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Aesthetics: The Branch of Knowledge Dealing
with the Aesthetic Diversity of Life and Art


The Comic as a Side of Social and Cultural Life

In one of his works, Jean Paul, the German writer and aesthetician, used an episode from Don Quixote to analyse the nature of the comic. When Sancho Panza spent the night suspended above a shallow ditch thinking that it was an abyss, it would seem that his behaviour was quite natural and that he would have been a fool to make a jump and get killed. Why then are we laughing? According to Jean Paul, the comic here arises out of substitution. We lend his (Sancho Panza's) reasoning our understanding of the situation and the view of things, and are amused by the resulting incongruity.
The comic is always within the subject of laughter, not the object. But the comic does not appear because we supply another person's behaviour with our understanding of the circumstances which contradicts it. It lies in the object itself without being its innate quality. The episode under discussion has a comic content, Sancho Panza himself is comic, since for all his common sense he proved a bit of a coward and failed to assess the circumstances correctly. In this situation he does not live up to the ideal and therefore becomes an object of laughter.
Human society is truly a realm of comedy, as well as tragedy. Man is the only being who can both laugh and be the cause of laughter, or, to be more precise, every object of amusement contains a human and social element. Sometimes the source of fun is looked for, quite erroneously, in natural phenomena: a curious shape of a cloud, cliff or mineral (particularly stalactites), odd appearance or behaviour of a monkey, a bear or a fox, or the unusual form of a cactus. Quoting a scene from Hamlet, the German philosopher Adolf Zeising says that Shakespeare laughs at the funny metamorphosis of clouds. But is that so?

H a m l e t: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
P o 1 o n i u s: By th'mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
H a m l e t: Methinks it is like a weasel.
P o 1 o n i u s: It is backed like a weasel.
H a m l e t: Or like a whale?
P o 1 o n i u s: Very like a whale.

Obviously Shakespeare is making fun not of clouds but of the unscrupulous and obsequious Polonius.
Animals in fables are sometimes given as a seemingly more convincing example of the comic in nature. But even 1 Sth-century aesthetics pointed out that animals in fables personify human character traits.
The comic always constitutes an aspect of the objective social value of a phenomenon. The funny grimaces of monkeys or the behaviour of a small puppy are not naturally comic. They are funny only when social content – human character and relations – are perceptible through their natural form. Natural features of animals and their behaviour (the quick movements and mannerisms of a monkey, the developed instincts of a fox allowing it to "outwit" its enemies, the clumsiness of a bear) are associated with human habits, behaviour and manners and become an object of aesthetic assessment on the basis of social practice. Through natural phenomena, human faults and shortcomings like fussiness, slyness, clumsiness, sluggishness of movement and thought are ridiculed.
Laughter can be produced by a great variety of things from tickling to alcohol. Cases have been recorded in Africa of an infectious epidemic disease manifested in prolonged exhausting laughter. The Covetous Knight smiled at the sight of his treasures.
However, not all that is funny is comic, although the comic is always funny. One may say that the comic is the fair sister of the funny causing "socially loaded" laughter which is ennobled by the presence of an aesthetic ideal, the laughter which rejects certain human character traits and social phenomena and extolls others. Depending on the circumstances, the same phenomenon can be either comic or just funny. When a person's trousers fall suddenly down, others may burst into laughter. But there is nothing comic in this situation. But take the Hungarian film The Revenge of Shoddy Work. The principal character, a tailor who decides to wear a pair of trousers he has made himself, loses them in public. As he has only his own work to blame for it, the situation becomes comic. The comic is social both by virtue of its objective (features of the object or phenomenon) and subjective (perception) aspects.

Expression and Perception of the Comic

Laughter is infectious and is predominantly a "group activity". The comic is best conveyed by the arts which are intended for large audiences – theatre, cinema, circus. Television also presupposes a great number of spectators, but watching it is usually done individually or in a small group. For this reason, the actors who are aware of the principle of perception of the comic usually address a comic text not to TV but to live audiences with which they can establish a feedback. Comedians usually have television broadcast their performances live so that communication with the audience and the reaction of the latter comes over on the sound-track. The comic can find expression in music, an art which appeals directly to man's inner being. Perception of the comic in instrumental music requires a certain mood conditioned, for instance, by the composer's indication as to the genre of his piece. A good way to achieve a comic effect in music is to transform genres. In his London Symphonies, Joseph Haydn disrupts the logic of dance and genre music by sudden pauses and contrasts, which produces a comic effect.
