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THE DOCTRINE OF THE PRECEDING CHAPTER DEFENDED.
Before I proceed to another topic, it will perhaps be thought proper to inquire how far the theory now laid down and explained, coincides with the doctrines on this article to be found in the writings of philosophers and critics. Not that I think such inquiries and discussions always necessary; on the contrary, I imagine they often tend but to embarrass the reader, by distracting his attention to a multiplicity of objects, and so to darken and perplex a plain question. This is particularly the case on those points on which there hath been a variety of jarring sentiments. The simplest way and the most perspicuous, and generally that which best promotes the discovery of truth, is to give as distinct and methodical a delineation as possible of one's own ideas, together with the grounds on which they are founded, and to leave it to the doubtful reader (who thinks it worth the trouble,) to compare the theory with the systems of other writers, and then to judge for himself. I am not, however, so tenacious of this method, as not to allow that it may sometimes, with advantage, be departed from. This holds especially when the sentiments of an author are opposed by inveterate prejudices in the reader, arising from contrary opinions early imbibed, or from an excessive deference to venerable names and ancient authorities.
ARISTOTLE'S ACCOUNT OF The Ridiculous EXPLAINED.
Some, on a superficial view, may imagine, that the doctrine above expounded is opposed by no less authority than that of Aristotle. If it were, I should not think that equivalent to a demonstration of its falsity. But let us hear: Aristotle hath observed, that “the ridiculous implies something deformed, and consists in those smaller faults, which are neither painful nor pernicious, but unbeseeming : thus, a face excites laughter wherein there is deformity and distortion without pain.” For my part, nothing can appear more coincident than this, as far as it goes, with the principles which I have endeavoured to establish. The Stagyrite here speaks of ridicule, not of laughter in general, and not of every sort of ridicule, but solely of the ridiculous in manners, of which he hath in few words given a very apposite description. To take notice of any other laughable object would have been foreign to his purpose. Laughter is not his theme
but comedy, and laughter only so far as comedy is concerned with it. Now the concern of comedy reaches no farther than that kind of ridicule which, as I said, relates to manners. The very words with which the above quotation is introduced, evince the truth of this. “ Comedy,” says he, “ is, as we remarked, an imitation of things that are amiss; yet it does not level at every vice."* He had remarked in the preceding chapter, that its means of correction are “not reproach; but ridicule.”+ Nor does the clause in the end of the sentence, concerning a countenance which raises laughter, in the least invalidate what I have now affirmed; for it is plain, that this is suggested in a way of similitude, to illustrate what he had adyanced, and not as a particular instance of the position he had laid down. For we can never suppose that he would have called distorted features “a certain fault or slip,”I and still less that he would have specified this, as what might be corrected by the art of the comedian. As an instance, therefore, it would have confuted his definition, and shown that his account of the object of laughter must be erroneous, since this emotion may be excited, as appears from the example produced by himself, where there is nothing faulty or vicious in any kind or degree. As an illustration it was extremely pertinent. It showed that the ridiculous in manners (which was all that his definition regarded,) was, as far as the different nature of the things would permit, analogous to the laughable in other subjects, and that it supposed an incongruous combination, where there is nothing either calamitous or destructive. But that in other objects unconnected with either character or conduct, with either the body or the soul, there might not be images or exhibitions presented to the mind, which would naturally provoke laughter, the philosopher hath nowhere, as far as I know, so much as insinuated.
-- FROM the founder of the peripatetic school, let us descend to the philosopher of Malmesbury, who hath defined laughter“ a sudden glory, arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly."|| This account is, I acknowledge, incompatible with that given in the preceding pages, and, in my judgment, results entirely
from a view of the subject, which is in some respect partial, and in some respect false. It is in some respect partial. When laughter is produced by ridicule, it is, doubtless, accompanied with some degree of contempt. Ridicule, as hath been observed already, has a double operation; first on the fancy, by presenting to it such a group as constitutes a laughable object; secondly, on the passion mentioned, by exhibiting absurdity in human character, in principles, or in conduct: and contempt always implies a sense of superiority. No wonder then that one likes not to be ridiculed or laughed at. Now it is this union which is the great source of this author's error, and of his attributing to one of the associated principles, from an imperfect view of the subject, what is purely the effect of the other.
For, that the emotion called laughter doth not result from the contempt, but solely from the perception of oddity with which the passion is occasionally, not necessarily, combined, is manifest from the following considerations. First, contempt may be raised in a very high degree, both suddenly and unexpectedly, without producing the least tendency to laugh. Of this, instances have been given already from Bolingbroke and Swift, and innumerable others will occur to those who are conversant in the writings of those authors. Secondly, laughter may be, and is daily produced by the perception of incongruous association, when there is no contempt. And this shows that Hobbes's view of the matter is false as well as partial. “Men," says he, “ laugh at jests, the wit whereof always consisteth in the elegant discovering and conveying to our minds some absurdity of another."* I maintain, that men also laugh at jests, the wit whereof doth not consist in discovering any absurdity of another ; for all jests do not come within his description. On a careful perusal of the foregoing sheets, the reader will find that there have been several instances of this kind produced already, in which it hath been observed, that there is wit, but no ridicule. I shall bring but one other instance. Many have laughed at the queerness of the comparison in these lines,
· For rhyme the rudder is of verses,
who never dreamt that there was any person or party, practice or opinion, derided in them. But as people are often very ingenious in their manner of defending a favourite hypothesis, if any admirer of the Hobbesian philosophy should pretend to discover some class of men whom the poet here meant to ridicule, he ought to consider, that if any one hath been tickled with the passage to whom the same thought never occurred, that single instance would be sufficient to subvert the doctrine, as it would show that there may be laughter, where there is no triumph or glorying over any body, and consequently no conceit of one's own superiority. So that there may be, and often is, both contempt without laughter, and laughter without contempt.
