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[Translation of a paper presented at the "Esthétique de la comédie" colloquium in Reims in September 1994
and published in Littératures Classiques 27 (1996), 183-93.]

On Comic Catharsis

There is not much discussion of comic catharsis; tragic catharsis is discussed a good deal, although we are not too certain about what it is. Beginning with this simple premise, I propose to have give a parallel consideration to tragedy as seen by Aristotle and comedy as seen by some of his successors. My intention is not to reconstruct, as others have attempted to do, Aristotle's missing comic theory,(1) but merely to observe that in the interstices of his Poetics such as we have it, there is a space where an implicit cathartic theory could be located. Projecting thus a reverse image of comedy is not tantamount to conjecturing that we have identified what Aristotle meant.

There is no need here to retrace Aristotle's text, which you know well, nor the long controversy over catharsis; for my purposes it will suffice to note that Aristotle's intention has always been problematic. But I think it unnecessary, for the purposes of this synthesis, to opt for one precise interpretation of his concept, insofar as nearly everything Aristotle said about the emotions stimulated by tragedy can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to comedy as well.

I should add that it was clear even before Aristotle that tragedy and comedy are largely defined in terms of their opposition to each other. For comedy was very early on, and perhaps from the time of its invention, the parody not only of "life" but of tragedy in particular. One can even recognize a strict symmetry between them, whether or not Aristotle so specified. The tragic hero is a well-known individual who inspires pity because of his exemplary punishment; the comic hero, contrariwise, is a characterological type who will be dispensed with, or be merely humiliated. It is thus possible to see such punishment and such mortification as manifestations of a certain common notion of purgation or catharsis. This supposition can accommodate several different definitions of catharsis.

Let us begin with an initial, fundamental division: in what civic or spiritual space does catharsis occur? Is it an objective component of plot, or rather an effect experienced by the viewer?

1st category: dramatic (objective) form

First let us take the hypothesis according to which catharsis is a formal function, part of the play. This is the version that would seem to correspond best with religious purgation, which is one of the traditions informing the word catharsis. According to this mode of understanding it, the tragic machine ends up punishing, banishing, suppressing the hero, who thus serves as scapegoat through whom society is rehabilitated. Being purged, he effects a purgation of the ambiant world, as Phèdre puts it exemplarily:

Déjà je ne vois plus qu'à travers un nuage
Et le ciel et l'époux que ma présence outrage;
Et la mort, à mes yeux dérobant la clarté,
Rend au jour qu'ils souillaient toute sa pureté.(2) [v. 1641-1644]
This purification rite is nonetheless, so far as the notion of catharsis is concerned, the one that has least retained theorists' attention; the same is true with respect to comedy, and little indeed is said about a phenomenon of expulsion that is nevertheless important in many comedies. Northrop Frye was perhaps the first to insist on the structural necessity within comedy of forcefully distancing the obstreporous character, who must be either neutralized (if he is kept around) or banished (when he must be done away with). Arnolphe's "Ouf!" as he leaves the stage in act V of L'École des femmes (sc. ix) is in effect the mark of his ejection from the comedy, where he was an intolerable obstacle to the possibility of things working out for the greater happiness of everyone else.

However, still following Frye, insofar as disgrace inclines toward pathos, the enemy of comedy, the problem character is more frequently reconciled than rejected, often within the framework of a great final assembly.(3) Does it follow that the old man has been cured of his vice, experienced an internal catharsis? Does he perceive, like Oedipus, his terrible mistake? Not necessarily, as shows the ceremony that crowns Le Bourgeois gentilhomme or Le Malade imaginaire, an entirely strategic celebration that recuperates Jourdan or Argan only by flattering them and co-opting their particular manias. We have there no lucidity, no renunciation; at most they have proven a modicum of flexibility and compromise, remaining still under the spell of their familiar demons. In general the comic character does not realize his aberration, and maintains his stupidity or obsessive tic to the end, even when he indeed allows himself to be reconciled with society.

