The function of comedy

From Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature,” in Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective:

Aristotle made a provocative comment about the common subject matter of tragedy and comedy when he said that they both deal with “some defect or ugliness.” The Greek word that Aristotle uses is hamartia—literally a missing of the mark in archery and and the famous “character flaw” of tragedy. In comedy this defect “is not painful or destructive,” while in tragedy it is. Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it. Paradoxically, notes Bernard Schilling, “in tragedy man seems great after all, in comedy he seems small after all.”

It is not easy to say why the spectacle of human defect strikes us as funny in comedy. The same experiences in real life are painful. It is obvious that the angle of vision is part of the explanation. In comedy we ourselves must feel superior to the comic victim before we laugh at his or her misfortune. 

Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good. A book on the comic entitled A Divine Average argues that comedy not only endorses the average but idealizes it. Comedy levels us all into a community of ordinary people. In comedy we judge the human condition as limited and flawed, but we are reconciled to it and accept our place in it.

A book entitled Why Literature Is Bad For You observes that “the most renowned stories of the Western World are frequently built around a central bungler whose incompetence has the effect of injuring a good many around him” and then draws the conclusion that literature makes us tolerant of competence. I would suggest an alternative conclusion: reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a “given” of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure


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