The comic finds a particularly vivid expression in comic opera, which was brought to life by democratic tendencies in society and art. It emerged in Italy in the 1730s under the name of opera buffa reaching its peak in the work of Pergolese. Opera buffa introduced a democratic element into music and theatre. Comedy played a prominent part in it, the music was "popular" in style and had a great deal in common with song, including folklore elements. In France, comic opera grew out of shows staged during fairs to satisfy the cultural requirements of the third estate, which also testifies to its democratic character.
Opera buffa exercised considerable influence over Viennese classics and through them, European music. It evolved many features of musical comedy: its homophonic texture, phrasing, mobility, recitative, clear harmonic logic, strict division of motives, connection with folk music. These features have formed the basis of the comic musical language of classical opera. In Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, Farlaf's aria includes comic-opera recitative, as does Varlaam's aria in Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
The only art incapable of conveying the comic is architecture. A comic building would be a disaster for both spectators, inhabitants and visitors. In architecture, the ideals of a given society are reflected directly, it cannot come out with straightforward criticism or reject and, consequently, ridicule. The comic in art always has a highly developed critical element. It is an emotionally loaded aesthetic form of criticism. It gives the artist (for instance, Rabelais or Voltaire) a practically unlimited opportunity to deal, both humorously and seriously, with the prejudices of his time.
Comedy is the fruit of advanced civilisation. Laughter is democratic by nature. It pays no heed to hierarchical division and rejects servility and respect for puffed-up authority. It is a force opposed to all forms of inequality, oppression, despotism and dictatorship. Hans Christian Andersen used this feature and social function of laughter in his fairy tale The Naked King. A king remains a king only for as long as the people treat him as such. But as soon as they dared to believe their own eyes and admit that the king was naked – servility and admiration came to an end: the people began to laugh. The comic in the enemy is his heal of Achilles. To reveal the comic side means to ensure the first major victory, muster one's strength for the fight and overcome fear and confusion.
The comic is the spirit of up-to-date criticism. Its target is concrete and definite. Even if the satirist deals with the time long past, his weapon is turned against the vices of his day.
In his short story Alexander of Macedon, Karel Capek strikes out against despotism. It is written in the form of a letter from Alexander to his tutor Aristotle. Capek has created a portrait of an usurper who demands admiration and homage, and described a campaign of idolisation combining hypocricy with threats and direct violence. Alexander's old Macedonean guard resented the opulence of his court. "For that reason I was unfortunately obliged to execute my old comrades-in-arms. I was very sorry for them, but there was no other way," writes the newly enthroned emperor.
Alexander is quite resigned to sustaining more losses. "Circumstances demand from me fresh personal sacrifices, and though I personally do not wish to, I am thinking only of the grandeur and might of my glorious empire. I am forced to get used to the barbaric splendour and opulence of Oriental ways." The reader can of course sympathise with "poor Alexander" realising that it must be "morally unbearable" for him to live in luxury. "I've taken as my wives," Alexander continues, "three Oriental princesses, and now, my dear Aristotle, I have even proclaimed myself a god! "
In the spirit of true altruism, he accepts this new privation which historical necessity demands from him. "Yes, my dear tutor, a god! My loyal... subjects worship me and make sacrifices in my honour. This is necessary from the political point of view to give me adequate authority with these mountain-dwellers, cattle-breeders and camel-drivers. The time is long gone when you taught me to be guided by reason and logic! But there is nothing to be done, reason itself tells me that one should adjust to the unreasonableness of man." Despotism is always a crescendo of insanity: "I see that I have never done anything that has not been determined by a previous step." But even the greatest military leader cannot survive by sword alone. "So now I am asking you, my wise friend and tutor, to give a philosophical substantiation of and convincing reasons for my proclaiming myself a god. In this, I am acting, I feel as a responsible politician and statesman."
Alexander concludes his letter by hinting that steps will be taken should Aristotle's position prove not patriotic enough. "These are my orders. It is up to you to make sure that, following them, you are fully conscious of their political significance, expediency and patriotic meaning."
