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(from Greek komikos, “merry,” “funny”; from komos, the merry throng of masked revelers at the rural festival of Dionysus in ancient Greece), the humorous.
Since Aristotle, a vast body of literature has arisen devoted to the comic, its essence and source. The great difficulty in explaining the comic stems, first, from its universality (everything in the world may be regarded “seriously” or “comically”) and, second, from its exceptionally dynamic quality, its “protean nature” (Jean Paul Richter) and playful capacity to conceal itself behind any mask.
Although the comic has frequently been contrasted with the tragic (Aristotle, F. von Schiller, F. W. Schelling), the sublime (Jean Paul Richter), the perfect (M. Mendelssohn), the serious (F. Schlegel, J. Volkelt), and the poignant (Novalis), well-known forms of the comic include the tragicomic, the high, or sublime, comic, and the serious and poignant comic (especially in humor). The essence of the comic has been interpreted as the “deformed” (Plato), as the “self-destruction of the deformed” (the German Hegelian aesthetician K. Rosenkranz), and as the resolution of something important into “nothing” (I. Kant), although most frequently the comic has been defined formally as incongruity, incompatibility (between action and result, between goal and means, or between the ideal and the real) or as surprise (C. Darwin). However, the “congruous” comic also exists, and the comic of “expectation met” is often the more effective, for example, the opinions of a known comedian or jester are particularly funny when uttered by him.
Although the various aesthetic conceptions of the comic are unsatisfactory as universal formulas, they define quite accurately the essence of a particular manifestation of the comic and, thereby, a facet of the comic as a whole, since the protean nature of the comic is revealed in its easy transition from one form to another.
It is easier to comprehend the general nature of the comic by turning—in the spirit of the word’s etymology—to playful, festively merry (often with mummery), collectively spontaneous folk laughter, known to all peoples from time immemorial (for example, in carnival games). This laughter stems from carefree joy, an abundance of strength, and freedom of spirit—in contrast to the preceding and succeeding days’ oppressive cares and want and to everyday seriousness. Moreover, it is the laughter of rebirth; in the Middle Ages it was called risus paschalis, “Easter laughter,” after the long deprivations and prohibitions of Lent. This renewing, “recreational,” laughter (as during a recess between classes in school, when playful fantasy has free rein) recalls one of the general definitions of the comic as the “fantasizing . . . of reason, to which complete freedom has been granted” (Jean Paul, Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 49, Berlin, 1827, part 1, p. 161). On the carnival square and in the home at the feast—in all times and places where komos laughter reigns— there prevails a dual atmosphere of reality refracted through the prism of creative fantasy: the imaginative “man at play” becomes, as it were, the inventive “creative man.” All the elements of the comic figure are taken from life, from a real object (or person), but creative imagination transforms their interrelationship, arrangement, scale, and emphasis (“composition” of an object).
One of the sources of pleasure derived from the comic is “recognition” of the subject behind the transforming mask (as in a cartoon or caricature), constituting the creative collaboration of the audience. Laughter is universal and ambivalent, unceremoniously combining admiration and scorn, praise and abuse. It is also syncretic both as to the place of action—the “footlights” that in the theater separate the world of the comic from the real world of the spectators are eliminated—and the performance. The author, actor, and spectator often merge in the comedian—for example, the medieval fool, the Old Russian skomorokh, or the comic in daily life who, by improvising, makes fun of himself and of his audience, of his character and theirs, which are frankly portrayed with a “free spirit.” In the laughter of festivities, by nature profoundly objective, life itself, as it were, celebrates and plays, whereas the participants in this play are merely its conscious agents. Among the best examples of the “truly comic” in art (age-old and with its source in folklore) are the merry figure of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and the novel Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais.
