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One of the most popular J. B. Priestley quotes is:

Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself—with a smile.

Source: https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/j-b-priestley-quotes

https://literature.stackexchange.com/users/18841/kate-bunting correctly identified the context of the Priestley quote as Priestley's biography of George Meredith. She also said that one can find it if one searches for 'protecting', but Google seem to be only providing very short extracts now, and it's difficult to tell much about the context. And all of that is true.

Fortunately, https://literature.stackexchange.com/users/3003/gareth-rees, in a comment, linked to the quote in the original context of the entire biography which is stored on the Internet Archive:

https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.174212/page/n125/mode/1up

In case you don't already know these tricks, the Internet Archive is easier (at least in Windows) to read, firstly, in single page mode, and secondly in full screen mode, and thirdly when the size of the text is adjusted by placing the mouse pointer on the text while holding down the control key and then turning the mouse wheel. Also, the Windows Screen Magnifier (Windows Key held down while equals sign key is pressed) magnifies everything.

Having read the three or so pages leading up to the quote, and the three or so pages following it, I am still in the dark as to what the quote means, if it even means anything. I mean, it seems entirely, or at least almost entirely, a bunch of pretentious academic obfuscation i.e. bafflegab.

The quote is not necessarily a statement of Priestley's own opinion on comedy, but rather seems to be his summary of his speculative interpretation of Meredith's supposed opinion of comedy. Furthermore, "comedy" here may not mean exactly what it means today: it is capitalized even when not at the beginning of a sentence, suggesting a special new sense, and it is contrasted with "Humour" (the British English spelling has two "U"s) also capitalized all the time, which supposedly is a different kind of funniness. There are numerous other terms with initial capitals, and I can't tell which are terms with special new meanings and which are not. For example, "Essay" is capitalized, but seems to just mean "essay", while "Humour", "Comedy", "Comic Spirit", "Comic Stage", "Irony", "Folly", and "Comic" seem to be capitalized to indicate that they mean something different from the uncapitalized versions of these terms.

Here's a fairly typical claim using such terms:

The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity.

Here's the last part of the argument concluding with that claim:

Thus, Irony is treated as if it were something more than a mode of expression and, as such, one of the instruments of the Comic Spirit. Incidentally, it is too often assumed that Meredith, in this Essay, is describing the spirit in which his own work is conceived and not discussing a literary form. In places he is, but actually his own work far transcends the limits imposed by him upon the creator of pure Comedy. (Richmond Roy, for example, is a humorous creation.) The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity.

Note that "humorous" is not capitalized while "Humour" is, which suggests a cavalier disregard for consistent use of terminology. See how "Essay" is capitalized but seems to mean just "essay".

Furthermore, there are numerous phrases that are not capitalized that nevertheless seem special. At least, I cannot understand them, and have never seen them before, such as "real humour".

The meaning is obscured further by Priestley's statement that Meredith may be wrong, and maybe not as funny a writer as he thinks himself to be:

An absurd fashion of dress or speech or the like, seeking applause but finding itself ridiculed on the Comic Stage, perishes at a touch ; and if Meredith’s theory went no further than this, it would be true, but not exactly new. It is his larger claims that are too sweeping, particularly those he would make for the Comic Spirit informing his own work.

Meow.

Anyway, the quote now seems to me to be what Priestly is saying Meredith might be, rightly or wrongly, claiming about his own work, or possibly not his own work. In any case, I still cannot see what it could possibly mean.

That part of Priestley's biography of Meredith containing the quote I am asking about here contains many references to Meredith's supposed comedic ability and in particular a novel by Meredith called The Egoist, which, thanks to Wikipedia, I found is available in it's entirety, the copyright having expired, here https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/1684 which could be useful for seeing how funny or not, and if the former, in what way, Meredith actually was.

I've wondered for many years what the Priestley quote means. George Orwell is quoted as saying,

Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie... a dirty joke is a sort of mental rebellion.

This is another quote I have been thinking about for many years, and this one makes perfect sense to me, and it would seem to contradict Priestley's saying. The Orwell quote, if I understand it correctly, sees humor (comedy would be simply one type or use of humor) in the way Nietzsche saw what he called a "philosopher" (according to quotefancy.com):

What I understand by “philosopher”: a terrible explosive in the presence of which everything is in danger.

Orwell and Priestley knew each other and Orwell denounced the latter as being pro-communist which makes me wonder whether one quote was explicitly designed to undermine or contradict the other, and which came first. I wonder whether Priestley and Orwell had an argument about what humor or comedy was, spawning both the quotes at more or less the same time.

There's nothing about it, or about comedy, in the Wikipedia article about J. B. Priestley

After quoting Priestley as saying this, https://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20030216/spectrum/book11.htm wrote:

A robust sense of humour is imperative for us to evolve into a self-confident, mature entity. The ability to look at the funnier side of life helps combat negative impulses. For this a certain amount of irreverence is required. To bring down the high and mighty to the level of the ordinary mortals through satire is an age-old practice. Though some place comedy on a par with sodomy as an unnatural act, one would rather go along with W. Somerset Maugham when he observes, "Impropriety is the soul of wit."

This is worth reading, but it didn't bring me closer to finding an answer to my question which is, what does the Priestley quote mean?