Alexander proclaimed himself a god using force, hypocricy and philosophy. But even if a "mundane god" attains autocracy, this does not mean that humanity has to forego its right to produce something in the nature of Alexander's correspondence with his tutor. And all of a sudden, the godly personality turns out to be a comic one. And that which society ridicules is destined to be rectified or annihilated.
Laughter is an easy to understand, infectious and pointed form of emotional criticism. But it requires a conscious and active attitude on the part of the audience. In the comic, criticism and exposure are not direct and the public is led to seeing them through the eyes of the author. In his Vorlesungen uber das Wesen der Religion, Ludwig Feuerbach noted that a witty manner of writing implies wit in the reader, it does not tell all but leaves it to the reader to explain to himself the relations, conditions and restrictions which alone make a given situation meaningful and conceivable.
Doubts as to the intelligence of the audience produce flat and sometimes even trite humour. As distinct from tragedy or a heroic poem, comedy does not define the ideal directly and positively but implies it as something opposite to that which is depicted. The recipient has to independently contrast in his mind high aesthetic ideals with the comic phenomenon.

The Comic as a Contradiction

The essence of the comic is a contradiction. It is the result of contrast, discrepancy, opposition: the ugly – the beautiful (Aristotle); the negligible – the sublime (Kant); the ridiculous – the sensible (Jean Paul, Schopenhauer); infinite predestination – infinite arbitrariness (Schelling); the mechanical – the live (Bergson); the sham, falsely meaningful – the significant, stable and true (Hegel); the empty interior – the exterior laying claim to importance (Chernyshevsky); inferior – superior (Hartmann), etc. Each of these definitions evolved in the history of aesthetics singles out and regards as an absolute one of the types of comic contradiction. But its forms are many and varied, and therefore a definition which emphasises only one of them cannot be considered adequate.
The comic contradiction always includes two opposite elements, one of which, seemingly positive and attracting attention, in fact proves a negative entity.
The psychological mechanism of laughter produced by the comic is, strange as it may seem, akin to the mechanism of fright or astonishment. What brings together these very different manifestations of man's inner activity? They are all emotions which have not been prepared by the events preceding them. The person is all ready to come face to face with something significant, but what he actually perceives is utterly meaningless; he expects to see something beautiful, and truly humane, but it is ugliness, a manequin, a live doll that is suddenly put in front of him. Kant saw the essence of the comic in suspense being suddenly resolved into nothing. Montesquieu, the French philosopher of the Enlightenment (18th century), wrote, "When ugliness is totally unexpected, it may cause a sort of merriment and even laughter."
A characteristic feature of each of the many objective contradictions which give rise to the comic is that the side which is perceived first chronologically seems significant and produces a strong impression, while the other side, which is perceived later, is disappointingly flimsy.
Laughter is always a joyous fright, disappointment and astonishment, which are directly opposite to delight and admiration. "It turns out that, reading Gogol's Inspector-General, I was mistaken in thinking that the Governor correctly takes Khiestakov for the Inspector-General and believing that a man who is taken for an Inspector-General must be, if not respectable and imposing, at least a person one ought to be afraid of. But the person I see is a non-entity.... There exists an enormous blatant discrepancy between the real Khiestakov and the person he is taken for; between the idea of a government official as he ought to be and as he really is. I am pleased to have grasped this discrepancy perceiving the inner meaning behind the exterior, the general behind the particular, the very idea of the phenomenon. It is good to know that everything dangerous to society, its vices and faults is not only formidable but also comic and negligible. The world of non-entities and dead souls is a horrible one, but is comic as well: it is below the level of perfection, it does not live up to the ideals of the author and the reader. I realise this, therefore I have risen above the danger, and it is nothing to me. It may kill me, it may make me suffer, but my ideals are higher and therefore mightier; I, and my ideals, cannot be defeated, and for that reason I can laugh at the dead souls, the governors and the life which has produced them," thus reasons the reader.
Gogol did not see how the contradictions he treated in his works could be overcome, and his laughter tended to be rather sad. But he had an enormous moral and aesthetic superiority over the world he depicted. And for that reason, he and his readers can afford to laugh. What would happen if a witticism lacked suddenness and spontaneity? Everything would have become ordinary and regulated. There would have been no unexpected and striking opposition between the fact and the high aesthetic ideal. Our thinking would have had none of the energy which appears when we are grasping this opposition. There would have been no flash which brings out the comic in the phenomenon.