Syncretic laughter contains, either potentially or in embryo, many forms of the comic that have evolved independently in the course of cultural development, notably irony and humor, which are antithetical according to the “rules of the game” and to the nature of the mask. In irony the laughable is concealed under a serious mask, and a negative (mocking) attitude toward the subject predominates; in humor the serious lies beneath a comic mask, and a positive (“laughing”) attitude generally prevails. Unlike the other forms of the comic, humor is essentially philosophical, with a complexity of tone in its evaluation of life. In humor the “dialectic of fantasy” affords a glimpse of the great behind the insignificant, of wisdom behind folly, and of the melancholy (N. V. Gogol’s “tears invisible to the world”) behind the comic. A parable about humor relates that joy and grief met one night in a forest and, without recognizing each other, were married; from this union humor was born (M. Lazarus). In contrast, the scourging laughter of satire, the object of which is the vices, has a pronounced negative, denunciatory tone. From antiquity (Juvenal) there has also existed noncomic satire, inspired solely by indignation. But the great satirists, such as J. Swift and M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, characteristically combine the serious (socially significant) with the illogically amusing, the absurd, the ridiculously insignificant (the character with the “stuffed head” in Saltykov-Shchedrin). This “compensatory” function of laughter, restoring good spirits, clearly reveals the genetic link between satire and the comic.
According to significance (level, depth), a distinction is made between high forms of the comic (the foremost example in literature is Cervantes’ Don Quixote, where laughter is directed at the highest in man) and the merely amusing forms (puns, realized metaphors, harmless caricatures). The amusingly comic corresponds to Aristotle’s definition of the humorous as “error and ugliness which does not cause anyone suffering, nor is pernicious for anyone” (Ob iskusstve poezii, Moscow, 1957, p. 53). Important for comic effect is the perceptible nature of a specific object and the exaggeration of the size of elements (as in caricature) or fantastic combinations (the grotesque). Wit, which derives from comparisons, also brings together remote, more or less abstract concepts; wit is “judgment at play” (K. Fischer), a “mummer priest who will marry any couple” (Jean Paul Richter) despite the wishes of “parents” and conventional ideas. In wit the comic effect serves as a kind of proof of the statement’s truth.
According to the nature and cultural level of the emotions accompanying the comic, laughter may be scornful, loving, poignant, cruel (caustic and “tormenting,” or sarcastic), tragicomic, subtle, crude, healthy (natural), or sick. The mental state of the “comedian” is also important: laughter is conscious when the individual is in control of the comic process or, on the contrary, when external circumstances and life impersonally toy with him, placing him in a “ludicrous position,” or when the unconscious toys with him as with a tool, accidentally “exposing” him (H. Bergson’s “automatism of the comic”).
Aristotle noted that laughter is solely a trait of human beings (among certain higher animals, such as the anthropoid apes and dogs, there are incipient forms of soundless laughter). The anthropological importance of the comic is great; J. W. von Goethe observed that a person’s character is most clearly revealed by what he regards as humorous. This truth applies equally to individuals, to entire societies and epochs (that which does not seem humorous in one cultural-historical milieu, regarding customs, clothing, occupations, ceremonies, amusements, and so forth, may evoke laughter in another group), and to national character as revealed in art (the role of humor, especially eccentric humor, in English literature, of wit in French literature, and of sarcasm in Spanish art, notably the satire of F. Quevedo and the graphic art of F. Goya).
The history of human society and the replacement of obsolete social forms by new ones constitutes the greatest objective source of the comic, which even here does not lose its “playing” character. The old system of a society is “nothing but the humbug of a world order whose real heroes are dead. . . . The final phase of a world-historical form is its comedy. . . . Why does history proceed in this way? So that mankind will separate itself happily from its past” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 418). One may rightly speak of the “herculean labor of laughter” (M. Bakhtin) in the history of culture in “cleansing the world” and healing and liberating human consciousness from “monsters”—false fears, religious cults, obsolete authorities, and idols; one may also speak of the spiritually therapeutic role of the comic in daily life and in art.
The only subject of the comic is man and the manlike in animals, birds, and so forth. Hence the comic is alien to architecture but is inherent in other arts in varying degrees. The art form that best serves the universal nature of the comic is literature, where the comic constitutes the basis of one of the prinicipal and most playful forms of drama, the comedy.
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Bergson, H. Smekh v zhizni i na stsene. St. Petersburg, 1900. (Translated from French.)
Sakketti, L. Estetika v obshchedostupnom izlozhenii, vol. 2. Petrograd, 1917. Chapters 12–13.
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L. E. PINSKII