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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

© 1913, 1919, 1923




        We may now reverse the process. Suppose the child in playing with the ball sees one who does not know how to catch it; misses it every time; knocks himself against the ball without getting hold of it; slips, falls down, picks himself up and runs after the ball without being able to catch it. In short, the person is awkward, clumsy, finds difficulties where there are none. Friction appears where there should be smoothness; hardship is manifest where ease and grace are expected. The child laughs the laughter of triumph, not with the person, but at the person; from the height of his supposed efficiency or ideal of efficiency the child laughs the laughter of triumph at the supposed deficiencies of the person—the person is ridiculed. Any supposed deficiency in appearance, in person, or in action is laughed at—is ridiculed. We are now in the domain of the comic. Children in school ridicule any clumsiness, awkwardness, or any personal deficiency; they make merry over the lame, the hunchback, the cross-eyed, the blind. For that matter, we find the same amusements among the uncultivated who make merry the bodily defects of their neighbors and acquaintances.

        Old Homer, when he wishes to ridicule Thersites, presents the ancient demagogue as:

        . . . ill favored beyond all men that came to Ilios. Bandy-legged was he, and lame of one foot, and his shoulders rounded, arched down over his chest; and over them his head was warped, and a scantly stubble sprouted on it.

        Victor Hugo in his "Notre Dame de Paris," represents the crowd bursting into a thunder of applause and shouts of convulsive, derisive laughter at the sight of the ugly, misshapen, one-eyed, bandy-legged, huge-headed, splay-footed, thick-nosed, horseshoe-mouthed, double-humped, deformed monster hunchback, Quasimodo.

        When the great Russian writer, Gogol, wishes to ridicule the type he represents by Sobakevitch he makes the latter look defective, awkward, and clumsy.

        Sobakevitch looked like a medium sized bear. To complete this resemblance his coat was the color of a bear’s fur; his sleeves were long; his trousers were large; he was flat-footed, walked both awry and askew, and trod constantly upon the feet of other people. His face shone like a bright copper coin.

        There are many faces over whose formation Nature did not pause long in thought, nor employ any delicate instruments, but simply hewed them at full sweep of her arm; she grasped her axe, a nose appeared; she grasped it again—the lips appeared; with a big auger she formed the eyes; and without planning it down, she loosed the figure in the world, saying: "Let it have life."

        Even refined and cultivated people cannot suppress a smile when they hear one stammer. This Shakespeare in his "Merry Wives of Windsor" makes his characters ridiculous by representing Sir Hugh Evans, the parson, as defective in speech, and Sir John Falstaff as defective in bodily appearance. "Very goot," says Evans, "I will make a prief in my notebook." Of Fallstaff Mrs. Ford says: "What a tempest, I trow, threew this whale, with so many tons of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor?" As Sir Evans, the parson, is awkward in his speech, so Falstaff, the fat man, is clumsy in his body. Both of them, on account of such clumsiness, are exposed by Shakespeare as objects of ridicule.

        The following jokes about stammerers may illustrate our point:

        A stutterer once asked one of the guards in a railway station: "How f-f-f-f-far is it t-t-t-t-to C-C-C-C-Cambridge?"

        The guard did not answer.

        The stutterer repeated his question; again the guard remained silent. The stutterer became angry and turned to the next guard, "I shall r-r-rep-p-p-port t-t-that m-m-m-man. I asked him h-h-how f-f-f-far it w-w-wwas t-t-t-to C-C-C-C-Cambridge and he r-r-r-ref-f-fused t-t-t-t-to answer."

        The guard gave the information and then turned to the first silent and asked him why he did not give the required information.

        "D-D-D-D-Do you t-t-t-think I want m-m-m-m-my b-b-b-b-b-blamed head kn-n-n-n-ocked off?"

        A gentleman, stammering much in his speech, laid down a winning card; and then said to his partner, "How s-s-s-sa-ay you now, w-w-was not t-t-this c-c-c-c-card p-p-p-p-passing we-we-well l-l-l-laid?"

        "Yes," says the other, "it was well laid, but it needs not half the cackling."