The importance of suddenness in the comic is illustrated by the myth about Parmeniscus. A fright deprived him of the ability to laugh which made him suffer excruciatingly. He appealed to the Delphic oracle for help, and the latter recommended Parmeniscus to go look for a statue of Leto, Apollo's mother. Parmeniscus expected to see the statue of a beautiful woman, but instead, he was shown a block of wood. And he burst into laughter.
This myth has profound theoretical-aesthetic meaning. Parmeniscus's laughter was caused by the discrepancy between what he expected to see and what he actually saw. His surprise has an element of criticism in it. Had Parmeniscus seen a woman whose beauty surpassed his expectations, he would not have started to laugh. The shock allowed his consciousness to draw a contrast between the lofty aesthetic ideal – his idea of Leto's beauty – and the phenomenon which, claiming to live up to the ideal, failed miserably to do so. In music, the comic as a contradiction is manifested through artistically organised alogisms and incongruities which also contain an element of unexpected. Bringing together incompatible melodic lines is a means of producing a comic effect. This is the principle underlying the aria of Dodon in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Golden Cockerel in which the blend of the primitive and the refined produces grotesque. In his opera The Nose based on the story by Gogol, Dmitry Shostakovich also used grotesque counterpoint: the first melodic line imitates Bach's pathos and his use of recitative, while the second is a galop rendered with exaggerated primitivism.
In the musical genres involving stage action or accompanied by a literary programme the comic is perceived visually. But instrumental music does not have to resort to "visual aids" to convey it. Robert Schumann said that, having first performed Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio in major for piano, he began to laugh, for it produced an impression of something very funny. Imagine his astonishment when he later found out from Beethoven's papers that the composer named his piece Rage over a Lost Groschen, Which Assumed the Form of a Rondo. Concerning the finale of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2, Schumann wrote that it was the greatest example of humour in instrumental music, while in Schubert's Moments Musical he could perceive unpaid tailor's bills, so full were they of annoyance which had nothing spiritual about it.
Suddenness is another means of attaining a comic effect in music. A kettledrum shakes the listeners out of a dreamy dissipation in one of Haydn's London Symphonies; a pistol shot disrupts the flow of melody in Strauss's Waltz with a Surprise. Both invariably cause merriment in the audience. In Moussorgsky's Seminarist, mundane thoughts conveyed by the smooth flow of melody are suddenly broken by a recitative showing the same seminarist grinding away at a Latin text.
The aesthetic basis of all these comic musical works is the effect produced by the unexpected.
The Russian fairy tale has its own Parmeniscus – the Princess Who Never Laughed. Bewitched by a malicious sorcerer, she lost the gift of laughter and all attempts to make her laugh were in vain. Victor Vasnetsov used this fairy tale for one of his paintings. The Princess is shown sitting on a high throne. She is immersed in herself and pays no heed to anything around her. She looks as if she has lost something very valuable but cannot remember just what it is. Surrounding the throne are jesters, courtiers, buffoons, dancers, psaltery players and narrators of folk tales. A merry crowd can also be seen through the window. But no one can make the Princess laugh. Waves of laughter break against her throne. The person who has put himself above the people may become an object of fun, but not its subject. The kingdom is full of laughter, but this is not enough to make the Princess smile. The presence of the comic in life must be supplemented by the ability to appreciate it, i.e., a sense of humour.
The people do not see laughter as a harmless pastime. To lose the ability to laugh means to lose a whole important segment of one's inner life. And there is probably nothing worse than to be the ruler of a comic fairy-tale kingdom who is unable to laugh.
A sense of humour as an aspect of the faculty of the aesthetic has its specific features, one of which is the presence of a high aesthetic ideal. Otherwise humour turns into scepticism, cynicism, triteness, obscenity, bawdiness. Humour implies the ability to grasp the incongruities of life, even if this is done on a purely emotional level and in the most general aesthetic form. A sense of humour is a feature of the aesthetically developed mind which can instantly give an emotional assessment of the gist of the phenomenon and generate rich, varied and unexpected associations and parallels.