To this structure Charles Mauron gave a psychoanalytic raison d'être, which is the process of repressing the father (the old man or barbon), corresponding to a provisional repression of the reality principle. Everything begins with the ineluctable father-son rivalry, a rigorous connection between comedy and tragedy; but whereas in the latter case the guilt falls ineluctibly on the son, in the former it is necessarily imputed to the father.(4) For the most part, the theories of these two critics, of quite different inspiration, are unproblematically complementary. They agree that the hideous destiny of tragedy becomes in comedy another sort of fate, a fatal happiness entailing "the defeat of the paternal character, the annihilation of his resistance" (Mauron 86): a magical triumph, objectively improbable, but always obtained in this world where certain fixed rules prevail. This catharsis -- the banishing of the obstacle to happiness -- is the founding convention of the very genre.(5)

2nd category: psychologique (subjectif) effect

We must obviously suppose a modal transposition with respect to tragedy, its principle being the following: in lieu of fear and pity, based upon empathy, we must posit ridicule and distance, which are its denial. Comedy suppresses the pity that enables tragic catharsis. (Fear as well, through the convention of the "happy end".)

Up to now we have had no need to invoke the notion of laughter and even less of ridicule, which begin to matter, however, the moment we broach comedy's didactic effect. Thus, the mechanism of comic catharsis is in certain respects the reverse of tragic catharsis: instead of suffering with the protagonist who despite his rank is like us, now we dissociate from him, our whole reaction tendind to avoid identification with him. This distance is marked by laughter, which is the refusal of compassion.(6)

The main tradition of this argument makes comedy into a school for good behavior: castigat ridendo mores, according to Jean de Santeul's famous device. Just as the spectator attending a tragedy understands the danger of excessive passion, including that of pride, in comedy he can recognize less grandiose character flaws and learn to preserve himself from them. By extension, the lesson is rather a social one; but moral or social, there are vices that are harmful either to the individual or to the family and society; they are to be avoided, first because they are dangerous, and secondly because they annoy others and more seriously are damaging to civility in general.

This is the notion of comic function affirmed by Molière in La Critique de l'École des femmes and L'impromptu de Versailles. As Dorante states, the purpose of the comic author is "to enter . . . into men's silly traits, and . . . render everybody's flaws agreeably on the stage."(7)

Comedy, no less than tragedy, is utile: it allows us to witness and thereby avoid excess; it was for this quality that Voltaire could invoke the two genres as complementary manifestations of a single praxis:

I consider tragedy and comedy as lessons in virtue, reason, and civility. Corneille, an ancient Roman among the French, instituted a school of spiritual loftiness; and Molière founded a school of civil life. The French genii whom they fashioned draw foreigners from the extremities of Europe to come be instructed among us."(8)
Molière, to be sure, puts more emphasis on laughter, that mysterious mechanism that is so hard to master; for it is in the very speech just cited that Dorante adds the famous formula: "il faut y plaisanter; et c'est une étrange entreprise de faire rire les honnêtes gens."

Ah yes, the honnêtes gens. The triumph of comic catharsis would be the happy medium, the imperturbable wisdom so often represented in Molière by the normative character: Chrysalde (L'École des femmes), Philinte (Le Misanthrope), Henriette (Les Femmes savantes). The formulation would moreover be, according to some interpretations, perfectly congruent with Aristotle's intentions, since he would not have fear and pity purge us of all emotion but bring us to feel emotions "in the right way, at the right time, towards the right object, with the right motive, and to the proper degree" (Janko 141). Like tragic passion, silly traits are a matter of excess; by observing them on stage one can learn how to be economical but not miserly, pious but not prudish or hypocritical, and so forth.

