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Peter Caws FLAUBERT'S LAUGHTER Since the subject of diis article is, in fact, Jean-Paul Sartre, it is necessary to make clear at the beginning that I mean Flaubert's laughter, not Sartre's. About Sartre's laughter diere would not be a great deal to say; there was less of it than one might think. Not perhaps an abnormally small amount, but no torrents of Homeric glee; Sartre in spite of everything was fundamentally serious, and later on I will have more to say about that. Nor is Sartre a comic writer — no work of his has as its object to make us laugh, although we do so from time to time, particularly in some parts of Le Mur and of La Nausée, and occasionally in the plays because of droll turns or witty retorts. There is a kind of dry humor in a good deal of Sartre, there are barbs that find a target in the discomfiture of some literary or political figure and amuse the rest of us who are safely out of range, but it is not clear in such cases whether Sartre himself is really laughing. Boris Vian makes him laugh once, in L'Ecume des jours, in the person of his double Jean-Sol Partre: ". . . the whole ceiling was knocked down into the hall. ... A thick dust surged up in the rubble, whitened forms moved about, staggered and collapsed, asphyxiated by the heavy cloud that floated over the debris. Partre had stopped [his lecture] and was laughing heartily, slapping himself on the thigh, happy to see so many people engaged in this adventure. He swallowed a great mouthful of dust and started to cough like a madman. . . ." i And it may be mat somewhere in Simone de Beauvoir there are accounts of laughter, but a quick leafing-through does not produce any — the impression oí seriousness is once more overwhelming. As to Sartre's own account of his life, he has himself laugh at least twice in Les Mots, once with shame when his grandfather rides him on his knee and sings about a farting bidet, and once at the death of a Saracen in a novel "who charged his horse into that of a crusader; the paladin struck out with his sabre and cleft the foe in twain from top to toe; the scene was illustrated by Gustave Doré. How funny it was! The two halves of the body began to fall, describing a semicircle around each stirrup; the horse reared in amazement. For years I could not see the engraving without laughing till the tears came."2 One further significant 167 168Philosophy and Literature episode of laughter, at the other end of Sartre's life, I shall save for the conclusion of this article. Personal testimony on the part of his friends suggests plenty ofjoviality, it is true, but in the written corpus, both his own and de Beauvoir^, the general impression remains somewhat humorless — not dull, certainly not without wit, but not on the whole a laughing matter. Flaubert's laughter, on the other hand, is of enormous interest to Sartre, and the theory of it that he develops in the first two volumes of L'Idiot de la familL·— indeed a theory of laughter in general — is what I wish to expound and discuss. Any such theory naturally invites comparison with the standard theories, notably those of Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Freud, so it may be as well to begin by recalling the chief claims of those writers. The first two are characteristically dogmatic about it. Schopenhauer, noting that other people's explanations of laughter are insufficient, says that its cause "in every case is simply the sudden perception of incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation, and laughter itself isjust the expression of this incongruity," 3 and he recognizes two subdivisions of the ludicrous: wit, in which we go from the discrepancy of the objects to the identity of the concept, and folly, in which the reverse happens (from the identity of the concept to the discrepancy of the objects, which leads us to believe that they will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 167-180
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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