Ridicule, Its Several Elements, With Their Enumeration And Definition

Ridicule is an affection of the mind of a pure character, being entirely pleasurable without any admixture of pain, and in its effect acutely and vigorously exciting, calling forth very strong feelings of joy and mirth. Ridicule is, however, of two kinds, (1) satire, inclining to gravity in its effect, and (2) humour, which is of a light and exhilarating nature. They’ differ, too, essentially in this respect : satire appeals directly to the intellect alone ; humour to the feelings through the intellect.

Satire also differs from humour in that, while it is less powerful as regards its immediate effect, it is more permanent in its result. The one shocks the soul suddenly, the other sinks deep into it. The one is like the lightning’s flash, which scorches vividly for the moment ; the other is as the slow fire, which penetrates and consumes whatever object it approaches. Humour glares brilliantly for the instant, although but for the instant, and then all is left obscure as before. Satire illumines with less brightness for the time, but preserves a steady and lasting light.

The grotesque consists of a mixture or adulteration of the ridiculous with the sublime, and of humour with grandeur, which mars the effect of the latter. It lowers the dignity, in proportion as it increases the lightness of the description. Caricature results when any effective expression or representation which was intended to be true to nature, degenerates into the ludicrous ; or when that which was meant to excite admiration and pathos, provokes only hilarity and ridicule. Strong effect and humour being produced by exercises of the same capacity of the mind, a very slight deviation from the strict course of exciting either may occasion a diversion of the one operation into the other. And, indeed, sometimes the intensity of expression alone and of itself amounts to caricature, and which mere distortion may be sufficient to create.

It may, however, be objected as regards satire, that it does not strictly belong to art, as it has nothing to do with taste or imagination, or with the affection of the passions. But although satire is not uniformly united with taste or imagination, it may be, and often is closely allied to them, while the two latter are by no means necessarily joined together. And as regards its effect on the passions, satire is as powerful in this respect as either taste or imagination, although it operates in an entirely different way to what they do. The effects of ridicule are, moreover, directly intellectual in their nature, being performed, as I have shown,* through the faculty of wit, which makes combinations of ideas in a manner corresponding with what is performed by taste and imagination, although the ideas selected for this purpose are in their quality different.

The feeling of surprise is the cause of pleasure in many in-stances, as where novelty is produced. In purely imitative works of art, surprise is the leading emotion excited or aimed at, which is occasioned by the dexterity with which the representation of an object in nature is effected upon the canvas. Many other feelings may be blended with this emotion, of an exalted or inferior kind, according to the quality of the subject, or other circumstances. Surprise may be united with the sublime, the grand, the beautiful or the ridiculous.

Satire and humour are to a composition in art what art itself is to knowledge in general,—a valuable accompaniment and ornament, while wholly unfitted to be cultivated or followed by themselves.

Man alone of all terrestrial beings is excited by the emotion of ridicule. This is, moreover, one of the most efficient antidotes against error, more especially as ridicule can often accomplish what reason fails to attain. Ridicule is also generally well received, because, unlike argument, it is always agreeable in its effects. Light and unimportant topics are the best fitted for its exercise. And, indeed, it is the effect of ridicule to render the subject of it, whatever it may be, of a pleasurable character.

Satire of the highest and purest kind, is, nevertheless, as already mentioned, refined rather than robust, and more still than striking. It is better calculated quietly to sink deep into the mind, than to make a great splash upon the surface.

Satire, and even humour, may be sometimes not inappropriately introduced into grave and dignified compositions, as we see here and there in Homer’s ` Iliad,’ and even in Milton’s ` Paradise Lost.’ But this is more as a relief than as a leading feature in the composition. It is intended rather to en-lighten, as it were, the dark and obscure corners, than to illumine the whole prospect. Wit, indeed, like grandeur and beauty, often requires relief; and only the more so than they do, because in its effects it is more exciting.

An incongruous mixture or conjunction together of ideas wholly dissimilar, and naturally remote and unsuitable, of itself promotes ridicule. Thus also the imitation of the figure or manner of another is often ridiculous, not so much from the points of agreement, as from those of difference, as in mimicry, in caricatures, and in unskilfully drawn portraits.

Beauty deteriorates from humour, but adds force to pathos. Beauty is, indeed, produced by the combination of suitable ideas and objects; humour, by the combination of those that are unsuitable.

Tragic and also epic representations are, for the most part, of events which are distant, as those are best adapted to excite deeper emotions in the mind. Humorous representations are mainly of events which are near to us, or familiar to our experience, as best fitted to raise feelings of mirth and lightness. Tragedy and comedy together embrace all that is most striking in the events of human life of both kinds, whether originating in pain or pleasure. They both spring from acute feeling or striking sensation. In the epic style, and also in the tragic, as already observed, intellect rather than passion appears to be mainly appealed to.

