Infomotions, Inc.Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic / Bergson, Henri, 1859-1941

Author: Bergson, Henri, 1859-1941
Title: Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
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Tag(s): comic; comedy; laughter
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Title: Laughter:  An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic

Author: Henri Bergson

Release Date: August, 2003  [Etext #4352]
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Steve Harris, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.







This work, by Professor Bergson, has been revised in detail by the
author himself, and the present translation is the only authorised
one. For this ungrudging labour of revision, for the thoroughness
with which it has been carried out, and for personal sympathy in
many a difficulty of word and phrase, we desire to offer our
grateful acknowledgment to Professor Bergson. It may be pointed out
that the essay on Laughter originally appeared in a series of three
articles in one of the leading magazines in France, the Revue de
Paris. This will account for the relatively simple form of the work
and the comparative absence of technical terms. It will also explain
why the author has confined himself to exposing and illustrating his
novel theory of the comic without entering into a detailed
discussion of other explanations already in the field. He none the
less indicates, when discussing sundry examples, why the principal
theories, to which they have given rise, appear to him inadequate.
To quote only a few, one may mention those based on contrast,
exaggeration, and degradation.

The book has been highly successful in France, where it is in its
seventh edition. It has been translated into Russian, Polish, and
Swedish. German and Hungarian translations are under preparation.
Its success is due partly to the novelty of the explanation offered
of the comic, and partly also to the fact that the author
incidentally discusses questions of still greater interest and
importance. Thus, one of the best known and most frequently quoted
passages of the book is that portion of the last chapter in which
the author outlines a general theory of art.

C. B. F. R.










What does laughter mean? What is the basal element in the laughable?
What common ground can we find between the grimace of a merry-
andrew, a play upon words, an equivocal situation in a burlesque and
a scene of high comedy? What method of distillation will yield us
invariably the same essence from which so many different products
borrow either their obtrusive odour or their delicate perfume? The
greatest of thinkers, from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this
little problem, which has a knack of baffling every effort, of
slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge
flung at philosophic speculation. Our excuse for attacking the
problem in our turn must lie in the fact that we shall not aim at
imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition. We regard it,
above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be, we shall
treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine ourselves to
watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible gradations
from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the strangest
metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen. Maybe we may
gain from this prolonged contact, for the matter of that, something
more flexible than an abstract definition,--a practical, intimate
acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship. And maybe
we may also find that, unintentionally, we have made an acquaintance
that is useful. For the comic spirit has a logic of its own, even in
its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its madness. It
dreams, I admit, but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions that are
at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group. Can
it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human imagination
works, and more particularly social, collective, and popular
imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it not
also have something of its own to tell us about art and life?

At the outset we shall put forward three observations which we look
upon as fundamental. They have less bearing on the actually comic
than on the field within which it must be sought.


The first point to which attention should be called is that the
comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN. A
landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant
and ugly; it will never be laughable. 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. It
is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has
not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers.
Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might
equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for
if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same
effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the
stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.

Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the
ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as
though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it
fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm
and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter
has no greater foe than emotion. I do not mean that we could not
laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even
with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our
affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity. In a
society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no
more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas
highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every
event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither
know nor understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to become
interested in everything that is being said and done; act, in
imagination, with those who act, and feel with those who feel; in a
word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the
touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume
importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now step aside,
look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn
into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of
music, in a room where dancing is going on, for the dancers at once
to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar
test? Should we not see many of them suddenly pass from grave to
gay, on isolating them from the accompanying music of sentiment? To
produce the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something
like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to
intelligence, pure and simple.

This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other
intelligences. And here is the third fact to which attention should
be drawn. You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself
isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,
Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined
sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by
reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash,
to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain.
Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel
within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the
less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.
It may, perchance, have happened to you, when seated in a railway
carriage or at table d'hote, to hear travellers relating to one
another stories which must have been comic to them, for they laughed
heartily. Had you been one of their company, you would have laughed
like them; but, as you were not, you had no desire whatever to do
so. A man who was once asked why he did not weep at a sermon, when
everybody else was shedding tears, replied: "I don't belong to the
parish!" What that man thought of tears would be still more true of
laughter. However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a
kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers,
real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the
theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience! On the
other hand, how often has the remark been made that many comic
effects are incapable of translation from one language to another,
because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social
group! It is through not understanding the importance of this double
fact that the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in
which the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange,
isolated phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human
activity. Hence those definitions which tend to make the comic into
an abstract relation between ideas: "an intellectual contrast," "a
palpable absurdity," etc.,--definitions which, even were they really
suitable to every form of the comic, would not in the least explain
why the comic makes us laugh. How, indeed, should it come about that
this particular logical relation, as soon as it is perceived,
contracts, expands and shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations
leave the body unaffected? It is not from this point of view that we
shall approach the problem. To understand laughter, we must put it
back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all
must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social
one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our
investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life
in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

Let us clearly mark the point towards which our three preliminary
observations are converging. The comic will come into being, it
appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one
of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into
play nothing but their intelligence. What, now, is the particular
point on which their attention will have to be concentrated, and
what will here be the function of intelligence? To reply to these
questions will be at once to come to closer grips with the problem.
But here a few examples have become indispensable.


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.

Consequently, it is not his sudden change of attitude that raises a
laugh, but rather the involuntary element in this change,--his
clumsiness, in fact. Perhaps there was a stone on the road. He
should have altered his pace or avoided the obstacle. Instead of
that, through lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a
kind of physical obstinacy, AS A RESULT, IN FACT, OF RIGIDITY OR OF
MOMENTUM, the muscles continued to perform the same movement when
the circumstances of the case called for something else. That is the
reason of the man's fall, and also of the people's laughter.

Now, take the case of a person who attends to the petty occupations
of his everyday life with mathematical precision. The objects around
him, however, have all been tampered with by a mischievous wag, the
result being that when he dips his pen into the inkstand he draws it
out all covered with mud, when he fancies he is sitting down on a
solid chair he finds himself sprawling on the floor, in a word his
actions are all topsy-turvy or mere beating the air, while in every
case the effect is invariably one of momentum. Habit has given the
impulse: what was wanted was to check the movement or deflect it. He
did nothing of the sort, but continued like a machine in the same
straight line. The victim, then, 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. The only difference in the two cases is that the former
happened of itself, whilst the latter was obtained artificially. In
the first instance, the passer-by does nothing but look on, but in
the second the mischievous wag intervenes.

All the same, in both cases the result has been brought about by an
external circumstance. The comic is therefore accidental: it
remains, so to speak, in superficial contact with the person. How is
it to penetrate within? The necessary conditions will be fulfilled
when mechanical rigidity no longer requires for its manifestation a
stumbling-block which either the hazard of circumstance or human
knavery has set in its way, but extracts by natural processes, from
its own store, an inexhaustible series of opportunities for
externally revealing its presence. Suppose, then, we imagine a mind
always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is
doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try
to picture to ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both
senses and intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to
see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to
say what is no longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to
a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be
shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present.
This time the comic will take up its abode in the person himself; it
is the person who will supply it with everything--matter and form,
cause and opportunity. Is it then surprising that the absent-minded
individual--for this is the character we have just been describing--
has usually fired the imagination of comic authors? When La Bruyere
came across this particular type, he realised, on analysing it, that
he had got hold of a recipe for the wholesale manufacture of comic
effects. As a matter of fact he overdid it, and gave us far too
lengthy and detailed a description of Menalque, coming back to his
subject, dwelling and expatiating on it beyond all bounds. The very
facility of the subject fascinated him. Absentmindedness, indeed, is
not perhaps the actual fountain-head of the comic, but surely it is
contiguous to a certain stream of facts and fancies which flows
straight from the fountain-head. It is situated, so to say, on one
of the great natural watersheds of laughter.

Now, the effect of absentmindedness may gather strength in its turn.
There is a general law, the first example of which we have just
encountered, and which we will formulate in the following terms:
when a certain comic effect has its origin in a certain cause, the
more natural we regard the cause to be, the more comic shall we find
the effect. Even now we laugh at absentmindedness when presented to
us as a simple fact. Still more laughable will be the
absentmindedness we have seen springing up and growing before our
very eyes, with whose origin we are acquainted and whose life-
history we can reconstruct. To choose a definite example: suppose a
man has taken to reading nothing but romances of love and chivalry.
Attracted and fascinated by his heroes, his thoughts and intentions
gradually turn more and more towards them, till one fine day we find
him walking among us like a somnambulist. His actions are
distractions. But then his distractions can be traced back to a
definite, positive cause. They are no longer cases of ABSENCE of
mind, pure and simple; they find their explanation in the PRESENCE
of the individual in quite definite, though imaginary, surroundings.
Doubtless a fall is always a fall, but it is one thing to tumble
into a well because you were looking anywhere but in front of you,
it is quite another thing to fall into it because you were intent
upon a star. It was certainly a star at which Don Quixote was
gazing. How profound is the comic element in the over-romantic,
Utopian bent of mind! And yet, if you reintroduce the idea of
absentmindedness, which acts as a go-between, you will see this
profound comic element uniting with the most superficial type. Yes,
indeed, these whimsical wild enthusiasts, these madmen who are yet
so strangely reasonable, excite us to laughter by playing on the
same chords within ourselves, by setting in motion the same inner
mechanism, as does the victim of a practical joke or the passer-by
who slips down in the street. They, too, are runners who fall and
simple souls who are being hoaxed--runners after the ideal who
stumble over realities, child-like dreamers for whom life delights
to lie in wait. But, above all, they are past-masters in
absentmindedness, with this superiority over their fellows that
their absentmindedness is systematic and organised around one
central idea, and that their mishaps are also quite coherent, thanks
to the inexorable logic which reality applies to the correction of
dreams, so that they kindle in those around them, by a series of
cumulative effects, a hilarity capable of unlimited expansion.

Now, let us go a little further. Might not certain vices have the
same relation to character that the rigidity of a fixed idea has to
intellect? Whether as a moral kink or a crooked twist given to the
will, vice has often the appearance of a curvature of the soul.
Doubtless there are vices into which the soul plunges deeply with
all its pregnant potency, which it rejuvenates and drags along with
it into a moving circle of reincarnations. Those are tragic vices.
But 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. It lends us its own rigidity instead of borrowing from
us our flexibility. We do not render it more complicated; on the
contrary, it simplifies us. Here, as we shall see later on in the
concluding section of this study, lies the essential difference
between comedy and drama. A 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 than a proper noun. On the other hand, many
comedies have a common noun as their title: l'Avare, le Joueur, etc.
Were you asked to think of a play capable of being called le Jaloux,
for instance, you would find that Sganarelle or George Dandin would
occur to your mind, but not Othello: le Jaloux could only be the
title of a comedy. The reason is that, however intimately vice, when
comic, is associated with persons, it none the less retains its
simple, independent existence, it remains the central character,
present though invisible, to which the characters in flesh and blood
on the stage are attached. At times it delights in dragging them
down with its own weight and making them share in its tumbles. More
frequently, however, it plays on them as on an instrument or pulls
the strings as though they were puppets. Look closely: you will find
that the art of the comic poet consists in making us so well
acquainted with the particular vice, in introducing us, the
spectators, to such a degree of intimacy with it, that in the end we
get hold of some of the strings of the marionette with which he is
playing, and actually work them ourselves; this it is that explains
part of the pleasure we feel. Here, too, it is really a kind of
automatism that makes us laugh--an automatism, as we have already
remarked, closely akin to mere absentmindedness. To realise this
more fully, it need only be noted that a comic character is
generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. The comic
person is unconscious. As though wearing the ring of Gyges with
reverse effect, he becomes invisible to himself while remaining
visible to all the world. A character in a tragedy will make no
change in his conduct because he will know how it is judged by us;
he may continue therein, even though fully conscious of what he is
and feeling keenly the horror he inspires in us. But a defect that
is ridiculous, as soon as it feels itself to be so, endeavours to
modify itself, or at least to appear as though it did. Were Harpagon
to see us laugh at his miserliness, I do not say that he would get
rid of it, but he would either show it less or show it differently.
Indeed, it is in this sense only that laughter "corrects men's
manners." It makes us at once endeavour to appear what we ought to
be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being.

It is unnecessary to carry this analysis any further. From the
runner who falls to the simpleton who is hoaxed, from a state of
being hoaxed to one of absentmindedness, from absentmindedness to
wild enthusiasm, from wild enthusiasm to various distortions of
character and will, we have followed the line of progress along
which the comic becomes more and more deeply imbedded in the person,
yet without ceasing, in its subtler manifestations, to recall to us
some trace of what we noticed in its grosser forms, an effect of
automatism and of inelasticity. Now we can obtain a first glimpse--a
distant one, it is true, and still hazy and confused--of the
laughable side of human nature and of the ordinary function of

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert
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 consequence. TENSION and ELASTICITY are two
forces, mutually complementary, which life brings into play. If
these two forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent,
we have sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they
are lacking in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency,
every variety of insanity. Finally, if they are lacking in the
character, we have cases of the gravest inadaptability to social
life, which are the sources of misery and at times the causes of
crime. Once these elements of inferiority that affect the serious
side of existence are removed--and they tend to eliminate themselves
in what has been called the struggle for life--the person can live,
and that in common with other persons. But society asks for
something more; it is not satisfied with simply living, it insists
on living well. What it now has to dread is that each one of us,
content with paying attention to what affects the essentials of
life, will, so far as the rest is concerned, give way to the easy
automatism of acquired habits. Another thing it must fear is that
the members of whom it is made up, instead of aiming after an
increasingly delicate adjustment of wills which will fit more and
more perfectly into one another, will confine themselves to
respecting simply the fundamental conditions of this adjustment: a
cut-and-dried agreement among the persons will not satisfy it, it
insists on a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation. Society
will therefore be suspicious of all INELASTICITY of character, of
mind and even of body, because it is the possible sign of a
slumbering activity as well as of an activity with separatist
tendencies, that inclines to swerve from the common centre round
which society gravitates: in short, because it is the sign of an
eccentricity. And yet, society cannot intervene at this stage by
material repression, since it is not affected in a material fashion.
It is confronted with something that makes it uneasy, but only as a
symptom--scarcely a threat, at the very most a gesture. A gesture,
therefore, will be its reply. Laughter must be something of this
kind, a sort of SOCIAL GESTURE. By the fear which it inspires, it
restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact
certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into
their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever
the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical
inelasticity. Laughter, then, does not belong to the province of
esthetics alone, since unconsciously (and even immorally in many
particular instances) it pursues a utilitarian aim of general
improvement. And yet there is something esthetic about it, since the
comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed
from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as
works of art. In a word, if a circle be drawn round those actions
and dispositions--implied in individual or social life--to which
their natural consequences bring their own penalties, there remains
outside this sphere of emotion and struggle--and within a neutral
zone in which man simply exposes himself to man's curiosity--a
certain rigidity of body, mind and character, that society would
still like to get rid of in order to obtain from its members the
greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability. This
rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

Still, we must not accept this formula as a definition of the comic.
It is suitable only for cases that are elementary, theoretical and
perfect, in which the comic is free from all adulteration. Nor do we
offer it, either, as an explanation. We prefer to make it, if you
will, the leitmotiv which is to accompany all our explanations. We
must ever keep it in mind, though without dwelling on it too much,
somewhat as a skilful fencer must think of the discontinuous
movements of the lesson whilst his body is given up to the
continuity of the fencing-match. We will now endeavour to
reconstruct the sequence of comic forms, taking up again the thread
that leads from the horseplay of a clown up to the most refined
effects of comedy, following this thread in its often unforeseen
windings, halting at intervals to look around, and finally getting
back, if possible, to the point at which the thread is dangling and
where we shall perhaps find--since the comic oscillates between life
and art--the general relation that art bears to life.


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 indecision in which are obscurely portrayed
all possible shades of the state of mind it expresses, just as the
sunny promise 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 crystallised
into this particular cast of features. This is the reason 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 for
ever be absorbed. Some faces seem to be always engaged in weeping,
others in laughing or whistling, others, again, in eternally blowing
an imaginary trumpet, and these are the most comic faces of all.
Here again is exemplified the law according to which the more
natural the explanation of the cause, the more comic is the effect.
Automatism, inelasticity, habit that has been contracted and
maintained, are clearly the causes why a face makes us laugh. But
this effect gains in intensity when we are able to connect these
characteristics with some deep-seated cause, a certain fundamental
absentmindedness, as though the soul had allowed itself to be
fascinated and hypnotised by the materiality of a simple action.

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 favourite distortion towards which nature seems to be
particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in
detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency, and 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. He realises disproportions and
deformations which must have existed in nature as mere inclinations,
but which have not succeeded in coming to a head, being held in
check by a higher force. His art, which has a touch of the
diabolical, raises up the demon who had been overthrown by the
angel. Certainly, it is an art that exaggerates, and yet the
definition would be very far from complete were exaggeration alone
alleged to be its aim and object, for there exist caricatures that
are more lifelike than portraits, caricatures in which the
exaggeration is scarcely noticeable, whilst, inversely, it is quite
possible to exaggerate to excess without obtaining a real
caricature. For exaggeration to be comic, it must not appear as an
aim, but rather as a means that the artist is using in order to make
manifest to our eyes the distortions which he sees in embryo. It is
this process of distortion that is of moment and interest. And that
is precisely why we shall look for it even in those elements of the
face that are incapable of movement, in the curve of a nose or the
shape of an ear. For, in our eyes, form is always the outline of a
movement. The caricaturist who alters the size of a nose, but
respects its ground plan, lengthening it, for instance, in the very
direction in which it was being lengthened by nature, is really
making the nose indulge in a grin. Henceforth we shall always look
upon the original as having determined to lengthen itself and start
grinning. In this sense, one might say that Nature herself often
meets with the successes of a caricaturist. In the movement through
which she has slit that mouth, curtailed that chin and bulged out
that cheek, she would appear to have succeeded in completing the
intended grimace, thus outwitting the restraining supervision of a
more reasonable force. In that case, the face we laugh at is, so to
speak, its own caricature.

To sum up, whatever be the doctrine to which our reason assents, our
imagination has a very clear-cut philosophy of its own: in every
human form it sees the effort of a soul which is shaping matter, a
soul which is infinitely supple and perpetually in motion, subject
to no law of gravitation, for it is not the earth that attracts it.
This soul imparts a portion of its winged lightness to the body it
animates: the immateriality which thus passes into matter is what is
called gracefulness. Matter, however, is obstinate and resists. It
draws to itself the ever-alert activity of this higher principle,
would fain convert it to its own inertia and cause it to revert to
mere automatism. It would fain immobilise the intelligently varied
movements of the body in stupidly contracted grooves, stereotype in
permanent grimaces the fleeting expressions of the face, in short
imprint on the whole person such an attitude as to make it appear
immersed and absorbed in the materiality of some mechanical
occupation instead of ceaselessly renewing its vitality by keeping
in touch with a living ideal. Where matter thus succeeds in dulling
the outward life of the soul, in petrifying its movements and
thwarting its gracefulness, it achieves, at the expense of the body,
an effect that is comic. If, then, at this point we wished to define
the comic by comparing it with its contrary, we should have to
contrast it with gracefulness even more than with beauty. It
partakes rather of the unsprightly than of the unsightly, of
RIGIDNESS rather than of UGLINESS.


