Category Archives: Theory of humour

Do butterflies wonder if they are beautiful?

I had a discussion a few weeks ago on the subject of laughter with a girl who had anorexia. She saddened me when she told me that she had not laughed properly in years. Not, she was quick to add, because she had lost her sense of humour. She still had a keen sense of irony as our conversation proved. Rather, she lacked the energy to be moved to laughter. A small smile was all she could muster.
For anyone who does not know much about anorexia, it is a condition where the brain has taught itself that starvation, having no spare energy and depriving oneself of sensation are good things. Either because the subject does not believe that he or she deserves better or because they enjoy a sense of purity. Or for an entirely different reason, mental health is far from simple. But what is often a constant is lacking energy to do what a healthy subject might take for granted.
Perhaps we can sympathise. Remember a time when, worn down and tired, we couldn’t really enter into the spirit of a funny situation. But this example is interesting simply because it helps to separate laughter from humour. Laughter as a physical response and humour as a philosophical perspective on the world. After all, we do not have to laugh to be amused. But, as it appears, we need to have a least a certain amount of energy in order to laugh.
Perhaps a sufferer of anorexia has a highly developed sense of humour despite not being able to laugh. As Simon Critchley has noted, humour can occur in the gap between being and having one’s body. We exist and there is no denying that without resorting to mindbending metaphysics (and perhaps the Matrix). Secondly, we cannot exist without our bodies (though perhaps I can only say that because I am not particularly religious). But we do not fully identify with our bodies. They do strange things without our conscious input or even despite our conscious efforts to control them. We can dislike them intensely (to an extreme in the case of the anorexic) while still quite like ourselves. We search for a sense of purpose, create all manner of stories to explain who we are and what we are doing. But the simple, in the present existence seemingly enjoyed by animals and plants evades us. After all, it is hard to imagine a butterfly with self-image issues. We do not have our bodies.(1)

Humour occurs when we are distanced enough from our bodies to see them objectively and to marvel at their weirdness. The anorexic who has developed this objectivity to an alarming degree, to the point where the body is seen as an enemy, might, if he or she is of a philosophical mind, be able to see the ridiculousness of the situation. (2) She fights what she is in the search to become herself. It is at least darkly ironic. So, exhausted and unable to laugh, the anorexic can still have a sense of humour. She can watch the laughers around her and marvel at how ridiculous these beings are who cannot control their paroxysms of mirth. She and Baudelaire might have had a lot to say to each other.(3)

But, allow for a moment that laughter does not point to the best  humour but the most explosive reaction. Critchley indeed makes the point that, while laughter is recognised in most languages as superior to a smile (French a smile – sourire – is a sub-laugh – rire; English we use the German word for Laughter and the Danish word for Smile – a small laugh), a smile is at the heart of humour. It is what marks humans as different from animals because it is a wry, reflective but humorous approach to life. It is the response we assume when we have taken all that life has to through at us and can still find the comedy in the situation.(4) That my anorexic friend (who, you’ll be happy to know is well on the road to recovery) can still find reason to smile is a sign of the resilience in the human condition.


  1. My thanks to Simon Critchley for this valuable insight. See Simon Critchley, On Humour, (London, Routledge,2002), p.  50.
  2. Ibid, p. 42. I am focusing in on an example that Critchley mentions in passing.
  3. Baudelaire is famous for his examination of the superiority theory of humour. He notes that the buffoon who makes others laugh is the most superior being since he drives the others to a state that is undignified and demeaning. See Michele Hannoosh, Baudelaire and caricature: from the comic to the art of modernity, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
  4. Critchley, On Humour, p. 108.

Baudelaire’s theory of humour

Baudelaire was among the first to make a truly critical study on the art of caricature as an art form in itself from the artist’s point of view. His study suggests that caricature has some intrinsic worth as art. Before, during and after his time of writing (the mid-nineteenth century), art critics continued to see caricature as only a marginal art form, low-brow and beneath their contempt. Baudelaire’s extensive criticism and contemplation of caricature and its sense of humour is therefore both radical and deviously subversive. Baudelaire uses his commentary to exemplify his theory that laughter and irony stemmed from a feeling of superiority by mocking the very critics who believe themselves to be superior to caricature.1 Yet Baudelaire’s theory itself is divergent from the most popular theories of humour of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Hazlitt and Kierkegaard were all describing the essence of humour and laughter to be non-threatening incongruity between a person’s expectations and the reality before them. To them, laughing in superiority was only a partial cause for laughter and not one which was to be encouraged, for ethical reasons.2

Laughter is a mark of perceived superiority: the laugher recognises in the object of his or her humour an unconscious ridiculousness which only the laugher can see. To Baudelaire, laughter is essentially satanic and so natural to humans who defiantly mark their difference to animals by stating their superiority to them. Laughter and particularly irony requires this feeling of superiority while not realising that, by laughing, the laugher is being ridiculous and opening him or herself to be an object for another’s ridicule. This self-ignorance blinds the person to their essential duality. While s/he may feel superior to some fellow humans and animals, s/he is always inferior to the absolute. The wise do not laugh because they are aware of the danger laughter entails. They see in the laughing object a being who is out of control and so avoid this state, choosing only to laugh quietly, prudently and, importantly, with a degree of self-control.

