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Laughter: An Essay On The Meaning Of The Comic
by Henri Bergson, Trans. By Cloudesley Brereton And Fred Rothwell
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Clem Kadiddlehopper wore a funny hat. Even animals other than humans seem to laugh, because they, too, possess emotions. And sometimes, when you're by yourself, you just start giggling for no reason. But that's not funny. As Henri Bergson, proto-existentialist French philosopher and author of Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, would say, you can stop laughing now. We must rethink what tickles us. For Bergson, laughter is a purely intellectual response that serves the social purpose of assuaging discomfort over the unaccustomed and unexpected. We chuckle at Lucy attempting to wrap the bonbons speeding by on a candy-factory conveyor belt because she's stuck in one place, performing the same task over and over, and failing; we hope that in similar situations we could be more flexible. Bergson recaps: "Rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective."
Bergson's thinking typifies a peculiarly Gallic tendency to rationalize the apparently ephemeral and subjective (in this case, humor), discussing it in exquisitely rarefied language in order to assert that which defies common sense (a funny hat is not funny, laughter expresses no emotion, no one laughs alone) but partakes nonetheless of a logical inevitability. Laughter, first published in 1911, clearly draws upon the early years of European modernism, yet also prefigures the movement in some ways. In recognizing the comic as it embodies itself in a "rigid," absentminded person, locked into repetitious, socially awkward behavior, Bergson--even as he looks backward, primarily to Molière--seems to be spawning the sophisticated visual and physical comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd; the transformation of Léger's figures into anthropoid machines; and Nijinsky's starring role in Stravinsky's satirical clockwork ballet Pétrouchka.
This little book resurrects a British translation that has long been out of print. While Laughter won't quite explain why the French love Jerry Lewis, or keep you in stitches, it's a bracing read that will make you think twice about laughing the next time someone stumbles into a lamppost. --Robert Burns Neveldine
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