We will now pass from the comic element in FORMS to that in GESTURES
and MOVEMENTS. Let us at once state the law which seems to govern
all the phenomena of this kind. It may indeed be deduced without any
difficulty from the considerations stated above. THE ATTITUDES,
need to follow this law through the details of its immediate
applications, which are innumerable. To verify it directly, it would
be sufficient to study closely the work of comic artists,
eliminating entirely the element of caricature, and omitting that
portion of the comic which is not inherent in the drawing itself.
For, obviously, the comic element in a drawing is often a borrowed
one, for which the text supplies all the stock-in-trade. I mean that
the artist may be his own understudy in the shape of a satirist, or
even a playwright, and that then we laugh far less at the drawings
themselves than at the satire or comic incident they represent. But
if we devote our whole attention to the drawing with the firm
resolve to think of nothing else, we shall probably find that it is
generally comic in proportion to the clearness, as well as the
subtleness, with which it enables us to see a man as a jointed
puppet. The suggestion must be a clear one, for inside the person we
must distinctly perceive, as though through a glass, a set-up
mechanism. But the suggestion must also be a subtle one, for the
general appearance of the person, whose every limb has been made
rigid as a machine, must continue to give us the impression of a
living being. The more exactly these two images, that of a person
and that of a machine, fit into each other, the more striking is the
comic effect, and the more consummate the art of the draughtsman.
The originality of a comic artist is thus expressed in the special
kind of life he imparts to a mere puppet.

We will, however, leave on one side the immediate application of the
principle, and at this point insist only on the more remote
consequences. The illusion of a machine working in the inside of the
person is a thing that only crops up amid a host of amusing effects;
but for the most part it is a fleeting glimpse, that is immediately
lost in the laughter it provokes. To render it permanent, analysis
and reflection must be called into play.

In a public speaker, for instance, we find that gesture vies with
speech. Jealous of the latter, gesture closely dogs the speaker's
thought, demanding also to act as interpreter. Well and good; but
then it must pledge itself to follow thought through all the phases
of its development. An idea is something that grows, buds, blossoms
and ripens from the beginning to the end of a speech. It never
halts, never repeats itself. It must be changing every moment, for
to cease to change would be to cease to live. Then let gesture
display a like animation! Let it accept the fundamental law of life,
which is the complete negation of repetition! But I find that a
certain movement of head or arm, a movement always the same, seems
to return at regular intervals. If I notice it and it succeeds in
diverting my attention, if I wait for it to occur and it occurs when
I expect it, then involuntarily I laugh. Why? Because I now have
before me a machine that works automatically. This is no longer
life, it is automatism established in life and imitating it. It
belongs to the comic.

This is also the reason why gestures, at which we never dreamt of
laughing, become laughable when imitated by another individual. The
most elaborate explanations have been offered for this extremely
simple fact. A little reflection, however, will show that our mental
state is ever changing, and that if our gestures faithfully followed
these inner movements, if they were as fully alive as we, they would
never repeat themselves, and so would keep imitation at bay. We
begin, then, to become imitable only when we cease to be ourselves.
I mean our gestures can only be imitated in their mechanical
uniformity, and therefore exactly in what is alien to our living
personality. To imitate any one is to bring out the element of
automatism he has allowed to creep into his person. And as this is
the very essence of the ludicrous, it is no wonder that imitation
gives rise to laughter.

Still, if the imitation of gestures is intrinsically laughable, it
will become even more so when it busies itself in deflecting them,
though without altering their form, towards some mechanical
occupation, such as sawing wood, striking on an anvil, or tugging
away at an imaginary bell-rope. Not that vulgarity is the essence of
the comic,--although certainly it is to some extent an ingredient,--
but rather that the incriminated gesture seems more frankly
mechanical when it can be connected with a simple operation, as
though it were intentionally mechanical. To suggest this mechanical
interpretation ought to be one of the favourite devices of parody.
We have reached this result through deduction, but I imagine clowns
have long had an intuition of the fact.

This seems to me the solution of the little riddle propounded by
Pascal in one passage of his Thoughts: "Two faces that are alike,
although neither of them excites laughter by itself, make us laugh
when together, on account of their likeness." It might just as well
be said: "The gestures of a public speaker, no one of which is
laughable by itself, excite laughter by their repetition." The truth
is that a really living life should never repeat itself. Wherever
there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some
mechanism at work behind the living. Analyse the impression you get
from two faces that are too much alike, and you will find that you
are thinking of two copies cast in the same mould, or two
impressions of the same seal, or two reproductions of the same
negative,--in a word, of some manufacturing process or other. This
deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of

And laughter will be more pronounced still, if we find on the stage
not merely two characters, as in the example from Pascal, but
several, nay, as great a number as possible, the image of one
another, who come and go, dance and gesticulate together,
simultaneously striking the same attitudes and tossing their arms
about in the same manner. This time, we distinctly think of
marionettes. Invisible threads seem to us to be joining arms to
arms, legs to legs, each muscle in one face to its fellow-muscle in
the other: by reason of the absolute uniformity which prevails, the
very litheness of the bodies seems to stiffen as we gaze, and the
actors themselves seem transformed into automata. Such, at least,
appears to be the artifice underlying this somewhat obvious form of
amusement. I daresay the performers have never read Pascal, but what
they do is merely to realise to the full the suggestions contained
in Pascal's words. If, as is undoubtedly the case, laughter is
caused in the second instance by the hallucination of a mechanical
effect, it must already have been so, though in more subtle fashion,
in the first.

Continuing along this path, we dimly perceive the increasingly
important and far-reaching consequences of the law we have just
stated. We faintly catch still more fugitive glimpses of mechanical
effects, glimpses suggested by man's complex actions, no longer
merely by his gestures. We instinctively feel that the usual devices
of comedy, the periodical repetition of a word or a scene, the
systematic inversion of the parts, the geometrical development of a
farcical misunderstanding, and many other stage contrivances, must
derive their comic force from the same source,--the art of the
playwright probably consisting in setting before us an obvious
clockwork arrangement of human events, while carefully preserving an
outward aspect of probability and thereby retaining something of the
suppleness of life. But we must not forestall results which will be
duly disclosed in the course of our analysis.


Before going further, let us halt a moment and glance around. As we
hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to
derive every comic effect from one simple formula. The formula
exists well enough in a certain sense, but its development does not
follow a straightforward course. What I mean is that the process of
deduction ought from time to time to stop and study certain
culminating effects, and that these effects each appear as models
round which new effects resembling them take their places in a
circle. These latter are not deductions from the formula, but are
comic through their relationship with those that are. To quote
Pascal again, I see no objection, at this stage, to defining the
process by the curve which that geometrician studied under the name
of roulette or cycloid,--the curve traced by a point in the
circumference of a wheel when the carriage is advancing in a
straight line: this point turns like the wheel, though it advances
like the carriage. Or else we might think of an immense avenue such
as are to be seen in the forest of Fontainebleau, with crosses at
intervals to indicate the cross-ways: at each of these we shall walk
round the cross, explore for a while the paths that open out before
us, and then return to our original course. Now, we have just
reached one of these mental crossways. Something mechanical
encrusted on the living, will represent a cross at which we must
halt, a central image from which the imagination branches off in
different directions. What are these directions? There appear to be
three main ones. We will follow them one after the other, and then
continue our onward course.

1. In the first place, 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 almost 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 inert
rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object
covered: consequently, the comic here remains in a latent condition.
It will only succeed in emerging when the natural incompatibility is
so deep-seated between the covering and the covered that even an
immemorial association fails to cement this union: a case in point
is our head and top hat. 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.

Here we are beginning to catch a faint glimpse of the highly
intricate difficulties raised by this problem of the comic. One of
the reasons that must have given rise to many erroneous or
unsatisfactory theories of laughter is that many things are comic de
jure without being comic de facto, the continuity of custom having
deadened within them the comic quality. A sudden dissolution of
continuity is needed, a break with fashion, for this quality to
revive. Hence the impression that this dissolution of continuity is
the parent of the comic, whereas all it does is to bring it to our
notice. Hence, again, the explanation of laughter by surprise,
contrast, etc., definitions which would equally apply to a host of
cases in which we have no inclination whatever to laugh. The truth
of the matter is far from being so simple. But to return to our idea
of disguise, which, as we have just shown, has been entrusted with
the special mandate of arousing laughter. It will not be out of
place to investigate the uses it makes of this power.

Why do we laugh at a head of hair which has changed from dark to
blond? What is there comic about a rubicund nose? And why does one
laugh at a negro? The question would appear to be an embarrassing
one, for it has been asked by successive psychologists such as
Hecker, Kraepelin and Lipps, and all have given different replies.
And yet I rather fancy the correct answer was suggested to me one
day in the street by an ordinary cabby, who applied the expression
"unwashed" to the negro fare he was driving. Unwashed! Does not this
mean that a black face, in our imagination, is one daubed over with
ink or soot? If so, then a red nose can only be one which has
received a coating of vermilion. And so we see that the notion of
disguise has passed on something of its comic quality to instances
in which there is actually no disguise, though there might be.

In the former set of examples, although his usual dress was distinct
from the individual, it appeared in our mind to form one with him,
because we had become accustomed to the sight. In the latter,
although the black or red colour is indeed inherent in the skin, we
look upon it as artificially laid on, because it surprises us.

But here we meet with a fresh crop of difficulties in the theory of
the comic. Such a proposition as the following: "My usual dress
forms part of my body" is absurd in the eyes of reason. Yet
imagination looks upon it as true. "A red nose is a painted nose,"
"A negro is a white man in disguise," are also absurd to the reason
which rationalises; but they are gospel truths to pure imagination.
So there is a logic of the imagination which is not the logic of
reason, one which at times is even opposed to the latter,--with
which, however, philosophy must reckon, not only in the study of the
comic, but in every other investigation of the same kind. It is
something like the logic of dreams, though of dreams that have not
been left to the whim of individual fancy, being the dreams dreamt
by the whole of society. In order to reconstruct this hidden logic,
a special kind of effort is needed, by which the outer crust of
carefully stratified judgments and firmly established ideas will be
lifted, and we shall behold in the depths of our mind, like a sheet
of subterranean water, the flow of an unbroken stream of images
which pass from one into another. This interpenetration of images
does not come about by chance. It obeys laws, or rather habits,
which hold the same relation to imagination that logic does to

Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case
in hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is
also comic. So, by analogy, any disguise is seen to become comic,
not only that of a man, but that of society also, and even the
disguise of nature.

Let us start with nature. You laugh at a dog that is half-clipped,
at a bed of artificially coloured flowers, at a wood in which the
trees are plastered over with election addresses, etc. Look for the
reason, and you will see that you are once more thinking of a
masquerade. Here, however, the comic element is very faint; it is
too far from its source. If you wish to strengthen it, you must go
back to the source itself and contrast the derived image, that of a
masquerade, with the original one, which, be it remembered, was that
of a mechanical tampering with life. In "a nature that is
mechanically tampered with" we possess a thoroughly comic theme, on
which fancy will be able to play ever so many variations with the
certainty of successfully provoking the heartiest hilarity. You may
call to mind that amusing passage in Tartarin Sur Les Alpes, in
which Bompard makes Tartarin--and therefore also the reader to some
slight extent--accept the idea of a Switzerland choke-full of
machinery like the basement of the opera, and run by a company which
maintains a series of waterfalls, glaciers and artificial crevasses.
The same theme reappears, though transposed in quite another key, in
the Novel Notes of the English humorist, Jerome K. Jerome. An
elderly Lady Bountiful, who does not want her deeds of charity to
take up too much of her time, provides homes within easy hail of her
mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been specially
manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest folk
who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of their
failing, etc. There are comic phrases in which this theme is
audible, like a distant echo, coupled with an ingenuousness, whether
sincere or affected, which acts as accompaniment. Take, as an
instance, the remark made by a lady whom Cassini, the astronomer,
had invited to see an eclipse of the moon. Arriving too late, she
said, "M. de Cassini, I know, will have the goodness to begin it all
over again, to please me." Or, take again the exclamation of one of
Gondiinet's characters on arriving in a town and learning that there
is an extinct volcano in the neighbourhood, "They had a volcano, and
they have let it go out!"

Let us go on to society. As we are both in and 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
social life must, therefore, always include a latent comic element,
which is 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 that we neglect its
matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form. Every one
knows how easily the comic spirit exercises its ingenuity on social
actions of a stereotyped nature, from an ordinary prize-distribution
to the solemn sitting of a court of justice. Any form or formula is
a ready-made frame into which the comic element may be fitted.

Here, again, the comic will be emphasised by bringing it nearer to
its source. From the idea of travesty, a derived one, we must go
back to the original idea, that of a mechanism superposed upon life.
Already, the stiff and starched formality of any ceremonial suggests
to us an image of this kind. For, as soon as we forget the serious
object of a solemnity or a ceremony, those taking part in it give us
the impression of puppets in motion. Their mobility seems to adopt
as a model the immobility of a formula. It becomes automatism. But
complete automatism is only reached in the official, for instance,
who performs his duty like a mere machine, or again in the
unconsciousness that marks an administrative regulation working with
inexorable fatality, and setting itself up for a law of nature.
Quite by chance, when reading the newspaper, I came across a
specimen of the comic of this type. Twenty years ago, a large
steamer was wrecked off the coast at Dieppe. With considerable
difficulty some of the passengers were rescued in a boat. A few
custom-house officers, who had courageously rushed to their
assistance, began by asking them "if they had anything to declare."
We find something similar, though the idea is a more subtle one, in
the remark of an M.P. when questioning the Home Secretary on the
morrow of a terrible murder which took place in a railway carriage:
"The assassin, after despatching his victim, must have got out the
wrong side of the train, thereby infringing the Company's rules."

A mechanical element introduced into nature and an automatic
regulation of society, such, then, are the two types of laughable
effects at which we have arrived. It remains for us, in conclusion,
to combine them and see what the result will be.

The result of the combination will evidently be a human regulation
of affairs usurping the place of the laws of nature. We may call to
mind the answer Sganarelle gave Geronte when the latter remarked
that the heart was on the left side and the liver on the right:
"Yes, it was so formerly, but we have altered all that; now, we
practise medicine in quite a new way." We may also recall the
consultation between M. de Pourceaugnac's two doctors: "The
arguments you have used are so erudite and elegant that it is
impossible for the patient not to be hypochondriacally melancholic;
or, even if he were not, he must surely become so because of the
elegance of the things you have said and the accuracy of your
reasoning." We might multiply examples, for all we need do would be
to call up Moliere's doctors, one after the other. However far,
moreover, comic fancy may seem to go, reality at times undertakes to
improve upon it. It was suggested to a contemporary philosopher, an
out-and-out arguer, that his arguments, though irreproachable in
their deductions, had experience against them. He put an end to the
discussion by merely remarking, "Experience is in the wrong." The
truth is, this idea of regulating life as a matter of business
routine is more widespread than might be imagined; it is natural in
its way, although we have just obtained it by an artificial process
of reconstruction. One might say that it gives us the very
quintessence of pedantry, which, at bottom, is nothing else than art
pretending to outdo nature.

To sum up, then, we have one and the same effect, which assumes ever
subtler forms as it passes from the idea of an artificial
MECHANISATION of the human body, if such an expression is
permissible, to that of any substitution whatsoever of the
artificial for the natural. A less and less rigorous logic, that
more and more resembles the logic of dreamland, transfers the same
relationship into higher and higher spheres, between increasingly
immaterial terms, till in the end we find a mere administrative
enactment occupying the same relation to a natural or moral law that
a ready-made garment, for instance, does to the living body. We have
now gone right to the end of the first of the three directions we
had to follow. Let us turn to the second and see where it will lead

2. Our starting-point is again "something mechanical encrusted upon
the living." Where did the comic come from in this case? It came
from the fact that the living body became rigid, like a machine.
Accordingly, it seemed to us that the living body ought to be the
perfection of suppleness, the ever-alert activity of a principle
always at work. But this activity would really belong to the soul
rather than to the body. It would be the very flame of life, kindled
within us by a higher principle and perceived through the body, as
if through a glass. When we see only gracefulness and suppleness in
the living body, it is because we disregard in it the elements of
weight, of resistance, and, in a word, of matter; we forget its
materiality and think only of its vitality, a vitality which we
regard as derived from the very principle of intellectual and moral
life, Let us suppose, however, that our attention is drawn to this
material side of the body; that, so far from sharing in the
lightness and subtlety of the principle with which it is animated,
the body is no more in our eyes than a heavy and cumbersome vesture,
a kind of irksome ballast which holds down to earth a soul eager to
rise aloft. Then the body will become to the soul what, as we have
just seen, the garment was to the body itself--inert matter dumped
down upon living energy. The impression of the comic will be
produced as soon as we have a clear apprehension of this putting the
one on the other. And we shall experience it most strongly when we
are shown the soul TANTALISED by the needs of the body: on the one
hand, the moral personality with its intelligently varied energy,
and, on the other, the stupidly monotonous body, perpetually
obstructing everything with its machine-like obstinacy. The more
paltry and uniformly repeated these claims of the body, the more
striking will be the result. But that is only a matter of degree,
and the general law of these phenomena may be formulated as follows:

Why do we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most
pathetic moment of his speech? Where lies the comic element in this
sentence, taken from a funeral speech and quoted by a German
philosopher: "He was virtuous and plump"? It lies in the fact that
our attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body.
Similar instances abound in daily life, but if you do not care to
take the trouble to look for them, you have only to open at random a
volume of Labiche, and you will be almost certain to light upon an
effect of this kind. Now, we have a speaker whose most eloquent
sentences are cut short by the twinges of a bad tooth; now, one of
the characters who never begins to speak without stopping in the
middle to complain of his shoes being too small, or his belt too
tight, etc. A PERSON EMBARRASSED BY HIS BODY is the image suggested
to us in all these examples. The reason that excessive stoutness is
laughable is probably because it calls up an image of the same kind.
I almost think that this too is what sometime makes bashfulness
somewhat ridiculous. The bashful man rather gives the impression of
a person embarrassed by his body, looking round for some convenient
cloak-room in which to deposit it.

This is just why the tragic poet is so careful to avoid anything
calculated to attract attention to the material side of his heroes.
No sooner does anxiety about the body manifest itself than the
intrusion of a comic element is to be feared. On this account, the
hero in a tragedy does not eat or drink or warm himself. He does not
even sit down any more than can be helped. To sit down in the middle
of a fine speech would imply that you remembered you had a body.
Napoleon, who was a psychologist when he wished to be so, had
noticed that the transition from tragedy to comedy is effected
simply by sitting down. In the "Journal inedit" of Baron Gourgaud--
when speaking of an interview with the Queen of Prussia after the
battle of Iena--he expresses himself in the following terms: "She
received me in tragic fashion like Chimene: Justice! Sire, Justice!
Magdeburg! Thus she continued in a way most embarrassing to me.
Finally, to make her change her style, I requested her to take a
seat. This is the best method for cutting short a tragic scene, for
as soon as you are seated it all becomes comedy."

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING
PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general--THE
SPIRIT. Is it not perchance this idea that comedy is trying to
suggest to us when holding up a profession to ridicule? It makes the
lawyer, the magistrate and the doctor speak as though health and
justice were of little moment,--the main point being that we should
have lawyers, magistrates and doctors, and that all outward
formalities pertaining to these professions should be scrupulously
respected. And so we find the means substituted for the end, the
manner for the matter; no longer is it the profession that is made
for the public, but rather the public for the profession. Constant
attention to form and the mechanical application of rules here bring
about a kind of professional automatism analogous to that imposed
upon the soul by the habits of the body, and equally laughable.
Numerous are the examples of this on the stage. Without entering
into details of the variations executed on this theme, let us quote
two or three passages in which the theme itself is set forth in all
its simplicity. "You are only bound to treat people according to
form," says Doctor Diafoirus in the "Malade imaginaire". Again, says
Doctor Bahis, in "L'Amour medecin": "It is better to die through
following the rules than to recover through violating them." In the
same play, Desfonandres had previously said: "We must always observe
the formalities of professional etiquette, whatever may happen." And
the reason is given by Tomes, his colleague: "A dead man is but a
dead man, but the non-observance of a formality causes a notable
prejudice to the whole faculty." Brid'oison's words, though.
embodying a rather different idea, are none the less significant:
"F-form, mind you, f-form. A man laughs at a judge in a morning
coat, and yet he would quake with dread at the mere sight of an
attorney in his gown. F-form, all a matter of f-form."

