The Comic View

The Critic

Vol. XLII, No. 4, April 1903


The comic is Dissonance viewed from the Imperturbable. Life is a contretemps. Life is a rencounter between I Would and Thou Shalt Not. Life is Mind out for a lark. Life is what you will, but the hiatus between what you will and what you don’t get is the great motive for the humorous in art, literature, and the magazines.

Spencer says laughter is caused by a “descending incongruity.” In plain English, a “descending incongruity” is an unexpected tumble. Man describing a parabola as he slips up on the banana peel of Chance is the cause of that inextinguishable laughter that reverberates from Olympus to Broadway. George Meredith tells us that the comic is the laughter of the Reason. And reason, he might have added, is the laughter of the Emotions.

The smile is the scintillant light that sparkles on the tear. The comic is the tragic viewed from the wings. Humor is the Tabasco sauce that gives life a flavor. It is mirth that keeps us sane.

The tragic is ridiculous because it has no sense of proportion. The Tragic View measures man against man. The Comic View measures man against the universe. One records the collisions of personality. The other records the impact of the mischievous molecule against the Irrevocable Cosmic. The Tragic View is defective because it takes itself seriously and bombards Eternity with its whimperings. The Comic View is perfect because it takes nothing seriously, chucks the Menacing to devouring Time, and impales the Inevitable on a smile.

The Comic View is exhilarating. It mounts the barricades of Limitation with a hop-skip-and-a-jump. It knows the value of all things. Science? Mere mumblings in a vacuum. Life? A parenthetical affirmative between two negatives. Honor? a bauble for babes. Love? Vascular excitation. Morality? a clever device of Grafter princeps—the State. Tra-la! Hoop-la! Hold up your paper hoops, Master of Ceremonies, and see Merryandrew dive through them and slit them into tissue shards.

The Comic View is the Cosmic View. The world of Time and Chance is as meaningless as “Sordello.” The Demiurge, the world-creator, is the Browning of celestial mechanics: Ideas without style. The world is chaos dramatized. The Earth is the Farnese torso among the sculptured planets. Life is a problem in contingencies. Nothing eventuates. Actions are webbed nothings spun by a syncopated Spider. Time is a loafer playing at tenpins. And whether you drink, or sleep, or make wry faces at Demigorgon, or shy spitballs at Fate—it is all the same. You dissolve at last in fine smut.

So get the Cosmic-Comic View before you slough off and snuff out. Peep at yourself en passant. Look at your meaningless gyrations and silly circumvolutions from a perspective. Stop your sulking and come up the Engadine. Sitting recumbent in your stews, you taint the air dowered with light. Your disappointments are bacterial. You litter the things that devour you. Your sighs are miasmatic. Your liver has got in your eye and your heart in your boots. Take Time by his pronged horn. Get flush with the Spirit that abides.

The raucous guffaw of Rabelais reverberates to this day. The silvery rill of Cervantes—who dragged Prometheus from his rock and set him tilting at windmills—is Spain’s immortal contribution to the Comic View. The dry smile of Molière—Presto! ladies and gentlemen, behold Tartuffe under the table!—lingers on French letters. The metallic chuckle of Mephisto—I believe it was his chuckle that saved Faust! And even the sardonic grin of Aristophanes is as broad to-day as it was when it first split his lips.

[371] These are the wondrous mirrors that image the human contretemps and flash back our calamitous comicalities. Here mankind is skewered on the poignant wit of genius. Could we read Balzac at a single sitting the best of us would forever renounce life. How grotesque are our days! How aimless our actions! How petty our passions! The “Comédie Humaine” is a picture of a huge animal chasing its tail.

Louis Lambert mistook the cataleptic trance for the Kingdom of Heaven! Père Goroit gave up all for love and died of starvation! Old Grandet desired gold and wallowed in it; his daughter Eugénie desired love and died a pallid virgin. And yet Lowell says “God may be had for the asking!” Balzac knew better: It is the gods who may be had for the asking.

Man darts out of negation and begins to scratch the ground like a chicken out of the egg. With what care he builds the house of life! With what seriousness and pride he goes about his daily tasks! He begins each day at exactly the same place he began the day before. But being serious, he lacks omniscience. He builds as though it were for eternity, as though Death—the joker in the stacked pack—did not lie in wait for him. His house is suspended in air, and for every brick he puts on the edifice a brick at the bottom drops silently into space. He is a mechanical figure moving on a grooved stage between the right wing of despair and the left wing of ennui. His spiritual tympanum has been destroyed in the great Boiler Factory. Else he would renounce and smile.