A creative, active variety of the sense of humour is wit. Humour is the ability to perceive the comic, while wit is the ability to produce it. It is a talent to concentrate, crystallise and aesthetically assess the incongruities of life making the comic inherent in them obvious.
Since unexpectedness is a must in the comic, a humourous work of art has to be unique. But, as Hegel noted, this should not be attained by making it fanciful and strange. Goya, the genius of satirical grotesque, stressed the necessity to blend phantasy and reason in the comic. In the margins of one of his etchings he wrote, "The sleep of reason breeds monsters." Divorced from reason, phantasy produces horrors; blended with it, it works miracles becoming the source of art.

The Constructive and the Destructive Aspects of the Comic

Laughter caused by the comic has a critical, explosive effect. But it is not criticism for the sake of criticism, a Mephistophelean total rejection, blind destruction. True wit is humane. The basis of wit is not the philosophy of all-embracing nihilism but high aesthetic ideals advanced by criticism. Therefore laughter is criticism which both rejects and asserts.
Laughter seeks to do away with the world full of injustice and replace it with a better one. It implies both destruction and creative construction. The optimistic, creative, joyous, merry side of the comic has a historic, ideological and aesthetic significance. The creative power of laughter was noticed long ago. Ancient art had fun worships, ritual laughter, mocking images of deities. Ritual laughter of primeval communities condemned and destroyed the imperfect world and resurrected it on a new foundation. An Egyptian papyrus now kept in Leiden says that the laughter of god created the world: "When God laughed, the seven gods ruling the world were born... He burst into laughter again, and waters appeared..."
Ancient Greeks also regarded laughter as a creative force. Its optimistic, joyous, merry, popular nature is rooted in comedy which grew out of the worship of Dionysus.
What were the features of the comic originally? During the festivities in honour of Dionysus, conventional ideas of propriety were temporarily put aside. The atmosphere was that of relaxation and complete freedom from accepted norms. It was an ephemeral world of boundless merriment, ridicule and unrestrained in word and action. Man glorified the creative power of nature and the carnal which found expression in the comic. Laughter served the chief purpose of the ritual: to show the triumph of life's productive power; laughter and ribaldry were regarded as possessing creative force.
During the Roman Saturnalia, the forces of life also burst through the canons of official ideology. At least for a while, the people were back in the legendary Golden Age, the kindgom of impetuous gaiety. In Rome, laughter which asserted the joy of living and was thus in contrast to the official ideology, could be heard during rituals which both glorified and ridiculed the victor, and lamented, exhalted and made fun of the dead.
In the Middle Ages, laughter opposing the rigid ideas spread by the official church sounded during carnivals, at comical pageants and processions, festivals of fools and asses, in parodies, in the frivolous language of the street, in the witticisms and pranks of jesters, in everyday life, and during feasts.
The carnival, this festive non-official form of the life of mediaeval society, represented comic folk culture with its optimistic idea of eternal renovation, the idea which is one of the major principles of the aesthetics of the comic. Laughter does not only show the imperfection of the world but, having washed it with the fresh wave of joy, transforms and renovates it. In the mediaeval carnival, the quality of merry-making and laughter as a destructive and at the same time constructive power was revealed with particular force assuming a complete and original form. Mediaeval Europeans devoted up to a quarter of their lives to the carnival.
The chief figure, the hero of the carnival was the jester, a comical actor-improviser for whom all the world was a stage, and life – a comedy. He never abandoned his part, for it fully coincided with his personality. He lived his role, his life was art personified. The jester was like an amphibian who naturally belonged both to the realm of the real and the ideal (art).
Leaving the town streets and the squares, the spirit of the carnival found its way into literature, especially parody. All principal ideas and subjects of the official religious doctrine, as well as all major literary works of that period have been parodied (The Liturgy of the Drunks, versions of Chanson de Roland, etc.).
Man is the measure of all things. His carnal nature accepted without bigotry, his natural state and needs-that is the measure of all values. Nature full of physical and mental power, bursting with intelligence and sensuality was liberated through the merry, mischievous, frivolous, bawdy, impudent and optimistic carnival laughter. It was the laughter of the people, of the festival. It was all-embracing, i.e. directed at everyone and everything, including the merry-makers themselves: all the world represented in its comic aspect, its gay relativity. Carnival laughter was both gay, joyous and derisive, it rejected and accepted, condemned and resurrected, buried and brought back from the dead. The people saw themselves as part of the emerging world. In that, carnival fun differed from satire. The role of a satirist is rejection, he places himself outside the phenomenon which is being ridiculed and opposes himself to it. This disrupts the unity and wholeness of the world's comic aspect; the funny (the negative) becomes only a particular instance.