The comedian is a comic genius who has the key to provoking others to laugh by appearing inferior while maintaining control over the situation and so secretly being superior to the audience. This intentional display of ludicrous inferiority reflects back at the audience their own ridiculousness. The comedian encourages others to learn of their own dual superior/inferior existence and, through this, realise the latent dangers of laughter and ridicule.

Baudelaire praised in particular the English clowns of pantomimes and music halls as the epitome of the comique absoluComique absolu refers to a type of comedy which is completely spontaneous, free and ultimately pleasurable. Baudelaire makes an insightful point when he writes that the source of the comedy is not in the object – the object does not laugh. It is from the laugher’s own sense of humour that the comedy arises and so is to a certain extent torn from him or her in a release of tension and control. The comique absolu comes from a feeling of superiority over nature and is expressed in a violent, exuberant laugh which consumes the laugher, making them incapable of anything else. This type of laughter is distinguished from the comique significatif which, according to Baudelaire, was a lower, less complete form of comedy.

In the comique significatif, the comedian is trying to make a moral point through humour. An object is made to appear comic through irony which is only appreciated at a distance. This comedy is not all-consuming as the comique absolu and so fails in what Baudelaire considers to be the moral imperative of comedy – to teach the audience of their own duality and essential inferiority in relation to the absolute.  In the comique absolu, the moral idea is one with the act of laughter – the comedian inspires laughter in his or her audience to make them aware of their own ridiculous. In the comique significatif, the attention is placed on an external moral idea, away from the laughing subject and so ignoring the ridiculousness of laughter itself. The audience is encouraged to feel superior over their fellow human beings rather than to perceive their dual superiority/inferiority. Because of the distance the ironic approach to an amusing object makes, the significatif comedian invites his or her audience to view the object on the same level as him or her. This means that the audience is made aware of the mechanism of the comedy and so does not understand the comedian to be in any way superior to them. This comedian is neither aware of his or her own inferiority nor capable of making his or her audience aware.

The place of the caricaturist in all this is to be the comedian – to act the fool and to show off the foolishness of others. French comedy was criticised for being too significative – Baudelaire only really admired the spontaneous comedy of buffoons, grotesques whose effortless foolishness inspires laughter where as the purpose behind caricaturists’ irony is too transparent. Of all the French caricaturists, Daumier comes closest to the real spontaneous comedy (comique absolu) because his goodnatured ironic commentary of society appears accidental. By admiring in English pantomime an example of real comique absolu, Baudelaire again diverged from his contemporaries who looked down on the coarseness and clumsiness of English clowns when compared to the refinement and delicateness of the French mime, Deburau.4 To Baudelaire, Deburau was too obviously staged and so significative. His comedy could not teach the audience of the inherent inferiority in laughter – too much attention is placed on the significance behind the irony. Audience is on a par, sharing in the irony and so revelling in their perceived superiority whilst ignoring the ridiculousness of their laughter. Similarly with the French caricaturists, the political messages heavily underlined through their grotesque reconstructions of the caricatured subjects drew the readers’ attention away from their own state as laughers to more thoroughly ridicule the targets.



  1. Maclnnes, John W., ‘Essential Laughter: Baudelaire’s De l’essence du rire’, French Forum, Vol. 12, No. 1 (January 1987), pp. 55-64, published by: University of Nebraska Press, stable URL: Accessed: 29-12-2015. 
  2. See Morreall for a full overview of the various theories of humour running contemporary to Baudelaire.
  3. For more information and for a thorough interpretation of Baudelaire’s critique of caricature and comedy, see Michele Hannoosh.
  4. For more information on Deburau and the imagery of the French mime, see Judith Welscher.


  • Beaudelaire, Charles, Variétés critiques, volume I: La Peintre romantique et volume II: Modernité et surnaturalisme, 3˚ édition, (1924), accessed atèquedel’INHA on 30/06/2015.
  • Hannoosh, Michele, Baudelaire and caricature: from the comic to the art of modernity, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
  • MacInnes, John, “Essential Laughter: Baudelaire’s De L’Essence du Rire” in French Forum, Vol. 12: no. 1 (January, 1987), pp. 55-64, accessed at on 29/12/2015.
  • Morreal, John, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987).
  • Wechsler, Judith, A human comedy : physiognomy and caricature in 19th century Paris, (1982).

Caricaturists versus Ultramontanism and its supporters: La Lune versus Veuillot.

Nineteenth century caricaturists sought to undermine popular respect for the figures they opposed politically or socially by ridiculing them in the public eye. Their caricatures exposed through mockery the worst side of the targeted individual, in the process making him or her appear both morally and physically disgusting. They made allusions to their target’s malicious character or behaviour by symbolically representing moral flaws through belittling physical deformity. Many caricaturists supported the opposition parties to first the Restoration and July monarchies, then the second Bonapartist empire and finally the conservative governments of the early Third Republic. They also participated in the various revolutions and anarchic movements over the nineteenth century. Their social and political enemies came from the traditionally privileged classes of the ancien régime (the aristocrats and the clergy) and the more recently elevated industrial wealth of the upper bourgeoisie and the military.

