“Those grimaces called laughter”

As I write this, at Whole Foods, a couple of women sitting near me are exchanging life stories, very much not an unual occurrence here, and especially at the ruminative end of the year. One of the women – a pleasant, rather beaky face, black hair cut in a shag that spreads out in wings by each ear, a voice that lingers a bit too long in the nose for it to have learned that trick in Central Texas, about forty – finishes her story and laughs. “And that’s why you get divorced,” she says. The other - shorter, frankly less interesting, surely more together then her friend, who ,coming out with those slightly lopsided raven’s wings, has been reflecting on her life – the other laughs too.

What is so funny?

Such a short question, such a long shadow. The question of what to make of “ce monstreux phenomene”. For it is monstrous in every sense – it shows, it demonstrates, rather than says – it reveals an automatism of the face, that organ/sign, as if the human body were here ruled by a different power, something other than the consciousness – it is – or at least, tradition says it is – a creation of man, and not a trait shared by the animals – and thus, is, to some slight extent, in competition with God. More than that, laughter and tears are liminal phenomena that must be put aside, explained as codicils, if we truly believe in the separation of pain and pleasure – that separation which defines feelings and emotions in terms of the negative and the positive. Yes, we can well imagine the android that cries, when receiving the instruction, be sad, and laughs when receiving the instruction, be happy – but the android that cries when happy, or laughs when sad, that android dreams of electric sheep. The instructions, at this point, have been taken out of the control of the instructor.

Surely such a phenomenon should attract attention. And, in Baudelaire’s essay on the Essence of Laughter, it receives it – in fact, that essay brings into play elements we have long been working with, from the class determination of a certain tone – the humorous tone, the comic – in philosophy to a mysterious and utterly enchanting tableau of vertige. In the deepest part of the essay, we come to a moment in which one feels an opportunity form – for an instance – and then fly away.

But first, we should foreground our work, here.

We go back, dutifully, always, we go back to the Greeks. Aristotle made the connections, gave us the themes, that have ever after been at work like the tailors in the Emperor’s new clothes – except where those tailors were swindlers, the invisible clothes that get passed down – hand me downs – here are themes, mythemes even. Aristotle evidently did not feel it was worth his while to write a lot about comedy – but what he wrote was sufficient to introduce a couple of semantif oppositions. One is the opposition between the high and the low, interpreted in terms of social position. Comedy is the preference of those in the low position. It is born low. Another opposition is confused in comedy – as we pointed out. This is the opposition between pleasure and pain. Aristotle, in the poetics, later explains how we can take pleasure in the pain of tragedy by purging ourselves of that pain – in comedy, however, the pain is mock pain – the laugh which creases the face borrows the rictus of pain to express pleasure. And this borrowing is inscribed into the architecture of the comic mask. And finally, there is the opposition between the beautiful and the ugly – which is correlated with the opposition between the high and the low:

“As we have said, comedy is an imitation of baser men. These are characterized not by every kind of vice but specifically by the "ridiculous," which is a subdivision of the category of "de- formity." What we mean by "the ridiculous" is some error or ugliness that is painless and has no harmful effects. The example that comes immediately to mind is the comic mask, which is ugly and distorted but causes no pain.”


roger said…
Baudelaire's essay was an introduction to his assessment of one of the great generation of caricatures - with B. understanding the importance of Daumier from the beginning.
Well, our caricaturist in these here states, David Levine, who just died: