of false knowledge and an aporeia is knowledge of one’s ignorance. Irony is the distance between true ideas and false convictions. It does not lead to ideas (the latter require contem-
plation) but helps to take the eyes away from the play of shadows.
Romantic irony (Ludwig Tieck’s "topsy-turvy world", Jean Paul Richter’s "the lofty inside out" and Friedrich Schlegel’s irony proper) is, in the view of Hegel, "empty striving towards the (abstract) infinite",12 intoxication with subjectivity and its arbitrariness. The same rhetorical figure—obvious meaning that is the opposite to the concealed one which is, nonetheless, accessible to perception—is used here for a purpose that is quite different from the irony of Socrates, where the purpose was objective truth and destruction of a false subjective convinction. The purpose of romantic irony is subjective freedom, i.e., arbitrariness.
Wit can be expressed in literary forms, but there also exists "non-literary" wit in speech, non-literary both in the sense of everyday communication and in the sense of prohibitions from the standpoint of morality and other social rules. Sigmund Freud devoted his theory entirely to "non-literary" wit.
The genres built on elementary forms of the comic comprise parody, burlesque (a parody of a well-known literary work), caricature and cartoon. The comic devices are here limited to imitating and distorting the image, to emphasising absurdities and ugliness. The perceiver's entire semantic activity is reduced to reading the riddle of the image, to recognizing its object, which does not, of course, rule out an intense emotional reaction (annoyance in the victim of cartoon, if the victim is a concrete real person: laughter, smiles, and the feeling of pleasure in the perceiver).
The division into elementary and complex forms of the comic does not mean that there is a certain continuity between the stages, or that complex forms genetically follow from simple ones. The situation is rather as follows: comic cliches and principal devices are applied to spheres of culture and social life varying in semantic complexity—in this way arise differences in the level of complexity in the content of the comic: however, there are also differences in the complexity of comic technique itself. A comic character in complex, advanced genres may resort to primitive and elementary forms of the comic.
Of the comic genres, especially complex are comedy and satire. Happiness, morality, love, politics, critique of morals—that is the range of themes tackled by a comedy. Satire differs from comedy in its greater acuteness of critique of social institutions. The themes of comedies mentioned here appear as values unconditionally significant, generally clear and acceptable. The comic
and the funny figure in the comedy side by side with the touching, the ugly, the pleasant and the repulsive, i.e., with properties of phenomena and characters, which, being combined with and opposed to each other in the course of the action, are instrumental in suggesting the above-mentioned values accepted without reservation by everyday consciousness and common sense. In satire, these values are only suggested nagatively. Satire results from a demand for the ideal and condemnation of reality from the standpoint of the ideal. Comedy contents itself with assertion of values accessible to common sense. The most important task of comedy is, in Moliere’s view, to please: "It’s funny and it pleases, and if it does not please it is not funny". But Moliere was a pupil of Gassendi and Montaigne, an author of the epoch of the Enlightenment: he believed that man could be reformed, and that the reforms could be achieved through comedy, not through the guillotine: "The duty of comedy is to reform men while amusing them".13 Along with the traditional comic themes (greed, hypocrisy, social and cultural institutions like family, religion, science), Moliere’s plays initiated the critique of the style of spiritual and cultural life.
The comic is varied in form and multidimensional in content; the shades of experiencing the comic, in their intensity and quality (from a placid smile and joyous laughter caused by the perception of the pleasant to laughter combined with or based on different negative feelings—laughter and stifled fear, laughter and arrogance, laughter and tears, laughter and repulsion or contempt, etc.) reproduce the picture of the spiritual life of men as a whole, the landscape of consciousness, as it were; the comic not so much presents objects than provides their general illumination, with varying shades and intensity.
Thus children’s comic patterns are neutral. The amusement caused by children’s phrases and conduct, just as the comic perceptions of children, are samples of the non-aggressive comic which does not castigate vices, which has no hint of negative feelings and is marked by amazement at children’s perceptiveness rather than a feeling of superiority. There is a basic difference, however, between the comic "for adults" and "for children". The point is not even that each age has its specific features and chooses its own comic objects. The comic produced by children and for children, has the same source as the other kinds of the comic—play with meanings: only in the case of children these meanings are absorbed in the process of teaching, the comic therefore largely exists here without negative shades.
Children’s consciousness has not yet frozen in stereotyped
patterns, the moulding of which is one of the tasks of socialisation. Children’s thinking may be said to be marked by concreteness and literalness. The gist of most of children’s witticisms (perceived as such precisely by adults) consists in the discovery of paradoxes and unexpected possibilities of language through spontaneous literalisation. Adults tend to ignore the primary or literal meaning of language, while children, as they assimilate language, begin with its literal and concrete meanings. In cases of situational children’s wit that does not take speech form, a similar mechanism of literalisation can be assumed. On the contrary, laughter used as a social sanction (of approval or censure) is typical for the comic serving social tasks other than education (assertion of moral or social norms, distraction, relaxation of tension, etc.).
The division into disinterested merry laughter and laughter that socially sanctions definite phenomena is essential. The elevation of the role of the socially engaged type of the comic to an absolute leads at times to absurd conclusions, e.g., that satire need not be funny at all. But satire that is not funny is not satire at all. However, the power of the comic, of the satirical, is determined by the degree of involvement, by the social activity of a work of art, and in one and the same work the acuteness of satire and the assertion of positive values can be combined. It is important to note that the satirical is not an independent aesthetic category but a definite dimension of the comic, of its socially oriented aspect.