Any variety of laughter produced by the comic is a collective phenomenon; the universal and popular nature of carnival laughter is only the highest and most complete manifestation of the general principle underlying the aesthetics of the comic. In different forms of the comic, rejection and acceptance are mixed in different proportions. Even in biting satire negation rests on a positive, life-asserting programme. Carnival laughter blends rejection and acceptance, humour and satire, which gradually emerged as independent forms of the comic.

Types and Shades of the Comic

Humour and satire are the two basic forms of the comic which produce different kinds of laughter. Humour is friendly and contains no malice, although it cannot be called inoffensive. It goes to the heart of things seeking to improve them and do away with their shortcomings, and helps reveal everything which is socially valuable in them. The object of humour has aspects which live up to the ideal. As the saying goes, our demerits grow out of our merits, and it is these demerits which give food for good-natured humour. The object of humour is not above criticism but is on the whole quite attractive. But it is a different matter when the phenomenon as a whole is negative, socially dangerous. In that case humour is not strong enough. Everything rotten is the object of satire, which condemns the imperfection of the world in order to transform it according to an ideal programme.
A whole range of shades of laughter can be observed between humour and satire: Aesop's raillery; Rabelais's uproarious laughter; Swift's bitter sarcasm; Erasmus's subtle irony; Moliere's satire, sometimes refined as was the fashion of classicism, sometimes rational and stern, sometimes mischievous; Voltaire's wise and malicious smile; Beaumarchais's sparkling wit; Beranger's banter and irony; Daumier's cartoons; Goya's wrathful grotesque; Heine's romantic and France's sceptical irony; Mark Twain's jolly and Shaw's ironic humour; Gogol's smile through a veil of tears; Saltykov-Shchedrin's biting satire and sarcasm; Chekhov's soulful, sad and lyrical humour; Hasek's mirthful and Brecht's optimistic satire; Sholokhov's inexhaustible life-asserting humour akin to that found in folk art...
All these hues of laughter can be conveyed by music. Perceptible in Moussorgsky's Seminarist, Kalistrat, The Flea and in his opera The Marriage are humour, irony and even sarcasm. Rodion Shchedrin's ballet The Dead Souls is marked by the same bitter laughter as Gogol's novel of the same name it is based on. Each of the characters in the ballet has its own theme and rhythm, and is portrayed through the "voice" of a certain musical instrument: flute (Manilov), bassoon (Korobochka), French horn (Nozdryov), two double-basses (Sobakevich).
The many shades of the comic (carnival laughter, humour, satire, irony, sarcasm, joke, banter, pun) have been engendered by the aesthetic wealth of life itself. The forms and measure of the laughter are determined by the features of the object, the artist's ideological and aesthetic position, his attitude towards the object, national features, and the trend of development of the nation's aesthetic culture as a whole.
The comic always bears a stamp of the nation which has produced it and has a nationally unique form. The national characteristics of the comic undergo change in the course of history.
Let us take France as an example. Many of those who have made the comic an object of study including Sigmund Freud, Ernst Kuno Fischer and Theodor Lipps have regarded the pun as one of the lowest forms of the joke. But in the 17th- and 18th-century France, the pun was the highest manifestation of wit. It was light, brilliant and carelessly gay thus corresponding aesthetically to the way of life of French high society which set the standard in the nation's cultural life. Wit was a highly valued gift which could serve as a sort of reference. There is a story about Louis XV who, wishing to test one of his courtiers, told him that he desired to be the subject of a pun, to which the cavalier replied, "Le roi n 'est pas sujet" (The king is not a subject), a typical example of French gallant wit. In the late 18th century, the French Revolution swept away both the court and the gallant aristocratic humour. The comic became dominated by grotesque, whose edge cut the nobility with bitterness and malice. The values and ideals of the monarchist state were toppled and ridiculed as incompatible with the ideals of universal freedom, equality and fraternity. However, by the mid-19th century it was already obvious that these ideals had failed to become reality, although the values of the aristocratic past were irrevocably lost. Lack of faith in any definite ideal gave rise to a peculiar sort of wit which came to be known as blague, the merciless ridiculing of things which the people used to worship, a product of social disappointment. Shattered illusions became the norm; in the realm of humour this was manifested in mirthless and somewhat cynical fun which held nothing sacred. Here is an example of blague: "This woman is like the Republic – she was beautiful during the Empire."
