Comedy: Notes on Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 2)

I’m afraid I got distracted and didn’t follow up on this like I wanted.  I’ll post the rest of these notes for your comments, and try to rewrite them later.  All notes refer to this text:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4352/4352-h/4352-h.htm

 

…laughter has no greater foe than emotion.

 

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land tells a story of a human who was stranded among aliens since infancy, raised to think like them rather than like a human, until he was returned to Earth as an adult. One of his most difficult struggles was humor. He did not laugh, and did not understand laughter; among the telepathic and socially peaceful race that had raised him, humor did not exist. He learned to laugh watching monkeys in a zoo; one robbed another of a peanut, the victim vented his rage on a still smaller monkey, and the last found comfort from a young mother monkey. At this The Stranger laughed, because he saw that this reflected what it is to be human; we laugh because something hurts so much that we can’t stand it otherwise.[1] Heinlein’s view of laughter disagrees with Bergson’s and with my own, but one place where Bergson and Heinlein agree is that laughter takes away the pain. People laugh at funeral receptions and wakes. Why? Because they don’t care? No; sometimes those who were crying just before and will cry again stop to laugh, and sometimes the laughter even intrudes into the tears. Maybe we remember some moment of joy or humor we shared with the deceased. Maybe we laugh at death itself. There are a lot of jokes about death. Generally, we seem to laugh at things we fear, which threaten or suggest or even give pain, and when we can laugh at them we can deal with them. When I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I wrote a list of the top ten great things about going deaf, culminating in “And the Number One great thing about going deaf is, “Deaf? Oh thank goodness doctor, I thought you said ‘Death’!” And yes, instead of dwelling on the sadness over what I was losing, I was able to cut hearing loss down to size.

 

Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

One of the most commonly observed and strangest characteristics of humor is that it seems to be so restricted. It is difficult to find jokes that translate well from one culture to another, and particularly hard to find jokes that translate into another language without losing the humor.

 

…how often has the remark been made that many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group!

 

Is it true that laughter requires a group? Is it untranslatable? More to the point, is it social in a way other emotional expressions are not? How does the untranslatability compare to poetry? How does laughter compare to the shared terror at a horror movie, or shared sadness at a funeral? Even Bergson’s own illustration of the sermon suggests a kinship.

 

This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

 

Is all laughter, or even most comedy, a response to or display of “rigidity” or a “mechanical” behavior?

Bergson says laughter is a social response to eccentricity, defined by him as a sort of inelasticity, essentially an unconscious means of social control to discourage such rigidity by the fear of being laughed at. To what extent does this seem true?

Kierkegaard might suggest that laughter is, or can be part of the social operation of envy. In that case, it is punishing not just a failure or anti-life inelasticity, but possibly a positive deviancy. Maybe we laugh at more than one sort of “noncomfority” or unexpected behavior.

 

THE ATTITUDES, GESTURES AND MOVEMENTS OF THE HUMAN BODY ARE LAUGHABLE IN EXACT PROPORTION AS THAT BODY REMINDS US OF A MERE MACHINE.

 

I don’t think that’s true. Sometimes gestures are laughably flexible; and a dancer doing The Robot is not necessarily funny. Maybe what is laughable is a feigned lack of control. If it is obvious that someone is having a seizure, the instinct is to help, not laugh; but someone who is able on command to fall without injury, or stand so still as to be mistaken for a statue, only to move suddenly and startle someone, is funny. The dancer who moves like a robot is so obviously in control, so skillful, that it provokes admiration rather than laughter.

 

Why are imitations of another’s gestures funny? Is it, as Bergson says, because they take on an element of impersonality, of mechanism? Or is it more like what he said before about caricature? Is it funny because we recognize another being mimicked? Is it funny when we see a person imitating his or her own characteristic gestures, satirizing himself or herself?

 

As we hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to derive every comic effect from one simple formula.

 

What is the import of this? Is it a concession that not all humor is routed in mechanism, that this is but one species of comedy?

 

The ceremonial side of social life must, therefore, always include a latent comic element, which is only waiting for an opportunity to burst into full view.

