Rhetoric of the Ridiculous: Fielding’s Philosophy

Initially, I imagined that Henry Fielding must have had rollicking good fun turning Samuel Richardson’s Pamela on her head in Fielding’s Shamela, while at the same time, lampooning his least favorite people, politics, practices and institutions. His artistry is so complete, I wonder if the piece serves as a case study for aspiring writers of satire even today.

I was really curious as to how Fielding came into his “genius,” whether it was by nature or nurture.

From what I could find in a quick, limited search, it seems he invested a great deal of study in his art of poking fun at pet subjects and even proposed a serious, sophisticated theory of comic writing, incorporating a philosophy of affectation, vanity and hypocrisy as the possible paths to a sort of rhetoric of the “Ridiculous.”

Now I’m thinking, maybe his Shamela was a lot more like work than play.

I stumbled upon a quote that introduces part of Fielding’s “rhetorical” theory, taken from his preface to Joseph Andrews, which I understand is an elaborate and expanded spin-off from Shamela. Fielding writes (and is quoted in Ethel Margaret Thornbury’s Henry Fielding’s Theory of the Comic Prose Epic):

“The only source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me),” says Fielding, 12 “is affectation. But though it arises from one spring only, when we consider the infinite streams into which this one branches, we shall presently cease to admire at the copious field its affords to an observer. Now, affectation proceeds from one of these two causes, vanity or hypocrisy: for as vanity puts us on affecting false characters, in order to purchase applause, so hypocrisy sets us on an endeavor to avoid censure, by concealing vices under an appearance of their opposite virtues. And though these two causes are often confounded (for there is some difficulty in distinguishing them), yet, as they proceed from very different motives, so they are as clearly distinct in their operations: for indeed, the affectation which arises from vanity is nearer to truth than the other, as it hath not that violent repugnancy of nature to struggle with, which that of the hypocrite hath. It may be likewise noted, that affectation cloth not imply an absolute negation of those qualities which are affected; and, therefore, though, when it proceeds from hypocrisy, it be nearly allied to deceit; yet when it comes from vanity only, it partakes of the nature of ostentation: for instance, the affectation of liberality in a vain man differs visibly from the same affectation in the avaricious; for though the vain man is not what he would appear, or hath not the virtue he affects, to the degree he would be thought to have it; yet it sits less awkwardly on him than on the avaricious man, who is the very reverse of what he would seem to be.

“From the discovery of this affectation arises the Ridiculous, which always strikes the reader with surprise and pleasure; and that in a higher and stronger degree when the affectation arises from hypocrisy, than when from vanity; for to discover anyone to be the exact reverse of what he affects, is more surprising, and consequently more ridiculous, than to find him a little deficient in the quality he desires the reputation of.”

As you can see, Fielding’s theory for joking is quite serious stuff…


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