A favourite target was the Catholic Church and, in particular, the members of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, more than any other Catholic denomination in France, were accused of desiring world domination, of being power hungry manipulators who ingratiated themselves amidst the ruling and wealthy elite to govern from behind the throne. Their strong connection to the pope and Ultramontanism also suggests an encroaching force likely to wipeout French independence from the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. For Republicans, the encroaching influence of the Jesuits, especially over education, also signified a threat to the progress made by the French Revolution1. More generally, the Catholic Church, through its historical links with the monarchy and the aristocracy, represented the absolutism and obscurantism of the ancien régime which, to the enlightened politicians of the nineteenth century, were the anathema of the democratic system they wanted to protect2. One particular fear inherited from the 1789 Revolution was the danger of smaller associations breaking apart the unity of the French society. The Republic was built on the ideology of a single sovereign body of citizens to replace the ancien régime sovereign united and embodied in the King. Catholic congregations like the Jesuits threatened this unity by offering an alternative identity for its votaries, dividing their allegiance from the Republic itself to the Pope in Rome3. While the Catholic Church itself was recognised as the religion of the majority of the French people, Republicans distrusted the Pope’s influence and sought to undermine the clergy’s influence in education so that the next generation of French children would be raised seeing themselves primarily as French citizens rather than Catholics.

Louis Veuillot (1813-1883) was a principal spokesman for the Catholic Church in the lay press and fought against this secularising campaign. A devout catholic after his conversion in 1838, Veuillot was greatly enamoured with Rome and the Pope4. He coordinated the Jesuit comeback and the Ultramontanist (literally ‘over the mountains’ or taking direction from the Pope) campaign against Gallicism, a French Catholic denomination entirely independent from the Pope. His mouthpiece was l’Univers, a journal of which he took over the editorship in 1840. It was suppressed in 1860 (for criticising the emperor Louis Napoléon) and relaunched in 1867 after the relaxation of press laws under the Second empire5. Through this organ, he repeatedly smeared and criticised the Republican press and, in particular, the profession of caricature as an unworthy subform of journalism.

On the 22 November 18706, Veuillot wrote a letter to Jules Favre (the vice-president and minister of foreign affairs of the government of national defence during the Prussian occupation of France 1870-1871) to complain about the rampant caricature journals insulting Pius IX (p. 311)7 and the former empress Eugénie (p. 309). In this letter, Veuillot does not just criticise caricaturists, who he calls “un drôle pétri de boue, de soif et d’envie” (p. 307), but the whole concept of caricature as a degraded form of entertainment showing the extent of moral deprivation in republican France. Caricature, as he described it, is a madman’s view of the world, one better kept behind bars in lunatic hospitals and not released to be examined in the street. Veuillot graphically explained that such a dangerous influence risked releasing “[d]’épouvantables contagions éclateraient aussitôt, qui emporteraient la police, la civilisations et le genre humain.” (p. 306). France, and Paris in particular, was thus threatened by a pernicious disease, a theme which is reinforced by his evocation of prostitutes as an example of moral depravation. He described caricature journals as wholly devoted to prostitution and pornography. They legitimised prostitution as a profession and as a moral code, making prostitutes more influential on popular morality than the Church.

It is clear in his letter that he saw the more relaxed morality presented in the caricatures as a direct threat to the pedagogical influence of the Catholic Church. As a visual medium, caricature could replace the religious iconography and architecture of the churches as an influence over the people. In the climax of his letter (coming right at the end after a long rhetorical preparation, see p. 311), he hyperbolically expressed his shock and horror that the caricaturists were allowed to insult the Pope. The attack’s the government’s honour by asking why the pope was not spared when the government was able to prevent itself and its international allies from slander. This suggested that members of government were conniving with the madmen so that they were shown in praiseworthy poses while he and his fellow Catholics suffered “le soufflet qui tue plus surement que l’épée” (p. 310).

This diatribe represents the vulnerability he felt as an ultramontane Catholic, alienated from the Republic and the society that was more or less unfavourable to renewing close ties to the Pope. Ultramontanists, as Veuillot denounces in his letter, were generally persecuted by anti-religious comments from republic’s leaders: Garibaldi, Mazini, Sénart, Jules Simon etc. (p. 312). Several attempts were made over the century to enshrine in law a perceived separation between the Jesuits and other Catholic groups8. Such persecution was seen as the victory and legacy of the 1789 revolution over the true Christian doctrine, leading to, in Veuillot’s view, the inevitable destruction of France’s moral and social fabric. Veuillot’s letter used the Prussian conquest as an example of France getting her just deserts.

Accepting caricatures, for Veuillot, ultimately meant forcing citizens to accept without protest insults widely disseminated for public mockery. These same insults, he protests, would not have gone unchallenged should they have been made to the victims’ faces. Caricaturists, he claimed, came from and were in league with “la populace” (p. 308) or the scum of the city9. The humour for which the caricaturists were proud belonged only to the sewers, so to speak, making caricatures no better than ignorant and rude graffiti. Veuillot’s grievances were probably motivated by a desire for personal as well as institutional revenge. For his criticisms, he was repeatedly target of the caricaturist André Gill (Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guînes, 1840-1885) and the writers of the caricature journal La Lune and its successor L’Éclipse.

