From Plato onward, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have attempted to tell the meaning of laughter. It is not surprising that the thing has proved alluring, for whereas a true theory of laughter might add little to our enjoyment of the comic; it would, nevertheless, help Us to understand the nature of life and mind. But although laughter is perhaps the lightest of human possessions, it is the most difficult to capture for examination.
Neither philosopher nor literary critic has given us a wholly satisfactory account of the comic. One difficulty is that so many things are true of comedy; it is hardly less confusing than life itself.Nevertheless, from time to time, attempts have been made to explain the baffling problem of the comic.
The latest and perhaps the most ingenious work upon the subject of the ludicrous is Bergson’s volume upon Laughter, An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Bergson’s main thesis is that the laughable is “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” This explanation is suggested by his general philosophy. Life, according to Bergson, is a continual change of aspect; and the comic begins where the spirit no longer enlivens matter. All forms of the ludicrous are due to the substitution of the rigidity and monotony of a machine for the pliancy and variability of an organism.
“The attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine”. l with remarkable deftness, Bergson traces every variety of laughter to the detection of rigidity in life’s flux. A grimace is funny because it suggests the rigidity of matter beneath the skin.
Lastly, Bergson calls attention to the comic in character, the essence of which is a lack of harmony with social environment. Society demands that we be alert to our immediate surroundings. ‘Ye laugh at Don Quixote because his thoughts of heroes and chivalry prevent him from shaping his conduct in accordance with the usages of men. In short, we laugh at any inelasticity of mind and character as well as of body. For example, the individual who exhibits persistent vanity, is comic, because life demands the cautiousness of modesty.
Bergson lays down three principles which he regards as fundamental. In the first place, he states that “the comic does not exist outside of the pale of what is strictly human. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable.
“Bergson is surprised that this important fact has not received greater attention from philosophers; however, it seems doubtful whether the observation deserves the emphasis he gives it. It is true, of course, that we must express a thing in terms that we know. Bergson tells us that we laugh at an animal only after we detect in it some human expression or attitude.
Clearly the monkey amuses us because we see in it a caricature of humanity. Likewise, the frog has been found ridiculous because it suggests human characteristics. Indeed, it is probably true that no other animal has amused people so widely separated by time and space as has the frog. In the Rig1Jeda frogs appear as comic figures.
The second principle that Bergson lays down, is that laughter is incompatible with emotion or with sympathy with its object. “Depict some fault,” writes Bergson, “however trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is impossible to laugh. The comic will come into being whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into play nothing but their intelligence.
According to Bergson, comedy occupies a middle ground between art and life. The object of true art is to give individual pictures of life; whereas comedy is concerned with types and depicts characters we have seen before and shall recognize again. “What the artist fixes on his canvas is something he has seen at a certain spot and on a certain day at a certain hour, with a coloring that will never be seen again.” Comedy is also excluded from art because it seeks social improvement; whereas genuine art is disinterested. Art seeks “to brush aside utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself.”ll However comedy does not come into existence until men are freed from anxiety of self preservation and regard themselves as works of art.
Bergson has shown us that the detection of rigidity is a cause of laughter. However it is difficult to see that he has accounted for the vast field of the comic. He has not told us why we laugh at the artless blunders of children; nor has he explained the laugh of victory or of pure joy. It is true that we laugh at rigidity in the midst of life’s flux; but we also laugh at spontaneous actions when a certain restraint is expected. The first laugh gives us social service and the second relaxation.At the close of his essay Bergson finds a small place for sympathetic laughter.
Like a dream, laughter brings relaxation and relieves us from the strain of living. We abandon logic and social conventions; we join in the game. 1Ve soar above the actual facts of life and laugh at them.
Bergson, however, reminds us that this view of laughter is a very fleeting one; we must return to the actual world in order that we may correct its follies. But Bergson gives insufficient weight to laughter as a liberation from the hard facts of life. Perhilps in the end, laughter is this and only thisBergson:s illustrations show admirably how his theory works; nevertheless the reader occasionally suspects that t.he way has been artificially cleared of obstructions. Bergson also gives some striking examples of forcing a theory upon unwilling facts.
