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)