Study Guide

Laughter

by Henri Bergson

Laughter Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 signification.” People only laugh, Bergson asserts, at things that in some way they have stamped as theirs. People do not laugh at landscapes, for instance, but at humans or at animals in which people see human elements. Nor can people laugh at things without putting aside their emotions. People may laugh at one they pity, but their pity must first be silenced. Emotion stifles laughter; intellect kindles it. Viewing life disinterestedly, people can disengage their emotions, permitting life to impress them as comic. Finally, laughter occurs in company with others; one does not often laugh in isolation.

A man who stumbles and falls as he runs along the street becomes an object of laughter because of his “rigidity” or “momentum,” his clumsiness, or as Bergson terms it, “lack of elasticity through absentmindedness and a kind of physical obstinancy.” This involuntary comic movement caused by mechanical inelasticity is a failure to adapt oneself to circumstance, an inability to be flexible and responsive to change. It may be external, as when people fail to notice a chair being pulled away from behind, or internal, as with the absentminded individual whose mind is so engaged with things other than the present place and time that he or she cannot function. In either case, the more natural the cause of inelasticity the more comic the effect will be. With Don Quixote, for example, whose absentmindedness is largely due to his belief in an imaginary world, lies the whimsical madman with a systematic absentmindedness “organized around one central idea.” It is therefore doubly comic when he falls into a well while gazing at a star.

Vice may so affect comic characters that the rigidity of a fixed idea of, for example, avarice or jealousy infects their personalities to the extent that they personify avarice or...

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Laughter Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Atkinson, Camille. “What’s So Funny?” Philosophy Today 50, no. 5 (Winter, 2006): 437-443. Atkinson examines the nature of laughter from a philosophical perspective and includes a discussion of Bergson’s incongruity theory.

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Mabelle L. Andison. 1946. Reprint. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2007. Bergson discusses his views of metaphysics and science, relative to comedy; the role of the mechanical, especially in gestures, as a device for humor; and intuition, absolutes, language, and logic relative to humor. Part 1 of the introduction and chapters 3, 4, and 5 are particularly useful.

Carr, H. Wildon. Henri Bergson: The Philosophy of Change. 1912. Reprint. Boston: Adamant Media, 2004. Brief presentation of Bergson’s philosophic views on life, intellect and matter, instinct and intelligence, intuition, freedom, mind and body, and creative evolution. Those unacquainted with Bergson’s work should read this classic work before reading Laughter.

Guerlac, Suzanne. Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Although her accessible introduction to Bergson’s philosophy focuses on works other than Laughter, Guerlac does discusses the book in chapter 6.

Prusak, Bernard G. “Le Rire à nouveau: Rereading Bergson.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62, no. 4 (Fall, 2004): 377-388. Prusak examines the book as a “metaphysics” of laughter. Argues that although Bergson’s metaphysics “distorts” his account of comedy, the book still contains valuable insights about the nature of laughter.

Sypher, Wylie. Introduction to Laughter: An Essay on Comedy, by George Meredith. 1956. Reprint. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. An extensive, readable, and interesting comparative analysis of George Meredith’s essay on comedy and Bergson’s Laughter. Reviews the foundations of Bergson’s complicated notions on comedy and the mechanical.

Taylor, Mark C. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. This discussion of comedy, language, and laughter—particularly in chapter 7—is an excellent analogy to Bergson’s philosophy on these subjects. A comparison of Bergson’s philosophy of laughter to that of Taylor reveals astonishing similarities. For advanced readers.