Of course, in these days not only the traditional comic plots but also the expressive means of the comic have undergone numerous changes. "Considering the variety of the intonations and formulas of the comic and of irony," writes, for instance, the French critic Albérès, "one can say that, this side of the classical age, the 20th century has regained the diversity and even the familiarity of the medieval comic."14 Alberes believes that modern comic art is dominated by ironical phantasy and "explosive" comic elements. That is an acute observation referring mostly to the state of Western art, but it primarily applies to the forms of the comic, its devices and kinds. As far as the social functioning of the comic art is concerned, we can say that, as opposed to destruction of the beautiful or reduction of the tragic (also important aesthetic categories) to depression, to desperation, the comic is not being ousted out of art but wins ever larger audiences. There are certain features common to various types of comic production in Western art today.
Most of this production falls under the heading of entertain-
ment. Only rarely is the comic used for the purpose of social criticism. Critique figures mostly as manifestoes, direct denunciations and exposure. In artistic production itself the comic mostly appears in the form of the merely funny, while the mass reader, spectator or listener is left with an image of a person who, relying on certain common-sense notions still retained (bet us recall that in the comic, play with meaning always refers to this level of social consciousness—to common sense), is headed at the same time towards reconciliation, localising dissatisfaction in laughter and dispelling it.
Ironic fantasy mentioned by Alberes does not appeal to the general public. Mass comic production for entertainment has the goal of making social consciousness infantile. Mass-produced infantile comic art, with elementary images and stereotypes, with cliches modelled on the children’s comic, tends to destroy the independence of the perceiver’s consciousness.
Socialist art in the sphere of the comic sets itself quite different problems. Since Marxist aesthetics recognizes the social role of art, special attention is naturally paid to the study of those kinds of the comic that are intended to castigate vices and to assert ideals. But its social functions are not restricted to that. Just as important is its role for the all-round development of the individual, for ensuring the flexibility of his mind, subtlety of his feelings and emotions, and improvement of the relations between individuals.
Aristotel i antichnaya kultura, Moscow, 1978, p. 119. [> main text]
E. Souriau, "Le risible et le comique", Journal de psychoIogie, 1948, No. 2. pp. 145-183. Souriau distinguishes between primary and aesthetic laughter; the latter type of laughter is comic, in his view. See also E. Aubouin, Technique et psychologie du comique, Marseille, 1948; id., Les genres du risible, Marseille 1948. For Aubouin, the ridiculous is an involuntary and undesirable error, an awkwardness or an absurdity; the risible is an error or absurdity that has some justification; the comic appears when the subject committing an error or performing an absurd act justifies his act by plausible, artful reasoning that is logical in its absurdity (Technique et psychologie du comique, p. 97). [> main text]
D. Victoroff, Le rire et le risible. Introduction a la psychologie du rire, Paris, 1952. [> main text]
H. Bergson, "Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique", Oeuvres, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1959, p. 390. [> main text]
L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, La comique du discours, Bruxelles, 1974, p. 353. [> main text]
Immanuel Kant’s sämmtliche Werke. Bd. IV, Leipzig, Leopold Voss, 1838, SS. 206-207. [> main text]
Ibid., S. 207. [> main text]
Ibid.. 5. 209. [> main text]
G.W. F. Hegel. Asthetik, Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin, 1955. S. 1076. [> main text]
Ibid., S. 493. [> main text]
Voltaire begins his entry on Esprit’ in his Dictionnaire philosophique with the story of a man who refused to stage a play on the grounds that there was "so much wit in it that he doubted its success"; he then gave his famous description of wit—probably the best in existence: "What one calls wit is either a new comparison or a subtle allusion: here, there is an abuse of the word which is presented in one sense and which one permits to be understood in another; there is a delicate rapport between two ideas that have little in common; it is a singular metaphor; it is a search for something which the objects does not obviously present but which in effect is contained in it; it is an art of either joining two remote objects or of dividing two things that appear to be joined, or of opposing one to the other; it is an art of expressing only half of one’s idea and letting people divine the other" (F. Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, Vol. 7, Paris, 1816, p. 157). [> main text]
G.W. F. Hegel. The Philosophy of Right, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952, p. 53. [> main text]
Les oeuvres de Moliere, t. 5, Paris, 1730, p. 15. [> main text]
R.-M. Albérês. Le comique et l’ironie, Classiques Hachette, Paris. 1973, p. 78. [> main text]
Note: I selected this essay because of its concise, analytical, classificatory, and historical presentation of the subject, with references to Kant and Hegel, and because of the unlikelihood of anyone ever coming across this publication in print. I can only take the final paragraph as a specimen of unintended irony. R. Dumain
SOURCE: Lyubimova, Tatyana. "On the Comic", in: Aesthetics, Art, Life: A Collection of Articles, compiled by T. Lyubimova, M. Ovsyannikov; general editorship by A. Zis; translated from the Russian by Sergei Syrovatkin (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1988), pp. 200-211.
"The Marxist-Leninist Theory of Humor" by Tom McLaughlin
Karl Marx on Comedy
Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide
Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)
Home Page | Site
Map | What's New | Coming
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
CONTACT Ralph Dumain
Uploaded 20 October 2001
Site ©1999-2009 Ralph Dumain