The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic

When, in our third chapter, we defined the purpose of art, we indicated that it was broad enough to include the expression of evil, but we did not show in detail how this was possible. That is our present theme.

Art is sympathetic representation; the effort not only to reveal an object to us, but to unite us with it. The artist finds no difficulty in accomplishing this purpose with reference to one class of objects–those which, apart from portrayal, we call beautiful. To these we are drawn immediately because they serve directly the ends of life. Nature sees to it that we dwell with pleasure on the sight of healthy children, well-grown women, and bountiful landscapes. And to the representations of such objects we are attracted by the same instincts that attract us to the things themselves. No special power of art is required that we take delight in them; the task of the artist is half accomplished before he begins. Yet the scope of art is wider than this, for it represents evil as well as good. Death as well as life, sickness and deformity as well as health, suffering as well as joy, sin equally with goodness, come within its purview. And these also it not only reveals to us but makes good to know, so good in fact that they are perhaps the preferred objects of artistic representation. But instead of being able to rely on instincts that would draw us to these objects, art has to overcome those that would lead us away from them. It has to conquer our natural horror at death, pain at suffering, and revulsion against wickedness. How does it? That is the problem of evil in sthetics.

There are many means by which this problem is solved. In the first place, the mere fact that art is representation and not reality does much toward overcoming any feelings of moral or physical repugnance we might have toward the objects represented. These feelings exist for the sake of action; hence, when action is impossible–and we cannot act on the unreal–although they may still persist, they become less strong. Toward the merely imaginary, the practical and moral attitudes, which towards the real would lead to condemnation and withdrawal, lose their relevance and tend to disappear. That is one of the advantages of art over the more immediate perception of life. It is difficult to take a purely aesthetic attitude towards all of life, to seek only to get into sympathetic contact with it for the sake of an inner realization of what it is; much of it touches us too closely on the side of our practical and moral interests. A certain man, for example, does not belong to our set, or his ways are so bohemian that it would imperil our social position or the safety of our souls to get acquainted with him; so we reject him and cast him into the outer darkness of our disapproval–or he rejects us. Such a person, we feel, is to be avoided or haply, if we be saints, to be saved from himself; but not to be accepted and understood. And even if we succeed in freeing ourselves from the moral point of view, we are still preoccupied with the practical, if the man happens to interest us commercially; we have not the time nor the desire to see his nature as a whole. Not so in art. As a character in a novel, a man cannot be employed; nor can it be a hazard to keep company with him; and his soul is surely beyond our saving; the only thing left for us to do is to sympathize with and try to understand him, to enter into communion with his spirit. By freeing life from the practical and moral, art gives the imagination full sway. This, to be sure, is only a negative force working in the direction of beauty, yet is important none the less because it enables the more positive influences to function easily.

One of these is what I would call “sympathetic curiosity,” which may encompass all images of life. Things which, if met with in life, would certainly repel, when presented in image, simply excite our curiosity to know. Of course some are impelled by the same interest to get into contact with all experience–Homo sum: humani nihil alienum a me puto–yet with the great majority the impulses to withdraw are too strong. But all have a desire for further knowledge when a mere idea of human life, however repellent, is presented; for the instinct of gregariousness, which creates a special interest in our kind, works with full force in the mind to strengthen curiosity. There is no part of human experience which it does not embrace. We can well forego knowledge of stars and trees, but we cannot remain ignorant of anything human. As the moth to the flame, we are led, even against our will, into all of life, even the most unpleasant. The charm possessed by the novel and unplumbed, by such stories as Jude the Obscure, or by the weird imaginings of a Baudelaire, comes from this source. It is no mere scientific curiosity, because it includes that “consciousness of kind," which makes us feel akin to all we know.

Sympathetic curiosity, however, seldom works alone, for other interests, less worthy and therefore often unavowed, usually cooperate to overcome our repugnances towards the unpleasant. Many of our repugnances are not simple and original like those felt towards death, darkness, and deformity, but highly complex products of education, which may be dissolved by a strong appeal to the more primitive instincts which they seek to repress. An artist may, for example, through a vivid portrayal, so excite the animal lust and cruelty which lurk hidden in all of us as to make the most morally reprehensible objects acceptable. Nature has taken many a revenge on civilization through art. Although no one should demand that these appeals be entirely excluded, yet when they operate alone, without the sublimation of insight, they are flagrantly unaesthetic in their influence, because they deprive the work of art of its freedom.

