The humour. Essay by Luigi Pirandello. 1908/1920.

First edition: 1908
Second augmented edition: 1920.

The humour

The humour is composed of an erudite and historical-philological first part, more linked to the competition occasion, and of a second, more important, of a “psychological and aesthetic” nature (as Pirandello wrote to Ugo Ojetti), with inserts in a “narrative” register ” which, gradually, expands more and more.
Fundamental text for the definition of Pirandello’s poetics – and for the artistic experience of the early twentieth century – the essay reviews the different conceptions of humor that have characterized different centuries and cultures. Finally, the author presents his personal reflection characterizing humor as that very particular human feeling that allows the artist to reveal reality, to break it down, letting words, gestures, expressions emerge from behind, that feeling of the opposite that unmasks , in the misalignments of reality, the disorder and suffering that are hidden there.

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En EspañolThe humorism

From the introduction by Maria Argenziano, Publisher: Newton Compton – 2009 Series: Large economic paperbacks:
In this essay, published for the first time in 1908, Pirandello, in bitter controversy with Benedetto Croce, delimits the boundaries of a particular art form such as the humorous work and highlights its spontaneity, aroused by the creative impulse of feeling , even if it is a particular feeling, nourished by reflection, like the opposite feeling: in fact, the humorist does not proceed to a harmonization of contrasts, but bases his art on dissonance and splitting, on contradiction, on the unresolved presence of oppositions. He needs extreme freedom of expression. Humor is thus certainly closer than any other form of art to the mobility that pervades reality and man’s conscience. With this essay Pirandello marks the distance from the courtly and academic tradition of so much of our literature, claiming for his art a freedom that is disrespectful of every extrinsic rule and every convention.


Pirandello wrote L’humor (in which not a few pages of his previous writings converged) to present it as the title of the competition for full professor at the Higher Institute of Female Teaching. Three previews of the essay came out: Humor or Ironism?, in «Il Ventesimo» of Genoa, Dell’Umorismo, Questioni preliminari, in the «Review of Sociology and Art, Social Sciences and Aesthetics» of Palermo, Comic irony in chivalrous poetry, in the «New Anthology».
The first edition carried the dedication “To the good soul / of / Mattia Pascal / librarian”, which highlighted the identity of inspiration with that novel: both for the almost contemporary nature (the more compact nucleus and the immediate antecedent of the Humor is the essay Alberto Cantoni; from 1905), both for the continuity between essay writing and fictional narration. The «second augmented edition» of 1920, presented numerous additions and corrections, most of which constituted, explicitly or not, a response to the criticism of Benedetto Croce (in «La Critica»).

The humor is composed of an erudite and historical-philological first part, more linked to the competition occasion, and of a second, more important, of a «psychological and aesthetic» nature (as Pirandello wrote to Ugo Ojetti), with inserts in a “narrative” register which, gradually, expands more and more. Each of the two parts is divided into six chapters, numbered and titled in the first, numbered only in the second, which has the general title “Essence, characters and matter of humour”.

The essay opens with a discussion of the meaning of the term “humor”. Pirandello rejects the common meaning (something that makes you laugh) and contrasts it with rhetorical irony: the only verbal and apparent contradiction in the latter is, instead, essential in the former. In the second and third chapters, Pirandello denies that humor is a modern and mostly Anglo-Saxon literary phenomenon, extraneous to the tradition of the Latin peoples. Beyond the explicit polemical objectives, including the positivist claim to link humor to the race, the milieu and the moment, the polemic involves some fundamental theses of Hegel’s Aesthetics and an article on humor written by Croce in 1903.

The refutation of the article continued in a passage, later suppressed, of the fourth chapter, in which Pirandello contested Croce’s claim that the intuitive knowledge, which he placed at the foundation of the aesthetic fact, was limited to the psychic content without being translated into form. The problem of forms and style are in fact at the center of the fourth chapter, which argues with rhetorical precepts, with form understood as exteriority. Humor, on the other hand, “above all needs the intimacy of style”.

In the fifth chapter the author puts his training as a novel philologist into play to deny that chivalric poetry arose as a parody of medieval epic, i.e. refuting – beyond the stated objectives – a thesis of the Hegelian Aesthetics taken up by Francesco De Sanctis in his Zurich lectures. The chapter culminates in the pages dedicated to Don Quixote (emblem, in Pirandello’s early letters, of the poet in modern society), which if for Hegel and De Sanctis was a caricature resulting from a purely negative irony, for Pirandello, however, «has of the tragic in its comedy».

