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LAUGHTER

AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE COMIC


BY HENRI BERGSON


MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE PROFESSOR AT THE COLLEGE DE FRANCE





AUTHORISED TRANSLATION

BY CLOUDESLEY BRERETON L. ES L. (PARIS), M.A. (CANTAB) AND FRED
ROTHWELL B.A. (LONDON)




TRANSLATORS' PREFACE


This work, by Professor Bergson, has been revised in detail by the
author himself, and the present translation is the only authorised one.
For this ungrudging labour of revision, for the thoroughness with which
it has been carried out, and for personal sympathy in many a difficulty
of word and phrase, we desire to offer our grateful acknowledgment to
Professor Bergson. It may be pointed out that the essay on Laughter
originally appeared in a series of three articles in one of the leading
magazines in France, the Revue de Paris. This will account for the
relatively simple form of the work and the comparative absence of
technical terms. It will also explain why the author has confined
himself to exposing and illustrating his novel theory of the comic
without entering into a detailed discussion of other explanations
already in the field. He none the less indicates, when discussing
sundry examples, why the principal theories, to which they have given
rise, appear to him inadequate. To quote only a few, one may mention
those based on contrast, exaggeration, and degradation.

The book has been highly successful in France, where it is in its
seventh edition. It has been translated into Russian, Polish, and
Swedish. German and Hungarian translations are under preparation. Its
success is due partly to the novelty of the explanation offered of the
comic, and partly also to the fact that the author incidentally
discusses questions of still greater interest and importance. Thus, one
of the best known and most frequently quoted passages of the book is
that portion of the last chapter in which the author outlines a general
theory of art.

C. B. F. R.





CONTENTS


CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL - THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND
MOVEMENTS - EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC


CHAPTER II

THE COMIC ELEMENT IN SITUATIONS AND THE COMIC ELEMENT IN WORDS


CHAPTER III

THE COMIC IN CHARACTER




CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL - THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND
MOVEMENTS - EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC.


What does laughter mean? What is the basal element in the laughable?
What common ground can we find between the grimace of a merry-andrew, a
play upon words, an equivocal situation in a burlesque and a scene of
high comedy? What method of distillation will yield us invariably the
same essence from which so many different products borrow either their
obtrusive odour or their delicate perfume? The greatest of thinkers,
from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this little problem, which has a
knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to
bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation. Our
excuse for attacking the problem in our turn must lie in the fact that
we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition.
We regard it, above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be,
we shall treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine
ourselves to watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible
gradations from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the
strangest metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen. Maybe
we may gain from this prolonged contact, for the matter of that,
something more flexible than an abstract definition, - a practical,
intimate acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship. And
maybe we may also find that, unintentionally, we have made an
acquaintance that is useful. For the comic spirit has a logic of its
own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its
madness. It dreams, I admit, but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions
that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social
group. Can it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human
imagination works, and more particularly social, collective, and
popular imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it
not also have something of its own to tell us about art and life?

At the outset we shall put forward three observations which we look
upon as fundamental. They have less bearing on the actually comic than
on the field within which it must be sought.


I

The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic
does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN. A landscape
may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it
will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because
you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may
laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not
the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it, - the
human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so
important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a
greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man
as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him
as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some
lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some
resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.

Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the
ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as
though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it
fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm and
unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no
greater foe than emotion. I do not mean that we could not laugh at a
person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even with affection,
but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our affection out of
court and impose silence upon our pity. In a society composed of pure
intelligences there would probably be no more tears, though perhaps
there would still be laughter; whereas highly emotional souls, in tune
and unison with life, in whom every event would be sentimentally
prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter.
Try, for a moment, to become interested in everything that is being
said and done; act, in imagination, with those who act, and feel with
those who feel; in a word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as
though at the touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of
objects assume importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now
step aside, look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama
will turn into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the
sound of music, in a room where dancing is going on, for the dancers at
once to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar
test? Should we not see many of them suddenly pass from grave to gay,
on isolating them from the accompanying music of sentiment? To produce
the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something like a
momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure
and simple.

