The Comic in Theory & Practice

By Elizabeth T. Forter; Alvin Whitley et al. | Go to book overview

On the Essence of Laughter

CHARLES BAUDELAIRE

Charles Baudelaire, from "On the Essence of Laughter" [ 1855], in The Mirror of Art, tr. & ed. Jonathan Mayne ( London, Phaidon Press Ltd., 1955).

BUT THERE is one case where the question is more complicated. It is the laughter of man -- but a true and violent laughter -- at the sight of an object which is neither a sign of weakness nor of disaster among his fellows. It is easy to guess that I am referring to the laughter caused by the grotesque. Fabulous creations, beings whose authority and raison d'être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense, often provoke in us an insane and excessive mirth, which expresses itself in interminable paroxysms and swoons. It is clear that a distinction must be made, and that here we have a higher degree of the phenomenon. From the artistic point of view, the comic is an imitation: the grotesque a creation. The comic is an imitation mixed with a certain creative faculty, that is to say with an artistic ideality. Now human pride, which always takes the upper hand and is the natural cause of laughter in the case of the comic, turns out to be the natural cause of laughter in the case of the grotesque too, for this is a creation mixed with a certain imitative faculty -- imitative, that is, of elements pre-existing in nature. I mean that in this case laughter is still the expression of an idea of superiority -- no longer now of man over man, but of man over nature. Do not retort that this idea is too subtle; that would be no sufficient reason for rejecting it. The difficulty is to find another plausible explanation. If this one seems far-fetched and just a little hard to accept, that is because the laughter caused by the grotesque has about it something profound, primitive and axiomatic, which is much closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy than is the laughter caused by the comic in man's behaviour. Setting aside the question of utility, there is the same difference between these two sorts of laughter as there is between the implicated school of writing and the school of art for art's sake. Thus the grotesque dominates the comic from a proportionate height. [144]

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The Comic in Theory & Practice
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Part I - Theory 1
  • Humour 3
  • Poetics 5
  • Author's Preface to Joseph Andrews 7
  • The Difficulty of Defining Comedy 10
  • A Comparison Between Laughing and Sentimental Comedy 12
  • On Wit and Humour 16
  • On Simple and Sentimental Poetry 22
  • On the Essence of Laughter 24
  • The Expression of the Emotions In Man and Animals 29
  • An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit 34
  • Meredith on Comedy 38
  • Laughter 43
  • Laughter 65
  • Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious 69
  • Feeling and Form 81
  • Anatomy of Criticism 87
  • Verbal Behavior 92
  • Introduction to Joseph Andrews 100
  • Some Remarks on Humor 102
  • Notes on the Comic 109
  • The Thread of Laughter 116
  • Part II - Essays, Narratives, & Verse 123
  • My Finandal Career 125
  • On Riding 128
  • Showing Off 133
  • Dr. Arbuthnot's Academy 135
  • You Were Perfectly Fine 141
  • The Catbird Seat 145
  • Laura 154
  • Why I Live at the P.O. 159
  • A Reasonable Facsimile 171
  • A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms 192
  • The Rape of the Lock 257
  • The Cock and the Fox or, The Tale of the Nun's Priest 278
  • The Frogs Asked for a King 300
  • Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes 302
  • The Lemmings: A Philosophical Poem 304
  • Departmental or, the End of My Ant Jerry 309
  • Mehitabel Dances with Boreas 311
  • Macavity: the Mystery Cat 315
  • A Wooden Darning Egg 317
  • The Mad Gardener's Song 318
  • The Flea 320
  • Under Which Lyre 321
  • Part III - For Discussion & Themes 327
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