The 20th century produced its own form of humour – gag. Coloured by horror which in the end proves groundless, it reflects the alienation of people living in the epoch of industrial civilisation. Here is an American advertisement founded on gag. Two engine-drivers at odds with each other are driving their crowded trains towards an inevitable collision. A child with a ball in his hands runs out onto the rails. The trains collide, but... the catastrophe is averted by the ball; the trains bounce back from it. The advertisement ends with the words: "Buy balls produced by..." The famous scene of Charlie Chaplin's experience between the cogwheels of a gigantic mechanism in the film Modern Times also follows the laws of gag. From America it came to France becoming a popular form of the comic there.
Pun, grotesque, blague and gag are all forms of French humour determined by the nation's way of life at different stages of its development. Naturally, the author does not imply that grotesque had not existed before the French Revolution or that the pun became extinct with the decline of French aristocracy. What is meant here is only the predominance of a certain form of the comic and wit aesthetics at a given stage of the country's history.
The national elements of a culture are not so much costume or cuisine as mental attitudes, which are most strikingly manifested in the nationally-tinted forms of the comic.
The comic bears the stamp of the national, but it also has international and universal features. Certain laws of social development are common to all mankind, and therefore different nations frequently choose the same phenomenon as the target of ridicule.

The Evolution of the Comic

The essential characteristics of the comic changed as age replaced age: life itself was changing, and with it, the point of departure in the study of life in its comic aspect.
In ancient comic literature, this point was the ego, a personal impression, the artist's attitude of friendliness or hostility. The highly developed Roman statehood was bound to produce the normative quality of thought and judgement, which is obvious from the rigid division between good and evil, the positive and the negative (a feature of the work of Juvenal, the Roman satirist). The point of departure at that time was the normative idea of a rationally organised universe.
Renaissance comedy proceeded from human nature, the idea of man as the measure of the condition of the world. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam treats folly not only as an object but also as a subject of ridicule. "Normal" and "moderate" folly judges, condemns and makes fun of the folly which is boundless, unreasonable and inhuman.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra revealed the contradiction produced by the progress of civilisation. On the one hand, it is impossible to start afresh on the smouldering ashes of burnt books; an individual has to fall back on the experience accumulated by world culture. On the other hand, culture which is dogmatic and far removed from the life of the people, which fanatically clings to ideas that have long been unable to meet the requirements of the epoch, is of course equally unacceptable. This very real contradiction can turn each well-meant effort, every idea realised in this unintentionally dogmatic way into either comedy or tragedy.
The dreamer Don Quixote is bound by the moral obligations of chivalry. His whole being is aware that all is not well with the world – this causes him almost physical suffering. As a knight, he sees it as his sacred duty and his vocation to get involved, "to wander the earth reinstating the truth and avenging offences". But the incompatibility of his actions with actual circumstances breeds more falsehoods and fresh offences. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, has no militant ideas at all. He is a receptacle of folk beliefs and prejudices, wisdom and delusions. Global problem's are not his domain; he himself and his immediate surroundings constitute his whole world. Sancho Panza does not believe that the sensible natural flow of life should be tempered with, and leaves the people to live as they like, free and unhampered.
The characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are poles apart. But the numerous points of difference between them do not prevent them from having at least one thing in common – unselfishness. And that one trait makes us forgive all their follies, eccentricities and silly behaviour. They are not of this world – they are superior to it, gripped as it is with money-grubbing. The mad Don Quixote proves to be more normal than the "normal" people driven by avarice and ambition. Cervantes made a brilliant use of the ability of the comic to analyse the condition of the world depicting one of its aspects, to both work out an artistic concept of the world and create a broad panorama of life.