        I have found out a gig-gig-gift for my fuf-fuf-fair,

        I have found out where the rattle-snakes bub-bub-breed;

        Will you co-co-come, and I’ll show you the bub-bub-bear,

        And the lions and tit-tit-tigers at fuf-fuf-feed.

        I know where the co-co-cockatoo’s song

        Makes mum-mum-melody through the sweet vale;

        Where the mum-monkeys gig-gig-grin all the day long

        Or gracefully swing by the tit-tit-tail.

        You shall pip-play, dear, some did-did-delicate joke

        With the bub-bub-bear on the tit-tit-top of his pip-pip-pip-pole;

        But observe, ‘tis forbidden to pip-poke

        At the bub-bub-bear with your pip-pip-pink pip-pip-pip-pip-parasol!

        You shall see the huge elephant pip-pip play,

        You shall gig-gig-graze on the stit-stit-stately racoon;

        And then did-dear, together we’ll stray

        To the cage of the bub-bub-blue faced bab-bab-boon.

        You wished (I r-r-remember it well,

        And I lul-lul-loved you the m-m-more for the wish)

        To witness the bub-bub-beautiful pip-pip-pelican swallow

        The l-l-live little fuf-fuf-fish!

        Molière does not hesitate to utilize the defect of stammering to enhance physical and mental awkwardness, and hence the comical side, of the characters represented. Our dime museums still keep on amusing the public with their proverbial fat men. The stoutness and fatness of Falstaff are utilized by Shakespeare to enhance the comic situations in which Falstaff is put.

        What is it specially that is comic in the fat man? It is the clumsiness, the awkwardness, the angularity, the unwieldy form and mass; "a whale," as Shakespeare puts it; "a whale," as Gogol characterizes one of his comic heroes. The difficulties, instead of being eased, the angularities, instead of being rounded out, are visible and protruding at all points. What looks to us clumsy, awkward, and restrained is ludicrous. What is accompanied with effort, with friction, and with great difficulty where such are not expected, is regarded as ludicrous. And this ease holds true in the plays of the child, the games of the populace, the feats of the acrobat, the play of the comedian, and the delicate play of the wit. When difficulties and clumsiness are discerned where there should be ease and grace in the manifestation of energy and action, there we see the ridiculous, and we laugh.

        We enjoy and laugh when we are conscious of our spontaneous activity; when our inner energies bubble up freely to the surface of life. We laugh at others when we find them wanting, when we find in them lack of energy, lack of adaptation, clumsiness, awkwardness, clownishness. We laugh at the brogue, at dialect, at foreigners talking our language. The same anecdote appears to us more ridiculous when we present in the incorrect and clumsy way spoken by an Irishman or by a Dutchman.

        The following anecdote, for instance, appears more funny when expressed in the lingo of the foreigner:

        A German farmer lost his horse and wished to insert and advertisement in the paper. When he came to the editor, the editor asked him what he should put in the paper; the farmer answered, "Yust vat I told you. Vun night, de udder day, a week ago, last month, I heard me a noise by the front middle of the pack yard vich did not used to be. So I jumps the ped oud und runs mit der door out, und ven I see, I finds that my pig iron mare, he is tied loose and running mit der stabble off. Whoever prings him pack shall pay five dollars reward."

        Many a comic author avails himself of the peculiar, broken, corrupt speech of the countryman or of the foreigner to make the public laugh. We can well see where the ridiculous side lies―it is in the clumsiness, the awkwardness of speech. It is the same condition which is found in the case of the stammerer and sutterer. However the case may be, difficulties brought to the foreground, clumsiness, and awkwardness, where the hearer or observer demands or expects ease and grace, excite merriment and laughter.

        The law of the difficult manifested in the comic, instead of the expected ease, grace, and almost automatic adaptation and adjustment, is well brought out in Mark Twain’s burlesque comments on the German language.

