Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
Henri Bergson

Part 1 out of 2

Steve Harris, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.







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.










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. They have less bearing on the actually comic
than on the field within which it must be sought.


The first point to which attention should be called is that the
comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly HUMAN. A
landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant
and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal,
but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or
expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of,
in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that
men have given it,--the human caprice whose mould it has assumed. It
is strange that so important a fact, and such a simple one too, has
not attracted to a greater degree the attention of philosophers.
Several have defined man as "an animal which laughs." They might
equally well have defined him as an animal which is laughed at; for
if any other animal, or some lifeless object, produces the same
effect, it is always because of some resemblance to man, of the
stamp he gives it or the use he puts it to.

Here I would point out, as a symptom equally worthy of notice, the
ABSENCE OF FEELING which usually accompanies laughter. It seems as
though the comic could not produce its disturbing effect unless it
fell, so to say, on the surface of a soul that is thoroughly calm
and unruffled. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter
has no greater foe than emotion. I do not mean that we could not
laugh at a person who inspires us with pity, for instance, or even
with affection, but in such a case we must, for the moment, put our
affection out of court and impose silence upon our pity. In a
society composed of pure intelligences there would probably be no
more tears, though perhaps there would still be laughter; whereas
highly emotional souls, in tune and unison with life, in whom every
event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither
know nor understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to become
interested in everything that is being said and done; act, in
imagination, with those who act, and feel with those who feel; in a
word, give your sympathy its widest expansion: as though at the
touch of a fairy wand you will see the flimsiest of objects assume
importance, and a gloomy hue spread over everything. Now step aside,
look upon life as a disinterested spectator: many a drama will turn
into a comedy. It is enough for us to stop our ears to the sound of
music, in a room where dancing is going on, for the dancers at once
to appear ridiculous. How many human actions would stand a similar
test? Should we not see many of them suddenly pass from grave to
gay, on isolating them from the accompanying music of sentiment? To
produce the whole of its effect, then, the comic demands something
like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to
intelligence, pure and simple.

This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other
intelligences. And here is the third fact to which attention should
be drawn. You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself
isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo,
Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined
sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by
reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash,
to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain.
Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel
within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the
less, a closed one. Our laughter is always the laughter of a group.
It may, perchance, have happened to you, when seated in a railway
carriage or at table d'hote, to hear travellers relating to one
another stories which must have been comic to them, for they laughed
heartily. Had you been one of their company, you would have laughed
like them; but, as you were not, you had no desire whatever to do
so. A man who was once asked why he did not weep at a sermon, when
everybody else was shedding tears, replied: "I don't belong to the
parish!" What that man thought of tears would be still more true of
laughter. However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a
kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers,
real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the
theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience! On the
other hand, 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! It is through not understanding the importance of this double
fact that the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in
which the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange,
isolated phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human
activity. Hence those definitions which tend to make the comic into
an abstract relation between ideas: "an intellectual contrast," "a
palpable absurdity," etc.,--definitions which, even were they really
suitable to every form of the comic, would not in the least explain
why the comic makes us laugh. How, indeed, should it come about that
this particular logical relation, as soon as it is perceived,
contracts, expands and shakes our limbs, whilst all other relations
leave the body unaffected? It is not from this point of view that we
shall approach the problem. To understand laughter, we must put it
back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all
must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social
one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our
investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life
in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification.

Let us clearly mark the point towards which our three preliminary
observations are converging. The comic will come into being, it
appears, whenever a group of men concentrate their attention on one
of their number, imposing silence on their emotions and calling into
play nothing but their intelligence. What, now, is the particular
point on which their attention will have to be concentrated, and
what will here be the function of intelligence? To reply to these
questions will be at once to come to closer grips with the problem.
But here a few examples have become indispensable.


A man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by
burst out laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could
they suppose that the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on
the ground. They laugh because his sitting down is involuntary.

Consequently, it is not his sudden change of attitude that raises a
laugh, but rather the involuntary element in this change,--his
clumsiness, in fact. Perhaps there was a stone on the road. He
should have altered his pace or avoided the obstacle. Instead of
that, through lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a
kind of physical obstinacy, AS A RESULT, IN FACT, OF RIGIDITY OR OF
MOMENTUM, the muscles continued to perform the same movement when
the circumstances of the case called for something else. That is the
reason of the man's fall, and also of the people's laughter.