Here we have the first illustration of a law which will appear with
increasing distinctness as we proceed with our task. When a musician
strikes a note on an instrument, other notes start up of themselves,
not so loud as the first, yet connected with it by certain definite
relations, which coalesce with it and determine its quality. These
are what are called in physics the overtones of the fundamental
note. It would seem that comic fancy, even in its most far-fetched
inventions, obeys a similar law. For instance, consider this comic
note: appearance seeking to triumph over reality. If our analysis is
correct, this note must have as its overtones the body tantalising
the mind, the body taking precedence of the mind. No sooner, then,
does the comic poet strike the first note than he will add the
second on to it, involuntarily and instinctively. In other words, HE

When Brid'oison the judge comes stammering on to the stage, is he
not actually preparing us, by this very stammering, to understand
the phenomenon of intellectual ossification we are about to witness?
What bond of secret relationship can there be between the physical
defect and the moral infirmity? It is difficult to say; yet we feel
that the relationship is there, though we cannot express it in
words. Perhaps the situation required that this judging machine
should also appear before us as a talking machine. However it may
be, no other overtone could more perfectly have completed the
fundamental note.

When Moliere introduces to us the two ridiculous doctors, Bahis and
Macroton, in L'Amour medecin, he makes one of them speak very
slowly, as though scanning his words syllable by syllable, whilst
the other stutters. We find the same contrast between the two
lawyers in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. In the rhythm of speech is
generally to be found the physical peculiarity that is destined to
complete the element of professional ridicule. When the author has
failed to suggest a defect of this kind, it is seldom the case that
the actor does not instinctively invent one.

Consequently, there is a natural relationship, which we equally
naturally recognise, between the two images we have been comparing
with each other, the mind crystallising in certain grooves, and the
body losing its elasticity through the influence of certain defects.
Whether or not our attention be diverted from the matter to the
manner, or from the moral to the physical, in both cases the same
sort of impression is conveyed to our imagination; in both, then,
the comic is of the same kind. Here, once more, it has been our aim
to follow the natural trend of the movement of the imagination. This
trend or direction, it may be remembered, was the second of those
offered to us, starting from a central image. A third and final path
remains unexplored, along which we will now proceed.

3. Let us then return, for the last time, to our central image:
something mechanical encrusted on something living. Here, the living
being under discussion was a human being, a person. A mechanical
arrangement, on the other hand, is a thing. What, therefore, incited
laughter was the momentary transformation of a person into a thing,
if one considers the image from this standpoint. Let us then pass
from the exact idea of a machine to the vaguer one of a thing in
general. We shall have a fresh series of laughable images which will
be obtained by taking a blurred impression, so to speak, of the
outlines of the former and will bring us to this new law: WE LAUGH

We laugh at Sancho Panza tumbled into a bed-quilt and tossed into
the air like a football. We laugh at Baron Munchausen turned into a
cannon-ball and travelling through space. But certain tricks of
circus clowns might afford a still more precise exemplification of
the same law. True, we should have to eliminate the jokes, mere
interpolations by the clown into his main theme, and keep in mind
only the theme itself, that is to say, the divers attitudes, capers
and movements which form the strictly "clownish" element in the
clown's art. On two occasions only have I been able to observe this
style of the comic in its unadulterated state, and in both I
received the same impression. The first time, the clowns came and
went, collided, fell and jumped up again in a uniformly accelerated
rhythm, visibly intent upon affecting a CRESCENDO. And it was more
and more to the jumping up again, the REBOUND, that the attention of
the public was attracted. Gradually, one lost sight of the fact that
they were men of flesh and blood like ourselves; one began to think
of bundles of all sorts, falling and knocking against each other.
Then the vision assumed a more definite aspect. The forms grew
rounder, the bodies rolled together and seemed to pick themselves up
like balls. Then at last appeared the image towards which the whole
of this scene had doubtless been unconsciously evolving--large
rubber balls hurled against one another in every direction. The
second scene, though even coarser than the first, was no less
instructive. There came on the stage two men, each with an enormous
head, bald as a billiard ball. In their hands they carried large
sticks which each, in turn, brought down on to the other's cranium.
Here, again, a certain gradation was observable. After each blow,
the bodies seemed to grow heavier and more unyielding, overpowered
by an increasing degree of rigidity. Then came the return blow, in
each case heavier and more resounding than the last, coming, too,
after a longer interval. The skulls gave forth a formidable ring
throughout the silent house. At last the two bodies, each quite
rigid and as straight as an arrow, slowly bent over towards each
other, the sticks came crashing down for the last time on to the two
heads with a thud as of enormous mallets falling upon oaken beams,
and the pair lay prone upon the ground. At that instant appeared in
all its vividness the suggestion that the two artists had gradually
driven into the imagination of the spectators: "We are about to
become ...we have now become solid wooden dummies."

A kind of dim, vague instinct may enable even an uncultured mind to
get an inkling here of the subtler results of psychological science.
We know that it is possible to call up hallucinatory visions in a
hypnotised subject by simple suggestion. If he be told that a bird
is perched on his hand, he will see the bird and watch it fly away.
The idea suggested, however, is far from being always accepted with
like docility. Not infrequently, the mesmeriser only succeeds in
getting an idea into his subject's head by slow degrees through a
carefully graduated series of hints. He will then start with objects
really perceived by the subject, and will endeavour to make the
perception of these objects more and more indefinite; then, step by
step, he will bring out of this state of mental chaos the precise
form of the object of which he wishes to create an hallucination.
Something of the kind happens to many people when dropping off to
sleep; they see those coloured, fluid, shapeless masses, which
occupy the field of vision, insensibly solidifying into distinct

Consequently, the gradual passing from the dim and vague to the
clear and distinct is the method of suggestion par excellence. I
fancy it might be found to be at the root of a good many comic
suggestions, especially in the coarser forms of the comic, in which
the transformation of a person into a thing seems to be taking place
before our eyes. But there are other and more subtle methods in use,
among poets, for instance, which perhaps unconsciously lead to the
same end. By a certain arrangement of rhythm, rhyme and assonance,
it is possible to lull the imagination, to rock it to and fro
between like and like with a regular see-saw motion, and thus
prepare it submissively to accept the vision suggested. Listen to
these few lines of Regnard, and see whether something like the
fleeting image of a DOLL does not cross the field of your

 ... Plus, il doit a maints particuliers La somme de dix mil une
livre une obole, Pour l'avoir sans relache un an sur sa parole
Habille, voiture, chauffe, chausse, gante, Alimente, rase,
desaltere, porte.

 [Footnote: Further, he owes to many an honest wight Item-the sum
two thousand pounds, one farthing, For having on his simple word of
honour Sans intermission for an entire year Clothed him, conveyed
him, warmed him, shod him, gloved him, Fed him and shaved him,
quenched his thirst and borne him.]

Is not something of the same kind found in the following sally of
Figaro's (though here an attempt is perhaps made to suggest the
image of an animal rather than that of a thing): "Quel homme est-
ce?--C'est un beau, gros, court, jeune vieillard, gris pommele,
ruse, rase, blase, qui guette et furette, et gronde et geint tout a
la fois." [Footnote: "What sort of man is here?--He is a handsome,
stout, short, youthful old gentleman, iron-grey, an artful knave,
clean shaved, clean 'used up,' who spies and pries and growls and
groans all in the same breath."]

Now, between these coarse scenes and these subtle suggestions there
is room for a countless number of amusing effects, for all those
that can be obtained by talking about persons as one would do about
mere things. We will only select one or two instances from the plays
of Labiche, in which they are legion.

Just as M. Perrichon is getting into the railway carriage, he makes
certain of not forgetting any of his parcels: "Four, five, six, my
wife seven, my daughter eight, and myself nine." In another play, a
fond father is boasting of his daughter's learning in the following
terms: "She will tell you, without faltering, all the kings of
France that have occurred." This phrase, "that have occurred,"
though not exactly transforming the kings into mere things, likens
them, all the same, to events of an impersonal nature.

As regards this latter example, note that it is unnecessary to
complete the identification of the person with the thing in order to
ensure a comic effect. It is sufficient for us to start in this
direction by feigning, for instance, to confuse the person with the
function he exercises. I will only quote a sentence spoken by a
village mayor in one of About's novels: "The prefect, who has always
shown us the same kindness, though he has been changed several times
since 1847..."

All these witticisms are constructed on the same model. We might
make up any number of them, when once we are in possession of the
recipe. But the art of the story-teller or the playwright does not
merely consist in concocting jokes. The difficulty lies in giving to
a joke its power of suggestion, i.e. in making it acceptable. And we
only do accept it either because it seems to be the natural product
of a particular state of mind or because it is in keeping with the
circumstances of the case. For instance, we are aware that M.
Perrichon is greatly excited on the occasion of his first railway
journey. The expression "to occur" is one that must have cropped up
a good many times in the lessons repeated by the girl before her
father; it makes us think of such a repetition. Lastly, admiration
of the governmental machine might, at a pinch, be extended to the
point of making us believe that no change takes place in the prefect
when he changes his name, and that the function gets carried on
independently of the functionary.

We have now reached a point very far from the original cause of
laughter. Many a comic form, that cannot be explained by itself, can
indeed only be understood from its resemblance to another, which
only makes us laugh by reason of its relationship with a third, and
so on indefinitely, so that psychological analysis, however luminous
and searching, will go astray unless it holds the thread along which
the comic impression has travelled from one end of the series to the
other. Where does this progressive continuity come from? What can be
the driving force, the strange impulse which causes the comic to
glide thus from image to image, farther and farther away from the
starting-point, until it is broken up and lost in infinitely remote
analogies? But what is that force which divides and subdivides the
branches of a tree into smaller boughs and its roots into radicles?
An inexorable law dooms every living energy, during the brief
interval allotted to it in time, to cover the widest possible extent
in space. Now, comic fancy is indeed a living energy, a strange
plant that has nourished on the stony portions of the social soil,
until such time as culture should allow it to vie with the most
refined products of art. True, we are far from great art in the
examples of the comic we have just been reviewing. But we shall draw
nearer to it, though without attaining to it completely, in the
following chapter. Below art, we find artifice, and it is this zone
of artifice, midway between nature and art, that we are now about to
enter. We are going to deal with the comic playwright and the wit.




We have studied the comic element in forms, in attitudes, and in
movements generally; now let us look for it in actions and in
situations. We encounter, indeed, this kind of comic readily enough
in everyday life. It is not here, however, that it best lends itself
to analysis. Assuming that the stage is both a magnified and a
simplified view of life, we shall find that comedy is capable of
furnishing us with more information than real life on this
particular part of our subject. Perhaps we ought even to carry
simplification still farther, and, going back to our earliest
recollections, try to discover, in the games that amused us as
children, the first faint traces of the combinations that make us
laugh as grown-up persons. We are too apt to speak of our feelings
of pleasure and of pain as though full grown at birth, as though
each one of them had not a history of its own. Above all, we are too
apt to ignore the childish element, so to speak, latent in most of
our joyful emotions. And yet, how many of our present pleasures,
were we to examine them closely, would shrink into nothing more than
memories of past ones! What would there be left of many of our
emotions were we to reduce them to the exact quantum of pure feeling
they contain, by subtracting from them all that is merely
reminiscence? Indeed, it seems possible that, after a certain age,
we become impervious to all fresh or novel forms of joy, and the
sweetest pleasures of the middle-aged man are perhaps nothing more
than a revival of the sensations of childhood, a balmy zephyr wafted
in fainter and fainter breaths by a past that is ever receding. In
any case, whatever reply we give to this broad question, one thing
is certain: there can be no break in continuity between the child's
delight in games and that of the grown-up person. Now, comedy is a
game, a game that imitates life. And since, in the games of the
child when working its dolls and puppets, many of the movements are
produced by strings, ought we not to find those same strings,
somewhat frayed by wear, reappearing as the threads that knot
together the situations in a comedy? Let us, then, start with the
games of a child, and follow the imperceptible process by which, as
he grows himself, he makes his puppets grow, inspires them with
life, and finally brings them to an ambiguous state in which,
without ceasing to be puppets, they have yet become human beings. We
thus obtain characters of a comedy type. And upon them we can test
the truth of the law of which all our preceding analyses gave an
inkling, a law in accordance with which we will define all broadly
comic situations in general. ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS IS

1. THE JACK-IN-THE-BOX.--As children we have all played with the
little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he
jumps up again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush
him down beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying.
It is hard to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but
the kind of amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a
struggle between two stubborn elements, one of which, being simply
mechanical, generally ends by giving in to the other, which treats
it as a plaything. A cat playing with a mouse, which from time to
time she releases like a spring, only to pull it up short with a
stroke of her paw, indulges in the same kind of amusement.

We will now pass on to the theatre, beginning with a Punch and Judy
show. No sooner does the policeman put in an appearance on the stage
than, naturally enough, he receives a blow which fells him. He
springs to his feet, a second blow lays him flat. A repetition of
the offence is followed by a repetition of the punishment. Up and
down the constable flops and hops with the uniform rhythm of the
bending and release of a spring, whilst the spectators laugh louder
and louder.

Now, let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an
idea that is first expressed, then repressed, and then expressed
again; a stream of words that bursts forth, is checked, and keeps on
starting afresh. Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force,
counteracted by another, equally pertinacious. This vision, however,
will have discarded a portion of its materiality. No longer is it
Punch and Judy that we are watching, but rather a real comedy.

Many a comic scene may indeed be referred to this simple type. For
instance, in the scene of the Mariage force between Sganarelle and
Pancrace, the entire vis comica lies in the conflict set up between
the idea of Sganarelle, who wishes to make the philosopher listen to
him, and the obstinacy of the philosopher, a regular talking-machine
working automatically. As the scene progresses, the image of the
Jack-in-the-box becomes more apparent, so that at last the
characters themselves adopt its movements,--Sganarelle pushing
Pancrace, each time he shows himself, back into the wings, Pancrace
returning to the stage after each repulse to continue his patter.
And when Sganarelle finally drives Pancrace back and shuts him up
inside the house--inside the box, one is tempted to say--a window
suddenly flies open, and the head of the philosopher again appears
as though it had burst open the lid of a box.

The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth
of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its
vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that
flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as
though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being,
as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by
a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his
lips. The self-same exclamation: "Monsieur Purgon!" recurs at
regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little

Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is
bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central
element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic

Why is it there is something comic in the repetition of a word on
the stage? No theory of the ludicrous seems to offer a satisfactory
answer to this very simple question. Nor can an answer be found so
long as we look for the explanation of an amusing word or phrase in
the phrase or word itself, apart from all it suggests to us. Nowhere
will the usual method prove to be so inadequate as here. With the
exception, however, of a few special instances to which we shall
recur later, the repetition of a word is never laughable in itself.
It makes us laugh only because it symbolises a special play of moral
elements, this play itself being the symbol of an altogether
material diversion. It is the diversion of the cat with the mouse,
the diversion of the child pushing back the Jack-in-the-box, time
after time, to the bottom of his box,--but in a refined and
spiritualised form, transferred to the realm of feelings and ideas.
Let us then state the law which, we think, defines the main comic
varieties of word-repetition on the stage: IN A COMIC REPETITION OF

When Dorine is telling Orgon of his wife's illness, and the latter
continually interrupts him with inquiries as to the health of
Tartuffe, the question: "Et tartuffe?" repeated every few moments,
affords us the distinct sensation of a spring being released. This
spring Dorine delights in pushing back, each time she resumes her
account of Elmire's illness. And when Scapin informs old Geronte
that his son has been taken prisoner on the famous galley, and that
a ransom must be paid without delay, he is playing with the avarice
of Geronte exactly as Dorine does with the infatuation of Orgon. The
old man's avarice is no sooner repressed than up it springs again
automatically, and it is this automatism that Moliere tries to
indicate by the mechanical repetition of a sentence expressing
regret at the money that would have to be forthcoming: "What the
deuce did he want in that galley?" The same criticism is applicable
to the scene in which Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong he
would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she did not love.
"No dowry wanted!" interrupts the miserly Harpagon every few
moments. Behind this exclamation, which recurs automatically, we
faintly discern a complete repeating-machine set going by a fixed

At times this mechanism is less easy to detect, and here we
encounter a fresh difficulty in the theory of the comic. Sometimes
the whole interest of a scene lies in one character playing a double
part, the intervening speaker acting as a mere prism, so to speak,
through which the dual personality is developed. We run the risk,
then, of going astray if we look for the secret of the effect in
what we see and hear,--in the external scene played by the
characters,--and not in the altogether inner comedy of which this
scene is no more than the outer refraction. For instance, when
Alceste stubbornly repeats the words, "I don't say that!" on Oronte
asking him if he thinks his poetry bad, the repetition is laughable,
though evidently Oronte is not now playing with Alceste at the game
we have just described. We must be careful, however, for, in
reality, we have two men in Alceste: on the one hand, the
"misanthropist" who has vowed henceforth to call a spade a spade,
and on the other the gentleman who cannot unlearn, in a trice, the
usual forms of politeness, or even, it may be, just the honest
fellow who, when called upon to put his words into practice, shrinks
from wounding another's self-esteem or hurting his feelings.
Accordingly, the real scene is not between Alceste and Oronte, it is
between Alceste and himself. The one Alceste would fain blurt out
the truth, and the other stops his mouth just as he is on the point
of telling everything. Each "I don't say that!" reveals a growing
effort to repress something that strives and struggles to get out.
And so the tone in which the phrase is uttered gets more and more
violent, Alceste becoming more and more angry--not with Oronte. as
he thinks--but with himself. The tension of the spring is
continually being renewed and reinforced until it at last goes off
with a bang. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same identical
mechanism of repetition.

For a man to make a resolution never henceforth to say what he does
not think, even though he "openly defy the whole human race," is not
necessarily laughable; it is only a phase of life at its highest and
best. For another man, through amiability, selfishness, or disdain,
to prefer to flatter people is only another phase of life; there is
nothing in it to make us laugh. You may even combine these two men
into one, and arrange that the individual waver between offensive
frankness and delusive politeness, this duel between two opposing
feelings will not even then be comic, rather it will appear the
essence of seriousness if these two feelings through their very
distinctness complete each other, develop side by side, and make up
between them a composite mental condition, adopting, in short, a
modus vivendi which merely gives us the complex impression of life.
But imagine these two feelings as INELASTIC and unvarying elements
in a really living man, make him oscillate from one to the other;
above all, arrange that this oscillation becomes entirely mechanical
by adopting the well-known form of some habitual, simple, childish
contrivance: then you will get the image we have so far found in all
fact, something comic.

We have dwelt on this first image, the Jack-in-the-box, sufficiently
to show how comic fancy gradually converts a material mechanism into
a moral one. Now we will consider one or two other games, confining
ourselves to their most striking aspects.

2. THE DANCING-JACK.--There are innumerable comedies in which one of
the characters thinks he is speaking and acting freely, and,
consequently, retains all the essentials of life, whereas, viewed
from a certain standpoint, he appears as a mere toy in the hands of
another who is playing with him. The transition is easily made, from
the dancing-jack which a child works with a string, to Geronte and
Argante manipulated by Scapin. Listen to Scapin himself: "The
MACHINE is all there"; and again: "Providence has brought them into
my net," etc. Instinctively, and because one would rather be a cheat
than be cheated, in imagination at all events, the spectator sides
with the knaves; and for the rest of the time, like a child who has
persuaded his playmate to lend him his doll, he takes hold of the
strings himself and makes the marionette come and go on the stage as
he pleases. But this latter condition is not indispensable; we can
remain outside the pale of what is taking place if only we retain
the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement. This is what
happens whenever one of the characters vacillates between two
contrary opinions, each in turn appealing to him, as when Panurge
asks Tom, Dick, and Harry whether or no he ought to get married.
Note that, in such a case, a comic author is always careful to
PERSONIFY the two opposing decisions. For, if there is no spectator,
there must at all events be actors to hold the strings.