Another means which the artist may employ in order to win us is the appeal of sense. However repellent be the objects which he represents, if he can clothe them in a sensuous material which will charm us, he will have exerted a powerful countervailing force. We have already had occasion to observe this in our first chapter. Through the call of sense we are invited to enter and are made welcome at the very threshold of the work of art. Engaging lines, winsome colors and tones, and compelling rhythms can overcome almost any repugnance that we might otherwise feel for the subject-matter. Their primary appeals are superior to all the reservations of civilization. No wonder that the stern moralists who would keep beauty for the clean and holy have been afraid of art! Yet the delight of sense, because its emotional effect is diffused, does not interfere with the contemplative serenity of art, as unbridled passion does; it even quiets passion by diverting the attention to itself; hence may always be employed by the artist. A good example of the aesthetic fascination of sensation is Von Stuck’s “Salome” in the Art Institute of Chicago. For all normal feeling, Salome dancing with the head of John the Baptist is a revolting object; yet how beautiful the artist has made his picture through the simple loveliness of gold and red!

It would be a mistake, however, to infer the indifference of the subject-matter in art. The creation of a work of art is based on a primary aesthetic experience of nature or human life, and not everything is capable of producing such an experience in all men. The subject must be one towards which the artist or spectator is able to take the sthetic attitude of emotional, yet free, perception. Some people are unable to lay aside their moral prepossessions towards certain phases of life or even towards representation of them; the idea affects them as would the reality. For such people even the genius of a Beardsley is too feeble to create an experience of beauty out of the material with which he works. Or again, some people cannot objectify their sensual egotistic impulses and feelings; for them the reading of a Boccaccio, for example, is only a substitute for such feelings, not a means of insight into them. It requires a robust intellectual attitude, a predominance of mind over feeling and instinct, aesthetically to appreciate some works of art. But for those who can receive it, the representation of any phase of life may afford an aesthetic experience, may create a thing good to know, if only it be mastered by the mind and embodied in a charming form.

The charm of sense together with the satisfaction of insight are sufficient to explain the conquest of evil by art. Yet further means have been employed–the special appeals of the tragic, pathetic, and comic.

What any one may mean by tragic is largely a matter of personal definition or tradition; yet there is, I think, a common essence upon which all would agree. First, tragedy always involves the manful struggle of a personality in the pursuit of some end, at the cost of suffering, perhaps of death and failure. The opposition may come from nature, as in The Grammarian’s Funeral; from fate, as in the Oedipus; from social and political interests, as in Antigone; that is of little moment; it is important solely that the battle be accepted and waged unflinchingly to the issue. In this ultimate sense, most of human life is tragic; because it involves a continual warfare with circumstances, which the majority of people carry on with a silent heroism. Originally, only the glorious and spectacular conflicts of great personalities were deemed worthy of representation in art; but with the growth of sympathy the range of tragic portrayal has gradually been extended over almost the whole of human life. The peasant in his struggle for subsistence against a niggardly soil, or the patient woman who loses the bloom of her youth in the unremitting effort to maintain her children, are tragic figures.

Second, it is part of the essence of tragedy that the conflict should be recognized as necessary and its issue as inevitable. In one form or another, whether as Greek or Christian or naturalistic, fatality has remained an abiding element in the idea of tragedy. The purpose or passion or sentiment which impels the hero to undertake and maintain the struggle must be a part of his nature so integral that nothing else is possible for him. “Ich kann nicht anders” is the cry of every tragic personality. And the opposition which he meets from other persons, from social forces or natural circumstances, must seem to be equally fateful–must be represented as issuing from a counter determination or law no less inescapable than the hero’s will. Even when the catastrophe depends upon some so-called accident, it must be made to appear necessary that our human purposes should sometimes be caught and strangled in the web of natural fact which envelops them.

