According to French philosopher Henri Bergson, the basis of laughter is the mechanization of gesture, movement, or language; it results from a substitution of the artificial for the natural so that the actions, attitudes, or speech of humans take on some aspect of the mechanical. The moral function of comedy is to scorn by laughter the mechanical, which impedes freedom and evolution, and thus to laud the natural and flexible, which allow human beings to survive and improve. Laughter is itself an expression of the naturalness and freedom that comedy lauds.
Despite its oversimplification, Bergson’s theory provides a perspective from which to view Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In this novel, the characters are laughable and immoral to the extent that they resemble machines in their behavior and moral to the extent that they are or become natural. Laughter itself in the novel is the expression of naturalness, of feelings unfettered by social convention or individual pretension.
Welch and his son are major cases in point. Their speech, to which Amis devotes much care, and their gestures are mechanized by cliché and affectation. This point is developed through a controlling metaphor. The jerky movements of Welch’s car are compared implicitly and explicitly to Welch’s conversational habits. His passengers are in constant jeopardy because he confuses his driving with his talking and often lets the course of his conversation dictate the direction of his car. Amis exploits the analogy by describing Welch’s speech in terms stemming from automation and by making Welch’s driving and his car important to the plot. Bertrand’s speech is similarly automatic; it is a jibe at one of Bertrand’s speech mannerisms and not Jim’s refusal to stop seeing Christine that leads Bertrand to hit Jim. The same...
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