Googling “dead at 46,” I’m reminded of something unspeakable: David Foster Wallace hanged himself nearly a year ago. And I imagine how quickly Wallace would’ve jumped on that “unspeakable” — so inaccurate, you know: the saying of it unsays it. But stop, wait: that is not what I meant at all. I meant to write about comedy, not tragedy. I meant to write about Charles Baudelaire, who also died at age 46 — on today’s date, in 1867.
Almost everything I know about comedy comes from Baudelaire. In his 1855 treatise “On the Essence of Laughter, and, in General, on the Comic in the Plastic Arts” (a treatise, I’ll add, that is also a treat), he writes:
To take one of the most commonplace examples in life, what is there so delightful in the sight of a man falling on the ice or in the street, or stumbling at the end of a pavement, that the countenance of his brother in Christ should contract in such an intemperate manner, and the muscles of his face should suddenly leap into life like a timepiece at midday or a clockwork toy? The poor devil has disfigured himself, at the very least; he may even have broken an essential member.Nevertheless the laugh has gone forth, sudden and irrepressible. It is certain that if you care to explore this situation, you will find a certain unconscious pride at the core of the laughter’s thought.That is the point of departure. “Look at me!I am not falling,” he seems to say. “Look at me!I am walking upright.I would never be so silly as to fail to see a gap in the pavement or a cobblestone blocking the way.”
“Look at me! I am not falling” neatly encapsulates the “superiority theory” of comedy, in which one man’s fall is another man’s “sudden glory.” (From a T-shirt I saw recently at the Albany airport: “It’s only funny till someone gets hurt. Then it’s freakin’ hilarious.”) Other theories of laughter include “incongruity” and “relief.” The writers on “King of the Hill” once filled a binder with more specific theories, including “J/T = F [where J is Joke, T is Time, and F is Funny; the less time you take to tell a joke, the funnier it is]” and “If HN, then SV [if hit in the nuts, then squeaky voice].” It’s easy to make fun of theories of laughter: none adequately accounts for all comic situations. Worse still, you run into a problem best expressed by Saul Steinberg: “Trying to define humor is one of the definitions of humor.”
But Baudelaire’s wry definitions help me to consider not only comedy but artistic practice in general. A note, though, concerning that wryness: In the right — or wrong? — mood, one can read his essay as an attack on laughter. His more emphatic pronouncements — “Laughter is satanic”; “the comic is a damnable element” — may, when taken out of context, paint him as an agelast, or a non-laugher — something he surely is not. Just listen to him in his preemptive-strike mode:
A doubt assails me.Should I reply with a formal demonstration to the kind of preliminary question which no doubt will be raised by certain spiteful pundits of solemnity — charlatans of gravity, pedantic corpses which have emerged from the icy vaults of the Institut and have come again to the land of the living, like a band of miserly ghosts, to snatch a few coppers from the obliging administration?
And listen to him again, as he brings various threads of his essay together:
And now let us recapitulate a little and establish more clearly our principal propositions, which amount to a sort of theory of laughter.Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human.It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority.And since laughter is essentially human, it is, in fact, essentially contradictory; that is to say that it is at once a token of an infinite grandeur and an infinite misery — the latter in relation to the absolute Being of whom man has an inkling, the former in relation to the beasts.It is from the perpetual collision of these two infinities that laughter is struck.
The key phrase here is perpetual collision, with the adjective carrying as much weight as the noun. Difficult laughter, the laughter I’m most interested in, may be thought of as two expressions in constant conflict — a guffaw and a gasp; a chuckle caught in a chokehold. In the introduction to his anthology Comedy: Meaning and Form, Robert Corrigan writes, “One of the most striking characteristics of the modern drama is the way in which the age-old distinctions between the tragic and the comic (the serious and the ludicrous, the painful and the painless) have been obliterated.”
So you see, it’s hard to “write about comedy, not tragedy”: they’re twin jets, firing side by side.
Which brings me back to David Foster Wallace. No writer of my generation — perhaps no living writer (a quick wince, typing that) — was better at simultaneously firing those jets. He made entire areas of knowledge his own: pleasure cruises, state fairs, tennis,lobster-eating — and he made us feel infinitely grand, infinitely miserable. And like Baudelaire, he did it all in just half a lifetime. (Allow me the fantasy of 92 years.) Sitting down to write this post, I had no inkling that I’d be calling on Wallace. But as so often happens, he spoke to me.