To reach the Comic Height you traverse the Valley of the Shadow. The Country of the White Lights is reached only through the Land of Ultra-Violet Despairs. You first wander through the pits of implacable negations and beneath sickly, pitted suns, and keep tryst with Succubus.

The Pinnacle of the Ludicrous is attained only after having won all sorts of nasty opinions of yourself. The little peeping double on high is evolved in travail. In early life our theories of personality are geocentric and our social universe is Ptolemaic. On our dear tear-mildewed souls we mirror the earth and the fatness thereof. Everything revolves around us. The Self is garbed as Hamlet. What eyes behold us! How our every action is recorded! We manufacture utterly absurd moral systems that we imagine others think we ought to live up to. We shed oceans of tears because Ourself don’t like Ourself. The very stars we believe to be spy-glasses pointed straight at our mewling and puking souls. O the agonies of the Self-Conscious—the parturition of Self from Self! Ego, like protozoon, multiplies by fission. Each new thought is born with the Evil Eye.

But sudden on a day the black garb is doffed—we know not how. Tears cease to flow, and the sob ends in a squeak. We are aware of a synthesis, an amalgamation, a blending as of many waters.

It is the miracle of perspective. What was all this pother about? Who is this blubberer? I turn aside, watch myself come and go, and now smile indulgently at my antics. Funny little fellow, you there—erst myself—with your labors and loves and mouthings! Hi, little fellow there, come amuse me; give me a jest or break a bottle with me; sing me a funny woe-begone serenade beneath Dolores’s window; or let me see your funny little legs sprint to the tomb. Hey there! little manikin that once I thought a giant Thor, what deviltry will you be up to tomorrow?

There is a wail in the night. A babe is crying for the moon. The wail has ceased; the babe has cried itself to sleep. This is often called renunciation. But the Comic Self on high smiles. He knows.


This essay was included in De Casseres’ collection Chameleon: Being a Book of My Selves, pp. 82-88. The following edits are made to the collected version:

  • Life is a rencounter > Life is an encounter
  • what you don’t get > what you do not get
  • art, literature, and the magazines > art, literature and the magazines
  • Olympus to Broadway. George Meredith > Olympus to Broadway. ¶ George Meredith
  • the Tabasco sauce > the tabasco sauce
  • the Irrevocable Cosmic. The Tragic View > the irrevocable. ¶ The Tragic View
  • bombards Eternity > bombards eternity
  • chucks the Menacing > chucks the menacing
  • the barricades of Limitation > the barricades of limitation
  • Honor? a bauble > Honor? A bauble
  • Morality? a clever device of Grafter princeps > Morality? a clever device of the first imposter
  •  Tra-la! Hoop-la! > Tra-la! ¶ Hoop-la!
  • The Comic View is the Cosmic View. > The Comic View is the cosmic view.
  • The world of Time and Chance is as meaningless as “Sordello.” > The world of time and chance is meaningless.
  • Ideas without style > style without ideas
  • the sculptured planets > the scuptured planets
  • a syncopated Spider > a Syncopated Spider
  • come up the Engadine > come up to Pike’s Peak
  • you taint the air dowered with light > you taint the air
  • Take Time by his pronged horn. > [deleted]
  • —Presto! ladies and gentlemen, behold Tartuffe under the table!— > [deleted]
  • as broad to-day > as broad today
  • first split his lips > first split his face
  • Eugénie > Eugènie
  • Lowell says “God > Lowell says, “God
  • the right wing of despair and the left wing of ennui > the right wing of Despair and the left wing of Ennui
  • To reach the Comic Height > To reach the comic height
  • The Pinnacle of the Ludicrous > The pinnacle of the ludicrous
  • because Ourself don’t like Ourself > because ourself doesn’t like ourself
  • O the agonies of the Self-Conscious > Oh, the agonies of the self-conscious
  • of Self from Self > of self from self
  • with the Evil Eye > with the evil eye
  • Hey there! little manikin > Hey there, little mannikin