Thursday, August 16, 2012
The Æsthetics of Humor
© V. Sarada Holt
Ask a comedian whether or not there's an art form to telling jokes and you'll get a resounding, "Yes!" Æsthetics is the science of the beautiful, with the beautiful being a representation of the Ideal, that is essentially a "spiritual" or "esoteric" idea wrapped up in a toaster (see picture above) or some object.
Humor is then the production and realization of the Beautiful, and the æsthetics of humor has to examine and explain the conditions of this process in relation to the highest objects and ends of human thought.
There are varieties in the forms of humor, and differences in the styles of comedy that exhibit it. These arise partly from the nature of what people personally consider funny, and partly from the material in which they can represent humor to an external audience.
The style of humor or subject is the first distinction that has to be considered, as it determines the inner idea or essential contents of the work of art or comedy. Comedy may be regarded as subjective, objective, or absolute, in the degree of the completeness and perfection with which a joke embodies or contains its inherent or informing idea.
Subjective comedy includes all forms of the Beautiful exhibited in useful or industrial products. In these the beautiful idea or content is entirely limited, subsidiary, and finite, appearing merely in the external design and beautiful form of a common object, which serves as a means for the merriment or satisfaction of human wants.
The end or final cause of this humorous faucet is confined to the mind of the individual as standing in a practical, utilitarian relation to the object.
In objective comedy, as represented by Music - the idea, as embodied in the sound or tone, is dependent upon the object, to which the mind stands essentially in a theoretical, contemplative relation.
Here the inherent idea of the Beautiful, which of itself is infinite, is so far as possible, completely dependent on the objective medium or vehicle, and the mind of the Artist or Beholder is only the form of activity by which the Ideal is unfolded or in which it is reproduced.
Absolute comedy, which is the highest of all, is that in which the individual mind, although finite, rising to the consciousness of the infinite within itself, at once receives theoretically into itself the whole ideal content of the Beautiful, as presented in the objective work of comedy, and at the same time again reproduces it out of itself.
This is the highest stage and condition of mind attainable in comedy. It is the absolute and perfect union of practical design and theoretical contemplation, as realized in the spiritual creations of actions evoking universal laughter. It thus combines in principle and essence the lower utilitarian and objective forms.
This type of humor furnishes the highest and purest pleasure, involving as it does a perfect activity realizing its own end, and brining with it the repose of the spirit in theoretical contemplation.
As with the other so-called Fine Arts - comedy involves the lower and arises out of it. Formative Comedy, in its first stage of humor, sprang from the subjective need of survival in a group; then came Jesting and Pranks, as seen in ancient Egyptian humor.
Laughter, as developed in speech and theatrical representation, implies these formative forms of comedy, and in its developed form it involves the elements of the higher work of comedy - the absolute, speaking art, Poetic Comedy.
A further distinction in æsthetic comedy rests upon the relation of the embodied ideal or spiritual idea to the material in which it is represented.
Here the differences are determined by the predominance of the one or the other of the two sides; or by their being in equal proportion, so that there is a relation of equality and balance between them. In connection with this second distinction of æsthetic comedy, we have the historical development of humor, and this unfolds the different forms of Comedy.
First, the work of comedy appears in a purely external and direct form - the Beautiful being exhibited mainly in material objects.
The thought or subjective ideal is, indeed, present; but it is in the manner sunk into the material, and is often exhibited only as an ornamentation on the form of the object. This appears especially in symbolic comedy, in which the object is merely a symbol which more or less veils the thought it represents.
This form of comedy is peculiar to the lower levels of humor. Secondly, there comes the Greek form of comedy, which is characterized as classical comedy, from the beautiful proportion and harmony which it presents of thought and material, of matter and form.
A special spiced sausage made with pork, pine nuts and pepper was a favourite dish at the ancient Roman Lupercalian and Floralian festivals. This being the Romans, these pagan celebrations regularly descended into debauched orgies which were frowned on by Christians. Happily for the moral Right, Christian emperor Constantine the Great came into power in AD324 and, realising the potency of the humble sausage, banned them. Not ones to be easily defeated, the Romans quickly started a black market in sausages which lasted several years, until the ban was lifted. The Ancient Greeks liked a good laugh, and none more so than playwright Epicharmus, who penned a rip-roaring comedy called Orya (‘The Sausage’) in about 500BC.
Next there's the modern-day romantic comedy, which strives to unfold itself out of the limits of the material, and to transcend them, in order to realize itself in the abiding supremacy of the inner self-consciousness, whereby it passes from the form of intellectual perception into that of higher spiritual apprehension.
The last distinction in comedy regards the nature of the Material. In this connection, the movement of progress shews the material becoming always more idealized, and thus becoming always more proportionate to the form or ideal. This gives the different forms of aesthetic comedy, which constitute the objective division of the Æsthetics of Humor. The material of the comedy, in order to be perceivable and intelligible, is taken from Nature, which, however, in its character, always approaches nearer to the nature of the spiritual.
The first material of aesthetic comedy is manner given in space, with its physical dimensions, and this is transformed by artists.
Above this external material in our world, there is another of a more subjective kind, namely, sound or tone, which is produced by the vibrations of matter. This gives rise to Musical Comedy, or Humor in tone, which is realized by sensation rather than by perception.
Lastly, we have a special subjective material in the representative imagination, which possesses the objectivity of space in the form of mental representation, and which furnishes material for Poetic Comedy as Humor in Speech.
This third division of the Beautiful of Comedy, is not to be viewed as entirely apart and separate from the other two; but is rather to be regarded as the supreme form of Comedy, and as having the others involved in it.
These individual forms of comedy have had a historical development in the various formations and products of comedy, which have so far survived the process of the past, and remain for contemplation.