But on the other hand, this apparently benign moderation tends ipso facto toward the mean, and can even lend itself to a frankly repressive interpretation. Such is the way in which Jean-Paul Sartre portrays comedy in a bitterly sharp page of Qu'est-ce que la littérature? Do not say that the comic hero is ridiculous, that he goes too far, Sartre corrects; say rather that he is troublesome and marginal:

[I]t is the entire elite that performs, in the name of its moral, the cleansing and purgation its health requires; it is never from a point of view outside of the ruling class that foppish marquis or lawyers or précieuses are mocked; the subject is always those odd sorts who are unassimilable in a polite society and live on the margins of collective life. If the Misanthrope is jeered it is because he is short on politeness, Cathos and Magdelon(9) because they have too much. Philaminte(10) offends received notions about woman; the bourgeois gentleman is loathesome to the rich bourgeois who possess lofty modesty and appreciate the grandeur and the humility of their station, and at the same time to gentlemen, because he is trying to force access to nobility. This internal and, so to speak, physiological satire has nothing in common with the grand satire of Beaumarchais, Paul-Louis Courier, Jules Vallès, and Céline: it is less courageous and much harsher since it represents the repressive action exerted by the collectivity against the weak, the sick, the maladapted; it is the pitiless laughter of a band of rowdy youth at the blunders of their favorite goat.(11)
This description, in which laughter is cruel, divested of all levity, lends to comedy a police function: comedy is a straight-jacket. It administers a systematic purification, with -- politically speaking -- tragic connotations. "The weak, the sick, the maladapted" (not to mention the "favorite goat"): so many names, from time immemorial, for the scapegoat. Every time -- this is a general rule, as we shall see with respect to the drama -- that the comic is specially bracketed, every time there is refusal to credit the notion that things can be funny, we gravitate in fact towards the tragic.

Moreover, one of the problems that always had to be confronted by apologists of Aristotelian catharsis is explaining what process is capable of turning disagreeable feelings (fear and pity) into pleasure.(12) This dilemma is not quite the same with respect to comedy, provided one accepts that -- and whatever the ultimate explanation for it be -- laughter is pleasurable. I know all the complications this introduces: that tears can also be pleasurable, and so forth; I also know that, as Hobbes pointed out and Freud reminded us, laughter is perhaps never pure -- that is, exempt from aggressivity if not malice. But it is difficult despite these qualifications, and even if the concept of pleasure is in no way defined per se by laughter, to discuss comedy if one does not accept at the outset a certain fundamental notion of laughter as something pleasurable in itself.

Rousseau, fundamentally, is perfectly in agreement with Sartre. He denounces comic distanciation and sympathizes with the object of ridicule whom he too considers as a victim.(13) At this point there is no turning back; comedy cannot be recovered. But compared to Sartre's, Rousseau's viewpoint is moral rather than social, and what comedy threatens to his eyes is honesty and wholesome morality. Rousseau accepts the theory of comic catharsis, but not its therapeutic results. St. Preux's point of departure is very similar to Molières's: comedy "must represent straightforwardly the manners of the nation for whom it is destined, so that that people might thereby get rid of its vices and flaws, as before a mirror one removes the spots on one's face."(14) Yet unlike Molière and even Sartre, he sees the viewer as morally disoriented, and the "lesson"'s -- just as those to be gleaned from La Fontaine(15) -- contrary to the standard notion, is perverse: instead of turning away from the bad example, people imitate vice:

As a result, by depicting the ridiculousness of the estates that set the example for the others, they spread it rather than stifling it, and the populace, forever ape and imitator of the rich, goes to the theater less to laugh at their follies than to study them, and becomes even more crazy than them by imitating them. This is what Molière himself brought about; he corrected the court(16) by infecting the city, and his ridiculous Marquis were the first model of the bourgeois coxcombs who have succeeded them. (Julie 207)
Polluit ridendo mores is the device that, to Rousseau, would best suit comedy. The institution is too compromised in its essence to hope anything salutary can come of it.

