Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Laughter, Henri Bergson’s profound essay on the nature and source of laughter, grows out of his concern with the nineteenth century mechanization of life. For Bergson, life is ever in flux through time and space, and any divergence from this principle of flux, any attempt to fix or concretize life, is removed from life. Bergson’s famous principle of élan vital, the vital life force that underlies all living things, leads to the central motif of his theory of comedy, that “the mechanical encrusted upon the living” promotes laughter. Any time a living thing takes on attributes of death or mechanization or rigid automatism, it ceases to be wholly alive and inspires social laughter. Comedy, in Bergson’s view, is a social gesture designed to promote organic health in the social body. Laughter, by ridiculing social outsiders, effects in those laughed at a desire to purge themselves of unsocial traits. Comedy attempts to return to life those half-alive people on society’s fringes whose “failure” to adapt themselves impairs social well-being.
Bergson opens chapter 1, a general discussion of comedy, with three fundamental observations on the nature of the comic spirit: “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human,” an “absence of feeling . . . usually accompanies laughter,” and laughter’s “natural environment . . . is society.” Laughter’s function is social: It “must have social...
(The entire section is 1345 words.)
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