This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other
intelligences. And here is the third fact to which attention should be
drawn. You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself
isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,
Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined
sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating
from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in
successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this
reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a
circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one.
Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. It may, perchance, have
happened to you, when seated in a railway carriage or at table d'hote,
to hear travellers relating to one another stories which must have been
comic to them, for they laughed heartily. Had you been one of their
company, you would have laughed like them; but, as you were not, you
had no desire whatever to do so. A man who was once asked why he did
not weep at a sermon, when everybody else was shedding tears, replied:
"I don't belong to the parish!" What that man thought of tears would be
still more true of laughter. However spontaneous it seems, laughter
always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with
other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the
fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!
On the other hand, how often has the remark been made that many comic
effects are incapable of translation from one language to another,
because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social
group! It is through not understanding the importance of this double
fact that the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in which
the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange, isolated
phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human activity. Hence
those definitions which tend to make the comic into an abstract
relation between ideas: "an intellectual contrast," "a palpable
absurdity," etc., - definitions which, even were they really suitable to
every form of the comic, would not in the least explain why the comic
makes us laugh. How, indeed, should it come about that this particular
logical relation, as soon as it is perceived, contracts, expands and
shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations leave the body unaffected?
It is not from this point of view that we shall approach the problem.
To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural
environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the
utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at
once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must
answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL
signification.

Let us clearly mark the point towards which our three preliminary
observations are converging. The comic will come into being, it
appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of
their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play
nothing but their intelligence. What, now, is the particular point on
which their attention will have to be concentrated, and what will here
be the function of intelligence? To reply to these questions will be at
once to come to closer grips with the problem. But here a few examples
have become indispensable.


II

A man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by
burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they
suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the
ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary.

Consequently, it is not his sudden change of attitude that raises a
laugh, but rather the involuntary element in this change, - his
clumsiness, in fact. Perhaps there was a stone on the road. He should
have altered his pace or avoided the obstacle. Instead of that, through
lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a kind of physical
obstinacy, AS A RESULT, IN FACT, OF RIGIDITY OR OF MOMENTUM, the
muscles continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances
of the case called for something else. That is the reason of the man's
fall, and also of the people's laughter.

Now, take the case of a person who attends to the petty occupations of
his everyday life with mathematical precision. The objects around him,
however, have all been tampered with by a mischievous wag, the result
being that when he dips his pen into the inkstand he draws it out all
covered with mud, when he fancies he is sitting down on a solid chair
he finds himself sprawling on the floor, in a word his actions are all
topsy-turvy or mere beating the air, while in every case the effect is
invariably one of momentum. Habit has given the impulse: what was
wanted was to check the movement or deflect it. He did nothing of the
sort, but continued like a machine in the same straight line. The
victim, then, of a practical joke is in a position similar to that of a
runner who falls, - he is comic for the same reason. The laughable
element in both cases consists of a certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY,
just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the
living pliableness of a human being. The only difference in the two
cases is that the former happened of itself, whilst the latter was
obtained artificially. In the first instance, the passer-by does
nothing but look on, but in the second the mischievous wag intervenes.

All the same, in both cases the result has been brought about by an
external circumstance. The comic is therefore accidental: it remains,
so to speak, in superficial contact with the person. How is it to
penetrate within? The necessary conditions will be fulfilled when
mechanical rigidity no longer requires for its manifestation a
stumbling-block which either the hazard of circumstance or human
knavery has set in its way, but extracts by natural processes, from its
own store, an inexhaustible series of opportunities for externally
revealing its presence. Suppose, then, we imagine a mind always
thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a
song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to
ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both senses and
intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to see what is
no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to say what is no
longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to a past and
therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct
in accordance with the reality which is present. This time the comic
will take up its abode in the person himself; it is the person who will
supply it with everything - matter and form, cause and opportunity. Is
it then surprising that the absent-minded individual - for this is the
character we have just been describing - has usually fired the
imagination of comic authors? When La Bruyere came across this
particular type, he realised, on analysing it, that he had got hold of
a recipe for the wholesale manufacture of comic effects. As a matter of
fact he overdid it, and gave us far too lengthy and detailed a
description of Menalque, coming back to his subject, dwelling and
expatiating on it beyond all bounds. The very facility of the subject
fascinated him. Absentmindedness, indeed, is not perhaps the actual
fountain-head of the comic, but surely it is contiguous to a certain
stream of facts and fancies which flows straight from the
fountain-head. It is situated, so to say, on one of the great natural
watersheds of laughter.

