Monday, January 19, 2009

The Nature of Comedy -- Essays 4, 5, and Final

Grafting a Crab Upon a Medlar:
Wit’s Evens, Desire’s Odds, and Astringent Fertility in Congreve’s The Way of the World

Susanne Langer, in Feeling and Form, hypothesizes that comedy at its deepest level arises from something that brings to mind Bergson’s élan vital (Gillies 14), a vital force interestingly not discussed in Bergson’s essay on comedy (Bergson):
Comedy is an art form that arises naturally wherever people are gathered to celebrate life…it expresses the elementary strains and resolutions of animate nature, the animal drives that persist even in human nature… What justifies the term “Comedy” is not that the ancient ritual procession, the Comus…was the source of this great art form—but that the Comus was a fertility rite, and the god it celebrated a fertility god, a symbol of perpetual rebirth… (Langer 331)

In this essay, I will consider how Congreve, in The Way of the World, pruned and trained this wild fertile energy, creating a comic espalier (EDIS Publication System) upon which a harvest of crab-tart wit and medlar-soft (Reich 88) generosity ripened. Further, I will explore how Langer’s focus on libidinous energy in “The Comic Rhythm” needs to be extended to more cerebral forms of desire in order to help us understand The Way of the World, particularly when examining the role of desire in Congreve’s play. At the end of this essay, we shall see what Congreve produced by shaping, through reason and wit, Langer’s theoretically earthy comic root.


In contrast to Langer’s supposition of a purely biological rhythm at the root of comedy, there is little animal fertility in The Way of the World. Mrs. Fainall’s potentially ruinous pregnancy did not happen (Congreve 346); “the curate’s wife, that’s always breeding” is disagreeably pale and faint according to Lady Wishfort (Congreve 354); and despite the number of love affairs past and present in the play, there are no children to speak of. Congreve’s fertility is astringent, cerebral; more a tartly witty crabapple grafted on the old medlar stock of ripening libido than, to echo Fainall’s comment about Witwould, “a medlar grafted on a crab.” (Congreve 329) By expanding Langer’s notion that comedy is fueled by the “sex impulse” (Langer 330) to include the broader range of transmuted desires, we can appreciate Congreve’s brilliance at shaping character, wit, desire, and plot into a metaphoric espalier—one whose stock is unshakable and whose fruit, though astringent, is made delectable once ripened by Congreve’s moral center and reason.


An Iconic Comedic Diptych:
Artists and Communities in Gogol’s “The Portrait”

In her essay “The Comic Terrain,” Louise Cowan writes of “the necessity of distinguishing the image of a world—the comic terrain—lying behind the action of the work…” (Cowan 8) and further identifies comedy with community: “Comedy endures and perseveres in a fallen world, occurring in city streets or drawing rooms…making its way by mutual helpfulness toward a community of love within the larger order of society.” (Cowan 10) Since Cowan puts forth an almost holographic view of the nature of comedy—
…the character of comedy is so definitive…that one can discern its nature even from a brief experience of the work. Its qualities permeate it, as the vanilla permeates the pudding and thereby modifies its component parts. … One should be able to choose any page of a work…and discern whether or not the work is comic. (Cowan 4-5)

—I chose not to focus on all of the Petersburg Tales we were assigned, but rather on one, “The Portrait.” In this essay, I will explore its diptych of artists and communities and their estrangements and reconciliations, and see whether a diptych glance at some of the conventions of Eastern Orthodox icon painting and the movement called Romanticism can help us gain insight into the nature of comedy in Gogol’s comedic terrain.


Ultimately, despite the Romanticism of Gogol’s focus on specific individuals in “The Portrait,” it is in each individual’s relationship to the community of a loving God—whether estranged from or reunited with that community—that we see how even the darkest parts of “The Portrait” are deeply comic. Using the language of painting to describe Gogol’s comedy, the diptych that comprises “The Portrait” contains areas of comic pentimento—areas where an under-painting of agapē shows through even the wildest, darkest elements, promising the possibility of reconciliation even for those most separated from what Gogol implies is the most important community, the community of God’s love.