In the age of classicism, satire proceeded from abstract moral and aesthetic norms; the object was a character who represented, in a condensed form, the abstract negative traits contrasting with goodness, such as hypocricy, ignorance or misanthropy (Moliere). The tradition of Cervantes – the analysis of the condition of the world – was further developed in the satire of the Enlightenment, which was turned against the imperfection of the world and human nature. The new stage of social development manifested itself in the figure of Gulliver created by Jonathan Swift. Gulliver is a human mountain, a match for Renaissance giants. But it is typical that it is not Gulliver in toto, with his merits and weaknesses, who becomes the measure in the satirical analysis of the epoch, but only his common sense, which Swift uses as a point of departure when castigating evil, for the grandeur and might of man are relative. A giant in Lilliput, Gulliver is a midget in Brobdingnag.
Remaining within the boundaries of the Enlightenment, Swift nevertheless sensed that its ideas were Utopian. He said that the principal ideas advanced by that epoch were impracticable: "In the school of Political Projectors I was but ill-entertained, the professors appearing, in my judgement, wholly out of their senses... These unhappy people were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favourites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the public good; of rewarding merit, great abilities, and eminent services..."
The romantic movement showed that all was not well with the world through the unhappiness of man making his inner world the object of artistic analysis. Irony, this iceberg of the comic, became the dominant form. It proceeds, on the one hand, from the unattainable idea of perfect world which is used to assess the personality and, on the other, the equally unattainable idea of the perfect personality which is used to test the world. The initial position of criticism is constantly shifting from the world to the individual and back. Irony directed at the world is supplanted by irony directed at oneself (Heinrich Heine), and then by Weltskepsis, whose role in romantic irony was similar to that of Weltschmerz in romantic tragedy.
The 19th century extended and complicated man's contacts with life. The personality became the focus of a multitude of social relations (economic, socio-political and moral). Its inner world gained in complexity. As a result, in critical realism, satire goes to the heart of the psychological process. The point of departure is the developed aesthetic ideal absorbing popular ideas of life, man and goals, and better forms of social progress. The popular ideas of life become accepted as the fundamental point of view of the world. The comic begins to correlate its object with the life of the people, and that is a major achievement of realism.
The critical trend in Russian 19th-century art has a clearly satirical bend. A single phrase is frequently sufficient for Gogol to include the comic character with all the particulars of his existence into the universe (relating it to the existence of the world as a whole). As Gogol put it, his satire placed a Russian face to face with Russia, and an individual – face to face with mankind.
Modernism (Franz Kafka, Salvador Dali) produced antisatire, which ridiculed the absurdity of the world from the point of view of an egocentric personality wrapped up in itself. This sort of satire does not study the carriers of social evil. Ridiculed are the results of its existence only, the evil being treated as an irrational element beyond the grasp of the mind.
In Soviet satire (Zoshchenko, Mayakovsky, Bulgakov) the comic is directed against everything preventing an individual from fitting in into society. In the finale of Mayakovsky's play The Bathhouse, the future sends its emissary, the Phosphorescent Woman, into our epoch; the future absorbs the best sides of life as it is today rejecting all that fails to live up to its standard of perfection (the time machine speeding towards the year 2030 spits out Pobedonosikov and other bureaucrats). The action of the play is future-oriented. In Mayakovsky's satire the future is the aesthetic ideal used by the poet to analyse contemporary life as a whole and its dark sides and assess the merits of the best and the faults of the worst of our contemporaries. The ideas of the time machine and the quickened and condensed time developed in the play are extremely up-to-date.
We have seen that the initial position of the emotional criticism of the comic changed with the passage of time: personal attitude (Aristophanes); the idea of a rationally organised universe (Juvenal); human nature as the measure (Cervantes, Erasmus, Rabelais); the norm (Moliere); common sense (Swift); unattainable perfection (Heine); the ideal representing popular ideas of life (Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin); the future (Mayakovsky). The evolution of the ideal, with temporary digressions, is towards expansion and perfection. More aspects of life became included into the realm of art; the individual's inner life grew richer, and that served to render the ideal more democratic, helping it to absorb the popular ideas as to what is correct, good and beautiful.
The comic exists in a variety of types, forms and shades; it has national and historical characteristics, but its essence is always the same: it expresses the socially perceptible and significant contradiction, the failure of the phenomenon as a whole or one of its aspects to correspond to the standards set by high aesthetic ideals.
The comic condemns the imperfections of life, purifies and renovates man, and asserts the joy of living.