Bergsons Theory Of Humor

LAUGHTER. The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) developed a humor theory that has survived over many years, and is often characterized as the "mechanization theory of laughter" (i.e., the ludicrous is something mechanical that is "encrusted on the living"). According to Bergson's theory of humor/laughter, a necessary condition of laughter is the absence of feeling, because the "greatest foe" of laughter is emotion. In Berg-son's approach, the essence of the comic involves a kind of "momentary anesthesia" of the heart - its appeal is to one's intelligence, pure and simple. Also, according to Bergson, in order to understand the "why" of humor, one must determine the social function of laughter. Bergson's logical sequence of reasoning concerning the social basis of humor is as follows: life and society demand from the individual both elasticity and tension, adaptability and alertness; life sets a lower standard than does society; a moderate degree of adaptability enables one to live; to live well -which is the aim of society - requires much greater flexibility; society is compelled to be suspicious of all tendencies towards the inelastic, and for this reason, has devised the "social gesture" of laughter to serve as a "corrective" of all unsocial deviations. Bergson suggests that the comic is always something rigid, inelastic, and inflexible (i.e., "something mechanical encrusted on the living"), and usurps the place in human activities of the fine adjustment that society requires. In Bergson's view, laughter is corrective in purpose, whether consciously or unconsciously applied; in laughter and humor, one always finds an intention to humiliate and, consequently, to "correct" one's neighbor - if not in his will, at least in his deed. Thus, laughter is the "revenge of society on the unsocial." In dealing with the simplest form of the comic (i.e., physical deformities which are ludicrous rather than ugly), Bergson formulates the following "law": A deformity that may become comic is a deformity that a normally-built person could successfully imitate. The reasoning behind this principle is that the deformity suggests a certain rigidity that is required as a habitual feature of a normal person (e.g., the figure of a hunchback suggests a "person who holds himself badly"); this is always, in such cases, the suggestion of a certain "rigidity" or "automatism" that produces the effect. Thus, as Bergson observed, the attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a "mere machine." The purpose of laughter, in Bergson's account, is to remove the "mechanical encrustation on the living" through humiliation and, thereby, promote free, healthy, and well-adapted social behaviors. As a supplement to superiority humor theories, Bergson adds a perspective about the object of the mockery (i.e., "mechanical inelasticity") as well as developing the social function/aspect of laughter. See also HUMOR, THEORIES OF; SUPERIORITY THEORIES OF HUMOR. REFERENCE

Bergson, H. (1911). Le rire. (Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic). New York: Macmillan.

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