What does laughter mean? Henri Bergson begins his work on laughter with this simple question. Its intention is to analyze the things that make us laugh, in order to find out why and how they make us laugh.
Bergson limits his field of analysis with three remarks on comedy and laughter:
- Laughter is necessarily human: we laugh at people or things they do, never objects in themselves
- Laughter is purely cerebral: being able to laugh requires a detached attitude, an emotional distance from the object that triggers the laughter
- Laughter has a social function: ” To understand laughter, we have to put it back in its natural environment, which is society, and above all, we have to determine its usefulness, which is social. This will be the guiding idea of all our investigations. Laughter must meet certain requirements of living together. It must have social significance ”( quote from Bergson )
What is the comic?
Logical relationships don't by themselves make us laugh, there is a process that begins with observing an absurdity and ends with laughing at it. Unlike some (Freud in particular, who linked jokes to the unconscious), Bergson does not want to give a psychological or psychoanalytic explanation for laughter. Bergson instead explains laughter in functionalist terms: laughter is a "social gesture", a function with a specific utility in society. In the last chapter, Bergson makes the following remark:
” As the opposing electricities attract and accumulate between the two plates of the capacitor from which the spark will presently light up, so laughter brings people together, attraction and repulsion, followed by a complete loss of balance, in short, by that electrification of the soul known as passion. If man gave in to the impulse of his natural feelings, these outbursts of violent feelings would be the ordinary rule of life. But utility demands that these overflows must be anticipated and avoided. Man must live in society, and therefore submit to rules ”
Society is the product of a kind of evolution: the history of humanity seems to lead towards a more peaceful social life, dominated by the control of our anti-social reflexes. The drama is to let us see inside ourselves, what we would be without society, our hidden nature. La Comédie thus serves society by highlighting our antisocial tendencies and inviting us to laugh at them, which encourages us to correct them.
The social function of laughter
" Something mechanical in something living " This is how Bergson defines the comic. This is the main thesis of the work in a compact and abstract form. The argument is difficult to summarize, let's try to simplify it.
Laughter serves as a remedy. It is one of the institutions that allow people to live in society. While there are different types of antisocial traits and behavior, we only laugh at some of them. We laugh at people when they behave in a way that looks like a simple mechanism. Usually we expect people to observe what is going on around them and to adapt their behavior accordingly. When someone deviates from this principle, we laugh at him. Laughter sounds like a call to social order: “ Its function is to intimidate by humiliating .”
In the last chapter, Bergson writes about the character comedy in the theater. Laughter is incompatible with sympathy, so the comic writer must prevent viewers from feeling sympathy for the characters. There are three things that are required to achieve this goal. First the laughable line. Second, the trait must be expressed through gestures instead of actions. Third, and to sum up, the comic character behaves automatically, distractedly. The fault in him is like a switch that external circumstances can set off. So what's the most laughable character trait? The vanity :
“ There probably isn't a more superficial or deeper flaw. The wounds he receives are never very serious, yet they are rarely healed. It is hardly a vice, and yet all vices are drawn into its orbit and, as they become more refined and artificial. It is even more natural, more universally innate than selfishness, for selfishness can be conquered by nature, while only by reflection do we get the best of vanity . ”
Laughter, the unthought of man
From an ethical standpoint, laughter is hardly innocent. The criteria he uses to choose his victims are not moral criteria. Laughter is “ quite simply the result of a mechanism set up in us by nature or, what is almost the same thing, by our knowledge of social life. He doesn't have time to watch where he hits ” . And sometimes the blows he delivers are painful.