Absurdity in the service of joy

Aristotle’s definition of humor (or comedy, I forget which) was that it was a species of the ugly. I mentioned this to a poet once, and he said “That’s what you think when you take your idea of comedy from Aristophanes. That’s not what you think when you take your idea of comedy from As You Like It.” The poet and Aristotle were speaking at cross purposes, but that’s not important. The poet’s general claim- that there is a universe of difference between the comedy of Lysistrada and Much Ado About Nothing- is dead right. Both get laughs, but Shakespeare manages to ignite something that is softer and more profound: joy. Joyous comedy (“gay” was once a better adjective, but it no longer means “light and joyous”) is tremendously difficult to write, and it is remarkably different and higher than mere wit or absurdism.

My three-year-old son likes watching opera, and I’ve listened to operatic comedy a lot (three year olds are fine with infinite repetition).  One trick of operatic comedy  is to have a Baritone sing with flute, piccolo, and upper-register instrument highlights in the accompaniment. The result is an absurd and playful contrast, which a genius can weave into a light but exhilarating joy. Mozart hits this perfectly in this drinking song from The Magic Flute:

And it was also done perfectly in Largo al Factotum: a comedic song that deserves all its fame:

There is a heavy dose of the absurd in both these songs, but Mozart and Rossini force absurdism somehow into the service of producing joy. The absurd is not low, but is somehow made ennobling.

Cosi Fan Tutte is the operatic equivalent of the kind of Joyous comedy one finds in As You Like it. There are any number of fantastic scenes, but the absurdism placed in the service of joy is clearest in the finale to act 1. The men who are lying on the chair have pretended to poison themselves to make the women pity them. The “doctor” who enters (Despina) is the handmaiden of the women and is in on the ruse:


  1. January 28, 2010 at 7:02 am

    a professor once mentioned that the “Ode to Joy” is certainly triumphant, but not particularly joyful. Maybe it’s joyful in that joyless German way. I think they just need to have more sex. It would cure a lot of their Weltanschauung.

  2. January 28, 2010 at 8:45 am

    That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking for a week now! (except for the sex part). My son likes Handel’s choruses (Sampson, Messiah), so I thought we would try a listen of the ninth symphony. It lacked the divine transcendent character of Handel, even though you might think (based on reputation) that Beethoven was more godlike and tempestuous. Joy is heavenly and aetherial- the Ode to Joy is earthy.

  3. Niggardly Phil said,

    January 28, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Mozart is a funny mix, consider Although there is also some buffoonery in Mozart – his piano concertos. I can’t help but laugh when I hear number 23 in A, K488, I think I heard somewhere that he composed it based on various noises his digestion was making at the time. Or the whimsy in some of his sonatas. Still, his whimsy is so much more fully human than Beethoven’s passion.

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