Now, the effect of absentmindedness may gather strength in its turn.
There is a general law, the first example of which we have just
encountered, and which we will formulate in the following terms: when a
certain comic effect has its origin in a certain cause, the more
natural we regard the cause to be, the more comic shall we find the
effect. Even now we laugh at absentmindedness when presented to us as a
simple fact. Still more laughable will be the absentmindedness we have
seen springing up and growing before our very eyes, with whose origin
we are acquainted and whose life-history we can reconstruct. To choose
a definite example: suppose a man has taken to reading nothing but
romances of love and chivalry. Attracted and fascinated by his heroes,
his thoughts and intentions gradually turn more and more towards them,
till one fine day we find him walking among us like a somnambulist. His
actions are distractions. But then his distractions can be traced back
to a definite, positive cause. They are no longer cases of ABSENCE of
mind, pure and simple; they find their explanation in the PRESENCE of
the individual in quite definite, though imaginary, surroundings.
Doubtless a fall is always a fall, but it is one thing to tumble into a
well because you were looking anywhere but in front of you, it is quite
another thing to fall into it because you were intent upon a star. It
was certainly a star at which Don Quixote was gazing. How profound is
the comic element in the over-romantic, Utopian bent of mind! And yet,
if you reintroduce the idea of absentmindedness, which acts as a
go-between, you will see this profound comic element uniting with the
most superficial type. Yes, indeed, these whimsical wild enthusiasts,
these madmen who are yet so strangely reasonable, excite us to laughter
by playing on the same chords within ourselves, by setting in motion
the same inner mechanism, as does the victim of a practical joke or the
passer-by who slips down in the street. They, too, are runners who fall
and simple souls who are being hoaxed - runners after the ideal who
stumble over realities, child-like dreamers for whom life delights to
lie in wait. But, above all, they are past-masters in absentmindedness,
with this superiority over their fellows that their absentmindedness is
systematic and organised around one central idea, and that their
mishaps are also quite coherent, thanks to the inexorable logic which
reality applies to the correction of dreams, so that they kindle in
those around them, by a series of cumulative effects, a hilarity
capable of unlimited expansion.