All that is serious in life comes from our freedom. The feelings we
have matured, the passions we have brooded over, the actions we have
weighed, decided upon, and carried through, in short, all that comes
from us and is our very own, these are the things that give life its
ofttimes dramatic and generally grave aspect. What, then, is
requisite to transform all this into a comedy? Merely to fancy that
our seeming, freedom conceals the strings of a dancing-Jack, and
that we are, as the poet says,

... humble marionettes The wires of which are pulled by Fate.
[Footnote: ... d'humbles marionnettes Dont le fil est aux mains de
la Necessite. SULLY-PRUDHOMME.]

So there is not a real, a serious, or even a dramatic scene that
fancy cannot render comic by simply calling forth this image. Nor is
there a game for which a wider field lies open.

3. THE SNOW-BALL.--The farther we proceed in this investigation into
the methods of comedy, the more clearly we see the part played by
childhood's memories. These memories refer, perhaps, less to any
special game than to the mechanical device of which that game is a
particular instance. The same general device, moreover, may be met
with in widely different games, just as the same operatic air is
found in many different arrangements and variations. What is here of
importance and is retained in the mind, what passes by imperceptible
stages from the games of a child to those of a man, is the mental
diagram, the skeleton outline of the combination, or, if you like,
the abstract formula of which these games are particular
illustrations. Take, for instance, the rolling snow-ball, which
increases in size as it moves along. We might just as well think of
toy soldiers standing behind one another. Push the first and it
tumbles down on the second, this latter knocks down the third, and
the state of things goes from bad to worse until they all lie prone
on the floor. Or again, take a house of cards that has been built up
with infinite care: the first you touch seems uncertain whether to
move or not, its tottering neighbour comes to a quicker decision,
and the work of destruction, gathering momentum as it goes on,
rushes headlong to the final collapse.

These instances are all different, but they suggest the same
abstract vision, that of an effect which grows by arithmetical
progression, so that the cause, insignificant at the outset,
culminates by a necessary evolution in a result as important as it
is unexpected. Now let us open a children's picture-book; we shall
find this arrangement already on the high road to becoming comic.
Here, for instance--in one of the comic chap-books picked up by
chance--we have a caller rushing violently into a drawing-room; he
knocks against a lady, who upsets her cup of tea over an old
gentleman, who slips against a glass window which falls in the
street on to the head of a constable, who sets the whole police
force agog, etc. The same arrangement reappears in many a picture
intended for grownup persons. In the "stories without words"
sketched by humorous artists we are often shown an object which
moves from place to place, and persons who are closely connected
with it, so that through a series of scenes a change in the position
of the object mechanically brings about increasingly serious changes
in the situation of the persons. Let us now turn to comedy. Many a
droll scene, many a comedy even, may be referred to this simple
type. Read the speech of Chicanneau in the Plaideurs: here we find
lawsuits within lawsuits, and the mechanism works faster and faster-
-Racine produces in us this feeling of increasing acceleration by
crowding his law terms ever closer together--until the lawsuit over
a truss of hay costs the plaintiff the best part of his fortune. And
again the same arrangement occurs in certain scenes of Don Quixote;
for instance, in the inn scene, where, by an extraordinary
concatenation of circumstances, the mule-driver strikes Sancho, who
belabours Maritornes, upon whom the innkeeper falls, etc. Finally,
let us pass to the light comedy of to-day. Need we call to mind all
the forms in which this same combination appears? There is one that
is employed rather frequently. For instance, a certain thing, say a
letter, happens to be of supreme importance to a certain person and
must be recovered at all costs. This thing, which always vanishes
just when you think you have caught it, pervades the entire play,
"rolling up" increasingly serious and unexpected incidents as it
proceeds. All this is far more like a child's game than appears at
first blush. Once more the effect produced is that of the snowball.

It is the characteristic of a mechanical combination to be generally
REVERSIBLE. A child is delighted when he sees the ball in a game of
ninepins knocking down everything in its way and spreading havoc in
all directions; he laughs louder than ever when the ball returns to
its starting-point after twists and turns and waverings of every
kind. In other words, the mechanism just described is laughable even
when rectilinear, it is much more so on becoming circular and when
every effort the player makes, by a fatal interaction of cause and
effect, merely results in bringing it back to the same spot. Now, a
considerable number of light comedies revolve round this idea. An
Italian straw hat has been eaten up by a horse. [Footnote: Un
Chapeau de paille d'Italie (Labiche).] There is only one other hat
like it in the whole of Paris; it MUST be secured regardless of
cost. This hat, which always slips away at the moment its capture
seems inevitable, keeps the principal character on the run, and
through him all the others who hang, so to say, on to his coat
tails, like a magnet which, by a successive series of attractions,
draws along in its train the grains of iron filings that hang on to
each other. And when at last, after all sorts of difficulties, the
goal seems in sight, it is found that the hat so ardently sought is
precisely the one that has been eaten. The same voyage of discovery
is depicted in another equally well-known comedy of Labiche.
[Footnote: La Cagnotte.] The curtain rises on an old bachelor and an
old maid, acquaintances of long standing, at the moment of enjoying
their daily rubber. Each of them, unknown to the other, has applied
to the same matrimonial agency. Through innumerable difficulties,
one mishap following on the heels of another, they hurry along, side
by side, right through the play, to the interview which brings them
back, purely and simply, into each other's presence. We have the
same circular effect, the same return to the starting-point, in a
more recent play. [Footnote: Les Surprises du divorce.] A henpecked
husband imagines he has escaped by divorce from the clutches of his
wife and his mother-in-law. He marries again, when, lo and behold,
the double combination of marriage and divorce brings back to him
his former wife in the aggravated form of a second mother-in-law!

When we think how intense and how common is this type of the comic,
we understand why it has fascinated the imagination of certain
philosophers. To cover a good deal of ground only to come back
unwittingly to the starting-point, is to make a great effort for a
result that is nil. So we might be tempted to define the comic in
this latter fashion. And such, indeed, seems to be the idea of
Herbert Spencer: according to him, laughter is the indication of an
effort which suddenly encounters a void. Kant had already said
something of the kind: "Laughter is the result of an expectation,
which, of a sudden, ends in nothing." No doubt these definitions
would apply to the last few examples given, although, even then, the
formula needs the addition of sundry limitations, for we often make
an ineffectual effort which is in no way provocative of laughter.
While, however, the last few examples are illustrations of a great
cause resulting in a small effect, we quoted others, immediately
before, which might be defined inversely as a great effect springing
from a small cause. The truth is, this second definition has
scarcely more validity than the first. Lack of proportion between
cause and effect, whether appearing in one or in the other, is never
the direct source of laughter. What we do laugh at is something that
this lack of proportion may in certain cases disclose, namely, a
particular mechanical arrangement which it reveals to us, as through
a glass, at the back of the series of effects and causes. Disregard
this arrangement, and you let go the only clue capable of guiding
you through the labyrinth of the comic. Any hypothesis you otherwise
would select, while possibly applicable to a few carefully chosen
cases, is liable at any moment to be met and overthrown by the first
unsuitable instance that comes along.

But why is it we laugh at this mechanical arrangement? It is
doubtless strange that the history of a person or of a group should
sometimes appear like a game worked by strings, or gearings, or
springs; but from what source does the special character of this
strangeness arise? What is it that makes it laughable? To this
question, which we have already propounded in various forms, our
answer must always be the same. The rigid mechanism which we
occasionally detect, as a foreign body, in the living continuity of
human affairs is of peculiar interest to us as being a kind of
ABSENTMINDEDNESS on the part of life. Were events unceasingly
mindful of their own course, there would be no coincidences, no
conjunctures and no circular series; everything would evolve and
progress continuously. And were all men always attentive to life,
were we constantly keeping in touch with others as well as with
ourselves, nothing within us would ever appear as due to the working
of strings or springs. The comic is that side of a person which
reveals his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which,
through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure
mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life. Consequently it
expresses an individual or collective imperfection which calls for
an immediate corrective. This corrective is laughter, a social
gesture that singles out and represses a special kind of
absentmindedness in men and in events.

But this in turn tempts us to make further investigations. So far,
we have spent our time in rediscovering, in the diversions of the
grownup man, those mechanical combinations which amused him as a
child. Our methods, in fact, have been entirely empirical. Let us
now attempt to frame a full and methodical theory, by seeking, as it
were, at the fountainhead, the changeless and simple archetypes of
the manifold and transient practices of the comic stage. Comedy, we
said, combines events so as to introduce mechanism into the outer
forms of life. Let us now ascertain in what essential
characteristics life, when viewed from without, seems to contrast
with mere mechanism. We shall only have, then, to turn to the
opposite characteristics, in order to discover the abstract formula,
this time a general and complete one, for every real and possible
method of comedy.

Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in
space. Regarded in time, it is the continuous evolution of a being
ever growing older; it never goes backwards and never repeats
anything. Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexisting
elements so closely interdependent, so exclusively made for one
another, that not one of them could, at the same time, belong to two
different organisms: each living being is a closed system of
phenomena, incapable of interfering with other systems. A continual
change of aspect, the irreversibility of the order of phenomena, the
perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series: such,
then, are the outward characteristics--whether real or apparent is
of little moment--which distinguish the living from the merely
mechanical. Let us take the counterpart of each of these: we shall
obtain three processes which might be called REPETITION, INVERSION,
and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF SERIES. Now, it is easy to see that
these are also the methods of light comedy, and that no others are

As a matter of fact, we could discover them, as ingredients of
varying importance, in the composition of all the scenes we have
just been considering, and, a fortiori, in the children's games, the
mechanism of which they reproduce. The requisite analysis would,
however, delay us too long, and it is more profitable to study them
in their purity by taking fresh examples. Nothing could be easier,
for it is in their pure state that they are found both in classic
comedy and in contemporary plays.

1. REPETITION.-Our present problem no longer deals, like the
preceding one, with a word or a sentence repeated by an individual,
but rather with a situation, that is, a combination of
circumstances, which recurs several times in its original form and
thus contrasts with the changing stream of life. Everyday experience
supplies us with this type of the comic, though only in a
rudimentary state. Thus, you meet a friend in the street whom you
have not seen for an age; there is nothing comic in the situation.
If, however, you meet, him again the same day, and then a third and
a fourth time, you may laugh at the "coincidence." Now, picture to
yourself a series of imaginary events which affords a tolerably fair
illusion of life, and within this ever-moving series imagine one and
the same scene reproduced either by the same characters or by
different ones: again you will have a coincidence, though a far more
extraordinary one.

Such are the repetitions produced on the stage. They are the more
laughable in proportion as the scene repeated is more complex and
more naturally introduced--two conditions which seem mutually
exclusive, and which the play-writer must be clever enough to

Contemporary light comedy employs this method in every shape and
form. One of the best-known examples consists in bringing a group of
characters, act after act, into the most varied surroundings, so as
to reproduce, under ever fresh circumstances, one and the same
series of incidents or accidents more or less symmetrically

In several of Moliere's plays we find one and the same arrangement
of events repeated right through the comedy from beginning to end.
Thus, the Ecole des femmes does nothing more than reproduce and
repeat a single incident in three tempi: first tempo, Horace tells
Arnolphe of the plan he has devised to deceive Agnes's guardian, who
turns out to be Arnolphe himself; second tempo, Arnolphe thinks he
has checkmated the move; third tempo, Agnes contrives that Horace
gets all the benefit of Arnolphe's precautionary measures. There is
the same symmetrical repetition in the Ecole des marts, in
L'Etourdi, and above all in George Dandin, where the same effect in
three tempi is again met with: first tempo, George Dandin discovers
that his wife is unfaithful; second tempo, he summons his father--
and mother-in-law to his assistance; third tempo, it is George
Dandin himself, after all, who has to apologise.

At times the same scene is reproduced with groups of different
characters. Then it not infrequently happens that the first group
consists of masters and the second of servants. The latter repeat in
another key a scene already played by the former, though the
rendering is naturally less refined. A part of the Depit amoureux is
constructed on this plan, as is also Amphitryon. In an amusing
little comedy of Benedix, Der Eigensinn, the order is inverted: we
have the masters reproducing a scene of stubbornness in which their
servants have set the example.

But, quite irrespective of the characters who serve as pegs for the
arrangement of symmetrical situations, there seems to be a wide gulf
between classic comedy and the theatre of to-day. Both aim at
introducing a certain mathematical order into events, while none the
less maintaining their aspect of likelihood, that is to say, of
life. But the means they employ are different. The majority of light
comedies of our day seek to mesmerise directly the mind of the
spectator. For, however extraordinary the coincidence, it becomes
acceptable from the very fact that it is accepted; and we do accept
it, if we have been gradually prepared for its reception. Such is
often the procedure adopted by contemporary authors. In Moliere's
plays, on the contrary, it is the moods of the persons on the stage,
not of the audience, that make repetition seem natural. Each of the
characters represents a certain force applied in a certain
direction, and it is because these forces, constant in direction,
necessarily combine together in the same way, that the same
situation is reproduced. Thus interpreted, the comedy of situation
is akin to the comedy of character. It deserves to be called
classic, if classic art is indeed that which does not claim to
derive from the effect more than it has put into the cause.

2. Inversion.--This second method has so much analogy with the first
that we will merely define it without insisting on illustrations.
Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if
you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic
scene. The double rescue scene in Le Voyage de M. Perrichon belongs
to this class. [Footnote: Labiche, "Le Voyage de M. Perrichon."]
There is no necessity, however, for both the identical scenes to be
played before us. We may be shown only one, provided the other is
really in our minds. Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar
lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents;
in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of
"topsyturvydom." Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character
who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught. The plot of
the villain who is the victim of his own villainy, or the cheat
cheated, forms the stock-in-trade of a good many plays. We find this
even in primitive farce. Lawyer Pathelin tells his client of a trick
to outwit the magistrate; the client employs the self-same trick to
avoid paying the lawyer. A termagant of a wife insists upon her
husband doing all the housework; she has put down each separate item
on a "rota." Now let her fall into a copper, her husband will refuse
to drag her out, for "that is not down on his 'rota.'" In modern
literature we meet with hundreds of variations on the theme of the
robber robbed. In every case the root idea involves an inversion of
roles, and a situation which recoils on the head of its author.

Here we apparently find the confirmation of a law, some
illustrations of which we have already pointed out. When a comic
scene has been reproduced a number of times, it reaches the stage of
being a classical type or model. It becomes amusing in itself, quite
apart from the causes which render it amusing. Henceforth, new
scenes, which are not comic de jure, may become amusing de facto, on
account of their partial resemblance to this model. They call up in
our mind a more or less confused image which we know to be comical.
They range themselves in a category representing an officially
recognised type of the comic. The scene of the "robber robbed"
belongs to this class. It casts over a host of other scenes a
reflection of the comic element it contains. In the end it renders
comic any mishap that befalls one through one's own fault, no matter
what the fault or mishap may be,--nay, an allusion to this mishap, a
single word that recalls it, is sufficient. There would be nothing
amusing in the saying, "It serves you right, George Dandin," were it
not for the comic overtones that take up and re-echo it.

3. We have dwelt at considerable length on repetition and inversion;
we now come to the reciprocal interference [Footnote: The word
"interference" has here the meaning given to it in Optics, where it
indicates the partial superposition and neutralisation, by each
other, of two series of light-waves.] of series. This is a comic
effect, the precise formula of which is very difficult to
disentangle, by reason of the extraordinary variety of forms in
which it appears on the stage. Perhaps it might be defined as
follows: A situation is invariably comic when it belongs
simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is
capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at
the same time.

You will at once think of an equivocal situation. And the equivocal
situation is indeed one which permits of two different meanings at
the same time, the one merely plausible, which is put forward by the
actors, the other a real one, which is given by the public. We see
the real meaning of the situation, because care has been taken to
show us every aspect of it; but each of the actors knows only one of
these aspects: hence the mistakes they make and the erroneous
judgments they pass both on what is going on around them and on what
they are doing themselves. We proceed from this erroneous judgment
to the correct one, we waver between the possible meaning and the
real, and it is this mental seesaw between two contrary
interpretations which is at first apparent in the enjoyment we
derive from an equivocal situation. It is natural that certain
philosophers should have been specially struck by this mental
instability, and that some of them should regard the very essence of
the ludicrous as consisting in the collision or coincidence of two
judgments that contradict each other. Their definition, however, is
far from meeting every case, and even when it does, it defines--not
the principle of the ludicrous, but only one of its more or less
distant consequences. Indeed, it is easy to see that the stage-made
misunderstanding is nothing but a particular instance of a far more
general phenomenon,--the reciprocal interference of independent
series, and that, moreover, it is not laughable in itself, but only
as a sign of such an interference.

As a matter of fact, each of the characters in every stage-made
misunderstanding has his setting in an appropriate series of events
which he correctly interprets as far as he is concerned, and which
give the key-note to his words and actions. Each of the series
peculiar to the several characters develop independently, but at a
certain moment they meet under such conditions that the actions and
words that belong to one might just as well belong to another. Hence
arise the misunderstandings and the equivocal nature of the
situation. But this latter is not laughable in itself, it is so only
because it reveals the coincidence of the two independent series.
The proof of this lies in the fact that the author must be
continually taxing his ingenuity to recall our attention to the
double fact of independence and coincidence. This he generally
succeeds in doing by constantly renewing the vain threat of
dissolving partnership between the two coinciding series. Every
moment the whole thing threatens to break down, but manages to get
patched up again; it is this diversion that excites laughter, far
more than the oscillation of the mind between two contradictory
ideas. It makes us laugh because it reveals to us the reciprocal
interference of two independent series, the real source of the comic

And so the stage-made misunderstanding is nothing more than one
particular instance, one means--perhaps the most artificial--of
illustrating the reciprocal interference of series, but it is not
the only one. Instead of two contemporary series, you might take one
series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the
present: if the two series happen to coincide in our imagination,
there will be no resulting cross-purposes, and yet the same comic
effect will continue to take place. Think of Bonivard, captive in
the Castle of Chillon: one series of facts. Now picture to yourself
Tartarin, travelling in Switzerland, arrested and imprisoned: second
series, independent of the former. Now let Tartarin be manacled to
Bonivard's chain, thus making the two stories seem for a moment to
coincide, and you will get a very amusing scene, one of the most
amusing that Daudet's imagination has pictured. [Tartarin sur les
Alpes, by Daudet.] Numerous incidents of the mock-heroic style, if
analysed, would reveal the same elements. The transposition from the
ancient to the modern--always a laughable one--draws its inspiration
from the same idea. Labiche has made use of this method in every
shape and form. Sometimes he begins by building up the series
separately, and then delights in making them interfere with one
another: he takes an independent group--a wedding-party, for
instance--and throws them into altogether unconnected surroundings,
into which certain coincidences allow of their being foisted for the
time being. Sometimes he keeps one and the same set of characters
right through the play, but contrives that certain of these
characters have something to conceal--have, in fact, a secret
understanding on the point--in short, play a smaller comedy within
the principal one: at one moment, one of the two comedies is on the
point of upsetting the other; the next, everything comes right and
the coincidence between the two series is restored. Sometimes, even,
he introduces into the actual series a purely immaterial series of
events, an inconvenient past, for instance, that some one has an
interest in concealing, but which is continually cropping up in the
present, and on each occasion is successfully brought into line with
situations with which it seemed destined to play havoc. But in every
case we find the two independent series, and also their partial

We will not carry any further this analysis of the methods of light
comedy. Whether we find reciprocal interference of series,
inversion, or repetition, we see that the objective is always the
same--to obtain what we have called a MECHANISATION of life. You
take a set of actions and relations and repeat it as it is, or turn
it upside down, or transfer it bodily to another set with which it
partially coincides--all these being processes that consist in
looking upon life as a repeating mechanism, with reversible action
and interchangeable parts. Actual life is comedy just so far as it
produces, in a natural fashion, actions of the same kind,--
consequently, just so far as it forgets itself, for were it always
on the alert, it would be ever-changing continuity, irrevertible
progress, undivided unity. And so the ludicrous in events may be
defined as absentmindedness in things, just as the ludicrous in an
individual character always results from some fundamental
absentmindedness in the person, as we have already intimated and
shall prove later on. This absentmindedness in events, however, is
exceptional. Its results are slight. At any rate it is incurable, so
that it is useless to laugh at it. Therefore the idea would never
have occurred to any one of exaggerating that absentmindedness, of
converting it into a system and creating an art for it, if laughter
were not always a pleasure and mankind did not pounce upon the
slightest excuse for indulging in it. This is the real explanation
of light comedy, which holds the same relation to actual life as
does a jointed dancing-doll to a man walking,--being, as it is, an
artificial exaggeration of a natural rigidity in things. The thread
that binds it to actual life is a very fragile one. It is scarcely
more than a game which, like all games, depends on a previously
accepted convention. Comedy in character strikes far deeper roots
into life. With that kind of comedy we shall deal more particularly
in the final portion of our investigation. But we must first analyse
a certain type of the comic, in many respects similar to that of
light comedy: the comic in words.


