Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paradox of Comedy?

Of Aristotle's works on poetics, only the first part of the Poetics itself, his work on tragedy, survived. Actually, the work on tragedy itself barely survived; through most of the Middle Ages it was only known in an Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of a Greek manuscript that may have itself been faulty. Currently all we have besides this one are a handful of Renaissance manuscripts and the primary Greek manuscript, Paris MS 1741, which dates back to the twelfth century or so. Pretty much all of Aristotle's extant works survived at one point or another by a hair, but the Poetics more than most.

We know, however, that there was a second part to the Poetics, on the subject of comedy (we also have good reason to believe he wrote a dialogue called On Poets, and he may have also had some additional treatises on various subjects like style and dramatic performance). So all we know of Aristotle's view of comedy are (1) scattered comments in the extant part of the Poetics; and (2) what we can guess at from clues elsewhere (like later ancient discussions of comedy). You'll remember, of course, that Umberto Eco's excellent novel, The Name of the Rose (which you should have read if you have not), deals with this missing extant work on comedy and attempts a rough reconstruction. We can only speculate about how the history of aesthetics would have changed if the work on comedy had survived. What is certainly true is that comedy has always taken a very distant second seat to tragedy.

So here's a question. I've already talked briefly about the paradox of tragedy (and that was indeed a very brief discussion of one of the most celebrated and complicated topics in aesthetics). Mightn't there be a comedic analogue, a paradox of comedy? In the brief comment on Comedy in the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that comedy differs from tragedy in that it is (1) depiction of people worse than average; (2) but that their faults are not just of any kind, but of one particular kind, the ridiculous, which, he says, is a species of the ugly, and is in particular that kind of ugliness that involves a mistake or deformity that is not painful or harmful to others. So perhaps a paradox of comedy would build on this feature: more precisely, it would be a paradox of the ridiculous: a kind of ugliness (namely, the ridiculous) that we treat as if it were beautiful (certainly it pleases on being seen). It bears some thought.

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