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Laughter, the best medicine

A new translation of Vladimir Propp’s classic text on laughter and the comic brings out the provocative character of the original work

books Updated: Jul 28, 2017 21:35 IST
Jai Singh
Jai Singh
Hindustan Times
laughter,comic,Vladimir Propp
Classic comedy: Gyles Isham as 'Bottom' and Adele Dixon as 'Titania' rehearsing for A Midsummer Nights Dream at the Old Vic Theatre, London, circa 1929. (Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Since its publication in 1976, Vladimir Propp’s Problemy Komizma I Smekha, which Harish Kumar Vijra has translated as Problems of Laughter and the Comic, the text has interested thinkers and critics. More than a mere treatise on the comic, it investigates the essential doctrine of humour not just in literature but in other discourses, and in life too. Before Propp, thinkers like Bergson studied the intricacies of laughter and the comic. His Le Rire: Essai Sur La Signification Du Comique (1900) asks, “What does laughter mean”? The Canadian Stephen Leacock classifies humour into high and low forms. Propp, for his part, deconstructs the dichotomy of ‘low’ and ‘high’ comic.

As he does in his earlier Morphology of the Folktale, in this text too Propp does not endeavour to find a unique pattern. Empirical in his approach, he adheres to the idea that satire is an instrument for criticizing certain classes and transcends the governing socio-political discourse of the times without antagonizing it. The uniqueness of his contribution to the study of the comic and laughter comes from his pragmatic method founded on the careful scrutiny of a vast collection of comical data and, on the classification of comical elements. Propp analyses the facts, phenomena of laughter and the comic in a historical context leading to the answer of the question of why people laugh. While discussing this, he draws examples from life, folklore and literature and cites widely from Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Saltykov Schedrin, Goethe, Moliere, Rabelais, and Shakespeare, among others. While he classifies laughter into various types, devoting separate chapters to each, Propp’s main objective is not so much to evaluate the phenomena of laughter, but to explain and conceptualize it.

Harish Kumar Vijra’s translation of this classic is significant especially because his introduction provides important insights into Propp’s interest in the problem of laughter and the culture of laughing, and shows that it is not incidental. Vijra points to Propp’s 1939 article “Ritualniy Smekh v folklore” (Ritual Laughter in Folklore) to show he had been pondering over this problem for years and locates Propp in the history of 1920s Russian Formalism, which later metamorphosed into 1960s structuralism. The former was confined to Russia and coincided with the publication of Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928), while the latter coincided with the translation of the work into English in the West in 1958. Vijra believes that though Propp was aware of the work of Formalists, he was not in any way a part of the movement.

Read more: Ten memorable Bollywood comedies

This new and engaging English translation of this important text will be valuable for those interested in humour, laughter and the comic, and in those interested in Russian literature and folklore. It brings out the straightforward, provocative style of the original work and will appeal to both Indian and international readers.

Jai Singh teaches at EFL University in Hyderabad

First Published: Jul 28, 2017 21:31 IST