There may be something artificial in making a special category for
the comic in words, since most of the varieties of the comic that we
have examined so far were produced through the medium of language.
We must make a distinction, however, between the comic EXPRESSED and
the comic CREATED by language. The former could, if necessary, be
translated from one language into another, though at the cost of
losing the greater portion of its significance when introduced into
a fresh society different in manners, in literature, and above all
in association of ideas. But it is generally impossible to translate
the latter. It owes its entire being to the structure of the
sentence or to the choice of the 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 language itself that becomes comic.

Comic sayings, however, are not a matter of spontaneous generation;
if we laugh at them, we are equally entitled to laugh at their
author. This latter condition, however, is not indispensable, since
the saying or expression has a comic virtue of its own. This is
proved by the fact that we find it very difficult, in the majority
of these cases, to say whom we are laughing at, although at times we
have a dim, vague feeling that there is some one in the background.

Moreover, the person implicated is not always the speaker. Here it
seems as though we should draw an important distinction between the
WITTY (SPIRITUEL) and the COMIC. A word is said to be comic when it
makes us laugh at the person who utters it, and witty when it makes
us laugh either at a third party or at ourselves. But in most cases
we can hardly make up our minds whether the word is comic or witty.
All that we can say is that it is laughable.

Before proceeding, it might be well to examine more closely what is
meant by ESPRIT. A witty saying makes us at least smile;
consequently, no investigation into laughter would be complete did
it not get to the bottom of the nature of wit and throw light on the
underlying idea. It is to be feared, however, that this extremely
subtle essence is one that evaporates when exposed to the light.

Let us first make a distinction between the two meanings of the word
wit ESPRIT, the broader one and the more restricted. In the broader
meaning of the word, it would seem that what is called wit is a
certain DRAMATIC way of thinking. 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. He puts them on the
stage, and himself, to some extent, into the bargain. A witty nation
is, of necessity, a nation enamoured of the theatre. In every wit
there is something of a poet--just as in every good reader there is
the making of an actor. This comparison is made purposely, because a
proportion might easily be established between the four terms. In
order to read well we need only the intellectual side of the actor's
art; but in order to act well one must be an actor in all one's soul
and body. In just the same way, poetic creation calls for some
degree of self-forgetfulness, whilst the wit does not usually err in
this respect. We always get a glimpse of the latter behind what he
says and does. He is not wholly engrossed in the business, because
he only brings his intelligence into play. So any poet may reveal
himself as a wit when he pleases. To do this there will be no need
for him to acquire anything; it seems rather as though he would have
to give up something. He would simply have to let his ideas hold
converse with one another "for nothing, for the mere joy of the
thing!" [Footnote: "Pour rien, pour le plaisir" is a quotation
from Victor Hugo's Marion Delorme] He would only have to unfasten
the double bond which keeps his ideas in touch with his feelings and
his soul in touch with life. In short, he would turn into a wit by
simply resolving to be no longer a poet in feeling, but only in

But if wit consists, for the most part, in seeing things SUB SPECIE
THEATRI, it is evidently capable of being specially directed to one
variety of dramatic art, namely, comedy. Here we have a more
restricted meaning of the term, and, moreover, the only one that
interests us from the point of view of the theory of laughter. What
is here called WIT is a gift for dashing off comic scenes in a few
strokes--dashing them off, however, so subtly, delicately and
rapidly, that all is over as soon as we begin to notice them.

Who are the actors in these scenes? With whom has the wit to deal?
First of all, with his interlocutors themselves, when his witticism
is a direct retort to one of them. Often with an absent person whom
he supposes to have spoken and to whom he is replying. Still
oftener, with the whole world,--in the ordinary meaning of the
term,--which he takes to task, twisting a current idea into a
paradox, or making use of a hackneyed phrase, or parodying some
quotation or proverb. If we compare these scenes in miniature with
one another, we find they are almost always variations of a comic
theme with which we are well acquainted, that of the "robber
robbed." You take up a metaphor, a phrase, an argument, and turn it
against the man who is, or might be, its author, so that he is made
to say what he did not mean to say and lets himself be caught, to
some extent, in the toils of language. But the theme of the "robber
robbed" is not the only possible one. We have gone over many
varieties of the comic, and there is not one of them that is
incapable of being volatilised into a witticism.

Every witty remark, then, lends itself to an analysis, whose
chemical formula, so to say, we are now in a position to state. It
runs as follows: Take the remark, first enlarge it into a regular
scene, then find out the category of the comic to which the scene
evidently belongs: by this means you reduce the witty remark to its
simplest elements and obtain a full explanation of it.

Let us apply this method to a classic example. "Your chest hurts me"
(J'AI MAL A VOTRE POITRINE) wrote Mme. de Sevigne to her ailing
daughter--clearly a witty saying. If our theory is correct, we need
only lay stress upon the saying, enlarge and magnify it, and we
shall see it expand into a comic scene. Now, we find this very
scene, ready made, in the AMOUR MEDECIN of Moliere. The sham doctor,
Clitandre, who has been summoned to attend Sganarelle's daughter,
contents himself with feeling Sganarelle's own pulse, whereupon,
relying on the sympathy there must be between father and daughter,
he unhesitatingly concludes: "Your daughter is very ill!" Here we
have the transition from the witty to the comical. To complete our
analysis, then, all we have to do is to discover what there is
comical in the idea of giving a diagnosis of the child after
sounding the father or the mother. Well, we know that one essential
form of comic fancy lies in picturing to ourselves a living person
as a kind of jointed dancing-doll, and that frequently, with the
object of inducing us to form this mental picture, we are shown two
or more persons speaking and acting as though attached to one
another by invisible strings. Is not this the idea here suggested
when we are led to materialise, so to speak, the sympathy we
postulate as existing between father and daughter?

We now see how it is that writers on wit have perforce confined
themselves to commenting on the extraordinary complexity of the
things denoted by the term without ever succeeding in defining it.
There are many ways of being witty, almost as many as there are of
being the reverse. How can we detect what they have in common with
one another, unless we first determine the general relationship
between the witty and the comic? Once, however, this relationship is
cleared up, everything is plain sailing. We then find the same
connection between the comic and the witty as exists between a
regular scene and the fugitive suggestion of a possible one. Hence,
however numerous the forms assumed by the comic, wit will possess an
equal number of corresponding varieties. So that the comic, in all
its forms, is what should be defined first, by discovering (a task
which is already quite difficult enough) the clue that leads from
one form to the other. By that very operation wit will have been
analysed, and will then appear as nothing more than the comic in a
highly volatile state. To follow the opposite plan, however, and
attempt directly to evolve a formula for wit, would be courting
certain failure. What should we think of a chemist who, having ever
so many jars of a certain substance in his laboratory, would prefer
getting that substance from the atmosphere, in which merely
infinitesimal traces of its vapour are to be found?

But this comparison between the witty and the comic is also
indicative of the line we must take in studying the comic in words.
On the one hand, indeed, we find there is no essential difference
between a word that is comic and one that is witty; on the other
hand, the latter, although connected with a figure of speech,
invariably calls up the image, dim or distinct, of a comic scene.
This amounts to saying that the comic in speech should correspond,
point by point, with the comic in actions and in situations, and is
nothing more, if one may so express oneself, than their projection
on to the plane of words. So let us return to the comic in actions
and in situations, consider the chief methods by which it is
obtained, and apply them to the choice of words and the building up
of sentences. We shall thus have every possible form of the comic in
words as well as every variety of wit.

1. Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or
doing, as a result of inelasticity or momentum, is, as we are aware,
one of the main sources of the comic. Thus, absentmindedness is
essentially laughable, and so we laugh at anything rigid, ready-
made, mechanical in gesture, attitude and even facial expression. Do
we find this kind of rigidity in language also? No doubt we do,
since language contains ready-made formulas and stereotyped phrases.
The man who always expressed himself in such terms would invariably
be comic. But if an isolated phrase is to be comic in itself, when
once separated from the person who utters it, it must be something
more than ready-made, it must bear within itself some sign which
tells us, beyond the possibility of doubt, that it was uttered
automatically. This can only happen when the phrase embodies some
evident absurdity, either a palpable error or a contradiction in
terms. Hence the following general rule: A COMIC MEANING IS

"Ce sabre est le plus beau jour de ma vie," said M. Prudhomme.
Translate the phrase into English or German and it becomes purely
absurd, though it is comic enough in French. The reason is that "le
plus beau jour de ma vie" is one of those ready-made phrase-endings
to which a Frenchman's ear is accustomed. To make it comic, then, we
need only clearly indicate the automatism of the person who utters
it. This is what we get when we introduce an absurdity into the
phrase. Here the absurdity is by no means the source of the comic,
it is only a very simple and effective means of making it obvious.

We have quoted only one saying of M. Prudhomme, but the majority of
those attributed to him belong to the same class. M. Prudhomme is a
man of ready-made phrases. And as there are ready-made phrases in
all languages, M. Prudhomme is always capable of being transposed,
though seldom of being translated. At times the commonplace phrase,
under cover of which the absurdity slips in, is not so readily
noticeable. "I don't like working between meals," said a lazy lout.
There would be nothing amusing in the saying did there not exist
that salutary precept in the realm of hygiene: "One should not eat
between meals."

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. Take, for instance, the remark of one of the
characters in a play by Labiche, "Only God has the right to kill His
fellow-creature." It would seem that advantage is here taken of two
separate familiar sayings; "It is God who disposes of the lives of
men," and, "It is criminal for a man to kill his fellow-creature."
But the two sayings are combined so as to deceive the ear and leave
the impression of being one of those hackneyed sentences that are
accepted as a matter of course. Hence our attention nods, until we
are suddenly aroused by the absurdity of the meaning. These examples
suffice to show how one of the most important types of the comic can
be projected--in a simplified form--on the plane of speech. We will
now proceed to a form which is not so general.

2. "We laugh if our attention is diverted to the physical in a
person when it is the moral that is in question," is a law we laid
down in the first part of this work. Let us apply it to language.
Most words might be said to have a PHYSICAL and a MORAL meaning,
according as they are interpreted literally or figuratively. Every
word, indeed, begins by denoting a concrete object or a material
action; but by degrees the meaning of the word is refined into an
abstract relation or a pure idea. If, then, the above law holds good
here, it should be stated as follows: "A comic effect is obtained
whenever we pretend to take literally an expression which was used
figuratively"; or, "Once our attention is fixed on the material
aspect of a metaphor, the idea expressed becomes comic."

In the phrase, "Tous les arts sont freres" (all the arts are
brothers), the word "frere" (brother) is used metaphorically to
indicate a more or less striking resemblance. The word is so often
used in this way, that when we hear it we do not think of the
concrete, the material connection implied in every relationship. We
should notice it more if we were told that "Tous les arts sont
cousins," for the word "cousin" is not so often employed in a
figurative sense; that is why the word here already assumes a slight
tinge of the comic. But let us go further still, and suppose that
our attention is attracted to the material side of the metaphor by
the choice of a relationship which is incompatible with the gender
of the two words composing the metaphorical expression: we get a
laughable result. Such is the well-known saying, also attributed to
M. Prudhomme, "Tous les arts (masculine) sont soeurs (feminine)."
"He is always running after a joke," was said in Boufflers' presence
regarding a very conceited fellow. Had Boufflers replied, "He won't
catch it," that would have been the beginning of a witty saying,
though nothing more than the beginning, for the word "catch" is
interpreted figuratively almost as often as the word "run"; nor does
it compel us more strongly than the latter to materialise the image
of two runners, the one at the heels of the other. In order that the
rejoinder may appear to be a thoroughly witty one, we must borrow
from the language of sport an expression so vivid and concrete that
we cannot refrain from witnessing the race in good earnest. This is
what Boufflers does when he retorts, "I'll back the joke!"

We said that wit often consists in extending the idea of one's
interlocutor to the point of making him express the opposite of what
he thinks and getting him, so to say, entrapt by his own words. We
must now add that this trap is almost always some metaphor or
comparison the concrete aspect of which is turned against him. You
may remember the dialogue between a mother and her son in the Faux
Bonshommes: "My dear boy, gambling on 'Change is very risky. You win
one day and lose the next."--"Well, then, I will gamble only every
other day." In the same play too we find the following edifying
conversation between two company-promoters: "Is this a very
honourable thing we are doing? These unfortunate shareholders, you
see, we are taking the money out of their very pockets...."--"Well,
out of what do you expect us to take it?"

An amusing result is likewise obtainable whenever a symbol or an
emblem is expanded on its concrete side, and a pretence is made of
retaining the same symbolical value for this expansion as for the
emblem itself. In a very lively comedy we are introduced to a Monte
Carlo official, whose uniform is covered with medals, although he
has only received a single decoration. "You see, I staked my medal
on a number at roulette," he said, "and as the number turned up, I
was entitled to thirty-six times my stake." This reasoning is very
similar to that offered by Giboyer in the Effrontes. Criticism is
made of a bride of forty summers who is wearing orange-blossoms with
her wedding costume: "Why, she was entitled to oranges, let alone
orange-blossoms!" remarked Giboyer.

But we should never cease were we to take one by one all the laws we
have stated, and try to prove them on what we have called the plane
of language. We had better confine ourselves to the three general
propositions of the preceding section. We have shown that "series of
events" may become comic either by repetition, by inversion, or by
reciprocal interference. Now we shall see that this is also the case
with series of words.

To take series of events and repeat them in another key or another
environment, or to invert them whilst still leaving them a certain
meaning, or mix them up so that their respective meanings jostle one
another, is invariably comic, as we have already said, for it is
getting life to submit to be treated as a machine. But thought, too,
is a living thing. And language, the translation of thought, should
be just as living. We may thus surmise that a phrase is likely to
become comic if, though reversed, it still makes sense, or if it
expresses equally well two quite independent sets of ideas, or,
finally, if it has been obtained by transposing an idea into some
key other than its own. Such, indeed, are the three fundamental laws
of what might be called THE COMIC TRANSFORMATION OF SENTENCES, as we
shall show by a few examples.

Let it first be said that these three laws are far from being of
equal importance as regards the theory of the ludicrous. INVERSION
is the least interesting of the three. It must be easy of
application, however, for it is noticeable that, no sooner do
professional wits hear a sentence spoken than they experiment to see
if a meaning cannot be obtained by reversing it,--by putting, for
instance, the subject in place of the object, and the object in
place of the subject. It is not unusual for this device to be
employed for refuting an idea in more or less humorous terms. One of
the characters in a comedy of Labiche shouts out to his neighbour on
the floor above, who is in the habit of dirtying his balcony, "What
do you mean by emptying your pipe on to my terrace?" The neighbour
retorts, "What do you mean by putting your terrace under my pipe?"
There is no necessity to dwell upon this kind of wit, instances of
which could easily be multiplied. The RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE of two
sets of ideas in the same sentence is an inexhaustible source of
amusing varieties. There are many ways of bringing about this
interference, I mean of bracketing in the same expression two
independent meanings that apparently tally. The least reputable of
these ways is the pun. In the pun, the same sentence appears to
offer two independent meanings, but it is only an appearance; in
reality there are two different sentences made up of different
words, but claiming to be one and the same because both have the
same sound. We pass from the pun, by imperceptible stages, to the
true play upon words. Here there is really one and the same sentence
through which two different sets of ideas are expressed, and we are
confronted with only one series of words; but advantage is taken of
the different meanings a word may have, especially when used
figuratively instead of literally. So that in fact there is often
only a slight difference between the play upon words on the one
hand, and a poetic metaphor or an illuminating comparison on the
other. Whereas an illuminating comparison and a striking image
always seem to reveal the close harmony that exists between language
and nature, regarded as two parallel forms of life, the play upon
words makes us think somehow of a negligence on the part of
language, which, for the time being, seems to have forgotten its
real function and now claims to accommodate things to itself instead
of accommodating itself to things. And so the play upon words always
betrays a momentary LAPSE OF ATTENTION in language, and it is
precisely on that account that it is amusing.

INVERSION and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE, after all, are only a certain
playfulness of the mind which ends at playing upon words. The comic
in TRANSPOSITION is much more far-reaching. Indeed, transposition is
to ordinary language what repetition is to comedy.

We said that repetition is the favourite method of classic comedy.
It consists in so arranging events that a scene is reproduced either
between the same characters under fresh circumstances or between
fresh characters under the same circumstances. Thus we have,
repeated by lackeys in less dignified language, a scene already
played by their masters. Now, imagine ideas expressed in suitable
style and thus placed in the setting of their natural environment.
If you think of some arrangement whereby they are transferred to
fresh surroundings, while maintaining their mutual relations, or, in
other words, if you can induce them to express themselves in an
altogether different style and to transpose themselves into another
key, you will have language itself playing a comedy--language itself
made comic. There will be no need, moreover, actually to set before
us both expressions of the same ideas, the transposed expression and
the natural one. For we are acquainted with the natural one--the one
which we should have chosen instinctively. So it will be enough if
the effort of comic invention bears on the other, and on the other
alone. No sooner is the second set before us than we spontaneously
supply the first. Hence the following general rule: A COMIC EFFECT

The means of transposition are so many and varied, language affords
so rich a continuity of themes and the comic is here capable of
passing through so great a number of stages, from the most insipid
buffoonery up to the loftiest forms of humour and irony, that we
shall forego the attempt to make out a complete list. Having stated
the rule, we will simply, here and there, verify its main

In the first place, we may distinguish two keys at the extreme ends
of the scale, the solemn and the familiar. The most obvious effects
are obtained by merely transposing the one into the other, which
thus provides us with two opposite currents of comic fancy.

Transpose the solemn into the familiar and the result is parody. The
effect of parody, thus defined, extends to instances in which the
idea expressed in familiar terms is one that, if only in deference
to custom, ought to be pitched in another key. Take as an example
the following description of the dawn, quoted by Jean Paul Richter:
"The sky was beginning to change from black to red, like a lobster
being boiled." Note that the expression of old-world matters in
terms of modern life produces the same effect, by reason of the halo
of poetry which surrounds classical antiquity.

It is doubtless the comic in parody that has suggested to some
philosophers, and in particular to Alexander Bain, the idea of
defining the comic, in general, as a species of DEGRADATION. They
describe the laughable as causing something to appear mean that was
formerly dignified. But if our analysis is correct, degradation is
only one form of transposition, and transposition itself only one of
the means of obtaining laughter. There is a host of others, and the
source of laughter must be sought for much further back. Moreover,
without going so far, we see that while the transposition from
solemn to trivial, from better to worse, is comic, the inverse
transposition may be even more so.

It is met with as often as the other, and, apparently, we may
distinguish two main forms of it, according as it refers to the

To speak of small things as though they were large is, in a general
way, TO EXAGGERATE. Exaggeration is always comic when prolonged, and
especially when systematic; then, indeed, it appears as one method
of transposition. It excites so much laughter that some writers have
been led to define the comic as exaggeration, just as others have
defined it as degradation. As a matter of fact, exaggeration, like
degradation, is only one form of one kind of the comic. Still, it is
a very striking form. It has given birth to the mock-heroic poem, a
rather old-fashioned device, I admit, though traces of it are still
to be found in persons inclined to exaggerate methodically. It might
often be said of braggadocio that it is its mock-heroic aspect which
makes us laugh.