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  • I wasn't familiar with it, but it appears to come from Priestley's biography of George Meredith. Does it perhaps refer to the way we soften unpleasant facts by laughing about them? (as in 'black humour'.) Sep 26, 2023 at 13:01
  • @KateBunting I would very much like to see the contest of the quote. Google books has the biography but comedy is mentioned only three times in the book, and none of them say anything about a smile. books.google.co.th/…. I agree we do soften unpleasant facts like that, especially in the case of black humor, but I don't see how "a smile" comes into it, nor how society is protecting itself. Sep 26, 2023 at 14:43
  • You can find it if you search for 'protecting', but Google seem to be only providing very short extracts now, and it's difficult to tell much about the context. You smile at something amusing, don't you, and you 'protect yourself' from distress by looking at something in a humorous way. (Only my guess at a possible meaning.) Sep 26, 2023 at 15:58
  • @KateBunting Could you tell me how you figured out where the quote came from? Yes, you are correct about the origin, and about Google books. Your googlefu is good. Sep 27, 2023 at 16:21
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    @StuartF The OP's difficulty with the capitalization is helpful in diagnosing the difficulty they are having in following Priestley, so I think that should stay. Sep 28, 2023 at 16:38

1 Answer 1

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The quotation is from Priestley’s biography of the novelist and poet George Meredith (1828–1909), in a passage summarizing Meredith’s ‘On the Idea of Comedy’ (1877):

The Essay on the Idea of Comedy is an astonishingly brilliant performance, the best of its kind we have […] The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity. Its appeal is from common sense to common sense, from normality to normality, and it simply calls the attention to what Folly is serving up for it. It must always look on and can never associate itself with its object, except for the purpose of irony. Common sense, whatever its level may be, is clearly social sense, and its sword, the Comic Spirit, is drawn against whatever is anti-social. Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself—with a smile.

J. B. Priestley (1927). George Meredith, pp. 117–118. London: Macmillan.

The question expresses some difficulties with following this and the surrounding passage. The difficulties arise, I think, because Meredith’s ‘On the Idea of Comedy’ doesn’t present a clear thesis statement—it is a discursive exploration of this subject, an “essay” in the older sense of “an irregular undigested piece” (Johnson)—and so Priestley has to do a fair bit of summarization and interpretation in order to extract the idea of comedy as “society protecting itself”.

Priestley expects the reader to either have read Meredith’s essay (after all, why would someone be reading a biography of Meredith if they were not already familiar with his works?) or to take it on trust that his summary is accurate. The words that Priestley unexpectedly capitalizes—Humour, Irony, Comic Spirit and so on—are thus all taken directly from Meredith, who uses capitalization to indicate that he is personifying these abstractions as if they were characters in one of his novels. So when we look at a difficult bit in Priestley, for example:

The Comic Spirit, then, unlike Humour, preserves its detachment, content to throw a beam of clear light on some incongruity.

Priestley, p. 117.

we have to understand this as Priestley’s summary of Meredith, who is using these personifications—“Comic Spirit” and “Humour”—to draw fine distinctions between two aspects of comedy. Meredith sketches these distinctions, together with “Satire” and “Irony” on pages 78–80, indicating that “Humour” is a hard-hitting, rough-and-tumble kind of comedy, whereas the “Comic Spirit” is a clear-sighted but kindly apperception of folly. So in my opinion Priestley gives us a fair summary of Meredith here, not “pretentious academic obfuscation i.e. bafflegab” as described in the question. If Priestley in this passage reads somewhat oddly, that’s because Meredith’s style is highly ornamented and baroque.

So Priestley’s claim in the passage quoted above is that Meredith’s thesis in the essay (whether he was conscious of it or not) is that comedy is a “social weapon”, that ridicules whatever is foolish, unusual, radical, queer, or otherwise anti-social, and in so doing defends the norms of the people that write it and the society they belong to. Priestley’s distillation of Meredith’s essay seems to be a fair summary of passages like the following:

If you believe that our civilization is founded in common-sense (and it is the first condition of sanity to believe it), you will, when contemplating men, discern a Spirit overhead; not more heavenly than the light flashed upward from glassy surfaces, but luminous and watchful; never shooting beyond them, nor lagging in the rear; so closely attached to them that it may be taken for a slavish reflex, until its features are studied. […] Men’s future upon earth does not attract it [the Comic Spirit]; their honesty and shapeliness in the present does; and whenever they wax out of proportion, overblown, affected, pretentious, bombastical, hypocritical, pedantic, fantastically delicate; whenever it sees them self-deceived or hoodwinked, given to run riot in idolatries, drifting into vanities, congregating in absurdities, planning short sightedly, plotting dementedly; whenever they are at variance with their professions, and violate the unwritten but perceptible laws binding them in consideration one to another; whenever they offend sound reason, fair justice; are false in humility or mined with conceit, individually, or in the bulk—the Spirit overhead will look humanely malign and cast an oblique light on them, followed by volleys of silvery laughter. That is the Comic Spirit.

George Meredith (1877). ‘On the Idea of Comedy and of the Uses of the Comic Spirit’. In The New Quarterly Magazine (April 1877). Reprinted (1897) in An Essay on Comedy and the Uses of the Comic Spirit, pp. 88–90. Westminster: Archibald Constable.

The question expresses some difficulty over this idea of comedy as a norm-defending genre; this difficulty arises, I think, from the equation of Priestley’s “society” with the “high and mighty” who are the targets of satires and lampoons. But Priestley means the society to which the comic writer belongs, “a society of cultivated men and women […] wherein ideas are current and the perceptions quick, that he may be supplied with matter and an audience” (Meredith, p. 8). So Orwell’s idea of comedy is not incompatible with Meredith’s, if we take them as referring to different societies and different norms.

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