Possibly, he felt threatened by such ridiculing exposure before the masses, including his fellow catholics whose support he sought in his ultramontanist campaigning. He had good reason: the nineteenth century marked a boom in public consumption of and appetite for images. As the lithographic technology gradually improved to make the creation and dissemination of prints more and more accessible, enjoying caricatures became the occupation of a much wider pool of readers10. As the top line of La Lune suggests, its print runs went up to 40 000 or more. As issues of the journal were sold to reader cafes, the actual readership would probably have been much higher. Veuillot’s fears for the damage an unflattering caricature might do to his reputation were not unfounded.

Veuillot used the law to avenge the offence of being caricatured (La Lune, 21st April, 1867, no. 59), exploiting a rule which insisted that the caricaturist had to get permission from the subject to do a portrait chargé or a caricature directed at a single person. Veuillot, in an article condemning caricature as an illegitimate form of journalism11, claimed that his permission had not been adequately sought because he only gave verbal, not written consent. Despite La Lune’s defence that Veuillot had indeed given consent and the vocal backing of several left wing journals12, Veuillot successfully won his prosecution case. In fact, as Veuillot himself revealed in L’Univers, he had said, when he gave his “consent”, that he would not bring the caricaturists to court for whatever they published despite not giving them the written consent required by law. The head editor of La Lune, François Polo, was condemned to a month in prison and a 100 fr fine on the 10th May 186713. Veuillot claimed that his reason for offence was not personal but on behalf of his religion which he saw as grossly ridiculed and belittled in the caricature. For this reason, he claimed, he wanted the caricature to be banned by the censors, that they should only permit insults to his person and not to his religion.

Louis Veuillot
Figure 1: Louis Veuillot by Gill, (La Lune, no. 59, 21st April 1867, dir. F. Polo).

In the caricature of Louis Veuillot (figure 1), he has been given wings and a halo whilst taking the stance of a boxer, apparently fighting off attacks on Catholicism14. Veuillot used these props to pretend outrage that the archangels of God should be so diminished by the inclusion of a mere human being in their ranks. This was a show of mock humility that was quickly exposed as such by La Lune. The journal claimed that Veuillot was only making recourse to such formal reasons for prosecution to hide his own very personal mortification. They ridiculed him by exposing him as a hypocrite capable of making offensive criticisms but incapable of receiving the like in return. Amongst the portraits chargés in other issues of La Lune whose subjects graciously accepted the satirical attacks made on them, the pugilistic journalist appeared disarmed by the revelation that he was too sensitive to thoroughly engage in the fight.

La Lune, it its ironic comebacks, revealed the depth of the anger and sense of purpose felt by the Republican caricaturists who targeted the Catholic Church through its most vocal spokespeople. By evoking the persecution of protestants in Flandres and their response of turning the insult back on the Catholics15, the journal implied that it was assuming the historic role (“à notre tour”) of fighting religious repression and obscurantism. 

Far from accepting Veuillot’s criticism that caricature was a debased form of journalism, they assumed the condescending title he gave them (“les gens de ces choses-là”) as a badge of honour:

“Si par “ces choses-là” il entend le courage qu’il y a toujours eu, dans le Paris de M. Louis Veuillot, comme dans la Rome de Pasquine, à se moquer de ce qui est ridicule, grotesque, mesquin, vil, faux, étroit, rampant, oblique, vaniteux, insolent, brutal, hypocrite et odieux, tout en respectant ce qui est réellement respectable et en conservant dans l’exercise de cette prérogative de la santé, de l’esprit et du corps, – le rire – la mesure, el tact et le goût dont ne se départ jamais l’écrivain bien élevé, sincère jusqu’en son ironie, soucieux de sa dignité et de celle des lettres… Si, dis-je, c’est cet ensemble de qualités – ou de défauts qu’il a prétendu désigner … a raison … Nous sommes en effet LES GENS DE CES CHOSES-LA.

The criticisms levelled at Veuillot echo more general objections to hypocrisy, self-righteousness and casuistry perceived to be inherent in Catholicism. Veuillot was a greater target than most because he seemed to betray the profession of journalism by promoting an order which encouraged obscurantism and censorship. For the journalists and caricaturists still fighting against government censorship, Veuillot’s campaign threatened to undermine the Republican freedoms they were trying to protect. This sense of purpose implies that the Republican satirists and caricaturists felt themselves to be the direct descendants of the Revolutionary journalists and enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century. Veuillot, on the other hand, descended from their enemies in the privileged orders of the aristocracy and the higher echelons of the clerical hierarchy.

Imbued with this revolutionary back story, the fight between the caricaturists and Veuillot takes on a starkly black and white tone from the eye of the caricaturist. They saw the sabotage of Veuillot through ridicule as critically important, not just for their own protection from censorship and critics of their profession but for the protection of enlightenment progress and the Republic itself. Veuillot’s caricature, in which he is disfigured through pockmarks which suggest disease, is highly indicative of these fears. The pockmarks suggest the highly infectious smallpox, which in turn relates to fears of contamination, sickness and death. It is obvious that La Lune wanted Veuillot’s pockmarked nose to become a symbol for the journalist because they repeat just that part of the caricature in later issues, in defiance of the court ruling against them (see figure 2).