Lux, Lumen, Shadow, and Laughter:
The Chiaroscuro of Jorge’s View of Comedy in The Name of the Rose

The murderous Jorge in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose would have us believe he violated the fifth commandment of the Catholic ethical Decalogue (The Holy See) for a far greater good—that of preventing the dissemination of the contents of Aristotle’s mythic second book, which Jorge believes will ignite “the Luciferine spark [of blasphemous laughter] that would set a new fire to the whole world…[where t]he people of God would be transformed into an assembly of monsters belched forth from the abysses of the terra incognita…” (Eco 472-475). In this paper, I will show how Jorge’s blindness in equating blasphemous laughter with comedy was an apt depiction of his darkened, flawed understanding of what comedy can be. Using concepts and approaches from the time and place Dr. Eco set his tale, I will also show how, transmuted from its origins in pagan rite (Berger 16) into something that serves a Judeo-Christian mythos, comedy connects us with physical and symbolic light—and how, in fact, Jorge himself is a potential beneficiary of the light of comedy.


Jorge was wrong, even in the context of his role and his time, to disdain laughter and to despise comedy. While laughter may occur in the course of comedy, it is not necessary; what is necessary to comedy is a Lux-engendered lumen of the heart, a reconciliation. Comedy is the enemy of fixity without love, of the static shadow; darkness is not completely dark if there is some hope for change, for the unexpected and indeterminate. Although Jorge is condemned and not redeemed within the novel, Eco’s indeterminate ending opens the possibility of an outside-the-narrative reconciliation. In such a Deus ex fabula, as in the scripture Jorge claimed to love, even Jorge’s shadows would recede before the approaching, all-encompassing Light.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 3

This week I had my first experience "teaching" a graduate-level seminar. Yay!

One of my former professors had to leave town to attend a conference, and to my delight she asked me to substitute for her one night.

The seminar discussion centered on Silko's novel Ceremony, and while I mangled the pronunciation of the word "synecdoche" -- as well as malaproply referring to the anthropic principle as the "anthropomorphic theory" (sheesh) -- I think it went pretty well. The people in the class all seemed engaged, with the exception of one soul who looked as if they would rather be anywhere else but there.

And, bonus teaching moment fun -- after class, one of the students asked my advice on their final project. How cool is that?

I learned more about Silko's book through this teaching experience, as I hoped I would. All told, a really fun change of pace for me, and I hope it was an equally good experience for those students.


Since I have heard the handful of people who stop by here are as busy as I am -- and therefore too busy to ask for, or read, those essays I've been posting -- I am changing the format.

Going forward, I'll post the first paragraph and the last, so you can get a tiny bit of the wrap-up. Let me know if this is mo' bettah.


“But Elizabeth Knew Nothing of the Art”:
Society, Comedy, and Portraits in Pride and Prejudice in Relation to Bergson’s “Laughter”

As Jane Austen herself intimated in Pride and Prejudice, an artful portrait—whether painted with words or with brush—can provide a sufficiently different perspective from one’s own prejudice to shift the viewer’s, or reader’s, internal social landscape. In this brief paper, I will consider some of the ways in which Austen’s palette of laughter in Pride and Prejudice supports Henri Bergson’s statement, “By organizing laughter, comedy accepts social life as a natural environment, it even obeys an impulse of social life.” (Bergson 71) I will also show how Austen’s work undermines both the continuation of that statement, “And in this respect [comedy] turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature” (Bergson 71), and Bergson’s notion that comedy is not quite art. Moreover, I will explore the role of the comic impulse, defined by Bergson as vanity and its puncture (Bergson 71-72), in Austen’s portrait of Elizabeth and her visit to the Pemberley picture gallery.