 

Would this be his explanation for political humor? Revealing the mayor to be a drunk, the family-values senator to be a gay philanderer, etc. highlights the disconnection between the ceremonial dignity of the office and the real-life frailties of the people playing the parts. Or it shows up the fact that the people were only playing parts and had no real life, no real investment in it, did not take it seriously.

 

Let us now give a wider scope to this image of THE BODY TAKING PRECEDENCE OF THE SOUL. We shall obtain something more general—THE MANNER SEEKING TO OUTDO THE MATTER, THE LETTER AIMING AT OUSTING THE SPIRIT.

 

Bergson sees the body as the mechanical, overtaking the soul which is the essence of vitality. I wonder if it would be better to see it as the conflict between the artificial and the trivial versus the natural, original and vital. One example: the South Park episode “Hot Catholic Love.” The local priest, distressed by the harm being caused by the ongoing sex scandal and the fact that his parishioners no longer trust him, travels to Rome to push the leadership to do something. They begin debating what has gone wrong, and why boys will no longer keep quiet. The priest is flabbergasted, and demands that they simply stop having sex with boys. This utterly confuses the cardinals, who point out that Church law forbids priests having sex with women so of course they can only have sex with boys. Bergson would say that the comic aspect is that the actual essence, the faith, has been overtaken by the artificial, the rules of the Church. The South Park writers agree, with the priest destroying the Church Law in the name of restoring a simple, vital faith that can guide each person in his or her life.

 

Thus, we laugh at the prisoner at the bar lecturing the magistrate; at a child presuming to teach its parents; in a word, at everything that comes under the heading of “topsyturvydom.”

Bergson sees this as an example of rigidity or mechanization; the situation is reversed as if the characters were algebraic and interchangeable, but with the “wrong” people in the roles it becomes comic; for example, the child teaching the parent or other adult.

Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught.

This is clearly part of the comic joy we get in seeing a real-life judgmental character being caught doing what he condemned in others, like when prosecutor Ken Starr was found to have helped cover up sexual assaults at Baylor after vigorously prosecuting Bill Clinton for his affair with a White House intern, or when an anti-gay preacher is arrested for public homosexual indecency.

Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of HUMOUR.

Compare Climacus’ very different discussion of irony and humor, in Fragments.

The rigid, the ready—made, the mechanical, in contrast with the supple, the ever-changing and the living, absentmindedness in contrast with attention, in a word, automatism in contrast with free activity, such are the defects that laughter singles out and would fain correct.

So “mechanical” and “automatism” are more or less identical?

Convinced that laughter has a social meaning and import, that the comic expresses, above all else, a special lack of adaptability to society, and that, in short, there is nothing comic apart from man, we have made man and character generally our main objective.

A summary of his theory.

Comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbour’s personality ceases to affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing callousness to social life.

He said earlier that comedy appeals to the intellect and turns off the emotions, at least temporarily. How so? Do we laugh because we are callous, does laughing establish the distance, or both?

It is the part of laughter to reprove his absentmindedness and wake him out of his dream.

So laughter isn’t there to laugh AT the neighbor and cause callousness, but to mock the callousness. Either way, a rise in comedy would seem linked to a rise in callousness; a comic culture would be one with more social alienation, while more social engagement would suggest more interest in drama, wouldn’t it?

In laughter we always find an unavowed intention to humiliate, and consequently to correct our neighbour, if not in his will, at least in his deed. This is the reason a comedy is far more like real life than a drama is.

Comedy as a kind of hazing. Laughter as a social sanction against nonconformity. How might this relate to Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy? Bergson doesn’t see it as punishing those who are “better” but more broadly the unsocial, the unsympathetic, the nonconforming.

The comic, we said, appeals to the intelligence, pure and simple; laughter is incompatible with emotion. Depict some fault, however trifling, in such a way as to arouse sympathy, fear, or pity; the mischief is done, it is impossible for us to laugh. On the other hand, take a downright vice,—even one that is, generally speaking, of an odious nature,—you may make it ludicrous if, by some suitable contrivance, you arrange so that it leaves our emotions unaffected. Not that the vice must then be ludicrous, but it MAY, from that time forth, become so. IT MUST NOT AROUSE OUR FEELINGS; that is the sole condition really necessary, though assuredly it is not sufficient.