The reasons for our acceptance of tragedy are not difficult to find and have been noted, with more or less clearness, by all students. We accept it much as the hero accepts his own struggle–he believes in the values which he is fighting for and we sympathetically make his will ours. Moreover, we discover a special value in his courage which, we feel, compensates for the evil of his suffering, defeat, or death. So long as we set any value on life, it is impossible for us not to esteem courage; for courage is at once the defense against attack of all our possessions and the source, in personal initiative and aggressive action, of newer and larger life. And any shrinking that we may feel against the sternness of the struggle is quenched both by the hero’s example and by our recognition of its necessity. Since we are not participants of it, our protest would be futile, and even if we played a part in it, we should be as foolish as we should be weak, not to recognize that the will which opposes us is as inflexible as our own–"such is life"–that is our ultimate comment. An appreciation of tragedy involves, therefore, a sure discernment of the essential disharmony of existence, yet at the same time, a feeling for the moral values which it may create; neither the optimist nor the utilitarian can enter into its world.

There are, however, works of art in which sheer evil, without any compensating development of character, is portrayed; where indeed the struggle may even cause decay of character. In Zola’s The Dram Shop, for example, the story is the tale of the moral decline, through unfortunate circumstances and vicious surroundings, of the sweet, pliant Gervaise. Instead of developing a resistance to circumstances which would have made them yield a value even in defeat, she lets herself go and is spoiled beneath them. She has no friend to help or guardian angel to save. We do not blame her, for, with her soft nature, she could not do otherwise than crumble under the hard press of fate; neither can we admire her, for she lacks the adamantine stuff of which heroes are made. This is pathos, not tragedy. And just as most of human life involves tragedy in so far as it develops a strength to meet the dangers which threaten it, so likewise it involves pathos, in so far as it seldom resists at every point, but gives way, blighted without hope. Many a man or woman issues from life’s conflicts weaker, not stronger; broken, not defiant; petulant, not sweetened; and at the hour of death there are few heroes. Yet there may be beauty in the story of this human weakness and weariness. Whence comes it? How can the representation of this sheer evil become a good? The principle involved is a simple one. Announced first, as far as I know, by Mendelssohn, it has recently been much more scientifically and penetratingly analyzed by Lipps, although wrongly applied by him to the tragic rather than the pathetic. [Footnote: Cf. Lipps: Der Streit ber die Tragodie, and Aesthetik, Bd. I, S. 599.]

It is a familiar and generally recognized experience, as Lipps has observed, that any threat or harm done to a value evokes in us a heightened appreciation of its worth. Parting is a sweet sorrow because only then do we fully realize the worth of what we are losing; the beauty of youth that dies is more beautiful because in death its radiance shines the brighter in our memory. A good in contemplation comes to take the place of a lost good in reality. Just as we hold on the more tightly to things that are slipping away from us in a vain effort to keep them, so to save ourselves from utter sorrow, we build up in the imagination a fair image of what we have lost, free of the dust of the world. This makes the peculiar charm of the delicate and fragile, of weak things and little things, of the transient and perishable; they awaken in us the tender, protective impulse while they last, and when they are gone they suffer at our hands an idealization which the strong and enduring can never receive. Our pity for them mediates an increased love of them; we mock at fate which deprives us of them by keeping them secure and fairer in our memory.

As in life, so in art. Beneath and around the pictured destruction and ruin there opens up to us a more poignant vision of the loveliness of what was or might have been. At the end of The Dram Shop, when Gervaise sinks into ruin, we inevitably revert to the beginning and see again, only more intensely, the gentle girl that she was, or else, going forward, we imagine what she might have been, if only she had been given a chance. The form of a possible good rises up from under the actual evil. The story of oppression becomes the praise of freedom; the picture of death, a vision of life. I know of no finer example of this in all literature than Sophocles’ Ajax. Ajax has offended Athena, so he, the hero of the Grecian host, is seized with the mad desire to do battle with cattle and sheep. In lucid intervals he laments to his wife the shameful fate which has befallen him. How glorious his former prowess appears lost in so ridiculous a counterfeit! And his despair creates its magic.