However, the scene itself shows the prejudice in Bergson’s statement, “And in this respect [comedy] turns its back upon art, which is a breaking away from society and a return to pure nature.” (Bergson 71) There is nothing further from pure nature than late-18th century English portraits. (Tscherny) Comedy may turn its back on the flattering vision Reynolds produced, but “pure nature” is nowhere in evidence. Further, when Bergson writes that comedy is not quite art (Bergson 63), Austen’s artful work in her social comedy contradicts him. Elizabeth’s comedic arc is Bergsonian in that her vanity, vanity held because of others’ regard for her wit and insightfulness, is punctured. That puncture began in the picture gallery, where a somewhat idealized portrait allows her to feel something new for Darcy. It is the non-Bergsonian emotion at the end of the novel, in that last mention of pained laughter in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth’s portrait is nearly complete. Austen’s painting of Elizabeth’s dreadful doubt surpasses Reynolds, and vanity’s puncture no longer matters. Her, and our, hope for love and a happy ending carries us away from Bergsonian laughter into something richer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 2

My husband Murry is astonished that anyone would actually want to read my schoolwork. I told him that most of my friends are art-and-lit-nerds who think it'd be fun, and if you're reading this blog, you likely resemble that remark.


That said, here's an intro to my second essay.


Is the Spirit of Comedy a Genius Loci?
An Essay on Meredith’s Consideration of Molière and its Extensibility Beyond Cultural Boundaries

George Meredith’s elegant, eloquent disquisition on the “comic spirit” led me down an unexpected path. In this essay, I will not only examine Molière’s Tartuffe and The Misanthrope, seeking the thoughtful laughter Meredith considers a hallmark of the comic spirit. I will also seek examples of that laughter in a culture which, at least superficially, resembles the Court of Louis XIV—that of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. If the Court of Louis XIV inspired Molière, an exemplar of the comic spirit according to George Meredith, might we find the Spirit of Comedy in different culture containing a similar setting? While this brief essay cannot hope to make sufficient assay across so broad a topic, I hope the abbreviated effort to determine whether Meredith’s spirit of comedy is a genius loci or not will bring a smile to the essay’s reader.

When Meredith wrote “One excellent test of the civilization of a country…I take to be the flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy…” (Meredith), he implicitly raised a question—if the Spirit of Comedy reflects what is both human and humane in a civilization, is it found not only in Western civilization, but in Eastern as well? Or is the Spirit of Comedy a genius loci, its smile not a universal smile but one constrained by cultural boundaries? Meredith himself hints this may be so in his unflattering description of German laughter:

"The German literary laugh, like the timed awakenings of their Barbarossa in the hollows of the Untersberg, is infrequent, and rather monstrous—never a laugh of men and women in concert. It comes of unrefined abstract fancy, grotesque or grim, or gross, like the peculiar humours of their little earthmen. … This treble-Dutch lumbersomeness of the Comic spirit is of itself exclusive of the idea of Comedy…"(Meredith)


Want to read more? Leave me a comment to that effect. And any comments, to any effect, are of course welcome.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Nature of Comedy -- Essay 1

I had heard this course was challenging. Since I am way too susceptible to things resembling dares, I registered.

And then I saw the syllabus...reading two plays or more per week, a form I've struggled with in the past. An essay due every other week. And no advance info on the essay until the week before -- OMG, how was I going to get it all done?!

I had no idea, and no idea what I was in for...

Below is the intro to my first essay (sans MLA formatting.) If you'd like to read more than this bit, you can leave a comment to that effect, or email me at lwitzel {at} austin {dot} rr {dot} com. In any case, I'm glad you stopped by!


The Two Plauti: Reflections on Seeing Double with Frye and Bakhtin

Plautus wrote his plays primarily for audiences who expected to be entertained (Slater 6), rather than for literary theorists and critics—so why consider his work through the lens of literary theory? More specifically, what is the relevance of literary theory to Plautus’ comedies The Brothers Menaechmus and The Haunted House? In this essay, I will briefly consider how two literary theorists, Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bakhtin, think about comedy; how applying their views to Plautus yields a doubling that recalls the comedic complications of Plautus’ same-named twins in The Brothers Menaechmus; and what this might tell us about the role of literary theory in relation to comedy.

Let us first consider Northrop Frye’s approach to literary theory. Frye believed the critic held the key to understanding art; in his view, artists could not understand and unlock the value of their own work, nor could the public, without the added perspective provided by criticism (Hart 56-64).

"The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with." (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, in Hart 59)

Friday, October 31, 2008


In response to a gentle clamor from Marly, among others, I'm refreshing and renewing this blog.

The expanded mission?
Sporadically share my classwork, independent study, and experiences, for those who are inclined to read such.

The rules of the game?

