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Bergson's theory of comedy and the extent to which it concurs with Aristotle's and other theories

Introduction

Bergson's theory of comedy seems to draw together many strands of ancient theatrical wisdom and give them a plausible basis in fin de siecle psychology. Aristotle's Poetics makes several general points that tend to concur where he is not concerned with the conventions of his own time such as meter etc.

Human context

Bergson makes a point of beginning by confining laughter to being an exclusively human activity 1. No other creature seems to find anything funny. Presumably if we ever encounter intelligent life from other worlds we will have to extend this definition. It is generally assumed that a sense of humour is indicative of intelligence. If this is the case, then alien 'life-forms' capable of interstella travel may arrive with some hilarious stories - most of which may be way over our heads.

More interesting is Bergson's observation that we humans only find a thing funny inasmuch as it is human 2. This at first appears to go against instinct and yet defies exception. If you can be amused by the image of a horse with a hat on, you have been invited to project the human experience onto the unwitting horse. It may then follow then that comedians from outer space should not bother with any jokes about situations and objects which have no relationship to humans.

Emotional and intellectual detachment

It seems a total non sequitur when Bergson states that "the absence of feeling...usually accommodates laughter" 3 Again this at first goes against instinct but then seems born out in every imaginable instance. "An audience might let you fail but they'll never forgive you if they see you suffer" 4.

The audience must be able to set sympathy aside in order to be able to laugh. This insight conforms with John Cleese's definition of a joke as "the unexpected withdrawal of sympathy" 5. It tends to be the case (with some remarkable exceptions) that commitment to a given political or philosophical dogma is rare among writers with a facility for comedy. The greatest satirists tend to stand aloof from the struggle and let the chips fall where they may.

For Bergson "Indifference is the natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion." 6 The traditional Fool perceives all human activity in terms of games and looks for the game within the game. 7

Aristotle wrote: "Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire." 8 When a clown bounces, we may laugh. Aristotle agrees: "To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain." 9

When Tommy Cooper literally died on stage there were laughs because, when he collapsed, the audience expected it to be a gag. Attractive women tend to be unfunny in cabaret, possibly because the drunken, male-dominated, audiences are trying to experience lust. On the other hand, an individual who witnesses a genuine scene of horror may find themselves laughing inappropriately as a safety valve to avoid a sort of sympathy overload. A third party would usually attribute this to "hysteria".

Behaviour of groups

Bergson says: "You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others." 10 This explains some of the uncanny phenomena that occur when an audience seems, for example, to divide into chuckling diners and jeering bar-drinkers, and the performance will die the death if the two groups cannot somehow be united. It is also borne out by the embarassment with which we tend to suddenly stop laughing at a joke when we realise nobody else found it funny. There seems to be a feeling of tribal solidarity when a body of people is laughing together to the same rhythm. Bergson refers to this as "a kind of secret freemasonry". 11

Mimicry and deformity

Bergson gives comic examples which boil down to mental and physical rigidity 12. This rigidity contradicts the human desire to remain elastic in response to the rigours of life. "Laughter, then, does not belong to the province of esthetics alone, since unconsciously (and even immorally in many particular instances) it pursues a utilitarian aim of general improvement." 13

As he explores the tendency of humans to laugh at deformities 14, Bergson appears to be refining his observation of comedy residing in that which is essentially human. A deformity cannot even be wickedly funny if it goes beyond what a healthy human could imitate. This draws in the whole genre of mimicry and caricature. 15 Aristotle takes the broad view that "Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation." 16

Bergson refines his observation in the form of a comic law: "The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine." 17 This law is what makes a well-choreographed piece of "stage business" funny. Bergson calls it "something mechanical encrusted on the living". 18

Flowing from this law Bergson says black people look funny because they resemble white people covered in ink or soot. 19 If this appears racist to modern sensibilities the principle remained true when I saw a company of black South African actors who wore beaky false noses when portraying their white bosses. 20

From the same law he states: "Any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned." 21 Here Bergson seems to agree with Aristotle's claim that "Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life." 22 Bergson laughs when moral pretension is subverted by physical weakness. He would have loved Rowan Atkinson's vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

The other point drawn by Bergson from this law is "We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing." 23 This is true the first time we watch a robotic dancer.

Freudian economy

After applying the above principles to wordplay and working through examples in Moliere's plays and the Punch & Judy shows, Bergson states: "A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time." 24 This looks obvious. Freud devoted most of his 1905 book Jokes and their relation to the unconscious to analysis of the pun and the double entendre. Quoting Vischer [1846-57, I, 422], Freud says: "Joking...is the priest who likes best to wed couples whose union their relatives frown upon." 25

Conclusion

It is a shame that although Freud also quotes Bergson's Le rire: essai sur la signification du comique he gets bogged down in analysis of so many tedious German jokes and ignores most of the profound insights discussed above. It is no surprise that they both conclude that dreams and jokes occupy common ground. This is why surrealist paintings have a comic tendency. "Comic absurdity is of the same nature as that of dreams." 26

In the logic of our dreams, gestures carry more weight than does the utility of action. This is an inversion of our waking reality. Audiences love it when a piece of make-believe seems to take precedence over mundane realities such as the laws of physics. The duality of actors' actions against jesters' gesture was important to Aristotle too:

"Sophocles is an imitator of the same kind as Homer- for both imitate higher types of character; from another point of view, of the same kind as Aristophanes- for both imitate persons acting and doing. Hence, some say, the name of 'drama' is given to such poems, as representing action. For the same reason the Dorians claim the invention both of Tragedy and Comedy. The claim to Comedy is put forward by the Megarians- not only by those of Greece proper, who allege that itoriginated under their democracy, but also by the Megarians of Sicily, for the poet Epicharmus, who is much earlier than Chionides and Magnes, belonged to that country. Tragedy too is claimed by certain Dorians of the Peloponnese. In each case they appeal to the evidence of language. The outlying villages, they say, are by them called komai, by the Athenians demoi: and they assume that comedians were so named not from komazein, 'to revel,' but because they wandered from village to village (kata komas), being excluded contemptuously from the city. They add also that the Dorian word for 'doing' is dran, and the Athenian, prattein." 27

NOTES

1. Wylie Sypher [ed.] Comedy (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1991), p. 62
2. Sypher p. 62
3. Sypher p. 63
4. Phillippe Gaulier (c/o Paul Milligan, P.O. Box 1815, London N5 1BG)
5. Barry Took attributed the remark to Cleese on BBC Radio 4 some years ago.
6. Sypher p. 63
7. I have no source for this other than my training in a circus school.
8. S. H. Butcher [Trans.] The Poetics, (I downloaded it from the internet), p. 4?
9. Butcher p. 5
10. Sypher p. 64
11. Sypher p. 64
12. Sypher pp. 66-71
13. Sypher p. 73
14. Sypher p. 75
15. Sypher p. 77
16. Butcher p. 2
17. Sypher p. 79
18. Sypher p. 84
19. Sypher p. 86
20. It was a while back but I think they were Cosatu strikers. They were very funny anyway.
21. Sypher p. 93
22. Butcher p. 2
23. Sypher p. 97
24. Sypher p. 123
25. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (Pelican, London, 1983) p. 41.
26. Sypher p. 180
27. Butcher p. 2

Bibliography

  • Aristotle The Poetics (350 BC) Translated by S. H. Butcher
  • Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their relation to the unconscious (Pelican, London, 1983)
  • Sypher, Wylie, [ed.] Comedy (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1991)

    Michael Burgess 1997