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 .

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.


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.

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