        The compounding of words has been the theme of ridicule since the time of Aristophanes, who concocted a word in imitation of the long words of the speculative sophistry of his countrymen, made up of seventy-seven syllables, and meaning simple hash. Writers in different countries have ridiculed the Germans for their addiction to the habit of compounding long words which are impossible to pronounce without choking and loss of breath. Thus German scientists invented formidable terms:



        Hegel has among his many terms:








        Schopenhauer ridiculed with great vigor the long-winded German style:

        "The German weaves his sentences together into one sentence which he twists and crosses, and crosses and twists again; because he wants to say six things all at once, expressed in a high-flown, bombastic language in order to communicate the simplest thought. The long German sentence is involved and full of parentheses like so many boxes one enclosed within another, all padded out like stuffed geese, overburdening the reader’s memory, weakening his understanding and hindering his judgment. . . . This kind of sentence furnishes the reader with mere half-phrases which he is then called upon to collect carefully and store up in his memory as though they were the pieces of a torn letter which the reader has to put together to make sense. . . . The writer breaks up his principal sentence into little pieces, for the sole purpose of pushing into the gaps thus made two or three other thoughts by way of parenthesis, thereby unnecessarily and wantonly confusing the reader."

        The vagueness and unintelligibility of German philosophy and especially of Hegelian philosophical speculation have been often ridiculed for their meaningless jargon. The Hegelians heap words, sentences, and paragraphs and expect the reader to supply the meaning. I give here a translation from that conundrum of Hegelian philosophical dialectics, a kind of metaphysical Pilgrim’s Progress, "Die Phänomenologie des Geistes." The book contains about six hundred pages, with a preface of fifty-eight, and an introduction of twenty-four pages, all closely printed in Gothic type. The passage from the preface:

        "The spiritual alone is the actual; it is the being or Initselfbeing (Ansichseiende),the self-contained and determined,―the Otherbeing (Anderseien) or Forselfbeing (Fürsichseien)—and in that determination or its Outerbeing in itself remaining: or it is in and for itself. This Inandforitselfbeing (Anundfürsichseien) is only at first for us or in itself, it is the spiritual substance. It must also be for itself, must be the knowledge of the spiritual and must be the knowledge of itself as spirit, it must be its own object, but as much immediate or sublimated, in itself reflected object. It is for itself but for us, in so far as its spiritual content is manifested through itself; in so far however as it is for itself, it is for self, so it is self-manifested, the pure concept, at the same time its own objective element wherein it has its being, and it is in this way in its own being for itself in self-reflected object."

        We may take a couple of examples from Hegel’s chapter on Perception (Wahrnehmung):

        The this is thus given as not this, or as subliminated, and therewith not nothing, but a definite nothing, or a nothing having a content, namely, the this (Das Dieses ist also gesetzt, als nicht dieses, oder als aufgehoben und damit nicht Nichts, sondern ein bestimmtes Nichts, oder ein Nichts von einem Inhalte nämlichen dem Diesen).

        The thing is one, in itself reflected; it is for itself but it is also for another; and it is also another for itself as it is for another (Das Ding ist Eins, in sich reflectiert; es ist zwar für sich; aber es ist auch für ein Anderes; und zwar ist es ein ANderes für sich, als es für Anderes ist).

        The italics are Hegel’s. The sense is chiefly in the suggestive power of the italics.

        Such metaphysical speculations are recommended by some Hegelians as the profoundest wisdom of modern idealistic philosophy. One is reminded of the semi-Platonic, semi-Hegelian definition of love: "Love is the ideality of the relativity of reality of an infinitesimal part of the infinite totality of the Absolute Being."

        All these examples fully illustrate my view of the subject of laughter in general and of the ludicrous in particular. May we not put the matter thus: There is laughter of enjoyment, the more difficult becomes easy; but the more the easy is difficult, the more occasion for laughter, or derision. We laugh in a state of enjoyment when the difficult is accomplished with ease, and we laugh again when the easy is accomplished with difficulty. Shall we say that the one is the ascending laughter, the laughter of triumph, and the other the reverse, the descending laughter, the laughter over the defeated? We shall return to this view again and consider it more closely: meanwhile it is advisable to approach the matter under consideration from a slightly different standpoint, which may open to us a new horizon.