Nez de Louis Veuillot
Figure 2: André Gill, “This nose is wrong!” (La Lune, no. 64, 26th May 1867, dir. F. Polo). Subtitled: Ecce Homo: Here is the nose of the man. A little gilt-framed picture for the use of well-meaning people.

Thus Veuillot and the Catholics are made to appear disgusting in the analytical sense, posing a physical threat to society. The very active missionary efforts of the Society of Jesus was frequently represented metaphorically by a spreading plague16. Multiple conspiracy theories abounded, suspecting the Jesuits of planning world domination, overthrowing the Republic to reestablish absolutist power directed from afar by the Pope and generally converting French society to Jesuitism17. The caricature assumes its dual function of ridiculing the targets, so that their authority and potential to intimidate the public is lessened, and making the targets appear revolting so that the public is warned to keep away from them physically as well as intellectually.

The nineteenth century was particularly susceptible to theories suggesting that a person’s physical features could indicate their moral character or personality. Eighteenth and nineteenth century studies in physiology and comparative anatomy made fashionable explorations of social type and personality. It was believed that science had demonstrated how a person’s physical appearance were reflections of his or her intellectual and spiritual mind. Publications that broadcasted these theories were highly popular and similar discussions and explanations were frequently used by artists and writers interested in the themes of humanity and social variety (see Balzac’s La Comédie humaine)18. Readers of La Lune would be accustomed to looking for particular facial and bodily features that theorists of physiology and phrenology had listed as indicative of particular personality types. They would be easily convinced that the exaggeratedly ugly external features of the caricaturists’ targets reflected a malicious mind and intent.

The caricaturists and writers of La Lune believed they had a dual role: to entertain in the lighthearted spirit of the jester and to expose hypocrites and hidden enemies of the Republic. Their caricatures and satirical articles picked out antiliberal commentators and polemicists like Veuillot in an effort to undermine the authority of their arguments through ridicule and suggestion of ulterior, self-interested motives. Portrayal of ugliness was instrumental to convincing the readers that the caricaturist was unmasking an internal ugliness. This conviction could fuel or consolidate public suspicion that their Republic or their personal freedoms were vulnerable to attack. The caricaturists’ ridicule, so they believed, helped to empower the people through laughter to undermine the effectiveness of this attack. The caricatures prevented the authoritative statesmen and public commentators from appearing intimidating and inevitably powerful by making them laughable. It was a reminder to those in power that the sovereign power of the Republic was found in the people and not in the leaders. The polemical strategy of La Lune and other satirical journals is thus to gain popular support by making the readers believe that they are laughing at their worst social and political enemies. Consuming caricatures is thus a highly amusing form of risk-free (for the reader) revenge.


1. McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122.

2.  This is particularly true of the more moderate Republicans who saw the new Republic of the 1870s and 1880s as being a finished product whose system would provide a trustworthy, well working government so long as it could be defended. For the more radical politicians on the Left, the Republic was only in its early stages and still needed considerable reform. See Cubitt, pp. 169-170.

3. For more information on the stakes of religion and political power in the run up and during the French Revolution, see Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002).

4. McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122. See p. 115.

5. Goldstein, Robert Justin, Censorship of Political Caricature in nineteenth-century France, (Kent, Kent State University Press, 1989), p. 16.

6. Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges , 3; 5; pp. 304-313. Veuillot’s Mélanges is a compendium of the various articles, letters and miscellany by the journalist from 1842 to 1913 compiled by his nephew Eugene Veuillot. Among the writings collected here are the various commentaries and editorials published in L’Univers. Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges religieux, historiques, politiques et littéraires, (1842-1913, Paris), sourced from cb31568258d.

7. All intext page references refer to Veuillot’s Mélanges.

8. See Cubitt, pp. 165; 173.

9. Favre denied that Paris had a “populace” though Veuillot challenges him to find another name for the caricaturist industry – worse than normal scum because full of self-importance and pretended republican virtue.

10. For more information on the progress of printmaking and lithography in France, see Farwell, Beatrice, The Charged Image: French Lithographic Caricature 1816 – 1848, (Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1989).

 11. l’Univers: 28th April 1867, no. 12.

12. Le Siècle, 13 May 1867, no. 11735; Le Figaro, no. 167 (2 May 1867).

13. La Gazette des Tribunaux, no. 12496, (11 May 1867).

14. This explanation was given in a later article by the caricaturists of La Lune. This article, highly satirical in tone, suggested several other interpretations for the wings and the halo, reminding the readers that geese also have wings and that the halo could also be a ring used in a clown’s circus act. The implication is that Veuillot was actually shown jumping through hoops in an attempt to appear dignified, evoking the bad faith of the arguments made in the prosecution. A repeat of this explanation was also given by Charles Fontane in his biography of André Gill and the caricature journals he worked in, Fontane, C., Un maître de la caricature: André Gill, (Paris, Éditions de l’Ibis, 1827), p. 201.

