Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 140 pages of information about Laughter .

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.


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

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Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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