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Last Reviewed on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 417

Henry Bergson’s Laughter is a collection of three essays. Bergson begins the work with a brief introduction in which he clarifies that his aim is not to define “comic” as a term, but rather to better understand the role of comedy in human life and how it relates to the individual and societal imagination.

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The first essay in the book, “The Comic in General,” highlights three essential principles by which Bergson sees “the comic” as defined. Firstly, the comic is a strictly human convention. It must concern human beings—or at least human habits and behaviors. Secondly, comedy recedes before the emotions. To find something funny, a person must subvert their emotions so they can view a person or situation in a detached manner. Thirdly, comedy is a social experience. Laughter occurs the most naturally and the most frequently in the context of a group regarding an outside entity.

In the second essay, “The Comedy of Forms and the Comedy of Movements,” Bergson goes on to examine the role of intellect in comedic experience, concluding that it has to do with incongruous and graceless movements and actions. Living human beings, for Bergson, perceive themselves and their peers as fluid, flexible, and graceful, animated by their “souls.” When people perform actions which contradict these precepts, such as falling over, these are the instances that evoke laughter. When the soul, which grants human beings their flexibility and grace, is made to look awkward by the rigid body, this is comedy. This extends beyond physical actions to include human habits and behaviors which, either by their eccentricity or painfully blatant conformity, are deemed inflexible, not lifelike, and thus funny. Bergson asserts that comedy has a moral role in that it sets the bounds for society, defining certain actions and behaviors as socially acceptable and others as ludicrous.

Safe in his conclusion that all comedy stems from mechanism as it appears in human actions and behaviors, Bergson proceeds in the third essay, entitled "The Expansive Force of the Comic," to explore the relation of comedy to the human imagination. He asserts that human beings never find what is normal funny and that only the abnormal evokes laughter. This is true in the physical sense, as uncommon types of clothes are funnier than common types, and in a behavioral sense, as uncommon kinds of walking are funnier than normal walking. Whenever our minds, which usually humanize the people around us, see others as physical things instead, this is cause for laughter.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345

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 jealousy. The vice exists rather than the person, who becomes an automaton, and the character is comic “in proportion to his ignorance of himself.” Awareness of others’ laughter corrects people’s manners, compelling people to try to appear less ridiculous, but self-correction cannot occur when ignorance of one’s absurdity remains.

Society imposes on its members the necessity to adapt to circumstance. Life offers two forces, tension and elasticity, that enable people to avoid routine or empty habit and to encourage a constant effort toward “reciprocal adaptation.” Society fears eccentricity, which presupposes a separatist tendency in the individual, and endeavors to harmonize individual wills. Routine harmony may not exist, however, so society demands a continual readjustment of individual egos. Society therefore must prod the slumbering individual, who respects the group but lets his or her adjustment drift into dead conformity, as well as guide the eccentric, who gravitates toward nonsocial values. Laughter is the social gesture by which society imposes its lessons upon the eccentric or the conformist; laughter satisfies aesthetic and utilitarian aims.

Having outlined this formula for the comic spirit, Bergson then details the sequence of comic forms, from a clown’s horseplay to the most refined effects of comedy. The comic element resident in forms derives from the opposition of soul—supple and in perpetual motion—to matter—inertly resistant to movement. When matter or body succeeds, for example, in capturing fleeting states of being of the face, it petrifies the “outward life of the soul” in a material, “mechanical operation” and achieves a comic effect.

It is this admixture of the human and the mechanical that accounts for the comic element of gesture and movement. The more the “attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body” remind one of a machine the more they are laughable. Whenever mechanism appears in the human body, as in the gestures of a public speaker, the repetition elicits the comic response. When attention focuses on form instead of matter, on body instead of soul, comic response occurs. Physical comedy, then, is a parody of the mechanization of human life.

In chapter 2, Bergson turns to the comic element in situations and in words. He again finds the comic residing in the dualism of the mechanical and the human. Acts or events that give, in a single combination, the “illusion of life and the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement” produce comedy. The ultimate formulas for the comic state are repetition, inversion, and reciprocal interference of series. Repetition reflects a mathematical or symmetrical ordering of life. Inversion is simply the reversal of roles, as when a prisoner lectures a judge. Reciprocal interference describes a situation, belonging simultaneously to different series of events, yet capable of two entirely different interpretations. The classic Who’s on first? dialogue is an example. The laughter of words also falls under the same three headings. Again, whenever the living quality, the suppleness, of language is contrasted to the rigid mechanism of language, laughter searches out this automatism and corrects it.

Chapter 3 examines the comic element of character. Bergson asserts that laughter has a social meaning, expresses a special lack of adaptation to society, and cannot exist apart from humanity. Characters who remove themselves from society are fundamentally comic; such characters illustrate the basis of comedy, which begins with a “growing callousness to social life.” Comedy does not necessarily direct itself at moral faults; rather it usually aims to correct social aloofness.

Bergson places comedy midway between life and art. Art expresses true reality. Society constructs its values on the superficial perceptions of ordinary people, but art deals with deeper realities. Comedy, because it accepts a social, utilitarian goal—the correction of the social outsider—lies close to life. Comedy also aims to please, however, and may require more accurate perception than that available to everyone; therefore, comedy belongs to art. Comedy differs from tragedy in that the latter seeks the individual, the unique, while comedy presents the general, the type. Comedy depicts general characters, universals of humanity, categorizing people by surface distinctions and by the roles of everyday life. The comic poet observes inductively and surveys people for external, general eccentricities. Such a writer never endeavors to portray alienation for fear of engaging the emotions, hence endangering the comic element. Comedy tries to isolate the superficial and telling facet of character, the mechanical, and then creates types. Tragedy examines the depths of the individual, gives an impression of life, and develops out of the emotions. The tragic poet’s characters are in a sense extensions of his or her own personality—in contrast to the comic character, the tragic character arises deductively, from within, rather than from without.

Comedy therefore is not disinterested, as is genuine art. Comedy accepts social life as a natural environment; it even obeys an impulse of social life. In this respect it rejects art, which is a reaction against society.

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