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Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic   By: (1859-1941)

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LAUGHTER

AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE COMIC

BY HENRI BERGSON

MEMBER OF THE INSTITUTE PROFESSOR AT THE COLLEGE DE FRANCE

AUTHORISED TRANSLATION

BY CLOUDESLEY BRERETON L. ES L. (PARIS), M.A. (CANTAB) AND FRED ROTHWELL B.A. (LONDON)

TRANSLATORS' PREFACE

This work, by Professor Bergson, has been revised in detail by the author himself, and the present translation is the only authorised one. For this ungrudging labour of revision, for the thoroughness with which it has been carried out, and for personal sympathy in many a difficulty of word and phrase, we desire to offer our grateful acknowledgment to Professor Bergson. It may be pointed out that the essay on Laughter originally appeared in a series of three articles in one of the leading magazines in France, the Revue de Paris. This will account for the relatively simple form of the work and the comparative absence of technical terms. It will also explain why the author has confined himself to exposing and illustrating his novel theory of the comic without entering into a detailed discussion of other explanations already in the field. He none the less indicates, when discussing sundry examples, why the principal theories, to which they have given rise, appear to him inadequate. To quote only a few, one may mention those based on contrast, exaggeration, and degradation.

The book has been highly successful in France, where it is in its seventh edition. It has been translated into Russian, Polish, and Swedish. German and Hungarian translations are under preparation. Its success is due partly to the novelty of the explanation offered of the comic, and partly also to the fact that the author incidentally discusses questions of still greater interest and importance. Thus, one of the best known and most frequently quoted passages of the book is that portion of the last chapter in which the author outlines a general theory of art.

C. B. F. R.

CONTENTS

CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND MOVEMENTS EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC

CHAPTER II

THE COMIC ELEMENT IN SITUATIONS AND THE COMIC ELEMENT IN WORDS

CHAPTER III

THE COMIC IN CHARACTER

CHAPTER I

THE COMIC IN GENERAL THE COMIC ELEMENT IN FORMS AND MOVEMENTS EXPANSIVE FORCE OF THE COMIC.

What does laughter mean? What is the basal element in the laughable? What common ground can we find between the grimace of a merry andrew, a play upon words, an equivocal situation in a burlesque and a scene of high comedy? What method of distillation will yield us invariably the same essence from which so many different products borrow either their obtrusive odour or their delicate perfume? The greatest of thinkers, from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this little problem, which has a knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophic speculation. Our excuse for attacking the problem in our turn must lie in the fact that we shall not aim at imprisoning the comic spirit within a definition. We regard it, above all, as a living thing. However trivial it may be, we shall treat it with the respect due to life. We shall confine ourselves to watching it grow and expand. Passing by imperceptible gradations from one form to another, it will be seen to achieve the strangest metamorphoses. We shall disdain nothing we have seen. Maybe we may gain from this prolonged contact, for the matter of that, something more flexible than an abstract definition, a practical, intimate acquaintance, such as springs from a long companionship. And maybe we may also find that, unintentionally, we have made an acquaintance that is useful. For the comic spirit has a logic of its own, even in its wildest eccentricities. It has a method in its madness. It dreams, I admit, but it conjures up, in its dreams, visions that are at once accepted and understood by the whole of a social group. Can it then fail to throw light for us on the way that human imagination works, and more particularly social, collective, and popular imagination? Begotten of real life and akin to art, should it not also have something of its own to tell us about art and life?

At the outset we shall put forward three observations which we look upon as fundamental... Continue reading book >>




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