15. La Lune, no. 61, 4 May 1867, p. 2.

16. Cubitt, p. 186.

17. Cubitt, p. 146.

18. For more on the influence of physiognomy and phrenology in nineteenth century popular culture, see Wechsler, Judith, A human comedy : physiognomy and caricature in 19th century Paris, (Chicago and London, Chicago University Press, 1982).


  • Cholvy, Gérard and Hilaire, Yves-Marie, Histoire Religieuse de la France Contemporaine, 1800-1880, (Toulouse, Éditions Privat, 1985).
  • Cubitt, Geoffrey, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993).
  • Devlin, Judith, The Superstitious mind: French peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Fontane, Charles, Un maître de la caricature: André Gill, (Paris, Éditions de l’Ibis, 1827).
  • Ford, Caroline, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2005).
  • McManners, John, Church and State in France, 1870-1914, (London, SPCK, 1972).
  • McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122.
  • Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges religieux, historiques, politiques et littéraires, (1842-1913, Paris), sourced from cb31568258d. Accessed 8 May 2016.    
  • Zeldin, Theodore, Conflicts in French Society: anticlericalism, education and morals in the nineteenth century, (London, George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1970).

laughing with disgust

This is the paper given by me at the Thinking Critically about society conference held at the University of York on the 5th of May 2016.

The fictional representation of ugliness and disgust in art plays a central role in polemical caricature. Society restricts the public display of subjects relating to the internal processes of the human body. This protects its members from regularly having to encounter their own incontrollable bestiality and inevitable mortality. It also allows the society to determine and perpetuate a hierarchy of its members in which those judged least able to hide their animality are humbled before those adept at disguising their biological reality. Disgusting images transgress these taboos and force the reader to contemplate what has been deemed disgusting by the prevailing culture. It allows artists to undermine the political hierarchy and destabilise the elite class of the dominant culture while claiming to only produce harmless fiction. Deformed and ugly characters and images enter into a shared, humorous vocabulary between the caricaturists and their regular readers from the lower classes. The humour reinforces the group identity because the initiates enjoy mocking their social superiors with like-minded individuals. This paper will review how ugliness and deformity were used and discuss the associated risks and incentives to better understand the subjective position of caricaturist as political actor and as an artist.

Nineteenth century caricaturists had an ambiguous relationship with the bourgeoisie on whom they depended both for the material of their work and for their principal readership. Though caricaturists’  social criticism could be intense, the caricaturist prepares the reader to accept it by creating a rapport through humour. Reading caricatures is turned into a visual game in which the reader is looking for hidden meaning left by the caricaturist. Caricaturists use their  irony to turn their criticism into creative insights for reimagining their world. The caricaturist adopts a jester-like persona whose silliness means he or she can deny full responsibility for the consequences that may arise from touching on political and social controversies. He or she sacrifices conventional social recognition for the particular prestige and freedom of having an opinion which has no weight, letting the caricaturist say anything and nothing about his or her peers.

Our understanding of disgust as a social emotion and how it is used greatly informs us on the importance that the ability to offend might have had for the caricaturist. Anthropologists see disgust as a preservative reaction to what might be harmful or otherwise dangerous to the social order. In nineteenth century France, this order was built on the belief that humans were intellectually sublime and able to abstract from their bodies vulnerable to change and degeneration. Reminders of the closeness between humans and their bodily nature interrupts this way of thinking with an unlimited potential for difference and change.

To restore its integrity, a society shuns discordant experiences that could change its way of thinking. A taboo vocabulary is established to identify by forced avoidance the dangerous border areas, typically nakedness and bodily functions, between the spiritual human and her earthly body. The authorities in a society teach its members to react with disgust to public displays of the human body by shaming those who transgress the barriers between public and private, the visual and the hidden. They can then tautologically use disgust as the reason that these taboos should be kept in place. This is because they want to preserve their authority from any who might go against the customs which have let them rise to the top. By controlling which behaviours and symbols of worth are valued by society, the dominant group can label those who disagree as morally disgusting and so marginalise them as a warning to the rest to remain within the same limits. Immorality becomes complexly interwoven with symbols of defilement, contamination and pollution to the extent that it appears a physical threat to society.

Despite the fear associated with transgressing taboos and indulging in “immoral” or disgusting behaviour, transgression is fascinating because it shows the possibilities that are denied by the rigid social structure. Disorder creates new opportunities, it empowers by its freedom just as order restricts by its categorising system which puts certain behaviours out of reach. In taking steps to embrace disorder, the individual, in this case the caricaturist, is empowered by the new possibilities to challenge the existing social order and offer alternatives to undermine the authorised patterns.

The nineteenth century and the advent of mechanised reproduction of images marks the beginning of a boom in the consumption of visual culture, fed by a huge public appetite for images. The satirical prints opened a window to an ever widening public into how the reader’s social peers and betters lived and allowed the reader to indulge in a socially acceptable form of voyeurism and narcissism.

A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled "The part was magnificent and the delight was universal". Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.
A caricature by J.J. Grandville subtitled “The part was magnificent and the delight was universal”. Published in La Caricature, no. 95, 30 August 1832.