Now, take the case of a person who attends to the petty occupations
of his everyday life with mathematical precision. The objects around
him, however, have all been tampered with by a mischievous wag, the
result being that when he dips his pen into the inkstand he draws it
out all covered with mud, when he fancies he is sitting down on a
solid chair he finds himself sprawling on the floor, in a word his
actions are all topsy-turvy or mere beating the air, while in every
case the effect is invariably one of momentum. Habit has given the
impulse: what was wanted was to check the movement or deflect it. He
did nothing of the sort, but continued like a machine in the same
straight line. The victim, then, of a practical joke is in a
position similar to that of a runner who falls,--he is comic for the
same reason. The laughable element in both cases consists of a
certain MECHANICAL INELASTICITY, just where one would expect to find
the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human
being. The only difference in the two cases is that the former
happened of itself, whilst the latter was obtained artificially. In
the first instance, the passer-by does nothing but look on, but in
the second the mischievous wag intervenes.

All the same, in both cases the result has been brought about by an
external circumstance. The comic is therefore accidental: it
remains, so to speak, in superficial contact with the person. How is
it to penetrate within? The necessary conditions will be fulfilled
when mechanical rigidity no longer requires for its manifestation a
stumbling-block which either the hazard of circumstance or human
knavery has set in its way, but extracts by natural processes, from
its own store, an inexhaustible series of opportunities for
externally revealing its presence. Suppose, then, we imagine a mind
always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is
doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try
to picture to ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both
senses and intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to
see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to
say what is no longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to
a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be
shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present.
This time the comic will take up its abode in the person himself; it
is the person who will supply it with everything--matter and form,
cause and opportunity. Is it then surprising that the absent-minded
individual--for this is the character we have just been describing--
has usually fired the imagination of comic authors? When La Bruyere
came across this particular type, he realised, on analysing it, that
he had got hold of a recipe for the wholesale manufacture of comic
effects. As a matter of fact he overdid it, and gave us far too
lengthy and detailed a description of Menalque, coming back to his
subject, dwelling and expatiating on it beyond all bounds. The very
facility of the subject fascinated him. Absentmindedness, indeed, is
not perhaps the actual fountain-head of the comic, but surely it is
contiguous to a certain stream of facts and fancies which flows
straight from the fountain-head. It is situated, so to say, on one
of the great natural watersheds of laughter.

Now, the effect of absentmindedness may gather strength in its turn.
There is a general law, the first example of which we have just
encountered, and which we will formulate in the following terms:
when a certain comic effect has its origin in a certain cause, the
more natural we regard the cause to be, the more comic shall we find
the effect. Even now we laugh at absentmindedness when presented to
us as a simple fact. Still more laughable will be the
absentmindedness we have seen springing up and growing before our
very eyes, with whose origin we are acquainted and whose life-
history we can reconstruct. To choose a definite example: suppose a
man has taken to reading nothing but romances of love and chivalry.
Attracted and fascinated by his heroes, his thoughts and intentions
gradually turn more and more towards them, till one fine day we find
him walking among us like a somnambulist. His actions are
distractions. But then his distractions can be traced back to a
definite, positive cause. They are no longer cases of ABSENCE of
mind, pure and simple; they find their explanation in the PRESENCE
of the individual in quite definite, though imaginary, surroundings.
Doubtless a fall is always a fall, but it is one thing to tumble
into a well because you were looking anywhere but in front of you,
it is quite another thing to fall into it because you were intent
upon a star. It was certainly a star at which Don Quixote was
gazing. How profound is the comic element in the over-romantic,
Utopian bent of mind! And yet, if you reintroduce the idea of
absentmindedness, which acts as a go-between, you will see this
profound comic element uniting with the most superficial type. Yes,
indeed, these whimsical wild enthusiasts, these madmen who are yet
so strangely reasonable, excite us to laughter by playing on the
same chords within ourselves, by setting in motion the same inner
mechanism, as does the victim of a practical joke or the passer-by
who slips down in the street. They, too, are runners who fall and
simple souls who are being hoaxed--runners after the ideal who
stumble over realities, child-like dreamers for whom life delights
to lie in wait. But, above all, they are past-masters in
absentmindedness, with this superiority over their fellows that
their absentmindedness is systematic and organised around one
central idea, and that their mishaps are also quite coherent, thanks
to the inexorable logic which reality applies to the correction of
dreams, so that they kindle in those around them, by a series of
cumulative effects, a hilarity capable of unlimited expansion.

