In class, so far, I feel that we’ve come to an agreement that much of humor and laughter stem from a sense of the ridiculous which often comes from a certain play with and against different extremes. Voltaire’s Candide proves to be no exception as the use of the superlative dances throughout the text. Usually, superlatives simply work as descriptors, but here they take on much more as characters describe themselves and their world in these grandiose terms that clash with the truly terrible world they live in. Oh, excuse me “the best of all possible worlds,” my mistake.
In Spencer’s piece, he discusses laughter as “a result of the pleasure we take in escaping from the restraint of grave feelings” (105) and Freud seems to agree with this when he says that “pleasure proceeds from a saving expenditure of affect” (111). Voltaire also seems to understand these ideas as he weaves Candide and his companions’ extreme optimism through the immense chaos and horror that takes place in the work. Even in the first chapter, right after Candide gets abruptly kicked out of Thunder-ten-Tronckh and torn away from the woman he loves, the structure is still described as the “most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles” (2), the polar opposite of what most readers might be thinking of the place at the time.
This incongruity brings humor to a seriously dismal moment in the tale, allowing the reader to avoid having actual “grave feelings,” and having him/her laugh in their stead. These juxtapositions between claimed superlative existence as perceived by the characters and the reality of the situation as perceived by readers continue throughout the novel, bringing about more comedy as the characters begin to use them in reference, not to their situations, but to themselves.
When the old woman tells her tale to Cunegonde and Candide, she describes herself in a truly sentimental and far-from-humble fashion. “…what eyes! What eyelids what black eyebrows!” (24). The old woman can’t seem to get enough of her prior self and it comes across as ridiculous because instead of shedding a positive light on her as she hopes, it instead, makes readers see her as conceited and ridiculous, because who really refers to themselves in such heightened terms?!
I coached a young girl over the summer at my gymnastics camp who was quite the character and one day while we were having some fun time by the pool, she turned to me and my coworker and declared, “I may not be the tallest, but I am the smartest,” and promptly jumped into the water. We had to stifle our laughter, because this girl’s statement was so ridiculous. Contrary to her belief, she was the tallest person in the class… but quite a lot and consequently, her statement about being the smartest, landed as the best punch-line to her unintended joke that we could have asked for. (I’m not trying to make fun of the girl because she really is great, but this moment may not have been her best.”
In Candide and with the kids I work with, declaring superlatives with confidence can only end in laughs. There are times when they work as serious statements, but it’s hard to claim an extreme and have everyone agree with it (especially when it’s actually the opposite of what is true). Freud’s statement of the “ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability” (113) as a major element of humor really hits home with these experiences. It is not only the extremes and the incongruity that bring the humor about, it is the absoluteness and complete sureness with which these moments are created and these absurd assertions made that create laughter.