3rd category: positive morality

At this point we of necessity rejoin the debate over the drame, which also is much invested in morality. Diderot equally subscribes to the prophylactic effect of the Molièresque mechanism, but he finds it too weak and, worse, too negative. To him, the remedy lies in the creation of a new genre explicitly aimed at moral edification; this purpose in turn requires abandoning the antipathetic effect of laughter and the punishing of vice, and entails a positive counterpart, the attractive force of the good example. In lieu of silly traits Diderot wants to give priority to duties,(17) providing active motivation, making use of the fact that, as Constance puts it, "imitation is natural to us, and there is no example that captivates more strongly than that of virtue, not even the example of vice... Ah, Dorval, what a wealth of means to make men good!" (Le fils naturel, act iv, sc. 3). To be sure, horror of vice is not lost sight of, but it takes second place to love of virtue.(18) The purpose is not to appall but to exhalt.

For Diderot this sort of exhortation by example has the merit of being both more explicit and more effective. It cannot be resisted, and for this reason comedy is more productive than sermons. It is, in reality, nothing other than lay preaching:

There the evil man feels anger for injustices he himself would have committed; is moved by sufferings he would have caused, and deplores a man of his own character. But the impression is made; it remains in us, despite ourselves; and the evil man leaves his seat less disposed to do ill than if he had been reprimanded by a harsh and strict orator.(19)
The theatre, in consequence, becomes a school of virtue and the refuge of the honest.(20) What about laughter? Abolished, or very nearly so: there is merely a hint of its potential; the "serious dramatic genre" is situated at the confines of comedy, with "laughter tickling the lips, and tears in the eyes."(21)

And so the equivocation of which Rousseau complained could in principle be avoided. The conventions of comedy bring with them harmful influences: indeed Mercier reproaches Molière for having done as much bad as good, especially because of the insult constantly deals to the elderly. Mercier cannot bear the cruel generational struggle underlying comedy, when the son ought on the contrary to be looking after his ageing father.(22) Both tragic passion and comic laughter are replaced by emotion, a surer value. "One could judge the soul of every man," says Mercier, "by the degree of emotion he manifests at the theatre" (Mercier 12-13). Rousseau, however, himself is in no way tempted by such logic, which to him is pure illusion. He despairs of comedy and finds the damage irremediable. He cannot accept, like Diderot and his allies, that it can be diverted to the benefit of the good: this is too facile a solution; it is not by means of passing sentiments that one comes to practice acts of virtue.(23)

4th category: the psychological effect (extended sense)

Some recent interpreters of Aristotle have strongly assimilated comic to tragic catharsis in a synthesis that depends upon a "homeopathic" reading of the overall notion. In other words, the effect of vicarious violence experienced through fear and pity is to tame the viewer's inner violence. The result then is neither purgation nor repression but moderation, making possible a sound psychic equilibrium:

How, then, does the cathartic process operate? By representing pitiful and fearful events artistically, it arouses pity and fear in the members of the audience, each according to his own emotional capacity, and by a homeopathic process so stimulates these emotions as to relieve them by giving them moderate and harmless exercise; and with relief comes pleasure. If the tragic events are badly motivated, and the characters tormented incomprehensibly, we are simply shocked; our feelings are not worked through and made comprehensible.(24)
Like fear, comic mockery achieves equilibrium by minimizing our propensity for committing unsuitable acts (Janko 96). But how can we explain in what sense and by what parallel mechanism laughter manifested is supposed to purge latent or potential laughter? One can, like Janko himself, appeal to the argument of D. W. Lucas:
The emotions to be purged by comedy, which correspond to pity and fear, would be scorn and over-confidence; as the unstable man might be helped by tragedy to maintain his composure in time of trouble, so comedy might help him to maintain his dignity and refrain from contempt in prosperity.(25)
The resulting satisfaction would itself be, according to this interpretation, a source of pleasure (Janko 83), no doubt a pleasure more profound than that which emanates from laughter itself.