        When we laugh over our triumph or over the defeat of our opponents does it no mean the triumph and defeat in regard to certain difficulties? Such difficulties are supposed to be possible to overcome by the average person belonging to a certain class of which a certain amount of energy as a reaction to external stimuli is required.

        We require of laborers a certain amount or quantity of work, and of artists a certain amount of skill and talent, just as we require of the school boy and the school girl a certain amount of study and knowledge which vary as the grades are higher and as the school belongs to the higher branches of education. This is the standard, the norm required, a norm to which man must be adapted in his social environment.

        Standards vary with different with different levels of society and with various countries and ages. We require of the actor a certain amount and quality of acting, a certain amount of a definite quality of knowledge and practice of the worker, of the engineer, of the lawyer, of the soldier, of the physician, of the artist, of the business man, of the clerk, and of the minister. This requirement varies with each country and each age. There is a tacitly assumed level in each society to which man and woman must conform. To be able to rise above that level and manifest more than the usual amount and quality of energy gives rise to the smile of satisfaction or to the laughter of enjoyment. A fall below that level arouses in the spectator the converse laughter, the laughter of the comic, the laughter of derision. May we not assert that the reason man laughs is because he is a being of standards, norms, ideas, and ideals? May we not take a step further and assert that laughter is essentially human, inasmuch as it has reference to established standards and ideals?

        Moreover, we may say that laughter is essentially social, as it is in relation to the standards of different social groups varying with each country, society, and age. In spite of his extraordinary comic genius, Aristophanes remains sadly neglected, and all the wit of Lucian remains unappreciated except by the scholar. Standards, ideals, given by training, social, moral, religious, all these guide men in their thoughts, beliefs, and action. These standards form the social level for the individual in each given age and community. It is Pindar, I think, who tells us that is the tyrant of man.

        May we not say that it is custom or standard given by society that guides the taste of the individual, and anything deviating from the custom, anything uncustomary, is regarded as strange and ridiculous? How many times do we hear old and young fogies tell us when something is propounded to them: "How peculiar, how strange, whoever heard of such a thing!" The Chinaman regards a woman with large feet as ridiculous; we in return laugh over the bandaged feet of the refined Chinese ladies and the long, twisted nails of their gentlemen. The American laughs at the Chinese pig-tails, and the true Chinaman ridicules the close-cropped European. The Northmen laugh at the Greco-Roman skirts and robes, while the Greco-Roman ridicules the trousered barbarian. The Englishman and the American, like Mark Twain, ridicule the German language and manners, and the German returns it to the same coin. As in the lower grades of development child laugh at defects and deviations from the human form, so in the more developed grades of human life people laugh at deviations from custom and use. What is not customary, what is not usual, is laughed at.

        The more restricted a society or social group becomes, the more it becomes separated from the rest of human societies and from other social groups, the more that isolated society or group will find ludicrous the customs and manners of people with whom they happen to be thrown into social contact. Observe how the exclusive Greek or Hebrew rails at the barbarian and the Gentile; how the Chinaman mocks at the European "red barbarian," and the European in turn ridicules John, the Chinaman.

        We laugh at the clown because he dresses differently from other people: he wears striped suits with red spots, caps with bells, paints his face in patches with striking colors that call the child’s attention as being different from the color of the people. The merry-andrew, the zany, Punch and Judy, are greeted by children and the uncultivated with peals of laughter, because the dresses, the squeaking voices, differ from the usual—from the customary. Why do we amuse the public in our theaters and summer gardens by bringing onstage actors imitating the speech, dress and actions of foreigners? Because foreigners live differently from us, that is not customary, and hence funny. This source of using the foreigner, or with us the bringing the Dutchman or some familiar nationality on stage as an object of ridicule, is often exploited by the comic writer. In fact, this source of the comic is as old as Aristophanes, who brought before the Greeks the Persian barbarians, Sham-Artabas, or the Great King’s eye, and utilized this device to make the Greek populace laugh. The device is simple and is based on the principle that we are ready to ridicule what is foreign to us, what we regard as not conforming to use and custom. All deviations from the standard molds, all variations and changes from the usual may become objects of laughter.


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