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An inquiry into the main psychological principles that underlie laughter and its various manifestations presents a number of difficulties. There is a wide range of the ludicrous, beginning with the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose, the coarse sallies of the clown, the zany, the cartoonist, the mimic, and the joker, and ending with the classical productions of Aristophanes, Lucian, Juvenal, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Molière, Voltaire, Gogol, Thackeray and Dickens. The great Russian writer, Gogol, in his famous work “Dead Souls,” lays special stress on the fact that a whole abyss separates the productions of elevated laughter from the contortions of the buffoon and the clown. No doubt Gogol is right: there is an abyss between the crude art of the buffoon and the "pearl of creative art” produced by the genius of comedy. Still the abyss can be bridged over. May we not similarly say that a whole abyss separates the crude idols of the stone age from the beautiful statues of a Phidias? The two extremes are, nevertheless, connected by a long series of intermediate steps. The abyss, however, as Gogol points out, is present. The difficulty is to bridge over the extremes and find the fundamental principles that underlie the almost infinite diversity of the manifestations of the ludicrous.
Another difficulty lies in the fact that very little satisfactory and systematic work has been done in the domain of the psychology of laughter and the ludicrous. Theories have been advanced since the time of Aristotle, but they have been fragmentary and abstract. Extensive and important as the domain of the ludicrous is in the life of mankind, the scientific investigator devotes but little time and space to this side of human activity. This may be partly due to the fact that the comic is regarded as superficial and trivial, or as dealing at best with the commonplace of life, possibly below the dignity of the scientific inquirer. Even a man like Bergson excludes comedy from the high sphere of art. He tells us that the nature of comedy is opposed to tragedy, drama, and other forms of art. According to Bergson, the sole object of true art is the individual; not so comedy, which deals with the general, the typical. Art deals with individual things as they really are; while comedy, like life, is concerned with general characters, with types. Comedy is prosaic. In other words, comedy does not belong to the sphere of art. In spite of his remarkable acumen, Bergson is entirely wrong in his generalization. Both tragedy and comedy deal with types.
Moreover, according to Bergson, we should have to exclude from the domain of art the comedies of Aristophanes, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Molière's dramatic works, Shakespeare's comic dramas, the humorous works of Dickens, Thackeray and Gogol. This will not do. We must agree with Gogol that the great artist or poet in his creations of laughter and the ludicrous may produce and has produced "pearls of creation," even if such pearls have been cast away on contemporary readers. One cannot help agreeing with the apparently paradoxical statement of Plato in his “Symposium" that tragedy and comedy are intimately related, that the great dramatic poet can wield with equal force the incidents and types of tragedy and comedy. This is well exemplified in the dramatic works of Shakespeare. The extreme and fallacious view held by Bergson well illustrates the confused and chaotic state of the subject of the ludicrous.
Still another difficulty lies in the disorganized and scattered condition of the material referring to laughter and the ludicrous. The material is rich, but this wealth makes the choice all the more difficult. To this should be added the fact that the material is so scattered that the labor of selection and sifting is arduous and appears almost insurmountable. I had to choose my examples of the ludicrous from the literature of various nations and different ages. It was difficult to decide as to the preference given to the selected material. Of course, it is desirable to give illustrations and make the analysis of examples from recent works, as they are more comprehensible to the reader. This was done as much as the scope of the work as well as circumstances permitted.
In selecting my material for analysis from English and American writers I wished to utilize some illustrations from Bret Harte and Mark Twain. All citations, however, from these two American writers had to be dispensed with, because their publishers' permission could not be obtained.