Friday, May 10, 2019

Bergson On The Meaning of The Comic

Henri Bergson’s 1911 book Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic is a collection of three essays which explore why people laugh and what laughter means, especially laughter that is caused by comical acts. Here’s an excerpt from the first essay, “The Comic in General — The Comic Element in Forms and Movements — Expansive Force of the Comic”:

"The first point to which attention should be called is that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,—the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers. Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to."

Bergson sees laughter is a social gesture which inspires people to avoid eccentricity and be normal. In his first essay, he notes: “By the fear which it inspires, it restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical inelasticity.”

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