Having arrived in these pages at the central problem of his conception (the coexistence of opposite feelings and ways of seeing), Pirandello hastens towards the second “psychological and aesthetic” part, in the second chapter of which he resumes, not by chance, the examination of the Cervantes character. Humor is the partial inhibition of the laughter of pure superiority towards the victim of ridicule, with whom one identifies: it is no longer a “pure and easy” laughter but bitter, ambivalent, disturbed and complicated by an opposite feeling. At the origin of this passage from the comic warning to the humorous «sentiment of the contrary», Pirandello places «the reflection (which) does not hide» and which, «as judge» of the sentiment, «analyzes it, dispassionately; it decomposes the image». This reflection should not be identified with the critical spirit of a merely intellectual reflection. It is not entirely clear what Pirandello meant by “reflection” (as Croce pointed out), but the overall meaning of his discourse is expressed by the image used in this regard – in the third chapter of the second part – of the “fantastic critic”, synonymous with humorist , and from the affirmation that that «special activity of reflection» is «a sort of projection of the same fantastic activity: it arises from the phantasm, like the shadow from the body».

The following chapter examines the “special psychic physiognomy” of the humorous man “out of key”, “at the same time violin and double bass”: “suspended, perplexed, for life” between yes and no, he is, clearly, the modern Hamlet, indicated in La Fu Mattia Pascal (chapter XII) as an emblem of modern tragedy, compared to the ancient one whose heroes play the comedy like puppets, “without ever suffering vertigo or dizziness”.

In the penultimate chapter, examining the fundamental theme of the humorous “decomposition” of social conventions, of conscious simulations, but also of unconscious psychological fictions, Pirandello explains the “vertigo” from which humorous men suffer. In “moments of flood” “the instinctive soul is manifested, which is like the original beast crouched at the bottom of each of us”; while in the «moments of inner silence» – the emotional-fantastic-intellectual center of Pirandello’s literary system, described in an extraordinary page – there is the epiphany of the unconscious as a reality «beyond the limits», «outside the forms of the human reason”. Anyone who faces the dizzying experience of leaning over the “abyss of mystery”, at the risk of sinking there, “of dying or going mad”, understands the game and can no longer believe or give importance to the “mechanical phantasmagoria” of everyday life.

At the basis of Pirandello’s skeptical relativism there is therefore an experience of the beyond which is an experience of nothingness (for conscious thought), but also, simultaneously and in irreconcilable contradiction, of the Whole (for unconscious feeling), as demonstrated by a another extraordinary page (taken from chapter XII of the late Mattia Pascal) in which the sentiment of life is the Promethean spark, extinguished which Pirandello wonders if «we will not rather remain at the mercy of Being».
For this existential situation of man’s smallness and greatness at the same time, of suspension between the nothingness of his thinking and the Whole of his feeling, Pirandello explicitly refers to The Copernicus, one of Giacomo Leopardi’s Operette morali. This Copernican motif (also present in La Fu Mattia Pascal) is the tip of an iceberg of implicit sources and references that is largely played out between Leopardi and the reading that De Sanctis gave of it.

Humor represents the access key to the entire Pirandello literary system. The first part, although more linked to the academic occasion, is fundamental for his attempt to weld Pirandello’s poetics, expressed in the second part, first of all to a historical-literary and critical interpretation, and then to an aesthetic that is the result of an epistemology connected to a new anthropological model (based on antinomies, on the coexistence of opposites). Developing the first connection, Pirandello identified an unacknowledged line of the literary tradition, then studied by Michail Bakhtin. Carrying out the second, he followed a path parallel to that of Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud (who, at the beginning of the century, had also dedicated studies, with strong aesthetic and epistemological values, to laughter and the comic) and anticipated the bi-logic of Ignacio Matte Blanco’s epistemology with a psychoanalytic background.


Part one
I. The Word “Humor”
II. Preliminary questions
III. summary distinctions
IV. The humor and rhetoric
V. Comic irony in chivalrous poetry
YOU. Italian humorists

Second part
Essence, characters and matter of humour

Index Essays and Speeches

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The humour. Essay by Luigi Pirandello. 1908/1920. – Pirandello Web