August 16, 2009

Menander and the spirit of comedy

"The sum of all philosophy is this:
Thou art a man -- there breathes no other creature
more liable to sudden rise and fall."

I discovered this argument in Farquhar, but I'm sure it exists elsewhere: Aristotle was not a poet, and his philosophy of poetry, which remained standard for the classical art for so long a time, is empty. But this isn't an argument against dated ideals of narrative and form; it is rather a lament that so few philosophers are poets and so few poets philosophers, though both often like to think of themselves as the other. I write this out of admiration for those who have been both, and in particular those comic poets close to my heart who navigate wit and buffoonery with enlightened fire and a sophisticated understanding of the human condition -- whatever that may be. I don't mean the didactic or sentimental writers who show good conquering bad; I don't mean social satires or farces of manner; I mean the immortal comic spirit Absurdity, which recognizes that we are all hopeless, forsaken idiots -- with dignity. We are fools who think ourselves wise; beasts who thinks ourselves beauties; apes who think ourselves gods; mortals who think ourselves eternal. We are not ourselves but our dreams. Comedy expresses this truth (but not with jokes; comedy needs no jokes); this spirit needs compassion, patience, humility, sincerity. There one finds the philosopher of the poet.

You have my admiration, lost Menander. You too, Marivaux. And you, Lubitsch. May your philosophy keep me humble, your comedy keep me a fool.

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