Compare the “morality switch” mentioned by Pinker. When we become angry, we don’t laugh. On the other hand, lovers laugh. They may even tease each other.

It is not uncommon for a comic character to condemn in general terms a certain line of conduct and immediately afterwards afford an example of it himself: for instance, M. Jourdain’s teacher of philosophy flying into a passion after inveighing against anger; Vadius taking a poem from his pocket after heaping ridicule on readers of poetry, etc. What is the object of such contradictions except to help us to put our finger on the obliviousness of the characters to their own actions?

Or the anti-gay politician or preacher who is caught in a homosexual sex scandal, the righteous judge of others and defender of “family values” caught as a pedophile. The deeds are horrific but the situation ludicrous.

Not only are we entitled to say that comedy gives us general types, but we might add that it is the ONLY one of all the arts that aims at the general; so that once this objective has been attributed to it, we have said all that it is and all that the rest cannot be.

Comedy gives us stock characters. This seems to relate to his view that comedy is about depicting a conflict between life and automatism; to be comic is to be playing a role and to come into collision with the spontaneity of life. You can have types in drama—-the jealous lover etc.—-but the point of drama is to depict life as realistically as possible. Drama, I guess he would say, aims to make the characters as realistic as possible, so while it may take stock situations it has to make them seem original and “true to life.” Comedy aims to show automatism estranged from life, so while a drama must hide its use of stock types, a comedy seeks to take realistic people and conform them to the general types. Example: Miracle Max and wife as the stereotypical Jewish bickering couple.

In short, we do not see the actual things themselves; in most cases we confine ourselves to reading the labels affixed to them.

This reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense.” We think and perceive in labels, and only use those labels that are actually helpful. This eases our working with life while falsifying life itself. Art brushes aside the “utilitarian symbols” and puts us in contact, partially and temporarily, with the spontaneity of life. This is part of Drama’s role also. Comedy does not throw away the symbols, but does draw attention to them, and shows them to be in conflict with life’s originality.

In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Bergson believes the comic is innately social, having to do with the disconnect between the roles we play and our real life, and with society’s punishing of those who violate sociality. The ideal comic character is one that is socially engaged but unsociable, given to a vice but not dangerously or seriously so, and capable of constantly generating new laughable circumstances. Vanity fits the bill.

Now, it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency. Its function is to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole, in short, to round off the corners wherever they are met with. Accordingly, we here find a species of the comic whose varieties might be calculated beforehand. This we shall call the PROFESSIONAL COMIC.

Society is made up of all sorts of subgroups, each with its own standards, values etc. Laughter’s job is to fight the tendency of some group or other to break away and declare independence. My example, lawyers follow legal ethics, which is often different than what the rest of us observe—-they fight to defend the guilty, for example, and they glorify winning the argument more than being right. So we make fun of The Lawyer. Think of “Farscape” s 2, e 8, “Dream a Little Dream,” with the planet that is 90% lawyers and only 10% people who actually do anything, the “utilities.” Bergson discusses the “professional comic” not as we might, the stand-up comedian or humorist, but the comic mocking professionals or professions, pointing out the vanity and rigidity of professionals who see themselves as apart from and superior to the rest of social life.

We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen.

This seems to fit Scribe’s “First Love” very well.

So, comic absurdity gives us from the outset the impression of playing with ideas.

This seems to me more like the child’s humor than anything else Bergson has said.

Laughter is, above all, a corrective. Being intended to humiliate, it must make a painful impression on the person against whom it is directed. By laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it. It would fail in its object if it bore the stamp of sympathy or kindness.

Is there no distinction between “laughing at” and “laughing with”? “I said to my brother, ‘Why did you burn down the house?’ He said, ‘It was laughing at me.’ I said, ‘Roberto you idiot, it wasn’t laughing AT you, it was laughing WITH you!’” (Judy Tenuto) When we laugh at that joke, who are we laughing at? Aren’t we just laughing with the comedian, who invites us into the game?

[1] I don’t have the book in front of me, but you can find the relevant material here: https://revolutionmagik.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/why-man-laughs/

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