Tag Archives: comedians

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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40551324. 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 at gallicalabs.bnf.fr/Bibliothèquedel’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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40551324 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).