Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (1900) Informative Summary

Overview: Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic is a comprehensive exploration of the nature of comedy, examining the various forms of the comic and its social implications. Bergson argues that laughter is fundamentally a social gesture, a way for society to correct individual eccentricity and rigidity, emphasizing the importance of adaptability and elasticity in human interaction.

He delves into how the comic manifests in different aspects of human behavior, from physical forms and movements to situations, words, and ultimately, character. He connects the comic to the concept of “absentmindedness,” suggesting that laughter arises when we perceive a disconnect between a person’s actions and their understanding of themselves, often due to ingrained habits or fixed ideas.

Key Findings:

  • Social function of laughter: Laughter is a corrective mechanism used by society to address rigidity, automatism, and unsociability.
  • The comic as “absentmindedness”: The comic arises when we observe a disconnect between a person’s actions and their awareness of themselves, revealing a kind of “absentmindedness” in their behavior.
  • The importance of flexibility: Bergson emphasizes the need for flexibility, adaptability, and a constant striving for reciprocal adaptation in social interaction, viewing rigidity as a threat to healthy social harmony.
  • The comic as a play between the mechanical and the living: Comedy often portrays how mechanical or automatic elements can intrude upon the natural flow of life, creating comic situations and characters.

Facts:

  1. The comic is inherently human: Laughter arises from observing human attitudes, expressions, or actions, not from inanimate objects or other animals.
  2. Laughter requires a calm and unruffled mind: The comic effect is diminished when emotions like pity or affection are involved.
  3. Laughter is a social gesture: It is a communal phenomenon that requires an echo or reverberation among individuals.
  4. Absentmindedness is a key source of comedy: It reveals a mechanical rigidity in a person’s actions, contrasting with their potential for adaptable behavior.
  5. Vices that make us laugh are often superficial: They are external, imposed upon a person, rather than an inherent part of their soul.
  6. Comic characters are often unconscious of themselves: They are oblivious to the absurdity or inappropriateness of their actions, adding to the comic effect.
  7. Gestures are often more comic than actions: Actions are usually deliberate, but gestures can be automatic and involuntary, revealing unconscious aspects of a person’s character.
  8. Professional types often become comic: They can exhibit professional vanity, callousness, or a rigid adherence to their specific logic, creating a disconnect from broader social norms.
  9. Comic absurdity is akin to the logic of dreams: It involves a suspension of common sense and an obsession with certain ideas, leading to a disregard for reality.
  10. The comic is a form of relaxation: It allows us to step back from the tension of social interaction and the effort of rational thought, inviting us to join in the playful absurdity.
  11. The “robber robbed” is a common comic trope: It involves a reversal of roles where the perpetrator becomes the victim, highlighting the unexpected consequences of one’s actions.
  12. Repetitions are crucial to classic comedy: Recurring situations or characters create a sense of mechanical arrangement, contrasting with the flow of real life.
  13. Inversion of roles creates comic situations: By reversing the expected order of events or roles, comedy highlights the inherent absurdity of social norms.
  14. Reciprocal interference of series is a source of comedy: When seemingly unrelated events or characters intertwine, creating unexpected situations and misunderstandings.
  15. Comic sayings are often based on absurdity: They arise from fitting an absurd idea into a familiar phrase-form.
  16. Metaphors can be comic when taken literally: By focusing on the physical aspects of a metaphor, the comic can highlight the incongruity between figurative language and literal meaning.
  17. Transposition of ideas is a key comic method: By expressing an idea in a different key or style, often moving from the solemn to the familiar or vice versa, comedy reveals the absurdity of conventions.
  18. Exaggeration and degradation are forms of transposition: They amplify or diminish the value or size of objects or ideas, revealing the inherent absurdity of our perceptions.
  19. Humor and irony are contrasting forms of transposition: Humor describes reality in an elevated style, while irony presents an ideal in a cynical tone.
  20. Professional jargon can be comic: By applying professional language to everyday life, comedy exposes the limitations and absurdity of specific professions.

Statistics:

  1. Seven editions of Laughter were published in France: This demonstrates the significant impact and popularity of the book in its native country.
  2. Translations in several languages: Russian, Polish, Swedish, German, and Hungarian indicate the book’s international reach and influence.
  3. 20% royalty fee for commercial distribution: This is a critical aspect of the Project Gutenberg license for protecting the free distribution of electronic works.
  4. Over 40 years of Project Gutenberg: This underlines the longevity and dedication of the project to providing free access to electronic works.
  5. Hundreds of volunteers: The Project Gutenberg community relies heavily on the contributions of volunteers to produce and distribute eBooks.

Terms:

  1. Automatism: Unconscious, mechanical, repetitive behavior, lacking in flexibility and adaptability.
  2. Absentmindedness: A state of being unaware of oneself and one’s surroundings, often leading to incongruous actions.
  3. Rigidity: A lack of flexibility and adaptability, both physically and mentally, often associated with ingrained habits or fixed ideas.
  4. Elasticity: The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and new situations, both physically and mentally.
  5. Sociability: The quality of being able to easily connect with and relate to others in a group setting.
  6. Eccentricity: Behavior that deviates from the norms and expectations of a social group.
  7. Insensibility: A lack of emotional response or empathy, often associated with a lack of engagement with social situations.
  8. Unsociability: A tendency to isolate oneself from others and avoid social interaction.
  9. Vanity: An excessive preoccupation with oneself and one’s appearance, often leading to a desire for admiration and recognition from others.
  10. Professionalism: The specific attitudes, behaviors, and logic associated with a particular profession.

Examples:

  1. The runner who falls: This illustrates the comic element of involuntary movement, revealing the disconnect between intention and action.
  2. The victim of a practical joke: Similar to the runner, this emphasizes the comic effect of an unexpected interruption to a person’s routine.
  3. Don Quixote’s absentmindedness: His systematic misinterpretations of reality based on his fantasies are a prime example of comic absurdity.
  4. The Jack-in-the-box: This simple toy represents the comic element of a repressed force that repeatedly springs back into action.
  5. Punch and Judy: This classic puppet show illustrates the comic repetition of actions and the exaggerated physicality of the characters.
  6. M. Prudhomme’s commonplaces: His use of ready-made phrases, often filled with absurd ideas, highlights the comic element of linguistic automatism.
  7. The Monte Carlo official’s medals: This example reveals the absurdity of taking a symbol literally and applying it to a different context.
  8. The doctor who feels the father’s pulse: This scene in L’Amour medecin illustrates the comic idea of substituting one person’s body for another’s, revealing the absurdity of medical logic.
  9. The prisoner lecturing the magistrate: This example exemplifies the comic effect of inverting roles and undermining social hierarchies.
  10. Tartuffe’s hypocritical gestures: His actions, though seemingly sincere, reveal his underlying vanity and hypocrisy, creating a comic effect.

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