Indeed it takes all his ingenuity to convince us that we laugh ata negro or a red nose because of its rigidity. Bergson tells us that although the black or the red color is inherent in the skin, nevertheless, in our imaginati~.m) it is artificially laid on. A black face is one covered with soot or smoke and a red nose has received a coating of vermillion. Do we not rather laugh at the red nose because it suggests a certain human weakness? Although this weakness is not amusing in itself; nevertheless it is funny to see a man unwittingly advertise his own shortcomings.It appears that Bergson’s theory of the comic admirably explains the alert and reasonable comedy of the French.
But had he chosen his examples from Fielding and Goldsmith, he would have had greater difficulty in showing how his definition works. By universal consent Moliere represents comedy at its best; his laughter is detached and critical, untouched by prejudice or feeling. The laughter which Harpagon excites is purely of the mind; but we find no. character like Harpagon in English literature.
1:£ we agree that laughter is essentially intellectual, then we must grant that the English cannot write pure comedy. Yet it is well for us to think of Bergson’s definition. It reminds us of our neglect of the discipline, which welldefined comedy would give us. Undoubtedly, the sentimentality, which we find in Anglo-Saxon countries, destroys the capacity for self-criticism.Bergson’s aesthetic theory “is exactly the same as Schopenhauer’s” but devoid of the latter’s “cumbrous” metaphysical machinery.
Yet Hulme sees Bergson’s theory of art as an integral extension of his philosophy, the great advantage of this theory being that “it removes your account of art from the merely literary level,” being rather “part of a definite conception of reality.”2 This insight of Hulme’s may help us understand why so many later nineteenth-century thinkers, including Eliot, the French symbolists, humanists such as Arnold, and philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Bergson, called for a unity of philosophy and poetry. Behind this was a desire to define the aesthetic as a form of perception of reality: poetry could not take for granted the reality it was to express.
Bergson’s philosophy was expressed in his Creative Evolution (1907), where he had argued that what is most real is precisely what philosophers since Plato have condemned as unreal: time. Both Plato and Plotinus considered the temporal world as a degradation of the eternal. The main streams of Christian theology retained this hierarchy in broadened theological contexts. Bergson’s controversial ideas took root in an early twentieth-century intellectual climate exhausted by the tyranny of technology, science, industrial growth, and reason. Bergson attempted to situate reason within a larger context of evolutionary balance between instinct and intellect.
For Bergson what is most real is the continuity of immediate experience. The intellect narrowly equates understanding this continuity with immobilizing it, breaking it up into timeless discrete sections. In affirming the reality of time rather than of eternity, Bergson was challenging both the classical Christian legacy and the various strands of Enlightenment thought which had attempted to overturn this. He was returning to the immediacy and authenticity of experience as against the conceptual and linguistic reduction of such experience to conventional categories, whether in the name of feudal Christianity, Enlightenment reason, or conservative humanism. Bergson’s notion of durée placed emphasis on the human personality, as the locus of the primary reality, duration: “There is at least one reality which we all seize from within, by intuition and not by simple analysis.
It is our own person in its flowing through time, the self which endures” (CM, 162).Like Schopenhauer, Bergson ascribes unique powers to art, whose essence he also sees as irony (CM, 27–28). Bergson’s theory of art also emerges as a reaction against, and transcendence of, bourgeois practical and utilitarian ways of thinking. He suggestst that, in everyday life, a veil is interposed between ourselves and nature: our understanding and our senses, conditioned by our needs, furnishes a merely utilitarian, “practical simplication” of reality. We classify things only with a view to their use and it is this classification we ordinarily perceive.
We see not actual things but their labels; their individuality escapes us. For example, we do not perceive this table but a table. These utilitarian habits of perception are mediated through language; words denote genera, not individual things.