That moment when Wile E. Coyote looks down and realizes that the cliff he’s been running on is no longer underneath him? There’s a word for that. Anagnorisis.
Aristotle writes in his treatise of literary criticism, the Poetics, that anagnorisis is “a change from ignorance to knowledge.” We might translate the word as “discovery,” or perhaps more fully as “moment of recognition.” He links it with the peripeteia, or “reversal of fortune,” that brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. These are insights about tragedy, of course, but they seem to work as well for comedy.
What is so great about Wile E. Coyote’s moment of recognition, to my mind, is the look on his face. As it dawns on him that he is not on solid ground, he knows that he must fall. But that instant just before he falls in fact captures a much deeper realization, I think. He can never catch the Roadrunner, as he knows in his heart of hearts. Despite his elaborate schemes and the promises of the Acme catalog, he can never succeed. His is a comic situation, but the certainty of failure is not funny. It would be too much to call it tragic, so let us settle on it’s being human.
We must remember, in this context, that Wile E. Coyote is just one more representative of all those Coyotes of Native American mythology in whose foolish behavior human wisdom is revealed. In the end, we all will run off our cliffs and fall. Perhaps we will have the presence of mind to recognize that instant as the defining moment of our humanity.