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Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic by Henri Bergson

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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.


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