Far more artificial, but also far more refined, is the transposition
upwards from below when applied to the moral value of things, not to
their physical dimensions. To express in reputable language some
disreputable idea, to take some scandalous situation, some low-class
calling or disgraceful behaviour, and describe them in terms of the
utmost "RESPECTABILITY," is generally comic. The English word is
here purposely employed, as the practice itself is
characteristically English. Many instances of it may be found in
Dickens and Thackeray, and in English literature generally. Let us
remark, in passing, that the intensity of the effect does not here
depend on its length. A word is sometimes sufficient, provided it
gives us a glimpse of an entire system of transposition accepted in
certain social circles and reveals, as it were, a moral organisation
of immorality. Take the following remark made by an official to one
of his subordinates in a novel of Gogol's, "Your peculations are too
extensive for an official of your rank."

Summing up the foregoing, then, there are two extreme terms of
comparison, the very large and the very small, the best and the
worst, between which transposition may be effected in one direction
or the other. Now, if the interval be gradually narrowed, the
contrast between the terms obtained will be less and less violent,
and the varieties of comic transposition more and more subtle.

The most common of these contrasts is perhaps that between the real
and the ideal, between what is and what ought to be. Here again
transposition may take place in either direction. Sometimes we state
what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what
is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the
contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done,
and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such
is often the method of HUMOUR. Humour, thus denned, is the
counterpart of irony. Both are forms of satire, but irony is
oratorical in its nature, whilst humour partakes of the scientific.
Irony is emphasised the higher we allow ourselves to be uplifted by
the idea of the good that ought to be: thus irony may grow so hot
within us that it becomes a kind of high-pressure eloquence. On the
other hand, humour is the more emphasised the deeper we go down into
an evil that actually is, in order t o set down its details in the
most cold-blooded indifference. Several authors, Jean Paul amongst
them, have noticed that humour delights in concrete terms, technical
details, definite facts. If our analysis is correct, this is not an
accidental trait of humour, it is its very essence. A humorist is a
moralist disguised as a scientist, something like an anatomist who
practises dissection with the sole object of filling us with
disgust; so that humour, in the restricted sense in which we are
here regarding the word, is really a transposition from the moral to
the scientific.

By still further curtailing the interval between the terms
transposed, we may now obtain more and more specialised types of
comic transpositions. Thus, certain professions have a technical
vocabulary: what a wealth of laughable results have been obtained by
transposing the ideas of everyday life into this professional
jargon! Equally comic is the extension of business phraseology to
the social relations of life,--for instance, the phrase of one of
Labiche's characters in allusion to an invitation he has received,
"Your kindness of the third ult.," thus transposing the commercial
formula, "Your favour of the third instant." This class of the
comic, moreover, may attain a special profundity of its own when it
discloses not merely a professional practice, but a fault in
character. Recall to mind the scenes in the Faux Bonshommes and the
Famille Benoiton, where marriage is dealt with as a business affair,
and matters of sentiment are set down in strictly commercial

Here, however, we reach the point at which peculiarities of language
really express peculiarities of character, a closer investigation of
which we must hold over to the next chapter. Thus, as might have
been expected and may be seen from the foregoing, the comic in words
follows closely on the comic in situation and is finally merged,
along with the latter, in the comic in character. Language only
attains laughable results because it is a human product, modelled as
exactly as possible on the forms of the human mind. We feel it
contains some living element of our own life; and if this life of
language were complete and perfect, if there were nothing stereotype
in it, if, in short, language were an absolutely unified organism
incapable of being split up into independent organisms, it would
evade the comic as would a soul whose life was one harmonious whole,
unruffled as the calm surface of a peaceful lake. There is no pool,
however, which has not some dead leaves floating on its surface, no
human soul upon which there do not settle habits that make it rigid
against itself by making it rigid against others, no language, in
short, so subtle and instinct with life, so fully alert in each of
its parts as to eliminate the ready-made and oppose the mechanical
operations of inversion, transposition, etc., which one would fain
perform upon it as on some lifeless thing. The rigid, the ready--
made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing
and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a
word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the
defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct. We
appealed to this idea to give us light at the outset, when starting
upon the analysis of the ludicrous. We have seen it shining at every
decisive turning in our road. With its help, we shall now enter upon
a more important investigation, one that will, we hope, be more
instructive. We purpose, in short, studying comic characters, or
rather determining the essential conditions of comedy in character,
while endeavouring to bring it about that this study may contribute
to a better understanding of the real nature of art and the general
relation between art and life.




We have followed the comic along many of its winding channels in an
endeavour to discover how it percolates into a form, an attitude, or
a gesture; a situation, an action, or an expression. The analysis of
comic CHARACTERS has now brought us to the most important part of
our task. It would also be the most difficult, had we yielded to the
temptation of defining the laughable by a few striking--and
consequently obvious--examples; for then, in proportion as we
advanced towards the loftiest manifestations of the comic, we should
have found the facts slipping between the over-wide meshes of the
definition intended to retain them. But, as a matter of fact, we
have followed the opposite plan, by throwing light on the subject
from above. Convinced that laughter has a social meaning and import,
that the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of
adaptability to society, and that, in short, there is nothing comic
apart from man, we have made man and character generally our main
objective. Our chief difficulty, therefore, has lain in explaining
how we come to laugh at anything else than character, and by what
subtle processes of fertilisation, combination or amalgamation, the
comic can worm its way into a mere movement, an impersonal
situation, or an independent phrase. This is what we have done so
far. We started with the pure metal, and all our endeavours have
been directed solely towards reconstructing the ore. It is the metal
itself we are now about to study. Nothing could be easier, for this
time we have a simple element to deal with. Let us examine it
closely and see how it reacts upon everything else.

There are moods, we said, which move us as soon us as soon as we
perceive them, joys and sorrows with which we sympathise, passions
and vices which call forth painful astonishment, terror or pity, in
the beholder; in short, sentiments that are prolonged in sentimental
overtones from mind to mind. All this concerns the essentials of
life. All this is serious, at times even tragic. Comedy can only
begin at the point where our neighbour's personality ceases to
affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing
callousness to social life. Any individual is comic who
automatically goes his own way without troubling himself about
getting into touch with the rest of his fellow-beings. It is the
part of laughter to reprove his absentmindedness and wake him out of
his dream. If it is permissible to compare important things with
trivial ones, we would call to mind what happens when a youth enters
one of our military academies. After getting through the dreaded
ordeal of the examination, he finds the has other ordeals to face,
which his seniors have arranged with the object of fitting him for
the new life he is entering upon, or, as they say, of "breaking him
into harness." Every small society that forms within the larger is
thus impelled, by a vague kind of instinct, to devise some method of
discipline or "breaking in," so as to deal with the rigidity of
habits that have been formed elsewhere and have now to undergo a
partial modification. Society, properly so-called, proceeds in
exactly the same way. Each member must be ever attentive to his
social surroundings; he must model himself on his environment; in
short, he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar
character as a philosopher in his ivory tower. Therefore society
holds suspended over each individual member, if not the threat of
correction, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which,
although it is slight, is none the less dreaded. Such must be the
function of laughter. Always rather humiliating for the one against
whom it is directed, laughter is, really and truly, a kind of social

Hence the equivocal nature of the comic. It belongs neither
altogether to art nor altogether to life. On the one hand,
characters in real life would never make us laugh were we not
capable of watching their vagaries in the same way as we look down
at a play from our seat in a box; they are only comic in our eyes
because they perform a kind of comedy before us. But, on the other
hand, the pleasure caused by laughter, even on the stage, is not an
unadulterated enjoyment; it is not a pleasure that is exclusively
esthetic or altogether disinterested. It always implies a secret or
unconscious intent, if not of each one of us, at all events of
society as a whole. In laughter we always find an unavowed intention
to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour, if not in
his will, at least in his deed. This is the reason a comedy is far
more like real life than a drama is. The more sublime the drama, the
more profound the analysis to which the poet has had to subject the
raw materials of daily life in order to obtain the tragic element in
its unadulterated form. On the contrary, it is only in its lower
aspects, in light comedy and farce, that comedy is in striking
contrast to reality: the higher it rises, the more it approximates
to life; in fact, there are scenes in real life so closely bordering
on high-class comedy that the stage might adopt them without
changing a single word.

Hence it follows that the elements of comic character on the stage
and in actual life will be the same. What are these elements? We
shall find no difficulty in deducing them. It has often been said
that it is the TRIFLING faults of our fellow-men that make us laugh.

Evidently there is a considerable amount of truth in this opinion;
still, it cannot be regarded as altogether correct. First, as
regards faults, it is no easy matter to draw the line between the
trifling and the serious; maybe it is not because a fault is
trifling that it makes us laugh, but rather because it makes us
laugh that we regard it as trifling, for there is nothing disarms us
like laughter. But we may go even farther, and maintain that there
are faults at which we laugh, even though fully aware that they are
serious,--Harpagon's avarice, for instance. And then, we may as well
confess--though somewhat reluctantly--that we laugh not only at the
faults of our fellow-men, but also, at times, at their good
qualities. We laugh at Alceste. The objection may be urged that it
is not the earnestness of Alceste that is ludicrous, but rather the
special aspect which earnestness assumes in his case, and, in short,
a certain eccentricity that mars it in our eyes. Agreed; but it is
none the less true that this eccentricity in Alceste, at which we
laugh, MAKES HIS EARNESTNESS LAUGHABLE, and that is the main point.
So we may conclude that the ludicrous is not always an indication of
a fault, in the moral meaning of the word, and if critics insist on
seeing a fault, even though a trifling one, in the ludicrous, they
must point out what it is here that exactly distinguishes the
trifling from the serious.

 The truth is, the comic character may, strictly speaking, be quite
in accord with stern morality. All it has to do is to bring itself
into accord with society. The character of Alceste is that of a
thoroughly honest man. But then he is unsociable, and, on that very
account, ludicrous. A flexible vice may not be so easy to ridicule
as a rigid virtue. It is rigidity that society eyes with suspicion.
Consequently, it is the rigidity of Alceste that makes us laugh,
though here rigidity stands for honesty. The man who withdraws into
himself is liable to ridicule, because the comic is largely made up
of this very withdrawal. This accounts for the comic being so
frequently dependent on the manners or ideas, or, to put it bluntly,
on the prejudices, of a society.

It must be acknowledged, however, to the credit of mankind, that
there is no essential difference between the social ideal and the
rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh, provided
we add that they make us laugh by reason of their UNSOCIABILITY
rather than of their IMMORALITY. What, then, are the faults capable
of becoming ludicrous, and in what circumstances do we regard them
as being too serious to be laughed at?

We have already given an implicit answer to this question. The
comic, we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple;
laughter is incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however
trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the
mischief is done, it is impossible for us to laugh. On the other
hand, take a downright vice,--even one that is, generally speaking,
of an odious nature,--you may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable
contrivance, you arrange so that it leaves our emotions unaffected.
Not that the vice must then be ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time
forth, become so. IT MUST NOT AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole
condition really necessary, though assuredly it is not sufficient.

But, then, how will the comic poet set to work to prevent our
feelings being moved? The question is an embarrassing one. To clear
it up thoroughly, we should have to enter upon a rather novel line
of investigation, to analyse the artificial sympathy which we bring
with us to the theatre, and determine upon the circumstances in
which we accept and those in which we refuse to share imaginary joys
and sorrows. There is an art of lulling sensibility to sleep and
providing it with dreams, as happens in the case of a mesmerised
person. And there is also an art of throwing a wet blanket upon
sympathy at the very moment it might arise, the result being that
the situation, though a serious one, is not taken seriously. This
latter art would appear to be governed by two methods, which are
applied more or less unconsciously by the comic poet. The first
consists in ISOLATING, within the soul of the character, the feeling
attributed to him, and making it a parasitic organism, so to speak,
endowed with an independent existence. As a general rule, an intense
feeling successively encroaches upon all other mental states and
colours them with its own peculiar hue; if, then, we are made to
witness this gradual impregnation, we finally become impregnated
ourselves with a corresponding emotion. To employ a different image,
an emotion may be said to be dramatic and contagious when all the
harmonics in it are heard along with the fundamental note. It is
because the actor thus thrills throughout his whole being that the
spectators themselves feel the thrill. On the contrary, in the case
of emotion that leaves us indifferent and that is about to become
comic, there is always present a certain rigidity which prevents it
from establishing a connection with the rest of the soul in which it
has taken up its abode. This rigidity may be manifested, when the
time comes, by puppet-like movements, and then it will provoke
laughter; but, before that, it had already alienated our sympathy:
how can we put ourselves in tune with a soul which is not in tune
with itself? In Moliere's L'Avare we have a scene bordering upon
drama. It is the one in which the borrower and the usurer, who have
never seen each other, meet face to face and find that they are son
and father. Here we should be in the thick of a drama, if only greed
and fatherly affection, conflicting with each other in the soul of
Harpagon, had effected a more or less original combination. But such
is not the case. No sooner has the interview come to an end than the
father forgets everything. On meeting his son again he barely
alludes to the scene, serious though it has been: "You, my son, whom
I am good enough to forgive your recent escapade, etc." Greed has
thus passed close to all other feelings ABSENTMINDEDLY, without
either touching them or being touched. Although it has taken up its
abode in the soul and become master of the house, none the less it
remains a stranger. Far different would be avarice of a tragic sort.
We should find it attracting and absorbing, transforming and
assimilating the divers energies of the man: feelings and
affections, likes and dislikes, vices and virtues, would all become
something into which avarice would breathe a new kind of life. Such
seems to be the first essential difference between high-class comedy
and drama.

There is a second, which is far more obvious and arises out of the
first. When a mental state is depicted to us with the object of
making it dramatic, or even merely of inducing us to take it
seriously, it gradually crystallises into ACTIONS which provide the
real measure of its greatness. Thus, the miser orders his whole life
with a view to acquiring wealth, and the pious hypocrite, though
pretending to have his eyes fixed upon heaven, steers most skilfully
his course here below. Most certainly, comedy does not shut out
calculations of this kind; we need only take as an example the very
machinations of Tartuffe. But that is what comedy has in common with
drama; and in order to keep distinct from it, to prevent our taking
a serious action seriously, in short, in order to prepare us for
laughter, comedy utilises a method, the formula of which may be
attitudes, the movements and even the language by which a mental
state expresses itself outwardly without any aim or profit, from no
other cause than a kind of inner itching. Gesture, thus defined, is
profoundly different from action. Action is intentional or, at any
rate, conscious; gesture slips out unawares, it is automatic. In
action, the entire person is engaged; in gesture, an isolated part
of the person is expressed, unknown to, or at least apart from, the
whole of the personality. Lastly--and here is the essential point--
action is in exact proportion to the feeling that inspires it: the
one gradually passes into the other, so that we may allow our
sympathy or our aversion to glide along the line running from
feeling to action and become increasingly interested. About gesture,
however, there is something explosive, which awakes our sensibility
when on the point of being lulled to sleep and, by thus rousing us
up, prevents our taking matters seriously. Thus, as soon as our
attention is fixed on gesture and not on action, we are in the realm
of comedy. Did we merely take his actions into account, Tartuffe
would belong to drama: it is only when we take his gestures into
consideration that we find him comic. You may remember how he comes
on to the stage with the words: "Laurent, lock up my hair-shirt and
my scourge." He knows Dorine is listening to him, but doubtless he
would say the same if she were not there. He enters so thoroughly
into the role of a hypocrite that he plays it almost sincerely. In
this way, and this way only, can he become comic. Were it not for
this material sincerity, were it not for the language and attitudes
that his long-standing experience as a hypocrite has transformed
into natural gestures, Tartuffe would be simply odious, because we
should only think of what is meant and willed in his conduct. And so
we see why action is essential in drama, but only accessory in
comedy. In a comedy, we feel any other situation might equally well
have been chosen for the purpose of introducing the character; he
would still have been the same man though the situation were
different. But we do not get this impression in a drama. Here
characters and situations are welded together, or rather, events
form part and parcel with the persons, so that were the drama to
tell us a different story, even though the actors kept the same
names, we should in reality be dealing with other persons.

To sum up, whether a character is good or bad is of little moment:
granted he is unsociable, he is capable of becoming comic. We now
see that the seriousness of the case is of no importance either:
whether serious or trifling, it is still capable of making us laugh,
provided that care be taken not to arouse our emotions.
Unsociability in the performer and insensibility in the spectator--
such, in a word, are the two essential conditions. There is a third,
implicit in the other two, which so far it has been the aim of our
analysis to bring out.

This third condition is automatism. We have pointed it out from the
outset of this work, continually drawing attention to the following
point: what is essentially laughable is what is done automatically.
In a vice, even in a virtue, the comic is that element by which the
person unwittingly betrays himself--the involuntary gesture or the
unconscious remark. Absentmindedness is always comical. Indeed, the
deeper the absentmindedness the higher the comedy. Systematic
absentmindedness, like that of Don Quixote, is the most comical
thing imaginable: it is the comic itself, drawn as nearly as
possible from its very source. Take any other comic character:
however unconscious he may be of what he says or does, he cannot be
comical unless there be some aspect of his person of which he is
unaware, one side of his nature which he overlooks; on that account
alone does he make us laugh. [Footnote: When the humorist laughs at
himself, he is really acting a double part; the self who laughs is
indeed conscious, but not the self who is laughed at.] Profoundly
comic sayings are those artless ones in which some vice reveals
itself in all its nakedness: how could it thus expose itself were it
capable of seeing itself as it is? It is not uncommon for a comic
character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct and
immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for
instance, M. Jourdain's teacher of philosophy flying into a passion
after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket
after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object
of such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the
obliviousness of the characters to their own actions? Inattention to
self, and consequently to others, is what we invariably find. And if
we look at the matter closely, we see that inattention is here
equivalent to what we have called unsociability. The chief cause of
rigidity is the neglect to look around--and more especially within
oneself: how can a man fashion his personality after that of another
if he does not first study others as well as himself? Rigidity,
automatism, absent-mindedness and unsociability are all inextricably
entwined; and all serve as ingredients to the making up of the comic
in character.

In a word, if we leave on one side, when dealing with human
personality, that portion which interests our sensibility or appeals
to our feeling, all the rest is capable of becoming comic, and the
comic will be proportioned to the rigidity. We formulated this idea
at the outset of this work. We have verified it in its main results,
and have just applied it to the definition of comedy. Now we must
get to closer quarters, and show how it enables us to delimitate the
exact position comedy occupies among all the other arts. In one
sense it might be said that all character is comic, provided we mean
by character the ready-made element in our personality, that
mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up
once for all and capable of working automatically. It is, if you
will, that which causes us to imitate ourselves. And it is also, for
that very reason, that which enables others to imitate us. Every
comic character is a type. Inversely, every resemblance to a type
has something comic in it. Though we may long have associated with
an individual without discovering anything about him to laugh at,
still, if advantage is t taken of some accidental analogy to dub him
with the name of a famous hero of romance or drama, he will in our
eyes border upon the ridiculous, if only for a moment. And yet this
hero of romance may not be a comic character at all. But then it is
comic to be like him. It is comic to wander out of one's own self.
It is comic to fall into a ready-made category. And what is most
comic of all is to become a category oneself into which others will
fall, as into a ready-made frame; it is to crystallise into a stock

Thus, to depict characters, that is to say, general types, is the
object of high-class comedy. This has often been said. But it is as
well to repeat it, since there could be no better definition of
comedy. Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general
types, but we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that
aims at the general; so that once this objective has been attributed
to it, we have said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be.
To prove that such is really the essence of comedy, and that it is
in this respect opposed to tragedy, drama and the other forms of
art, we should begin by defining art in its higher forms: then,
gradually coming down to comic poetry, we should find that this
latter is situated on the border-line between art and life, and
that, by the generality of its subject-matter, it contrasts with the
rest of the arts. We cannot here plunge into so vast a subject of
investigation; but we needs must sketch its main outlines, lest we
overlook what, to our mind, is essential on the comic stage.

