Saturday, February 02, 2008
Aristotle's Missing Book on Comedy
Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose centers upon the effect that Aristotle's Poetics of Comedy has upon a medieval monastery in the year 1327.
The second book of Aristotle's Poetics, the one on comedy, has always been thought to be missing. And yet, a tenth century Tractatus Coislinianus, was republished in 1839, and some argue that it's Aristotle's Poetics of Comedy. It's in an edition from Duckworth, edited by Richard Janko, entitled Aristotle on Comedy: Towards a Reconstruction of Poetics II (Duckworth 1984).
It's very brief: about a thousand words, with some 250 pages of commentary. Here is one of the sentences that makes sense:
"Comic plot is one structured around laughable events."
When I first read this sentence in graduate school fifteen years back, I loved the circularity of this definition. Comedy is something laughable. The laughable is comic. Neither term is defined any further.
It's almost absurd, and yet, we don't know if Aristotle believed that a tight plot was necessary in comedy as it is in tragedy. Can comedy follow a loose sequence of events and still be first rate? Does the plot determine the humor? Or is it a string upon which various events can be hung, as in the Airplane movies? We don't know if it's Aristotle who wrote the Tractatus, or whether it's a hoax, or whether it's a few notes by a student, or what.
As opposed to the large and significant magnitude of tragedy, comedy is smaller, and this is part of its ridiculousness. Kant says that comedy is about nothing at all, just as Seinfeld said it was.
Need it nevertheless take place between bonded relations, as it does in tragedy? In order for us to weep, we must lose someone close. For us to laugh, must we necessarily be with those we love?
When you tickle a child, the child must know you and trust you in order to laugh. If you tickle a child you've never met before, the child is VERY unlikely to find it funny.
Perhaps even in comedy a certain trust between bonded relations is necessary. We think of Seinfeld and his little gang. We think of Friends.
Then we think of Mr. Bean on his bicycle through southern France. Mr. Bean's humor often takes place in solitude. We watch him eating a lobster in an upper scale French restaurant seated alone. He is not aware that he is not supposed to eat the shell casing. We see him crunch, crunch. I find it painful, but still funny, but not for the full ten minutes the episode lasts. I think this is because he is alone. It would be funnier if a child he liked was sitting with him, and we saw it from the child's viewpoint.
We often attempt to relate principles to realities. How hard did we laugh in a given instant? And why? Is laughter always discoverable through principles? I find that comedy doesn't travel very well either in time or in space. Humorous plays of old such as Aristophanes are largely a puzzle to me. I rarely get jokes from the Middle Ages, or from other countries. Even Monty Python leaves me cold and itching to hit the channel switcher. Mr. Bean is closer to home, but not much.
Probably the funniest stuff takes place within one's own family. Outside of that context, things get less and less funny. Jacques Tati's comedy are curiosities. I don't find them funny at all, but I watch them, wondering how others might find them funny. Wondering if others DO find them funny. The channel switcher is always in my hand when I'm watching Tati, and it's about to go over to the news, or to see what's on the Weather Channel. I find Adam Sandler quite funny although his films never get more than two stars. They are crude but extremely effective.
The funniest thing of late is a little boy in our house who rides around on his scooter and goes by making funny faces as he travels. I look up from the newspaper and laugh.
Nothing on TV or on radio ever seems quite as fresh. My students tell me that a show from Japan called something like XM is very funny. It has people falling into mud. I tried to watch the show but I felt sorry for those falling into the mud or getting hurt. The XM show is something like the The Fear Factor, which is a show I also can't watch. I'm too afraid that the participants will be hurt. My favorite thing on a lazy Saturday morning is to watch the Weather patterns drifting across the state, while I read theoretical texts on law and comedy, and esp. on the laws of comedy.