Now, let us go a little further. Might not certain vices have the same
relation to character that the rigidity of a fixed idea has to
intellect? Whether as a moral kink or a crooked twist given to the
will, vice has often the appearance of a curvature of the soul.
Doubtless there are vices into which the soul plunges deeply with all
its pregnant potency, which it rejuvenates and drags along with it into
a moving circle of reincarnations. Those are tragic vices. But the vice
capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that which is brought
from without, like a ready-made frame into which we are to step. It
lends us its own rigidity instead of borrowing from us our flexibility.
We do not render it more complicated; on the contrary, it simplifies
us. Here, as we shall see later on in the concluding section of this
study, lies the essential difference between comedy and drama. A drama,
even when portraying passions or vices that bear a name, so completely
incorporates them in the person that their names are forgotten, their
general characteristics effaced, and we no longer think of them at all,
but rather of the person in whom they are assimilated; hence, the title
of a drama can seldom be anything else than a proper noun. On the other
hand, many comedies have a common noun as their title: l'Avare, le
Joueur, etc. Were you asked to think of a play capable of being called
le Jaloux, for instance, you would find that Sganarelle or George
Dandin would occur to your mind, but not Othello: le Jaloux could only
be the title of a comedy. The reason is that, however intimately vice,
when comic, is associated with persons, it none the less retains its
simple, independent existence, it remains the central character,
present though invisible, to which the characters in flesh and blood on
the stage are attached. At times it delights in dragging them down with
its own weight and making them share in its tumbles. More frequently,
however, it plays on them as on an instrument or pulls the strings as
though they were puppets. Look closely: you will find that the art of
the comic poet consists in making us so well acquainted with the
particular vice, in introducing us, the spectators, to such a degree of
intimacy with it, that in the end we get hold of some of the strings of
the marionette with which he is playing, and actually work them
ourselves; this it is that explains part of the pleasure we feel. Here,
too, it is really a kind of automatism that makes us laugh - an
automatism, as we have already remarked, closely akin to mere
absentmindedness. To realise this more fully, it need only be noted
that a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his
ignorance of himself. The comic person is unconscious. As though
wearing the ring of Gyges with reverse effect, he becomes invisible to
himself while remaining visible to all the world. A character in a
tragedy will make no change in his conduct because he will know how it
is judged by us; he may continue therein, even though fully conscious
of what he is and feeling keenly the horror he inspires in us. But a
defect that is ridiculous, as soon as it feels itself to be so,
endeavours to modify itself, or at least to appear as though it did.
Were Harpagon to see us laugh at his miserliness, I do not say that he
would get rid of it, but he would either show it less or show it
differently. Indeed, it is in this sense only that laughter "corrects
men's manners." It makes us at once endeavour to appear what we ought
to be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being.

It is unnecessary to carry this analysis any further. From the runner
who falls to the simpleton who is hoaxed, from a state of being hoaxed
to one of absentmindedness, from absentmindedness to wild enthusiasm,
from wild enthusiasm to various distortions of character and will, we
have followed the line of progress along which the comic becomes more
and more deeply imbedded in the person, yet without ceasing, in its
subtler manifestations, to recall to us some trace of what we noticed
in its grosser forms, an effect of automatism and of inelasticity. Now
we can obtain a first glimpse - a distant one, it is true, and still
hazy and confused - of the laughable side of human nature and of the
ordinary function of laughter.

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert
attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together
with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt
ourselves in consequence. TENSION and ELASTICITY are two forces,
mutually complementary, which life brings into play. If these two
forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent, we have
sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they are lacking
in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency, every variety
of insanity. Finally, if they are lacking in the character, we have
cases of the gravest inadaptability to social life, which are the
sources of misery and at times the causes of crime. Once these elements
of inferiority that affect the serious side of existence are
removed - and they tend to eliminate themselves in what has been called
the struggle for life - the person can live, and that in common with
other persons. But society asks for something more; it is not satisfied
with simply living, it insists on living well. What it now has to dread
is that each one of us, content with paying attention to what affects
the essentials of life, will, so far as the rest is concerned, give way
to the easy automatism of acquired habits. Another thing it must fear
is that the members of whom it is made up, instead of aiming after an
increasingly delicate adjustment of wills which will fit more and more
perfectly into one another, will confine themselves to respecting
simply the fundamental conditions of this adjustment: a cut-and-dried
agreement among the persons will not satisfy it, it insists on a
constant striving after reciprocal adaptation. Society will therefore
be suspicious of all INELASTICITY of character, of mind and even of
body, because it is the possible sign of a slumbering activity as well
as of an activity with separatist tendencies, that inclines to swerve
from the common centre round which society gravitates: in short,
because it is the sign of an eccentricity. And yet, society cannot
intervene at this stage by material repression, since it is not
affected in a material fashion. It is confronted with something that
makes it uneasy, but only as a symptom - scarcely a threat, at the very
most a gesture. A gesture, therefore, will be its reply. Laughter must
be something of this kind, a sort of SOCIAL GESTURE. By the fear which
it inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in
mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might
retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down
whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical


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Online LibraryHenri BergsonLaughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic → online text (page 1 of 10)