What is the object of art? Could reality come into direct contact
with sense and consciousness, could we enter into immediate
communion with things and with ourselves, probably art would be
useless, or rather we should all be artists, for then our soul would
continually vibrate in perfect accord with nature. Our eyes, aided
by memory, would carve out in space and fix in time the most
inimitable of pictures. Hewn in the living marble of the human form,
fragments of statues, beautiful as the relics of antique statuary,
would strike the passing glance. Deep in our souls we should hear
the strains of our inner life's unbroken melody,--a music that is
ofttimes gay, but more frequently plaintive and always original. All
this is around and within us, and yet no whit of it do we distinctly
perceive. Between nature and ourselves, nay, between ourselves and
our own consciousness a veil is interposed: a veil that is dense and
opaque for the common herd,--thin, almost transparent, for the
artist and the poet. What fairy wove that veil? Was it done in
malice or in friendliness? We had to live, and life demands that we
grasp things in their relations to our own needs. Life is action.
Life implies the acceptance only of the UTILITARIAN side of things
in order to respond to them by appropriate reactions: all other
impressions must be dimmed or else reach us vague and blurred. I
look and I think I see, I listen and I think I hear, I examine
myself and I think I am reading the very depths of my heart. But
what I see and hear of the outer world is purely and simply a
selection made by my senses to serve as a light to my conduct; what
I know of myself is what comes to the surface, what participates in
my actions. My senses and my consciousness, therefore, give me no
more than a practical simplification of reality. In the vision they
furnish me of myself and of things, the differences that are useless
to man are obliterated, the resemblances that are useful to him are
emphasised; ways are traced out for me in advance, along which my
activity is to travel. These ways are the ways which all mankind has
trod before me. Things have been classified with a view to the use I
can derive from them. And it is this classification I perceive, far
more clearly than the colour and the shape of things. Doubtless man
is vastly superior to the lower animals in this respect. It is not
very likely that the eye of a wolf makes any distinction between a
kid and a lamb; both appear t o the wolf as the same identical
quarry, alike easy to pounce upon, alike good to devour. We, for our
part, make a distinction between a goat and a sheep; but can we tell
one goat from another, one sheep from another? The INDIVIDUALITY of
things or of beings escapes us, unless it is materially to our
advantage to perceive it. Even when we do take note of it--as when
we distinguish one man from another--it is not the individuality
itself that the eye grasps, i.e., an entirely original harmony of
forms and colours, but only one or two features that will make
practical recognition easier.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases
we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them. This
tendency, the result of need, has become even more pronounced under
the influence of speech; for words--with the exception of proper
nouns--all denote genera. The word, which only takes note of the
most ordinary function and commonplace aspect of the thing,
intervenes between it and ourselves, and would conceal its form from
our eyes, were that form not already masked beneath the necessities
that brought the word into existence. Not only external objects, but
even our own mental states, are screened from us in their inmost,
their personal aspect, in the original life they possess. When we
feel love or hatred, when we are gay or sad, is it really the
feeling itself that reaches our consciousness with those innumerable
fleeting shades of meaning and deep resounding echoes that make it
something altogether our own? We should all, were it so, be
novelists or poets or musicians. Mostly, however, we perceive
nothing but the outward display of our mental state. We catch only
the impersonal aspect of our feelings, that aspect which speech has
set down once for all because it is almost the same, in the same
conditions, for all men. Thus, even in our own individual,
individuality escapes our ken. We move amidst generalities and
symbols, as within a tilt-yard in which our force is effectively
pitted against other forces; and fascinated by action, tempted by
it, for our own good, on to the field it has selected, we live in a
zone midway between things and ourselves, externally to things,
externally also to ourselves. From time to time, however, in a fit
of absentmindedness, nature raises up souls that are more detached
from life. Not with that intentional, logical, systematical
detachment--the result of reflection and philosophy--but rather with
natural detachment, one innate in the structure of sense or
consciousness, which at once reveals itself by a virginal manner, so
to speak, of seeing, hearing or thinking. Were this detachment
complete, did the soul no longer cleave to action by any of its
perceptions, it would be the soul of an artist such as the world has
never yet seen. It would excel alike in every art at the same time;
or rather, it would fuse them all into one. It would perceive all
things in their native purity: the forms, colours, sounds of the
physical world as well as the subtlest movements of the inner life.
But this is asking too much of nature. Even for such of us as she
has made artists, it is by accident, and on one side only, that she
has lifted the veil. In one direction only has she forgotten to
rivet the perception to the need. And since each direction
corresponds to what we call a SENSE--through one of his senses, and
through that sense alone, is the artist usually wedded to art.
Hence, originally, the diversity of arts. Hence also the speciality
of predispositions. This one applies himself to colours and forms,
and since he loves colour for colour and form for form, since he
perceives them for their sake and not for his own, it is the inner
life of things that he sees appearing through their forms and
colours. Little by little he insinuates it into our own perception,
baffled though we may be at the outset. For a few moments at least,
he diverts us from the prejudices of form and colour that come
between ourselves and reality. And thus he realises the loftiest
ambition of art, which here consists in revealing to us nature.
Others, again, retire within themselves. Beneath the thousand
rudimentary actions which are the outward and visible signs of an
emotion, behind the commonplace, conventional expression that both
reveals and conceals an individual mental state, it is the emotion,
the original mood, to which they attain in its undefiled essence.
And then, to induce us to make the same effort ourselves, they
contrive to make us see something of what they have seen: by
rhythmical arrangement of words, which thus become organised and
animated with a life of their own, they tell us--or rather suggest--
things that speech was not calculated to express. Others delve yet
deeper still. Beneath these joys and sorrows which can, at a pinch,
be translated into language, they grasp something that has nothing
in common with language, certain rhythms of life and breath that.
are closer to man than his inmost feelings, being the living law--
varying with each individual--of his enthusiasm and despair, his
hopes and regrets. By setting free and emphasising this music, they
force it upon our attention; they compel us, willy-nilly, to fall in
with it, like passers-by who join in a dance. And thus they impel us
to set in motion, in the depths of our being, some secret chord
which was only waiting to thrill. So art, whether it be painting or
sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside
the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted
generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in
order to bring us face to face with reality itself. It is from a
misunderstanding on this point that the dispute between realism and
idealism in art has arisen. Art is certainly only a more direct
vision of reality. But this purity of perception implies a break
with utilitarian convention, an innate and specially localised
disinterestedness of sense or consciousness, in short, a certain
immateriality of life, which is what has always been called
idealism. So that we might say, without in any way playing upon the
meaning of the words, that realism is in the work when idealism is
in the soul, and that it is only through ideality that we can resume
contact with reality.

Dramatic art forms no exception to this law. What drama goes forth
to discover and brings to light, is a deep-seated reality that is
veiled from us, often in our own interests, by the necessities of
life. What is this reality? What are these necessities? Poetry
always expresses inward states. But amongst these states some arise
mainly from contact with our fellow-men. They are the most intense
as well as the most violent. As contrary electricities attract each
other and accumulate between the two plates of the condenser from
which the spark will presently flash, so, by simply bringing people
together, strong attractions and repulsions take place, followed by
an utter loss of balance, in a word, by that electrification of the
soul known as passion. Were man to give way to the impulse of his
natural feelings, were there neither social nor moral law, these
outbursts of violent feeling would be the ordinary rule in life. But
utility demands that these outbursts should be foreseen and averted.
Man must live in society, and consequently submit to rules. And what
interest advises, reason commands: duty calls, and we have to obey
the summons. Under this dual influence has perforce been formed an
outward layer of feelings and ideas which make for permanence, aim
at becoming common to all men, and cover, when they are not strong
enough to extinguish it, the inner fire of individual passions. The
slow progress of mankind in the direction of an increasingly
peaceful social life has gradually consolidated this layer, just as
the life of our planet itself has been one long effort to cover over
with a cool and solid crust the fiery mass of seething metals. But
volcanic eruptions occur. And if the earth were a living being, as
mythology has feigned, most likely when in repose it would take
delight in dreaming of these sudden explosions, whereby it suddenly
resumes possession of its innermost nature. Such is just the kind of
pleasure that is provided for us by drama. Beneath the quiet humdrum
life that reason and society have fashioned for us, it stirs
something within us which luckily does not explode, but which it
makes us feel in its inner tension. It offers nature her revenge
upon society. Sometimes it makes straight for the goal, summoning up
to the surface, from the depths below, passions that produce a
general upheaval. Sometimes it effects a flank movement, as is often
the case in contemporary drama; with a skill that is frequently
sophistical, it shows up the inconsistencies of society; it
exaggerates the shams and shibboleths of the social law; and so
indirectly, by merely dissolving or corroding the outer crust, it
again brings us back to the inner core. But, in both cases, whether
it weakens society or strengthens nature, it has the same end in
view: that of laying bare a secret portion of ourselves,--what might
be called the tragic element in our character.

This is indeed the impression we get after seeing a stirring drama.
What has just interested us is not so much what we have been told
about others as the glimpse we have caught of ourselves--a whole
host of ghostly feelings, emotions and events that would fain have
come into real existence, but, fortunately for us, did not. It also
seems as if an appeal had been made within us to certain ancestral
memories belonging to a far-away past--memories so deep-seated and
so foreign to our present life that this latter, for a moment, seems
something unreal and conventional, for which we shall have to serve
a fresh apprenticeship. So it is indeed a deeper reality that drama
draws up from beneath our superficial and utilitarian attainments,
and this art has the same end in view as all the others.

Hence it follows that art always aims at what is INDIVIDUAL. What
the artist fixes on his canvas is something he has seen at a certain
spot, on a certain day, at a certain hour, with a colouring that
will never be seen again. What the poet sings of is a certain mood
which was his, and his alone, and which will never return. What the
dramatist unfolds before us is the life-history of a soul, a living
tissue of feelings and events--something, in short, which has once
happened and can never be repeated. We may, indeed, give general
names to these feelings, but they cannot be the same thing in
another soul. They are INDIVIDUALISED. Thereby, and thereby only, do
they belong to art; for generalities, symbols or even types, form
the current coin of our daily perception. How, then, does a
misunderstanding on this point arise?

The reason lies in the fact that two very different things have been
mistaken for each other: the generality of things and that of the
opinions we come to regarding them. Because a feeling is generally
recognised as true, it does not follow that it is a general feeling.
Nothing could be more unique than the character of Hamlet. Though he
may resemble other men in some respects, it is clearly not on that
account that he interests us most. But he is universally accepted
and regarded as a living character. In this sense only is he
universally true. The same holds good of all the other products of
art. Each of them is unique, and yet, if it bear the stamp of
genius, it will come to be accepted by everybody. Why will it be
accepted? And if it is unique of its kind, by what sign do we know
it to be genuine? Evidently, by the very effort it forces us to make
against our predispositions in order to see sincerely. Sincerity is
contagious. What the artist has seen we shall probably never see
again, or at least never see in exactly the same way; but if he has
actually seen it, the attempt he has made to lift the veil compels
our imitation. His work is an example which we take as a lesson. And
the efficacy of the lesson is the exact standard of the genuineness
of the work. Consequently, truth bears within itself a power of
conviction, nay, of conversion, which is the sign that enables us to
recognise it. The greater the work and the more profound the dimly
apprehended truth, the longer may the effect be in coming, but, on
the other hand, the more universal will that effect tend to become.
So the universality here lies in the effect produced, and not in the

Altogether different is the object of comedy. Here it is in the work
itself that the generality lies. Comedy depicts characters we have
already come across and shall meet with again. It takes note of
similarities. It aims at placing types before our eyes. It even
creates new types, if necessary. In this respect it forms a contrast
to all the other arts.

The very titles of certain classical comedies are significant in
themselves. Le Misanthrope, l'Avare, le Joueur, le Distrait, etc.,
are names of whole classes of people; and even when a character
comedy has a proper noun as its title, this proper noun is speedily
swept away, by the very weight of its contents, into the stream of
common nouns. We say "a Tartuffe," but we should never say "a
Phedre" or "a Polyeucte."

Above all, a tragic poet will never think of grouping around the
chief character in his play secondary characters to serve as
simplified copies, so to speak, of the former. The hero of a tragedy
represents an individuality unique of its kind. It may be possible
to imitate him, but then we shall be passing, whether consciously or
not, from the tragic to the comic. No one is like him, because he is
like no one. But a remarkable instinct, on the contrary, impels the
comic poet, once he has elaborated his central character, to cause
other characters, displaying the same general traits, to revolve as
satellites round him. Many comedies have either a plural noun or
some collective term as their title. "Les Femmes savantes," "Les
Precieuses ridicules," "Le Monde ou l'on s'ennuie," etc., represent
so many rallying points on the stage adopted by different groups of
characters, all belonging to one identical type. It would be
interesting to analyse this tendency in comedy. Maybe dramatists
have caught a glimpse of a fact recently brought forward by mental
pathology, viz. that cranks of the same kind are drawn, by a secret
attraction, to seek each other's company. Without precisely coming
within the province of medicine, the comic individual, as we have
shown, is in some way absentminded, and the transition from absent-
mindedness to crankiness is continuous. But there is also another
reason. If the comic poet's object is to offer us types, that is to
say, characters capable of self-repetition, how can he set about it
better than by showing us, in each instance, several different
copies of the same model? That is just what the naturalist does in
order to define a species. He enumerates and describes its main

This essential difference between tragedy and comedy, the former
being concerned with individuals and the latter with classes, is
revealed in yet another way. It appears in the first draft of the
work. From the outset it is manifested by two radically different
methods of observation.

Though the assertion may seem paradoxical, a study of other men is
probably not necessary to the tragic poet. We find some of the great
poets have lived a retiring, homely sort of life, without having a
chance of witnessing around them an outburst of the passions they
have so faithfully depicted. But, supposing even they had witnessed
such a spectacle, it is doubtful whether they would have found it of
much use. For what interests us in the work of the poet is the
glimpse we get of certain profound moods or inner struggles. Now,
this glimpse cannot be obtained from without. Our souls are
impenetrable to one another. Certain signs of passion are all that
we ever apperceive externally. These we interpret--though always, by
the way, defectively--only by analogy with what we have ourselves
experienced. So what we experience is the main point, and we cannot
become thoroughly acquainted with anything but our own heart--
supposing we ever get so far. Does this mean that the poet has
experienced what he depicts, that he has gone through the various
situations he makes his characters traverse, and lived the whole of
their inner life? Here, too, the biographies of poets would
contradict such a supposition. How, indeed, could the same man have
been Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and many others? But then
a distinction should perhaps here be made between the personality WE
HAVE and all those we might have had. Our character is the result of
a choice that is continually being renewed. There are points--at all
events there seem to be--all along the way, where we may branch off,
and we perceive many possible directions though we are unable to
take more than one. To retrace one's steps, and follow to the end
the faintly distinguishable directions, appears to be the essential
element in poetic imagination. Of course, Shakespeare was neither
Macbeth, nor Hamlet, nor Othello; still, he MIGHT HAVE BEEN these
several characters if the circumstances of the case on the one hand,
and the consent of his will on the other, had caused to break out
into explosive action what was nothing more than an inner prompting.
We are strangely mistaken as to the part played by poetic
imagination, if we think it pieces together its heroes out of
fragments filched from right and left, as though it were patching
together a harlequin's motley. Nothing living would result from
that. Life cannot be recomposed; it can only be looked at and
reproduced. Poetic imagination is but a fuller view of reality. If
the characters created by a poet give us the impression of life, it
is only because they are the poet himself,--multiplication or
division of the poet,--the poet plumbing the depths of his own
nature in so powerful an effort of inner observation that he lays
hold of the potential in the real, and takes up what nature has left
as a mere outline or sketch in his soul in order to make of it a
finished work of art.

Altogether different is the kind of observation from which comedy
springs. It is directed outwards. However interested a dramatist may
be in the comic features of human nature, he will hardly go, I
imagine, to the extent of trying to discover his own. Besides, he
would not find them, for we are never ridiculous except in some
point that remains hidden from our own consciousness. It is on
others, then, that such observation must perforce be practised. But
it; will, for this very reason, assume a character of generality
that it cannot have when we apply it to ourselves. Settling on the
surface, it will not be more than skin-deep, dealing with persons at
the point at which they come into contact and become capable of
resembling one another. It will go no farther. Even if it could, it
would not desire to do so, for it would have nothing to gain in the

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


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 general laughter, extremely considerate to its own self,
so that it may be displayed without scruple, but troublesome to
others, so that they may repress it without pity; immediately
repressible, so that our laughter may not have been wasted, but sure
of reappearing under fresh aspects, so that laughter may always find
something to do; inseparable from social life, although insufferable
to society; capable--in order that it may assume the greatest
imaginable variety of forms--of being tacked on to all the vices and
even to a good many virtues. Truly a goodly number of elements to
fuse together! But a chemist of the soul, entrusted with this
elaborate preparation, would be somewhat disappointed when pouring
out the contents of his retort. He would find he had taken a vast
deal of trouble to compound a mixture which may be found ready-made
and free of expense, for it is as widespread throughout mankind as
air throughout nature.

This mixture is vanity. Probably there is not a single failing that
is more superficial or more deep-rooted. The wounds it receives are
never very serious, and yet they are seldom healed. The services
rendered to it are the most unreal of all services, and yet they are
the very ones that meet with lasting gratitude. It is scarcely a
vice, and yet all the vices are drawn into its orbit and, in
proportion as they become more refined and artificial, tend to be
nothing more than a means of satisfying it. The outcome of social
life, since it is an admiration of ourselves based on the admiration
we think we are inspiring in others, it is even more natural, more
universally innate than egoism; for egoism may be conquered by
nature, whereas only by reflection do we get the better of vanity.
It does not seem, indeed, as if men were ever born modest, unless we
dub with the name of modesty a sort of purely physical bashfulness,
which is nearer to pride than is generally supposed. True modesty
can be nothing but a meditation on vanity. It springs from the sight
of others' mistakes and the dread of being similarly deceived. It is
a sort of scientific cautiousness with respect to what we shall say
and think of ourselves. It is made up of improvements and after-
touches. In short, it is an acquired virtue.

It is no easy matter to define the point at which the anxiety to
become modest may be distinguished from the dread of becoming
ridiculous. But surely, at the outset, this dread and this anxiety
are one and the same thing. A complete investigation into the
illusions of vanity, and into the ridicule that clings to them,
would cast a strange light upon the whole theory of laughter. We
should find laughter performing, with mathematical regularity, one
of its main functions--that of bringing back to complete self-
consciousness a certain self-admiration which is almost automatic,
and thus obtaining the greatest possible sociability of characters.
We should see that vanity, though it is a natural product of social
life, is an inconvenience to society, just as certain slight
poisons, continually secreted by the human organism, would destroy
it in the long run, if they were not neutralised by other
secretions. Laughter is unceasingly doing work of this kind. In this
respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is
laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is

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.

Instead of taking up these varieties in detail, we prefer to lay
stress upon what they have in common. In the forefront we find
professional vanity. Each one of M. Jourdain's teachers exalts his
own art above all the rest. In a play of Labiche there is a
character who cannot understand how it is possible to be anything
else than a timber merchant. Naturally he is a timber merchant
himself. Note that vanity here tends to merge into SOLEMNITY, in
proportion to the degree of quackery there is in the profession
under consideration. For it is a remarkable fact that the more
questionable an art, science or occupation is, the more those who
practise it are inclined to regard themselves as invested with a
kind of priesthood and to claim that all should bow before its
mysteries. Useful professions are clearly meant for the public, but
those whose utility is more dubious can only justify their existence
by assuming that the public is meant for them: now, this is just the
illusion that lies at the root of solemnity. Almost everything comic
in Moliere's doctors comes from this source. They treat the patient
as though he had been made for the doctors, and nature herself as an
appendage to medicine.

