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Dr H. Martensen on comedy

READERSVOICE.COM aims to dig up a few interesting pages from old books, especially out of print and even forgotten books. This issue focuses on writing about comedy.

There are a lot of good books on comedy writing around. Mel Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets. The Comedy Bible by Brian McKim and Traci Skene. Comedy Writing Step by Step, by Gene Perret. Surprisingly perhaps, there was also some musing on comedy in an old book I came across: Martensen on Christian Ethics. It’s an 1879 book, written by the bishop of Zealand (Denmark).

Comedy has been said to play with the contrast between how things should be, and how they actually are. Dr Martensen writes that enjoyment of the comic may be designated an intellectual enjoyment, an enjoyment of a philosophical kind. He says: …in the comic contemplation of the world, the ethical consideration is withheld, and as it were suspended, as the comic contrast to the ideal is without suffering – a contrast which dissolves itself in laughter –it may certainly be affirmed that the comic view of the world may, above all, be designated optimist.

Tragedy brings Pessimism into view: comedy, on the other hand, exhibits Optimism: for in all dilemmas, difficulties, and dangers, it is apparent that these are only imaginary and to be overcome, that the perils of this life “have no necessity,” and that all will come right in the end.

But comic Optimism is only apparent – is only, in the strict significance of the term, a mere phenomenal superficial Optimism, under which the real character of existence is concealed; while, on the contrary, this is unveiled by the Pessimism of tragedy.

He says: it is a shrewd observation, that the comic writer acts wisely in letting the curtain fall at the exact instant when the game is at its height: for if he should carry on his narrative, and show us how it fared with these fortunate beings at a later period of their history, he would infallibly arrive at a time of misery, in which there opens a wide field for Pessimism.

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