In almost all so-called tragedies, true tragedy and pathos are intermingled; for we feel both pity and admiration, and the pity intensifies the admiration. The danger that threatens or the disaster that overwhelms the values which the hero embodies make us realize their worth the more. Throughout the Antigone we admire the heroine’s tragic courage of devotion; but it is at the point when, just before her death, she laments her youth and beauty that shall go fruitless–

  Alechron, anymenaion, oute ton gamon
  mepos lachousan oute paideion tpophaes

that we feel the fullness of strength that was needed for the sacrifice. One might perhaps think this lament a blemish of weakness in a picture of fortitude; but the impression is just the opposite, I believe; for force is measured by what it overcomes.

There are so many different theories of tragedy that it would be impossible, were it worth while, to embark on a criticism of all of them. There are certain ones, however, which, because of their wide acceptance, demand some attention at our hands. First, it is often assumed that a tragedy should represent the good as ultimately triumphing, despite suffering and failure. But how can the good triumph when the hero fails and dies? Only, it is answered, if the hero represents a cause which may win despite or even because of his individual doom; and it is with this cause, not with him, that we chiefly sympathize. This was Hegel’s view, who demanded that the tragic hero represent some universal interest which, when purged of the one-sidedness and uncompromising insistence of the hero’s championing, may nevertheless endure and triumph in its genuine worth. In the Antigone, Hegel’s favorite example, the cause of family loyalty finds recognition through the punishment of Creon for the girl’s death; while at the same time the principle of the sovereignty of the state is upheld through her sacrifice. There are many tragedies which conform, at least partially, to this scheme; but not all, hence it cannot be a universal norm. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, although the death of the young people serves to bring about a reconciliation of their families, the real principle for which they suffered–the right of private choice in matters of love–is in no way furthered by the outcome of the play. And, although it is always possible to universalize the good which is sought by any will, it is not possible to deflect upon a principle the full intensity of our sympathy, away from the individual, concrete passion and action. Whenever a great personality is represented, it is his personal suffering and fortitude that win at once our pity and our admiration. For private sorrows, for the ruin of character, for the death of those whom we are made to love, there can be no complete atonement in the universal; because it is with the individual that we are chiefly concerned. No; the reconciliation lies where we have placed it–in tragedy, in the personal heroism of the strong character; in pathos, in the vision, not in the triumph, of the good.

The ordinary Protestant theological theory of tragedy is even more inadequate than the Hegelian. For, by assuming that there is no genuine loss in the world, that every evil is compensated for in the future lives of the heroes, it takes away the sting from their sacrifice and so deprives them of their crown of glory. It makes every adventure a calculation of prudence and every despair a farce. It is remote from the reality of experience where men stake all on a chance and, instead of receiving the good by an act of grace, wring it by blood and tears from evil.

On much the same level of thinking is the moralistic theory which requires that the misfortunes of the hero should be the penalty for some fault or weakness. This view, which has the authority of Aristotle, is also based on the doctrine of the justice of the world-order. It was pretty consistently carried out in the classical Greek drama; although there suffering is not exacted as an external retribution, but as the inevitable consequence of the turbulent passions of the characters; for even the punishment for offenses against the gods is of the nature of a personal revenge which they take. Later, of course, when the gods retreated into the background of human life, retributive justice was conceived more abstractly. Now, it must be admitted, I think, that this idea, so deeply rooted in the popular mind, has exerted a profound influence on the drama; yet it cannot be applied universally without sophistry. To be sure, in Romeo and Juliet, the young people were disobedient and headstrong; in Lear, the old father was foolishly trustful of his wicked daughters; these frailties brought about their ruin. But did they deserve so hard a fate as theirs? Did not Lear suffer as much for his folly as his daughters for their wickedness? This is always true in life, and Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature–but is it consistent with the theory of retributive justice? One can usually trace back to some element of his nature, physical or moral, the misfortunes that befall an individual; even those which we call accidents, as Galton claimed, are often due to some inherent defect of attention which makes us fail to respond protectively at the right moment. If we take the self to include the entire organism, then it remains true that we cooperate as a partial cause in all that happens to us. Ophelia’s weak and unresisting brain must share with the stresses which surrounded her the responsibility for her madness. In this sense, and in this sense only, do we deserve our fate, be it good or ill. Yet, when interpreted in this broadest meaning, retributive justice loses all ethical significance. And the cosmic disharmony appears all the more glaring. It ceases to be chargeable to an external fate or God, to the environment or convention, which might perhaps be mastered and remolded; and is seen pervading the nature of reality itself, no accidental circumstance, but essential evil, ineradicable. The greatest tragic poets see it thus. And then blame turns to understanding and resentment into pity.