I'll post the first paragraph or two from my writings; if you'd like to read more, leave a comment to that effect. If needed, I'll spell out my email address in a comment reply. You can then email me your address if I don't have it, and I'll send you a soft copy of the whole thang (in some cases, minus images -- the file sizes grow unmanageable with images.)

That way, I'm not easily feeding a 'bot trolling for plagarizable fodder, and I'll know who's reading what.

Most recent set of "be careful what you wish for" circumstances?
The class project that spawned this blog, my very first MLA class, led to a directed studies in art history focused on medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Which led to my asking some interesting questions about the medieval frame tale in relation to Giotto, which led to my being nudged to write an abstract for a possible presentation at a medieval conference, which led to my work being accepted and me presenting, and then to another conference accepting my work for presentation this coming spring.

What was it like having completed only three MLA classes, and presenting alongside professors of art history?
Terrifying beforehand; gratifying after. Dr. Steele and Dr. Elliott could not have made me feel more welcome, and have been supportive and in touch post-conference.

Thank goodness for Dr. MacArthur, the adjunct art history professor at St. Ed's, helping me rehearse, and those friends of mine who were kind enough to play audience.

Would you like more details?
Do you want me to share some of the essays I've written to date for my current class, "The Nature of Comedy"?
Let me know what you'd like to know.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A taste of things to come

An intro section from my Directed Studies in Art paper.

Warning: For any lazy so-and-so's who found this in an effort to not think or write their own thoughts for work or school, remember these lines are very findable through Google as well as through Don't plagiarize. Aside from the bad karma, everything you find that I've written is copyrighted by me.


Image and After-Image:
Some Reflections on Carnival Marginalia and Images of Jews
in Medieval Christian Illuminated Manuscripts

Although George Kubler’s classic work, The Shape of Time, focuses on form through sequence/series rather than iconography (Kubler vii-viii), it offers an interesting platform from which to consider the content of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Kubler posited, “…astronomers and historians have this in common: both are concerned with appearances noted in the present but occurring in the past.” (Kubler 19) The thought-exercise of comparing art historians to astronomers and works of art to stars (Kubler 19) serendipitously mirrors the importance of the heavens, both physical and spiritual/psychic, to medieval Christians and Jews. Indeed, Kubler’s analogies are relevant to a central challenge of understanding medieval art—that of understanding it in context, despite our apparent remove in space and time from the world of the works’ creators.

Why, other than these felicitous metaphors, am I choosing an art historian known mainly for his writing on ancient Mesoamerican art as a connecting thread in an exploration of medieval Christian imagery? In part because Kubler famously (and controversially) wrote that “art stands outside culture” (Willey 674-75), he provides a useful counterpoint as we test the resilience of established methodologies and the strength of cultural filters applied by modern scholars to medieval art. Since Kubler downplayed the importance of an individual artist’s biography when considering the impact of the work itself (Kubler 5-8) he may provide an approach to the communal creativity represented by medieval codices. And his discussion of prime objects and replications (Kubler 39) is of particular interest for an examination of the images of Jews in medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts, if we consider real Jews of the time as prime object and the progressive change over time and series in depictions of Jews as replication.

In this paper, I will examine contemporary scholars’ views of medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts across a variety of secondary sources, with a look at the role of carnival imagery—imagery full of mockery, sex, filth, inversions, monsters, and puns—in marginalia, and a more persistent gaze at the role of images of Jews whether in marginalia or not. Specifically, I will discuss imagery associated with the concept of “the good Christian” and the accompanying after-images of “the Jew” in an effort to understand the meaning of these images for medieval Christian culture and the impact of these images on medieval Jews. In a very modest way, I hope to clarify the powerful impact these images had on medieval people and—in line with Kubler’s thought that the metaphoric light or shadow cast by a work of art creates a field of influence (Kubler 19) through time—I hope to show the equally powerful impact they continue to have on us.


More to come...if you'd like the whole thing once done, please email lwitzel {at} austin {dot} rr {dot} com, thenkyewverymuch.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Better images

Shelly Lowenkopf's prototype pages.
You can also see it on Flickr here.


Rachel Barenblat's prototype pages.
You can also see it on Flickr here.