Summary

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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