Retributive justice, as the motive force of tragedy, has for us lost its meaning. We no longer feel the necessity of justifying the ways of God to man, because we have ceased to believe that there exists any single, responsible power. The good is not a preordained and automatically accomplished fact, but an achievement of finite effort, appearing here and there in the world when individuals, instead of contending against each other, cooperate for their mutual advantage.

In addition to the comic, there is much artistic representation of evil which can be classed neither as pathetic nor as tragic. Neither moral admiration nor idealization are aroused by the characters portrayed. They may be great criminals like Lady Macbeth or Iago, or the undistinguished and disorderly people of modern realistic literature, yet in either case we find them good to know. And we do so, not merely because we enjoy, as disinterested onlookers, the spectacle of human existence, but because the artist makes us enter into it and realize its values. For even that which from the moral point of view we pronounce evil is, so long as it maintains itself, a good thing from its own point of view. Every will, however blind and careless, seeks a good and finds it, if only in hope and the effort to attain. Through the intimacy of his descriptions and often against our resistance, the artist may compel us to adopt the attitude of the life which he is portraying, constraining us to feel the inner necessity of its choices, the compulsion of its delights. It is difficult to abandon ourselves thus to sympathy with what is wrong in life itself, because we have in mind the consequences and relations which make it wrong; yet we all do so at times, whenever we let ourselves go, charmed by its momentary offering. But in the world of art this is easier, because there the values, being merely represented, can have no sinister effects. When great personalities are portrayed, this abandon is readiest; for the strength or poignancy of their natures carries us away as by a whirlwind. Witness Lady Macbeth when she summons the powers of hell to unsex her for her murderous task, or Vanni Fucci in the Inferno, [Footnote: Inferno, Canto 25, 1-3.] who mocks at God. For the instant, we become as they and feel their ecstasy of pride and power as our own. Yet the great artist can awaken this sympathy even for characters that are small and weak. In Gogol’s Dead Souls, for example, there are no heroes. The most interesting characters are the country gentlemen who return to their estates planning to write books which will regenerate Russia. But the old habits of life in the remote district are too strong. So, instead of writing, they fall back into the routine of their ancestors and merely smoke and dream. Here are failure and mediocrity; yet so intimate is the artist’s story that we not only understand it all, but feel how good it is–to dream our lives away. I do not doubt that in this story there are elements of pathos and comedy; yet, in general, the delineation is too objective for either; we neither laugh nor cry, but are simply borne on, unresisting, ourselves become a part of the silent tide of Russian life.

The problem of evil in aesthetics may finally be solved by the use of the comic. For in comedy we take pleasure in an object which, in the broadest sense, is evil. In order for an object to be comical there must be a standard or norm, an accepted system, within which the object pretends but fails to fit, and with reference to which, therefore, it is evil. There must be some points of contact between the object and the standard in order that there may be pretense, but not enough points for fulfillment. If we never had any definite expectations with reference to things, never made any demands upon them; if instead of judging them by our preconceived ideas, we took them just as they came and changed our ideas to meet them,–there would be nothing comical. Or, if everything fitted into our expectations and was as we planned it, then again there would be nothing comical. In a world without ideas, the comic could not exist. The comic depends upon our apperceiving an object in terms of some idea and finding it incongruous. The most elementary illustrations demonstrate this. The unusual is the original comic; to the child all strange things are comical–the Chinaman with his pigtail, the negro with his black skin, the new fashion in dress, the clown with his paint and his antics. As we get used to things, and that means as we come to form ideas of them into which they will fit, adjusting the mind to them, rather than seeking to adjust them to the mind, they cease to be comical. So fashions in dress or manners which were comical once, become matters of course and we laugh no longer. Enduringly comic are only those objects that persistently create expectations and as persistently violate them. Such objects are few indeed; but they exist, and constitute the perennial, yet never wearying, stock in trade of comedy. But the comic spirit does not have to depend upon them exclusively, for, as life changes, it constantly raises new expectations and offers new objects which at once provoke and fail to meet them. Everything, therefore, is potentially comical and, in the course of human history, few things can escape a laugh; some curious mind is sure, sooner or later, to bring them under a new idea against which they will be shown up to be absurd. The sanctities of religion, love, and political allegiance have not been exempt.

