Friday, May 13, 2011

Sit Down And Laugh

There’s a story about Napoleon, the famous French military and political leader after the French Revolution, as having an interesting take on comedy. In the “Journal inedit” of Baron Gourgaud, the French soldier and historian who accompanied Napoleon into exile at St. Helena, commented that during an interview with the Queen of Prussia after the battle of Iena, Napoleon, recognizing the Queen’s panic-driven diatribe, was so embarrassed that he asked her to sit down. “This is the best method for cutting short a tragic scene, for as soon as you are seated it all becomes comedy.”

Are circumstances funnier sitting down? I Googled a few key words on the subject found that the only references to comedy + sitting down relate to a man sitting in a bar, or sitting with his legs open so his brains can breathe, or sitting versus standing while peeing.

It would seem that the psychological concept here isn’t about sitting or standing but rather still relates to the paradox between the soul and the body - the soul intends one thing, the body does another, and we find that humorous.

Henri Bergson, in his book,
Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, discusses the comic element that separates the body and the personality or soul. He says, “Why do we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most pathetic moment of his speech?” He continues, referencing a comic element during a funeral speech when a German philosopher says, “He was virtuous and plump.” His perspective of comedy, in this sense, lies in “The manner seeking to outdo the matter. The letter aiming ousting the spirit.”

It’s as if there’s a preconceived seriousness that we apply to the soul, a formality we ascribe to our soul’s intent, that when contradictory to the body’s mechanical application of the rules set forth, we laugh. “Appearance triumphing over reality,” Bergson would say.

Once this circuit or loop is closed, once the incongruity has played out, we laugh. Even if we see it coming, we reserve our laughter until the serious minded businessman actually lands in the murky puddle rather than laugh while he’s midair.

It appears that the incongruity between perceived intent and contradiction actually needs to play out before we laugh, before we recognize the comedy in a situation.

By the way, I was sitting in the doctor’s office the other day and heard the one about the guy who goes to the doctor, who tells him that he’s only got six months to live. The guy says, “That’s terrible, doc. And I must admit to you that right now I can’t afford to pay your bill.” “Okay, says the doctor, “I’ll give you a year to live.”

See what I mean? 

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