Another form of this comic rigidity is what may be called
PROFESSIONAL CALLOUSNESS. The comic character is so tightly jammed
into the rigid frame of his functions that he has no room to move or
to be moved like other men. Only call to mind the answer Isabelle
receives from Perrin Dandin, the judge, when she asks him how he can
bear to look on when the poor wretches are being tortured: Bah! cela
fait toujours passer une heure ou deux.

[Footnote: Bah! it always helps to while away an hour or two.]

Does not Tartuffe also manifest a sort of professional callousness
when he says--it is true, by the mouth of Orgon: Et je verrais
mourir frere, enfants, mere et femme, Que je m'en soucierais autant
que de cela!

[Footnote: Let brother, children, mother and wife all die, what
should I care!]

The device most in use, however, for making a profession ludicrous
is to confine it, so to say, within the four corners of its own
particular jargon. Judge, doctor and soldier are made to apply the
language of law, medicine and strategy to the everyday affairs of
life, as though they had became incapable of talking like ordinary
people. As a rule, this kind of the ludicrous is rather coarse. It
becomes more refined, however, as we have already said, if it
reveals some peculiarity of character in addition to a professional
habit. We will instance only Regnard's Joueur, who expresses himself
with the utmost originality in terms borrowed from gambling, giving
his valet the name of Hector, and calling his betrothed Pallas, du
nom connu de la Dame de Pique; [Footnote: Pallas, from the well-
known name of the Queen of Spades.] or Moliere's Femmes
savantes, where the comic element evidently consists largely in
the translation of ideas of a scientific nature into terms of feminine
sensibility: "Epicure me plait..." (Epicurus is charming), "J'aime les
tourbillons" (I dote on vortices), etc. You have only to read the third
act to find that Armande, Philaminte and Belise almost invariably
express themselves in this style.

Proceeding further in the same direction, we discover that there is
also such a thing as a professional logic, i.e. certain ways of
reasoning that are customary in certain circles, which are valid for
these circles, but untrue for the rest of the public. Now, the
contrast between these two kinds of logic--one particular, the other
universal--produces comic effects of a special nature, on which we
may advantageously dwell at greater length. Here we touch upon a
point of some consequence in the theory of laughter. We propose,
therefore, to give the question a wider scope and consider it in its
most general aspect.


Eager as we have been to discover the deep-seated cause of the
comic, we have so far had to neglect one of its most striking
phenomena. We refer to the logic peculiar to the comic character and
the comic group, a strange kind of logic, which, in some cases, may
include a good deal of absurdity.

Theophile Gautier said that the comic in its extreme form was the
logic of the absurd. More than one philosophy of laughter revolves
round a like idea. Every comic effect, it is said, implies
contradiction in some of its aspects. What makes us laugh is alleged
to be the absurd realised in concrete shape, a "palpable
absurdity";--or, again, an apparent absurdity, which we swallow for
the moment only to rectify it immediately afterwards;--or, better
still, something absurd from one point of view though capable of a
natural explanation from another, etc. All these theories may
contain some portion of the truth; but, in the first place, they
apply only to certain rather obvious comic effects, and then, even
where they do apply, they evidently take no account of the
characteristic element of the laughable, that is, the PARTICULAR
KIND of absurdity the comic contains when it does contain something
absurd. Is an immediate proof of this desired? You have only to
choose one of these definitions and make up effects in accordance
with the formula: twice out of every three times there will be
nothing laughable in the effect obtained. So we see that absurdity,
when met with in the comic, is not absurdity IN GENERAL. It is an
absurdity of a definite kind. It does not create the comic; rather,
we might say that the comic infuses into it its own particular
essence. It is not a cause, but an effect--an effect of a very
special kind, which reflects the special nature of its cause. Now,
this cause is known to us; consequently we shall have no trouble in
understanding the nature of the effect.

Assume, when out for a country walk, that you notice on the top of a
hill something that bears a faint resemblance to a large motionless
body with revolving arms. So far you do not know what it is, but you
begin to search amongst your IDEAS--that is to say, in the present
instance, amongst the recollections at your disposal--for that
recollection which will best fit in with what you see. Almost
immediately the image of a windmill comes into your mind: the object
before you is a windmill. No matter if, before leaving the house,
you have just been reading fairy-tales telling of giants with
enormous arms; for although common sense consists mainly in being
able to remember, it consists even more in being able to forget.
Common sense represents the endeavour of a mind continually adapting
itself anew and changing ideas when it changes objects. It is the
mobility of the intelligence conforming exactly to the mobility of
things. It is the moving continuity of our attention to life. But
now, let us take Don Quixote setting out for the wars. The romances
he has been reading all tell of knights encountering, on the way,
giant adversaries. He therefore must needs encounter a giant. This
idea of a giant is a privileged recollection which has taken its
abode in his mind and lies there in wait, motionless, watching for
an opportunity to sally forth and become embodied in a thing. It IS
BENT on entering the material world, and so the very first object he
sees bearing the faintest resemblance to a giant is invested with
the form of one. Thus Don Quixote sees giants where we see
windmills. This is comical; it is also absurd. But is it a mere
absurdity,--an absurdity of an indefinite kind?

It is a very special inversion of common sense. It consists in
seeking to mould things on an idea of one's own, instead of moulding
one's ideas on things,--in seeing before us what we are thinking of,
instead of thinking of what we see. Good sense would have us leave
all our memories in their proper rank and file; then the appropriate
memory will every time answer the summons of the situation of the
moment and serve only to interpret it. But in Don Quixote, on the
contrary, there is one group of memories in command of all the rest
and dominating the character itself: thus it is reality that now has
to bow to imagination, its only function being to supply fancy with
a body. Once the illusion has been created, Don Quixote develops it
logically enough in all its consequences; he proceeds with the
certainty and precision of a somnambulist who is acting his dream.
Such, then, is the origin of his delusions, and such the particular
logic which controls this particular absurdity. Now, is this logic
peculiar to Don Quixote?

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy
of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short,
through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of
rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to
follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.
In Moliere's plays how many comic scenes can be reduced to this
simple type: A CHARACTER FOLLOWING UP HIS ONE IDEA, and continually
recurring to it in spite of incessant interruptions! The transition
seems to take place imperceptibly from the man who will listen to
nothing to the one who will see nothing, and from this latter to the
one who sees only what he wants to see. A stubborn spirit ends by
adjusting things to its own way of thinking, instead of
accommodating its thoughts to the things. So every comic character
is on the highroad to the above-mentioned illusion, and Don Quixote
furnishes us with the general type of comic absurdity.

Is there a name for this inversion of common sense? Doubtless it may
be found, in either an acute or a chronic form, in certain types of
insanity. In many of its aspects it resembles a fixed idea. But
neither insanity in general, nor fixed ideas in particular, are
provocative of laughter: they are diseases, and arouse our pity.

Laughter, as we have seen, is incompatible with emotion. If there
exists a madness that is laughable, it can only be one compatible
with the general health of the mind,--a sane type of madness, one
might say. Now, there is a sane state of the mind that resembles
madness in every respect, in which we find the same associations of
ideas as we do in lunacy, the same peculiar logic as in a fixed
idea. This state is that of dreams. So either our analysis is
incorrect, or it must be capable of being stated in the following
theorem: Comic absurdity is of the same nature as that of dreams.

The behaviour of the intellect in a dream is exactly what we have
just been describing. The mind, enamoured of itself, now seeks in
the outer world nothing more than a pretext for realising its
imaginations. A confused murmur of sounds still reaches the ear,
colours enter the field of vision, the senses are not completely
shut in. But the dreamer, instead of appealing to the whole of his
recollections for the interpretation of what his senses perceive,
makes use of what he perceives to give substance to the particular
recollection he favours: thus, according to the mood of the dreamer
and the idea that fills his imagination at the time, a gust of wind
blowing down the chimney becomes the howl of a wild beast or a
tuneful melody. Such is the ordinary mechanism of illusion in

Now, if comic illusion is similar to dream illusion, if the logic of
the comic is the logic of dreams, we may expect to discover in the
logic of the laughable all the peculiarities of dream logic. Here,
again, we shall find an illustration of the law with which we are
well acquainted: given one form of the laughable, other forms that
are lacking in the same comic essence become laughable from their
outward resemblance to the first. Indeed, it is not difficult to see
that any PLAY OF IDEAS may afford us amusement if only it bring back
to mind, more or less distinctly, the play of dreamland.

We shall first call attention to a certain general relaxation of the
rules of reasoning. The reasonings at which we laugh are those we
know to be false, but which we might accept as true were we to hear
them in a dream. They counterfeit true reasoning just sufficiently
to deceive a mind dropping off to sleep. There is still an element
of logic in them, if you will, but it is a logic lacking in tension
and, for that very reason, affording us relief from intellectual
effort. Many "witticisms" are reasonings of this kind, considerably
abridged reasonings, of which we are given only the beginning and
the end. Such play upon ideas evolves in the direction of a play
upon words in proportion as the relations set up between the ideas
become more superficial: gradually we come to take no account of the
meaning of the words we hear, but only of their sound. It might be
instructive to compare with dreams certain comic scenes in which one
of the characters systematically repeats in a nonsensical fashion
what another character whispers in his ear. If you fall asleep with
people talking round you, you sometimes find that what they say
gradually becomes devoid of meaning, that the sounds get distorted,
as it were, and recombine in a haphazard fashion to form in your
mind the strangest of meanings, and that you are reproducing between
yourself and the different speakers the scene between Petit-Jean and
The Prompter. [Footnote: Les Plaideurs (Racine).]

There are also COMIC OBSESSIONS that seem to bear a great
resemblance to dream obsessions. Who has not had the experience of
seeing the same image appear in several successive dreams, assuming
a plausible meaning in each of them, whereas these dreams had no
other point in common. Effects of repetition sometimes present this
special form on the stage or in fiction: some of them, in fact,
sound as though they belonged to a dream. It may be the same with
the burden of many a song: it persistently recurs, always unchanged,
at the end of every verse, each time with a different meaning.

Not infrequently do we notice in dreams a particular CRESCENDO, a
weird effect that grows more pronounced as we proceed. The first
concession extorted from reason introduces a second; and this one,
another of a more serious nature; and so on till the crowning
absurdity is reached. Now, this progress towards the absurd produces
on the dreamer a very peculiar sensation. Such is probably the
experience of the tippler when he feels himself pleasantly drifting
into a state of blankness in which neither reason nor propriety has
any meaning for him. Now, consider whether some of Moliere's plays
would not produce the same sensation: for instance, Monsieur de
Pourceaugnac, which, after beginning almost reasonably, develops
into a sequence of all sorts of absurdities. Consider also the
Bourgeois gentilhomme, where the different characters seem to allow
themselves to be caught up in a very whirlwind of madness as the
play proceeds. "If it is possible to find a man more completely mad,
I will go and publish it in Rome." This sentence, which warns us
that the play is over, rouses us from the increasingly extravagant
dream into which, along with M. Jourdain, we have been sinking.

But, above all, there is a special madness that is peculiar to
dreams. There are certain special contradictions so natural to the
imagination of a dreamer, and so absurd to the reason of a man wide-
awake, that it would be impossible to give a full and correct idea
of their nature to anyone who had not experienced them. We allude to
the strange fusion that a dream often effects between two persons
who henceforth form only one and yet remain distinct. Generally one
of these is the dreamer himself. He feels he has not ceased to be
what he is; yet he has become someone else. He is himself, and not
himself. He hears himself speak and sees himself act, but he feels
that some other "he" has borrowed his body and stolen his voice. Or
perhaps he is conscious of speaking and acting as usual, but he
speaks of himself as a stranger with whom he has nothing in common;
he has stepped out of his own self. Does it not seem as though we
found this same extraordinary confusion in many a comic scene? I am
not speaking of Amphitryon, in which play the confusion is perhaps
suggested to the mind of the spectator, though the bulk of the comic
effect proceeds rather from what we have already called a
"reciprocal interference of two series." I am speaking of the
extravagant and comic reasonings in which we really meet with this
confusion in its pure form, though it requires some looking into to
pick it out. For instance, listen to Mark Twain's replies to the
reporter who called to interview him:

QUESTION. Isn't that a brother of yours? ANSWER. Oh! yes, yes, yes!
Now you remind me of it, that WAS a brother of mine. That's William-
-BILL we called him. Poor old Bill!

Q. Why? Is he dead, then? A. Ah! well, I suppose so. We never could
tell. There was a great mystery about it.

Q. That is sad, very sad. He disappeared, then? A. Well, yes, in a
sort of general way. We buried him.

Q. BURIED him! BURIED him, without knowing whether he was dead or
not? A. Oh no! Not that. He was dead enough.

Q. Well, I confess that I can't understand this. If you buried him,
and you knew he was dead--A. No! no! We only thought he was.

Q. Oh, I see! He came to life again? A. I bet he didn't.

Q. Well, I never heard anything like this. SOMEBODY was dead.
SOMEBODY was buried. Now, where was the mystery? A. Ah! that's just
it! That's it exactly. You see, we were twins,--defunct and I,--and
we got mixed in the bath-tub when we were only two weeks old, and
one of us was drowned. But we didn't know which. Some think it was
Bill. Some think it was me.

Q. Well, that is remarkable. What do YOU think? A. Goodness knows! I
would give whole worlds to know. This solemn, this awful tragedy has
cast a gloom over my whole life. But I will tell you a secret now,
which I have never revealed to any creature before. One of us had a
peculiar mark,--a large mole on the back of his left hand: that was

A close examination will show us that the absurdity of this dialogue
is by no means an absurdity of an ordinary type. It would disappear
were not the speaker himself one of the twins in the story. It
results entirely from the fact that Mark Twain asserts he is one of
these twins, whilst all the time he talks as though he were a third
person who tells the tale. In many of our dreams we adopt exactly
the same method.


Regarded from this latter point of view, the comic seems to show
itself in a form somewhat different from the one we lately
attributed to it. Up to this point, we have regarded laughter as
first and foremost a means of correction. If you take the series of
comic varieties and isolate the predominant types at long intervals,
you will find that all the intervening varieties borrow their comic
quality from their resemblance to these types, and that the types
themselves are so many models of impertinence with regard to
society. To these impertinences society retorts by laughter, an even
greater impertinence. So evidently there is nothing very benevolent
in laughter. It seems rather inclined to return evil for evil.

But this is not what we are immediately struck by in our first
impression of the laughable. The comic character is often one with
whom, to begin with, our mind, or rather our body, sympathises. By
this is meant that we put ourselves for a very short time in his
place, adopt his gestures, words, arid actions, and, if amused by
anything laughable in him, invite him, in imagination, to share his
amusement with us; in fact, we treat him first as a playmate. So, in
the laugher we find a "hail-fellow-well-met" spirit--as far, at
least, as appearances go--which it would be wrong of us not to take
into consideration. In particular, there is in laughter a movement
of relaxation which has often been noticed, and the reason of which
we must try to discover. Nowhere is this impression more noticeable
than in the last few examples. In them, indeed, we shall find its

When the comic character automatically follows up his idea, he
ultimately thinks, speaks and acts as though he were dreaming. Now,
a dream is a relaxation. To remain in touch with things and men, to
see nothing but what is existent and think nothing but what is
consistent, demands a continuous effort of intellectual tension.
This effort is common sense. And to remain sensible is, indeed, to
remain at work. But to detach oneself from things and yet continue
to perceive images, to break away from logic and yet continue to
string together ideas, is to indulge in play or, if you prefer, in
dolce far niente. So, comic absurdity gives us from the outset the
impression of playing with ideas. Our first impulse is to join in
the game. That relieves us from the strain of thinking. Now, the
same might be said of the other forms of the laughable. Deep-rooted
in the comic, there is always a tendency, we said, to take the line
of least resistance, generally that of habit. The comic character no
longer tries to be ceaselessly adapting and readapting himself to
the society of which he is a member. He slackens in the attention
that is due to life. He more or less resembles the absentminded.
Maybe his will is here even more concerned than his intellect, and
there is not so much a want of attention as a lack of tension;
still, in some way or another, he is absent, away from his work,
taking it easy. He abandons social convention, as indeed--in the
case we have just been considering--he abandoned logic. Here, too,
our first impulse is to accept the invitation to take it easy. For a
short time, at all events, we join in the game. And that relieves us
from the strain of living.

But we rest only for a short time. The sympathy that is capable of
entering into the impression of the comic is a very fleeting one. It
also comes from a lapse in attention. Thus, a stern father may at
times forget himself and join in some prank his child is playing,
only to check himself at once in order to correct it.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate,
it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is
directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties
taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of
sympathy or kindness.

Shall we be told that the motive, at all events; may be a good one,
that we often punish because we love, and that laughter, by checking
the outer manifestations of certain failings, thus causes the person
laughed at to correct these failings and thereby improve himself

Much might be said on this point. As a general rule, and speaking
roughly, laughter doubtless exercises a useful function. Indeed, the
whole of our analysis points to this fact. But it does not therefore
follow that laughter always hits the mark or is invariably inspired
by sentiments of kindness or even of justice.

To be certain of always hitting the mark, it would have to proceed
from an act of reflection. Now, laughter is simply the result of a
mechanism set up in us by nature or, what is almost the same thing,
by our long acquaintance with social life. It goes off spontaneously
and returns tit for tat. It has no time to look where it hits.
Laughter punishes certain failing's somewhat as disease punishes
certain forms of excess, striking down some who are innocent and
sparing some who are guilty, aiming at a general result and
incapable of dealing separately with each individual case. And so it
is with everything that comes to pass by natural means instead of
happening by conscious reflection. An average of justice may show
itself in the total result, though the details, taken separately,
often point to anything but justice.

In this sense, laughter cannot be absolutely just. Nor should it be
kind-hearted either. Its function is to intimidate by humiliating.
Now, it would not succeed in doing this, had not nature implanted
for that very purpose, even in the best of men, a spark of
spitefulness or, at all events, of mischief. Perhaps we had better
not investigate this point too closely, for we should not find
anything very flattering to ourselves. We should see that this
movement of relaxation or expansion is nothing but a prelude to
laughter, that the laugher immediately retires within himself, more
self-assertive and conceited than ever, and is evidently disposed to
look upon another's personality as a marionette of which he pulls
the strings. In this presumptuousness we speedily discern a degree
of egoism and, behind this latter, something less spontaneous and
more bitter, the beginnings of a curious pessimism which becomes the
more pronounced as the laugher more closely analyses his laughter.

Here, as elsewhere, nature has utilised evil with a view to good. It
is more especially the good that has engaged our attention
throughout this work. We have seen that the more society improves,
the more plastic is the adaptability it obtains from its members;
while the greater the tendency towards increasing stability below,
the more does it force to the surface the disturbing elements
inseparable from so vast a bulk; and thus laughter performs a useful
function by emphasising the form of these significant undulations.
Such is also the truceless warfare of the waves on the surface of
the sea, whilst profound peace reigns in the depths below. The
billows clash and collide with each other, as they strive to find
their level. A fringe of snow-white foam, feathery and frolicsome,
follows their changing outlines. From time to time, the receding
wave leaves behind a remnant of foam on the sandy beach. The child,
who plays hard by, picks up a handful, and, the next moment, is
astonished to find that nothing remains in his grasp but a few drops
of water, water that is far more brackish, far more bitter than that
of the wave which brought it. Laughter comes into being in the self-
same fashion. It indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social
life. It instantly adopts the changing forms of the disturbance. It,
also, is afroth with a saline base. Like froth, it sparkles. It is
gaiety itself. But the philosopher who gathers a handful to taste
may find that the substance is scanty, and the after-taste bitter.


End of The Project Gutenberg Etext of Laughter:  An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
by Henri Bergson


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