According to Aristotle,* the essential difference between tragedy and comedy is, that the one exhibits the characters of men superior, and the other exhibits them inferior to those of ordinary nature; that tragedy displays the energies, comedy the weaknesses of humanity.

It is as necessary to follow nature in ridicule, and in pathos too, as it is in grandeur and beauty ; and nature is as requisite for the foundation of the one as for that of the other. In the case of each, it gives them their vitality and vigour and effect. In ridicule, indeed, the contrast instituted is always based on nature.

The following appear to me to be the main and essential elements which constitute ridicule of both kinds :-1. Opposition. 2. Abruptness. 3. Incongruity. 4. Novelty. 5. Vivacity. 6. Conciseness.

(1.) Opposition is the first leading and essential element in the constitution of ridicule, and is necessary from the very nature and mode of operation of the faculty of wit, the whole effect of which is occasioned by the combination together in the same subject of qualities of an opposite kind, which contrast one with another. Opposition consists in the meeting together of two subjects or objects wholly different and dissimilar, and indeed contrary in their nature and appearance, and the near proximity of which produces an obvious and striking result arising from their union.

This element is active as regards its operation, and originating in its nature, as also independent in respect to its aid from any other element. It also operates directly in relation to the result that it occasions, and is absolutely essential as an ingredient in the production of the sentiment which we term ridicule, and is consequently always found in combinations which call it forth, although other elements are necessary to be united with it in order to attain this end.

(2.) The next of the elements availed of in the production of ridicule is that of abruptness, which consists in a celerity and suddenness as regards the mode in which any action is per-formed or represented, that causes a vivid excitement in the mind, in a great measure owing to its being unprepared for the occurrence, and which on this account affects it far more forcibly than it would otherwise do.

Abruptness is consequently an essential element in ridicule, to which suddenness and celerity appear indispensable, and without which the effect of the combinations made for the end here supposed, altogether fails.

This element is also active in its operation, although derivative only in its nature, and auxiliary merely to the other elements, not being of any avail by itself for the production of this sentiment. It operates, however, in a direct manner, and is in-variably to be found in combinations of this character.

(3.) Incongruity is another very essential element in the constitution of ridicule, and by which the striking and exciting nature of the whole effect is produced. It is caused by the character or appearance of the subject or object presented to the mind, being of an unusual and irregular, and in some points inconsistent character, allied in this respect to deformity, so as to affect us by its strange and extraordinary aspect. It arises from a certain degree of discrepancy and inconsistency appearing between the different constituent parts of a subject or narrative, which although not amounting to actual incoherence or contradiction, nevertheless render it to a large extent eccentric and uncommon, and different to what we ordinarily perceive, or are accustomed to observe, and which on that account excites corresponding emotions in the mind.

The nature of this element is nevertheless only passive, but its effect is direct ; it is also originating. And although only auxiliary with other elements, it is essential to the very being and production of ridicule, and is consequently always to be perceived where combinations of this class are made.

(4.) Novelty is also an essential element in the production of ridicule, and is therefore ever to be found in combinations of this character, inasmuch as the reproduction of a stale idea wholly fails to excite the mind ; while, on the other hand, the quality of novelty gives to every subject of this kind an air of interest and of vitality, which adds greatly to its effect.

This element consists in, or is occasioned by the circumstance of the subject or object presented to the mind being of an entirely novel, unaccustomed, and unlooked-for character, so as at once to excite surprise, without which the sensation of ridicule is comparatively powerless, and loses its spirit and effect.

Novelty is, as regards its operation, passive and direct; and it is also originating and independent.

(5.) Vivacity is a very essential element in ridicule, and is in fact the very soul of each subject of this nature, without which its effect on the mind wholly fails. It consists in the infusion of a certain air of life and activity into the entire narration or representation, which confers upon it that power and animation necessary to excite in us those particular emotions allied to ridicule, which compositions of this character are peculiarly calculated to call forth.

In its nature and operation it is extensively active, and also originative, and independent of any other element, operating in a direct manner, and is always found where sentiments of this kind are excited.

(6.) The last of the elements in the production of ridicule is that of conciseness, which is an important and efficient element in ridicule, and that of both kinds; each effort of which, whatever may be its results, whether permanent or transitory, ought to be sudden and vivid, and but very limited in its duration or transmission. Like the lightning’s flash, its stroke must be instantaneous ; and so important has this principle ever been regarded, that it is a received axiom that “brevity is the soul of wit.” This element consists in the reduction within a very brief and limited sphere, of the space required in the representation or narration of any object or subject, so that the full force of its effect may be concentrated, and it may act with vigour and energy, instead of wending its way tediously along, and wearying the mind by its prolixity.

This element, although very efficient in the production of ridicule, is not absolutely indispensable; and examples, however rare, are occasionally to be found of striking combinations of this character from which it is absent. It is passive as regards its operation, and also derivative from other sources, and independent, and acts in a direct manner.