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Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 118 pages of information about Laughter .

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

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