In this caricature, we see a society ball hosted by the government who is well represented both by its ministers and the King, Louis-Philippe. The implication is that this is an exclusive event to be enjoyed by the VIPs of the day belonging to circles not normally accessible to the reader. A suggestion of bad behaviour, on the right, adds to the titivation as it implies that the readers have a privileged access to the undignified side of the authorities not normally on public display.

The reader’s enjoyment is interrupted, however, by a polar opposite scene of squalid, unwashed, near naked human bodies. The pathetic ugliness of prisoners and the lower classes in general is both distasteful and menacing, exposing through visual metaphor, the dark underside of society. The caricature disorders the social order by showing what has been deliberately hidden, highlighting this breach in taboo. The purpose is to incite moral disgust, not with the prisoners but with the fawning ministers and king. The caricaturists wanted to erode the readers’ respect and thereby fear of the authorities, a campaign which lead to legal battles with the government to whom images did not come under the law of freedom of opinion and so were vulnerable to censorship. To defend themselves, the caricaturists tempered the violence of their attacks through humour, gaining popular support to back their suit against the government in the process.

Understanding how caricaturists used humour is key to understanding how they made and kept their place in society. Theorists have shown how a sense of humour depends on a pre-existing community built from shared life experiences and vocabularies that come from belonging to similar social situations. Take as an example the bourgeoisie, whose education, professional opportunities and family ethics established a common vision and expectations of the world. Caricaturists undermined this commonness by developing a specialised sense of humour with a subgroup within the community, fractioning the bourgeois identity. Their regular readers came to recognise cues where the caricaturist twisted the expected to create incongruous situations, typically involving famous political or social figures.

A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled "A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys". Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832
A caricature by C. J. Traviès subtitled “A simple and easy way to catch and tame turkeys”. Published in La Caricature, no. 91, 2nd August 1832

In this caricature, Daumier has appropriated the symbols of hierarchy by distorting them or changing their meaning so that baseness represents worth while symbols of honour are associated with disgrace. A turkey, in nineteenth century slang, meant a fat and stupid glutton, a dupe and a pompous boaster. Here, members of the upper classes are transformed into turkeys, demeaning them to appear as grasping social climbers blinded by their sense of entitlement and easily tempted by the government’s corrupting bribes (like belonging to the order of the Légion d’honneur).


These cues are not necessarily explicit but depend on referring to previous caricatures and second-guessing how the caricaturist might perceive the situation referred to. Spotting and interpreting these symbols becomes a game. In learning the rules of the game, the readers establish a bond with the caricaturist that goes beyond their original social affinity. They come to appreciate, value and share the specialised ironic sense of humour. Creating this rapport is a cyclical process as the more the reader appreciates the ironic humour, the tighter the bond between reader and caricaturist and the greater the sympathy with the caricaturist’s rebellion.

This is important because the caricatures do not just vilify the dominant classes in whom their readers might easily recognise an enemy. They also present reflect back the readers’ lifestyle for critical re-examination. The readers are encouraged to laugh at themselves and their peers in grotesque versions of themselves. The grotesque represents pathetic visions of humanity, sometimes mixed with animal features, which play with reality to make the familiar absurd. The shared sense of humour creates a convivial, lighthearted atmosphere to temper any insult. Instead, the grotesque evokes pity and empathy, putting into plain sight the injustices that the dominant culture tries to hide through its moralising taboos.

The grotesque can also portray a popular re-appropriation of society.

11th January 1902 issue of L'Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka
11th January 1902 issue of L’Assiette au Beurre drawn by François Kupka

In this caricature, the caricaturist exposes the unpleasant or hypocritical behaviour of this industrial baron, using this dominant class’ established symbols of defilement to portray him as both physically and morally revolting. His nakedness is only hidden by his grossly distended belly. The reader, appreciating the irony, can enjoy a moment of smug satisfaction as her moral  and social status seems to rise in proportion to her former superiors’ disgrace. The caricaturist turned this transformation into a running joke, disarming the subjects ability to avenge themselves legally by hiding the violent intention behind an innocuous desire to entertain like a court jester. In this position, caricature has the potential to empower the reader with the freedoms and alternative visions of society inspired through the reversal of order it presents.

The caricaturists who, in the nineteenth century, were typically among the middle, educated classes with significant privileges to lose, found themselves in an ambiguous social state. Illustration and caricature in particular were seen as a profession for failed academic artists despite their commercial success. This implies that caricaturists were forced to be polemical because they could not attain social recognition through their artistic talents alone. This was not the case. Nineteenth century caricaturists belonged to an artistic and creative network deeply involved in political debate and enthusiastically in support of caricature both as a political and artistic medium. The Romantic mood of the time fostered an alienation with the classical aesthetics promoted by the Académie française and looked to the grotesque and comedy as a way of expressing the unexplored potential of human creativity. To some caricaturists, particularly when the government’s pursuit of offensive political caricature was at its most fierce, the risks involved were too much and led many to abandon journalistic satire for safer options like book illustrations, children’s literature and non-combative social satire. To others, however, their ambiguity gave them social prestige and notoriety unavailable in other artistic milieu.


