How Not to Be Laughed At

An overview of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of laughter.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

Nika Akin/Pexels
Source: Nika Akin/Pexels

In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the monk Jorge de Burgos commits a string of murders to prevent the sole surviving copy of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy (the lost second book of the Poetics), hidden in the abbey’s labyrinthine library, from ever coming to light. For Jorge, the book is dangerous, because laughter, if properly understood, could undermine the very foundations of religion and society.

Since Aristotle, who lived in the 4th century BCE, few philosophers have taken laughter seriously, devoting at most a footnote or a digression to the subject—until, that is, Henri Bergson, whose treatise on laughter (Le Rire, 1900) I found refreshingly readable.

Laughter, says Bergson, is a strictly human property: “Many philosophers have defined man as ‘a laughing animal,' but they could also have said a ‘laughable animal’—for if another animal can make us laugh, this is only insofar as it reminds us of man.”

More than that, laughter is a social activity. Bergson tells a joke about a sermon at which the entire congregation cried, except for one man. When asked why he didn’t cry, the man replies, “Because I’m from a different parish.” Even when we laugh alone, it is because we have conjured up a social context, a gathering of ghosts—"for laughter implies a certain complicity with others, whether real or imaginary.”

Life, wrote the tragedian Jean Racine, is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. Bergson concurred: Emotion is the enemy of laughter, for laughter presupposes a certain distance, a certain indifference, even if it is only momentary—and, in fact, creating this distance can be one of the purposes of humour.

These, then, are the conditions for laughter: a human dimension, a social aspect, and a detached attitude. But what is laughter, all laughter, actually about? It is, replies Bergson, about a kind of mechanical rigidity [raideur de mécanique], either in the body or in the mind.

Nature is full of vital energy and creativity and adaptability, and never exactly repeats itself; but we human beings tend to fall short, to ossify or petrify, to lose ourselves to ourselves—and laughter is how we point this out to one another, how we up our collective game.

For example, we may laugh at one who falls into a hole through absentmindedness; or at one who constantly, and sometimes inappropriately, repeats the same gesture or phrase; or at one who expends much effort only to end up in exactly the same place.

More subtly, we may laugh at a pun or a literal interpretation of a figure of speech; or at a misunderstanding that arises from a scene so formulaic that it is able to belong at the same time to two completely independent series of events.

I would add that we may also laugh at, or from, an unusual or unexpected lack of rigidity, as, for example, when we break a habit or have an original idea—although this kind of divine laughter, as I call it, only arises out of the contrast with our usual rigidity.

Ultimately, says Bergson, we are laughable to the extent that we are a machine or an object, to the extent that we lack self-awareness, that we are invisible to ourselves while being visible to everyone else.

Thus, the laughter of others usually draws attention to our unconscious processes, to our modes or patterns of self-deception, and to the gap, or gulf, between our fiction and the reality.

This is also how our body and bodily functions can lead to laughter, by diverting attention from, and contrasting with, our higher being—which is why tragic heroes rarely eat or drink or sit down in the middle of a soliloquy. After conquering the Prussian city of Magdeburg, Napoleon, ever the fine psychologist, punctured the pleas of Queen Louise of Prussia by asking her to sit down.

Every comical character is, almost by definition, a caricature, a stereotype [Greek, 'a solid kind'], which is why a comical character can be turned into a noun, but a tragic one never. We might speak of a Scrooge or a Pollyanna, but never of a Cleopatra or a Hamlet. We never say, “Oh that guy, he’s such a Hamlet!” Because Hamlet is complicated and alive and free.

The purpose of laughter is to flush out our faults, but a fault is not necessarily a vice, and it is easier to laugh at a rigid virtue than at a supple vice—for it is rigidity, rather than vice per se, that society scorns. By the same token, the opposite of the risible is not the virtuous or the beautiful, but the graceful.

To survive and thrive as a species, we as individuals need to develop the highest possible degree of elasticity and sociability. Although it is at rigidity that we laugh, rigidity usually coincides with vice, and it is to the credit of humanity that the social ideal and the moral ideal are not so far apart.

Of all the vices, the most pernicious, and the most proper to laughter, is vanity—which is why, in the absence of free speech and a free press, medieval monarchs had a joker in their court.

Of course, laughter can be misused or misdirected, for example, to mock others, or in a manic illness, but this does not remove from its proper, corrective function. At the same time, even the most altruistic, pro-social laughter contains a grain of malice, for to be laughed at is also to suffer une petite humiliation.

So, how not to be laughed at? I think I've already answered that question, but I'll answer it again in a different way. If laughter draws attention to the gap between our fiction and reality, this gap is at its narrowest in poets and artists, who need to transcend themselves if they are to be worthy of the name.

In the end, Jorge de Burgos accidentally burns down the entire abbey, destroying not only the last copy of the second book of the Poetics, but also every other manuscript in the library.

Jorge de Burgos is the antithesis of a poet, a destroyer of the arts, a fanatic who might have been cured by the laughter that he scorned.