Why, if the comical object is always opposed to our demands, should we take pleasure in it? How can we be reconciled to things that are admittedly incongruous with our standards? Why are we not rather displeased and angry with them? Investigators have usually looked for a single source of pleasure in the comic, but of those which have been suggested at least two, I think, contribute something. First, by adopting the point of view of the standard as our own, identifying ourselves with it, and through the contrast of ourselves with the object, we may take pleasure in the resulting exaltation of ourselves. The pleasure in the comic is often closely akin to that which we feel in distinction of any kind. We feel ourselves superior to the object at which we laugh. There is pride in much of laughter and not infrequently cruelty, a delight in the absurdities of other men because they exalt ourselves as the representatives of the rational and normal. There is often a touch of malice even in the laughter of the child. Nevertheless, the pleasure in the comic is still contemplative, and so far aesthetic, because it is a pleasure in perception, not in action. No matter how evil be the comic object, we do not seek to destroy or remodel it; action is sublimated into laughter.

But the pleasure in the comic may arise through our taking the opposite point of view–that of the funny thing itself. Instead of upholding the point of view of the standard, we may identify ourselves with the object. If the comic spirit is oftentimes the champion of the normal and conventional, it is as often the mischief-maker and rebel. Whenever the maintaining of a standard involves strain through the inhibition of instinctive tendencies, to relax and give way to impulse causes a pleasure which centers itself upon the object that breaks the tension. The intrusive animal that interrupts the solemn occasion, the child that wittingly or not scoffs at our petty formalities through his naive behavior, win our gratitude, not our scorn. They provide an opportunity for the welcome release of nature from convention. And the greater the strain of the tension, the greater the pleasure and the more insignificant the object or event that will bring relief and cause laughter. The perennial comic pleasure in the risque is derived from this source. There is an element of comic pleasure in the perpetration of any mischievous or unconventional act. Those things which men take most seriously, Schopenhauer has said, namely, love and religion, and we might add, morality, are the most abundant sources of the comic, because they involve the most strain and therefore offer the easiest chances for a playful release. Even utter and absolute nonsense is comical because it undoes all Kant’s categories of mind.

Hence, contrary to the theory of Bergson, the spontaneous as well as the mechanical and rigid may be comical. Sometimes the same object may be comical from both the points of view which we have specified; this is always true, as we shall see, in the most highly developed comedy. For example, we may laugh at the child’s prank because it is so absurd from the point of view of our grown-up expectations as to reasonable conduct, and at the same time, taking the part of the child, rejoice at the momentary relief from them which it offers us. Our scorn is mixed with sympathy. And oftentimes the child himself will hold both points of view at once, laughing at his own absurdity and exulting nevertheless in his own freedom. This is the essence of slyness. It follows, moreover, that a thing which was comical for one of the reasons assigned may become comical for the other, by a simple change in the point of view regarding it. For the behavior which first pleased us because it was unconventional tends itself to become a new convention, with reference to which the old convention then becomes the object of a laughter which is scornful. The tables are turned: the rebel laughs at the king.