This is an ongoing bibliography of secondary material:

  • Bakhtin, M. M., Oeuvre de Rabelais et la culture populaire au moyen age et sous la renaissance, (Paris, 1970).
  • Beaudelaire, Charles, Variétés critiques, volume I: La Peintre romantique et volume II: Modernité et surnaturalisme, 3˚ édition, (1924), accessed atèquedel’INHA on 30/06/2015.
  • Bergson, Henri, Le rire. Essai sur la signification du comique, 1900 (Paris, Éditions Alcan, 1924), reproduced by Bertrand Gibier for the collection “les classiques des sciences sociales”,, accessed 12/07/2016.
  • Boespflug, François, ‘Brève histoire de la caricature des figures majeures du christianisme’, Théologiques, vol. 17, no. 2, 2009, pp. 85-110. Accessed at, 22 April 2016.
  • Champfleury, Charles, Histoire de la caricature moderne, (Paris, Dentu: Librairie de la société des gens de lettres, 1870).
  • Cholvy, Gérard and Hilaire, Yves-Marie, Histoire Religieuse de la France Contemporaine, 1800-1880, (Toulouse, Éditions Privat, 1985).
  • Cubitt, Geoffrey, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993).
    Dentith, Simon, Parody, (London, Routledge, 2000).
  • Devlin, Judith, The Superstitious mind: French peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century, (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Doizy, Guillaume, « De la caricature anticléricale à la farce biblique », Archives de sciences sociales des religions [En ligne], 134 | avril – juin 2006, mis en ligne le 18 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 avril 2016. URL : http:// ; DOI : 10.4000/assr.3660.
  • Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, (Taylor and Francis, 2002),
  • Fontane, Charles, Un maître de la caricature: André Gill, (Paris, Éditions de l’Ibis, 1827).
  • Ford, Caroline, Divided Houses: Religion and Gender in Modern France, (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2005).
  • Getty, Clive F., The Diary of J.J. Grandville and the Missouri Album: The Life of an Opposition Caricaturist and Romantic Book Illustrator in Paris Under the July Monarchy, (Madison [N.J.] : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010).
  • Goldstein, Robert Justin, Censorship of Political Caricature in nineteenth-century France, (Kent, Kent State University Press, 1989).
  • Gombrich, E. H., Art and Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation, (London, Phaldon, 1972).
  • Griffiths, Richard, The Use of Abuse: the polemics of the Dreyfus Affair and its Aftermath, (New York, Berg, 1991).
  • Harpham, Geoffrey, “The Grotesque: First Principles” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 34; No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 461-468, accessed at on 09/02/2016.
  • Hannoosh, Michele, Baudelaire and caricature: from the comic to the art of modernity, (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
  • Hofmann, Werner, Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso, (New York, Crown Publishers, 1957).
  • Hutcheon, Linda, Irony’s edge: the theory and politics of irony, (London, Routledge, 1995).
  • Kenney, Elise; Merriman, John M.; Mount Holyoke College. Art Museum, The Pear: French graphic arts in the golden age of caricature, (South Hadley, Mass.: Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, 1991).
  • Kerr, David, Caricature and French political culture, 1830-1848 : Charles Philipon and the illustrated press, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Korsmeyer, Carolyn, Savouring Disgust: The foul and the fair in aesthetics, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Leighten, Patricia, ‘The World Turned Upside Down: Modernism and Anarchist Strategies of Inversion in L’assiette au beurre, The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, vol 4, no. 2, (Penn State University Press: 2013), pp. 133-170.
  • Le Men, Ségolène (dir.), L’art de la caricature, (Paris, Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2011).
  • Lethève, Jacques, La caricature et la presse sous la IIIe république, (Paris, Armand Colin, 1961).
  • MacInnes, John, “Essential Laughter: Baudelaire’s De L’Essence du Rire” in French Forum, Vol. 12: no. 1 (January, 1987), pp. 55-64, accessed at on 29/12/2015.
  • McManners, John, Church and State in France, 1870-1914,(London, SPCK, 1972).
  • McMillan, James, F., ‘Remaking Catholic Europe: Louis Veuillot and the Ultramontane Project’, Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, vol. 14, no. 1 (2001), pp. 112-122.
  • Menon, Elizabeth Korbinger, The Complete Mayeux: the use and abuse of a French icon, (Bern, Peter Lang, 1997).
  • Miller, William, Anatomy of Disgust, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997).
  • Morreal, John, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987).
  • Nye, Robert, Masculinity and male codes of honour in modern France, (New York, Oxford University Press; ebrary inc., 1993).
  • Palmer, Jerry, ‘Parody and Decorum: Permission to Mock’ in Beyond a Joke, ed. Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering, (Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  • Rosanvallon, P., La contre-démocratie : la politique à l’âge de la défiance, (Paris, Seuil, 2006).
  • Rose, Margaret, Parody: Ancient, modern and post-modern, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Veuillot, Louis, Mélanges religieux, historiques, politiques et littéraires, (1842-1913, Paris), sourced from cb31568258d. Accessed 8 May 2016.
  • Wechsler, Judith, A human comedy : physiognomy and caricature in 19th century Paris, (1982).
  • Wilson, Robert Radon, The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust, (Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2002).
  • Zeldin, Theodore, Conflicts in French Society: anticlericalism, education and morals in the nineteenth century, (London, George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1970).