Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821
Henri Bergson's Laughter includes several prominent subjects and personified figures. The narrative voice is a first-person collective subject: a "we." There is also a second-person object to whom the text is addressed from time to time: a "you." The following personified figures also circulate throughout the text.
The Comic Spirit
The most important figure in the text is the comic spirit itself. Bergson remarks 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.
Bergson calls attention to his decision to treat the comic spirit as a living thing rather than a lifeless abstraction or a mere topic. The key property of the figure of the comic spirit is its changeability.
The Man Who Falls
One of the figures in Bergson's book who serves as an object of comedy is the man who falls. Bergson describes this figure as follows:
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.
Here, Bergson uses the figure of the man who falls to illustrate a key point about the perception of the comic. The man who falls is funny in spite of his intentions, not because of them. What is funny is the accidental, unexpected nature of his movement, which is not aligned with the expectations of viewers who anticipated that he would walk, not fall. The man who falls is the man who succumbs to some force other than his own will.
The Man of Obsessive Routine
A comparable figure to the man who falls is the man of obsessive routine. He is described as follows:
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 . . . 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.
Bergson takes the time to point out the commonalities between the man who falls and the man of obsessive routine. The force of gravity makes the clumsy man fall, but the force of human planning makes the man of obsessive routine deviate from his routine. He is the victim of someone who makes him vulnerable to chance, where he had expected to find only the predictable and the familiar. Like the man who falls, the man of obsessive routine is a type—an example—that helps Bergson to make his larger point about comedy and the involuntary.
Among the figures described by Bergson, it is the caricaturist who is depicted as being like Nature. Bergson says,
The caricaturist who alters the size of a nose, but respects its ground plan, lengthening it, for instance, in the very direction in which it was being lengthened by nature, is really making the nose indulge in a grin . . . one might say that Nature herself often meets with the successes of a caricaturist.
Here, the caricaturist is someone who pays attention to the implicit tendencies possessed by the objects that he represents. He then renders those same tendencies to a more intense degree of extremity, thereby making them comic.
Society itself is a figure in Bergson's work. Like the comic spirit, society is comparable to a living thing:
Let us go on to society . . . we cannot help treating it as a living being. Any image, then, suggestive of the notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so to speak, will be laughable. Now, such a notion is formed when we perceive anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the surface of living society.
Interestingly, Bergson comes up with the idea of society as a collective comic subject that is at the same time a collective comic object. As members of society, we are subject to involuntary forces that make us laughable, and yet we are the ones who (ideally) have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at ourselves.
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