The foregoing explanation of why we find the comical pleasant also explains why so many of our other pleasures are intermixed with the comical–why so often we not only smile when we are pleased, but laugh. For, in the case of all except the most elementary enjoyments, our pleasures are connected with the satisfaction of definite expectations regarding the actions or events of our daily lives. But, owing to the dulling effect of habit, the pleasure attendant upon these satisfactions gradually becomes smaller and smaller or even negligible; until, as a result, only the novel and surprising events which surpass our expectations give us large pleasure; but these are comical. With the child, whose expectations are rigid and few in number because of his lack of discrimination and small experience, almost all pleasures, like almost all events, are of the nature of surprises. The child almost always laughs when he is pleased. The slang phrase “to be highly tickled” expresses with precision this close connection between laughter and pleasure. Moreover, as the complexity of life increases, its strains and repressions are multiplied, with the result that any giving way to an impulse contains a slight element of the mischievous or ridiculous; whence, for this reason too, the pleasant is also the comical. In fact, most of the pleasures of highly complex and reflective persons are tinged with laughter.

We expect art to accomplish three great results–reconciliation, revelation, and sympathy. So far we have shown how comic art may accomplish the first; we have yet to prove how it may accomplish the rest. In his book Le Rire, Bergson has expressed the view that comedy is explicitly falsifying and unsympathetic. As to the former charge, we can, I think, convince ourselves of the opposite if we examine certain of the more obvious methods of comedy, particularly those which might seem at first sight to lend support to his contention. One of the most common of these is exaggeration. The simplest example is caricature, where certain features of an object are purposely exaggerated. The effect is, of course, comical, because we expect the normal and duly-proportioned. What a manifest falsification, one might assert! Yet just the opposite is the actual result. For every good caricaturist selects for exaggeration prominent and characteristic traits, through which by the very emphasis that is placed upon them, the nature of the individual is better understood. Another favorite method is abstraction. Certain traits are presented as if they were the whole man. We get the typical comic figures of the novel and drama; the physician who is only a physician; the lawyer who injects the legal point of view into every circumstance of life; the lover or the miser who is just love or greed; the people who, as in Dickens, meet every situation with the same phrase or attitude, This, too, looks like a plain falsification of human nature, because, however strong be the professional bias or however overmastering the ruling passion, real people are always more complex and many-sided, having other modifying and counteracting elements of character which prevent their speech and actions from being completely monotonous and mechanical. Nevertheless, we can again acquit the comic writer of falsification, because we understand the method which he is employing, the trick of his trade. He deceives no one. On the contrary, he enables us to perceive the logic of certain elementary springs of character. Following the method of the experimentalist, he selects certain aspects from the total complexity of a phenomenon and shows how they work when isolated from the rest. And, like the man of science, he provides insight into the normal, because we can accept his results as at least partially or approximately true. Art of this kind is abstract and therefore less valuable than the portrayal of the concrete; yet only the dogmatist who insists on the restriction of art to the individual can reject it.

There is, however, a third common method of comical representation which neither exaggerates nor abstracts, but preserves the concreteness of the finest art–we may call it the method of contrast. It consists in exhibiting the contrast between the actual conduct of men and women and the standard,–either that which they themselves profess to live up to or our own, which we impose upon them. Their pretenses are unmasked or their absurdities shown up against the ideal of reasonableness. We behold the bourgeois who would be a gentleman remain bourgeois and the women who would be scholars remain women. Success in comedy of this kind depends upon possessing the ability to formulate the implicit assumptions underlying the behavior of the people portrayed or to make one’s own standards with reference to them valid for the spectator. Here is no falsification, but, on the contrary, a vivid revelation of the truth; because, just as by placing two colors in contrast with one another the hue of each is intensified, so by setting man in relief against the background of what he ought to be, we perceive his real nature more sharply. As the child dressed like a grown-up appears all the more childish for his garb, so man appears the more human for his pretenses. To be sure, in order to increase the comical effect, this method is often employed in conjunction with that of exaggeration. The Athenian democracy was probably not quite so stupid as Aristophanes represents it; the average Britisher is not so philistine as Shaw paints him. Yet the measure of exaggeration may be small and we readily discount it. And finally, whereas in simple representation there is a revelation of the object only, in comical representation there is a two-fold revelation,–of the ideal and of the incongruous reality. The former is always indirectly revealed; for, as we know, the very existence of the comic depends upon it. The man who laughs, his notion of the right and the reasonable, his attitude towards the world and life, become manifest through the things which he laughs at. Only a man of a certain kind, with a certain sympathy and antipathy, could laugh as he laughs. The comic writer, however much of a scoffer and a skeptic, and however much he may deny it, is always an idealist. And it is for the revelation of themselves as much as for the revelation of the people whom they portray that we value the work of a Swift, a Voltaire, or a Thackeray.