But Lucas does not stop there; one can also understand comic catharsis, he proposes, as a safety valve operating in this case through the partial relaxation of the inhibitions incumbent on aggressive or libidinous gratification. Thus Lucas goes so far as to say, in short, that the notion of catharsis so viewed suits comedy better than tragedy, even for Aristotle:

But there is a more interesting possibility. . . . Many societies have allowed occasions when there was a communal kicking over of the traces, like the roman Saturnalia and the medieval Feast of Misrule. No doubt they gave relief to the tensions caused by the restraint, internal and external, on which society depends; their partial violation on these particular occasions was a substitute for lawlessness in real life. A katharsis of the impulses which lead to defiance of convention and contempt of authority would make good sense in the light of modern ideas, and Aristotle might have reserved his full treatment of katharsis for that section on comedy, because it provided the more important illustration. (Lucas, p. 288).
Here Lucas is close, though in social rather than psychic terms, to Mauron, for whom comedy serves to fool the censer (i.e., the superego) but with its permission: "Everything happens as if fantasy offered us a spiritual revenge on all the constraintes reality subjects us to, from our earliest education to our most current concerns" (Mauron 78).

This practical process is even more broadly applicable, and more philosophical, to Ernst Cassirer; it is in reality the comic itself in its deepest essence, consisting in a degree of spiritual liberation from the human condition:

Comic art possesses in the highest degree that faculty shared by all art, sympathetic vision. By virtue of this faculty it can accept human life with all its defects and foibles, its follies and vices. Great comic art has always been a sort of encomium moriae, a praise of folly. In comic perspective all things begin to take on a new face. We are perhaps never nearer to our human world than in the works of a great comic writer -- in Cervantes' Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, or in Dickens' Pickwick Papers. We become observant of the minutest details; we see this world in all its narrowness, its pettiness, and silliness. We live in this restricted world, but we are no longer imprisoned by it. Such is the peculiar character of the comic catharsis. Things and events begin to lose their material weight; scorn is dissolved into laughter and laughter is liberation.(26)
A paradoxical liberation, to be sure: laughter is at once a sign of despair and the affirmation of a joyous defiance -- not a proud defiance because he who laughs knows at bottom that the game is lost in advance. As Voltaire would say, he is a prisoner shaking his chains; but it is a willful act of joy.(27)

I should now add that these logical categories are hardly air-tight, and that often one must take into account their admixture and even dependency on each other. An effort has been made to distinguish between a constitutive textual element and a subjective effect produced in the pit: but supposing the former was the condition of the second, and that the obstreporous character, for example, had to be expelled so that the viewer could be moved? On the other hand, though Mauron's theory is essentially a formal one, it only makes sense if there is affective participation by the audience. And this he too must recognize, even if only indirectly: the locus of laughter, which he characterizes as "little attacks of epilepsy" (Mauron 19), is certainly not principally the stage.

But allowing for all these complications, I think we can see that talk of comic catharsis is amply justified. I would even say that without bringing into play something very much like a notion of catharsis, one would have considerable difficulty proposing a theory or even a convincing description of the comic genre. Is it appropriate then for us to use that name for it? It is certain that it was not so called in the (neo)classical era, and perhaps not until the twentieth century was catharsis applied to comedy. To me that is not exactly the question. Why does one call "classical," after all, a period that did not call itself classical? There is nothing out of place in proceeding by analogy with tragic theory, even retrospectively. Moreover, once we know that there once existed a second and now lost part of the Poetics, and that it perhaps itself applied these very principles to comedy, it is quite natural to pursue this conjecture lup to a certain poin. The notion of catharsis makes it possible, as we have seen, to approach, with no violence to classical reasoning, categories of thought that were indeed used, putting them in a light that is relatively recent. Catharsis, then: perhaps not Aristotle's catharsis, but at least a sort of Aristotelian catharsis.

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1. See especially Richard Janko, Aristotle on Comedy: towards a reconstruction of Poetics II (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984).

2. Already a cloud veils my view
Of heaven and the husband my presence offends;
And death, depriving my eyes of brightness,
Restores to the light they defiled all of its purity.