Besides, where wit is really pointed, which constitutes ridicule, that
* Human Nature, Chap. IX. § 13. + Hudibras, Part I. Canto 1.
it is not from what gives the conceit of our own eminence by comparison, but purely from the odd assemblage of ideas, that the laughter springs, is evident from this, that if you make but a trifling alteration on the expression, so as to destroy the wit (which often turns on a very little circumstance,) without altering the real import of the sentence, (a thing not only possible but easy,) you will produce the same opinion, and the same contempt; and consequently will give the same subject of triumph, yet without the least tendency to laugh: and conversely, in reading a well written satire, a man may be much diverted by the wit, whose judgment is not convinced by the ridicule or insinuated argument, and whose former esteem of the object is not in the least inpaired. Indeed, men's telling their own blunders, even blunders recently committed, and laughing at thiem, a thing not uncommon in very risible dispositions, is utterly inexplicable on Hobbes's system. For, to consider the thing only with regard to the laugher himself, there is to him no subject of glorying, that is not counterbalanced by an equal subject of humiliation, (he being both the person laughing, and the person laughed at,) and these two subjects must destroy one another. With regard to others, he appears solely under the notion of inferiority, as the person triumphed over. Indeed, as in ridicule, agreeably to the doctrine here propounded, there is always some degree, often but a very slight degree of contempt; it is not every character, I acknowledge, that is fond of presenting to others such subjects of mirth. Wherever one shows a proneness to it, it is demonstrable that on that person sociality and the love of laughter have much greater influence than vanity or self-conceit: since, for the sake of sharing with others in the joyous entertainment, he can submit to the mortifying circumstance of being the subject. This, however, is in effect no more than enjoying the sweet which predominates, notwithstanding a little of the bitter with which it is mingled. The laugh in this case is so far from being expressive of the passion, that it is produced in spite of the passion, which operates against it, and if strong enough, would effectually restrain it. · But it is impossible that there could be any enjoyment to him on the other hypothesis, which makes the laughter merely the expression of a triumph, occasioned by the sudden display of one's own comparative excellence, a triumph in which the person derided could not partake. In this case, on the contrary, he must undoubtedly sustain the part of the weeper, (according to the account which the same author hath given of that opposite passion,* as he calls it,) and “ suddenly fall out with himself, on the sudden conception of defect.” To suppose that a person in laughing enjoys the contempt of himself as a matter of exultation over his own infirmity, is of a piece with Cowley's description of envy exaggerated to absurdity, wherein she is said,
To envy at the praise herself had won.
In the same way, a miser may be said to grudge the money that
himself hath got, or a glutton the repasts : for the lust of praise as much terminates in self, as avarice or gluttony. It is a strange sort of theory which makes the frustration of a passion, and the gratification, the same thing.
As to the remark, that wit is not the only cause of this emotion, that men laugh at indecencies and mischances ; nothing is more certain. A well-dressed man falling into the kennel, will raise in the spectators a peal of laughter. But this confirms, instead of weakening, the doctrine here laid down. The genuine object is always things grouped together, in which there is some striking unsuitableness. The effect is much the same, whether the things themselves are presented to the senses by external accident, or the ideas of them are presented to the imagination by wit and humour; though it is only with the latter that the subject of eloquence is concerned.
In regard to Hobbes's system, I shall only remark further, that according to it, a very risible man, and a very self-conceited supercilious man, should imply the same character, yet in fact, perhaps no two characters more rarely meet in the same person. Pride, and contempt, its usual attendant, considered in themselves, are unpleasant passions, and tend to make men fastidious, always finding ground to be dissatisfied with their situation and their company. Accordingly, those who are most addicted to these passions, are not generally the happiest of mortals. It is only when the last of these hath gotten for an alloy, a considerable share of sensibility in regard to wit and humour, which serves both to moderate and to sweeten the passion, that it can be termed in any degree sociable or agreeable. It hath been often remarked of very proud persons, that they disdain to laugh, as thinking that it derogates from their dignity, and levels them too much with the common herd. The merriest people, on the contrary, are the least suspected of being haughty and contemptuous people. The company of the former is generally as much courted as that of the latter is shunned. To refer ourselves to such universal observations, is to appeal to the common sense of mankind. How admirably is the height of pride and arrogance touched in the character which Cæsar gives of Cassius !
-- He loves no plays
I should not have been so particular in the refutation of the English philosopher's system in regard to laughter, had I not considered a careful discussion of this question, as one of the best means of developing some of the radical principles of this inquiry.