Another charge which has been brought against the comic is that it is unsympathetic. Its attitude, it is said, is one of externality, opposed therefore to the intimacy necessary for the complete aesthetic reaction. Whereas simple aesthetic representation places us within the object itself, comical representation only exhibits a relation between it and an idea. We judge it from our point of view, not from its own. The pleasure in pride and superiority which we feel towards the comical object seems also inconsistent with sympathy; for sympathy would create a fellow feeling with it, and place us not above, but on a level with it. If we do sympathize, the comic object ceases to be comical and becomes pathetic. We can find the follies and sins of men comical just so long as we do not sympathize with the sufferings which they entail. There is nothing comical that may not also become pathetic; and the difference depends exactly on the presence or absence of sympathy. Nothing, for example, is more pathetic than death; yet if you keep yourself free of its sorrow, there is nothing more comical–that man, a little lower in his own estimation than the angels, should come to this, a lump of clay.

It is unquestionably true that a free, disinterested attitude is essential to comedy. You must not let yourself be carried away by any feeling; if you are over-serious you cannot laugh; you must keep to reflection and comparison. Yet this attitude is not utterly destructive of all feeling. Man is complex enough at once to feel and to reflect. He can pity as well as laugh. The pathetic and the comic are constantly conjoined–witness our feeling towards Don Quixote or towards any of the great characters of Thackeray–we do not know whether to laugh or to cry. And in the most effective comedy, the standard applied to the comical object is not foreign, but rather, as we have observed, the implicit standard of the object itself, discernible only by the most intimate acquaintance with it. The sting of laughter comes from our acceptance of it as valid for ourselves; we blush and join in the laugh at ourselves. The mischievous-comic, moreover, depends directly upon sympathy; for it requires that we take the point of view of the funny thing; our pleasure in it implies a secret sympathy for it–we hold it up to a standard, yet all the time are in sympathy with its rebellion. When we laugh at the prank of the child, love is mixed with the laugh. The dual nature of man as at once a partisan of convention and of the impulses that it seeks to regulate, is nowhere better illustrated than in the comic. Finally, disinterestedness is not peculiar to comedy; for it pervades all art. Feeling must be dominated by reflection; even pathos demands this, for, if we lose ourselves in sorrowful feeling, no fair image can arise and steady us.

There is, however, much comedy that is obviously unsympathetic, even hostile. There is satire, which condemns, as well as humor which pardons. The one blames the unexpected and unconventional, the other sympathizes with it. Comedy is either biting or kindly. The one is moralistic and reformatory in its aim, the other is aesthetic and contemplative. Because of its failure in sympathy, satirical comedy is incomplete as art. It provides insight and pleasure in the object, but no union with it. It does not attain to beauty, which is free and reconciling. Kindly comedy or humor, on the other hand, is full beauty, combining sympathy with judgment, abandon with reflection. Nevertheless, satire tends inevitably towards humor. For what we laugh at gives us pleasure, and what pleases us we must inevitably come to like, and what we like cannot long fail to win our sympathy. I do not think that even a Swift or a Voltaire could have been irreconcilably opposed to a world which offered them so much merriment. The satire, which begins in moral fervor, must end in understanding. The bond that binds us to our fellows is too strong to be broken by the aloofness of our condemnation. The same intelligence that discerns the incongruity between what men ought to be and what they are, cannot fail to penetrate the impelling reasons for the failure. Only in humor is sympathetic insight complete. Satire has the temporal usefulness of a practical expedient, humor the eternal value of beauty.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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The Principles Of Aesthetics
By Dewitt H. Parker
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