3. "Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid of some irreconcilable character, but exposure and disgrace make for pathos, or even tragedy" (Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 165; cf. the whole section entitled "The mythos of spring: comedy" (pp. 163-86).

4. Psychocritique du genre comique (Paris: José Corti, 1964), p. 58. Mauron acknowledges having borrowed these concepts from de Ludwig Jekels' Zur Psychologie der Komödie (1926).

5. There is also a continuous discourse within comedy that serves to reassure the public that these conventions are still in force; I attempted to sketch its principles in "Les signes du comique," Saggi et Ricerche di Letteratura Francese, N.S. 21 (1982): 189-241.

6. To be sure, this refusal is not absolute; one can certainly feel a sort of sympathy for an amusing codger, and there remains to be invented an analytic terminology that would permit us to avoid the overly simplistic polarity between sympathy and distance. Nevertheless, comedy manages to direct the public's sympathy principally towards the young lovers and their accomplices.

7. Critique de L'école des femmes, scene vi.

8. Lettre à un premier commis, in the Moland edition of Œuvres complètes (Paris: Garnier Frères, 52 vol., 1877-1885), xxx.354.

9. Protagonists of Les Précieuses ridicules.

10. The mother in Les Femmes savantes.

11. Qu'est-ce que la littérature (Gallimard "Idées," 1964 [orig. 1948]), pp. 57-58.

12. See for example Michel Simonin's commentary in his French translation of Aristotle's Poetics (Livre de Poche [Librairie Générale Française], 1990), p. 47.

13. Cf. the passage on Le misanthrope in the Lettre à d'Alembert (M. Fuchs (ed.), "Textes Littéraires Français," Lille: Giard and Geneva: Droz, 1948, p. 48-60).

14. Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse, in Collected Writings, vol. VI (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1997), 206. Tragedies on the other hand "offer no kind of instruction as to the manners peculiar to the nation they entertain."

15. See the discussion on Le Corbeau et le renard in book ii of Émile (Œuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard,1969, IV: 352-57).

16. "Corrected" means that he pointed out foibles and thus contributed to improvement of manners: this formulation echoes indirectly the motto of the Italian comedy in Paris, later applied to the Comédie Française tradition, which was Castigat ridendo mores.

17. "Men's duties are as rich a trove for the dramatic poet as their ridicules and vices" (De la poésie dramatique, in Œuvres esthétiques, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1959, p. 192).

18. Dorval: What is the purpose of a dramatic composition?
Me: It is, I believe, to inspire in men the love of virtue and the horror of vice....
(Entretiens sur « Le fils naturel », in Œuvres esthétiques, p. 152).

19. De la poésie dramatique, p. 196.

20. "It is by going to the theatre that they will save themselves from the evil company that surrounds them; there they will find people with who they would like to associate; there they will see the human species as sit is, and will be reconciled with it" (De la poésie dramatique, pp. 192-93).

21. De la poésie dramatique, p. 199.

22. Louis Sébastien Mercier, Du théâtre ou nouvel essai sur l'art dramatique (Amsterdam: E. van Harrevelt, 1773; reprint Genève, Slatkine, 1970), pp. 123-24.

23. As Zev Trachtenberg has remarked: "Rousseau is concerned that theatre inculcates a purely æsthetic relation to morality. By nature we take pleasure in seeing moral actions done; theatre gives us that pleasure without demanding that we ourselves do anything. In the theatre, morality becomes an object of pleasurable contemplation. Reduced to its beauty, morality is stripped of the component of praxis which makes it genuine" (Making Citizens: Rousseau's political theory of culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 162).

24. Richard Janko, p. 142. His analysis is founded in part on a hypothetical reconstruction of the Poetics' sequel based on the Tractatus Coislinianus.

25. D. W. Lucas (ed.), Aristotle: Poetics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968, pp. 287-88.

26. Ernst Cassirer, Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), p. 150; this little-known text of Cassirer was originally published in English.

27. Such is the general thesis of Walter Kerr's engaging book, Tragedy and Comedy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967).

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