Now, let us go a little further. Might not certain vices have the
same relation to character that the rigidity of a fixed idea has to
intellect? Whether as a moral kink or a crooked twist given to the
will, vice has often the appearance of a curvature of the soul.
Doubtless there are vices into which the soul plunges deeply with
all its pregnant potency, which it rejuvenates and drags along with
it into a moving circle of reincarnations. Those are tragic vices.
But the vice capable of making us comic is, on the contrary, that
which is brought from without, like a ready-made frame into which we
are to step. It lends us its own rigidity instead of borrowing from
us our flexibility. We do not render it more complicated; on the
contrary, it simplifies us. Here, as we shall see later on in the
concluding section of this study, lies the essential difference
between comedy and drama. A drama, even when portraying passions or
vices that bear a name, so completely incorporates them in the
person that their names are forgotten, their general characteristics
effaced, and we no longer think of them at all, but rather of the
person in whom they are assimilated; hence, the title of a drama can
seldom be anything else than a proper noun. On the other hand, many
comedies have a common noun as their title: l'Avare, le Joueur, etc.
Were you asked to think of a play capable of being called le Jaloux,
for instance, you would find that Sganarelle or George Dandin would
occur to your mind, but not Othello: le Jaloux could only be the
title of a comedy. The reason is that, however intimately vice, when
comic, is associated with persons, it none the less retains its
simple, independent existence, it remains the central character,
present though invisible, to which the characters in flesh and blood
on the stage are attached. At times it delights in dragging them
down with its own weight and making them share in its tumbles. More
frequently, however, it plays on them as on an instrument or pulls
the strings as though they were puppets. Look closely: you will find
that the art of the comic poet consists in making us so well
acquainted with the particular vice, in introducing us, the
spectators, to such a degree of intimacy with it, that in the end we
get hold of some of the strings of the marionette with which he is
playing, and actually work them ourselves; this it is that explains
part of the pleasure we feel. Here, too, it is really a kind of
automatism that makes us laugh--an automatism, as we have already
remarked, closely akin to mere absentmindedness. To realise this
more fully, it need only be noted that a comic character is
generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. The comic
person is unconscious. As though wearing the ring of Gyges with
reverse effect, he becomes invisible to himself while remaining
visible to all the world. A character in a tragedy will make no
change in his conduct because he will know how it is judged by us;
he may continue therein, even though fully conscious of what he is
and feeling keenly the horror he inspires in us. But a defect that
is ridiculous, as soon as it feels itself to be so, endeavours to
modify itself, or at least to appear as though it did. Were Harpagon
to see us laugh at his miserliness, I do not say that he would get
rid of it, but he would either show it less or show it differently.
Indeed, it is in this sense only that laughter "corrects men's
manners." It makes us at once endeavour to appear what we ought to
be, what some day we shall perhaps end in being.

It is unnecessary to carry this analysis any further. From the
runner who falls to the simpleton who is hoaxed, from a state of
being hoaxed to one of absentmindedness, from absentmindedness to
wild enthusiasm, from wild enthusiasm to various distortions of
character and will, we have followed the line of progress along
which the comic becomes more and more deeply imbedded in the person,
yet without ceasing, in its subtler manifestations, to recall to us
some trace of what we noticed in its grosser forms, an effect of
automatism and of inelasticity. Now we can obtain a first glimpse--a
distant one, it is true, and still hazy and confused--of the
laughable side of human nature and of the ordinary function of

What life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert
attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation,
together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to
adapt ourselves in consequence. TENSION and ELASTICITY are two
forces, mutually complementary, which life brings into play. If
these two forces are lacking in the body to any considerable extent,
we have sickness and infirmity and accidents of every kind. If they
are lacking in the mind, we find every degree of mental deficiency,
every variety of insanity. Finally, if they are lacking in the
character, we have cases of the gravest inadaptability to social
life, which are the sources of misery and at times the causes of
crime. Once these elements of inferiority that affect the serious
side of existence are removed--and they tend to eliminate themselves
in what has been called the struggle for life--the person can live,
and that in common with other persons. But society asks for
something more; it is not satisfied with simply living, it insists
on living well. What it now has to dread is that each one of us,
content with paying attention to what affects the essentials of
life, will, so far as the rest is concerned, give way to the easy
automatism of acquired habits. Another thing it must fear is that
the members of whom it is made up, instead of aiming after an
increasingly delicate adjustment of wills which will fit more and
more perfectly into one another, will confine themselves to
respecting simply the fundamental conditions of this adjustment: a
cut-and-dried agreement among the persons will not satisfy it, it
insists on a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation. Society
will therefore be suspicious of all INELASTICITY of character, of
mind and even of body, because it is the possible sign of a
slumbering activity as well as of an activity with separatist
tendencies, that inclines to swerve from the common centre round
which society gravitates: in short, because it is the sign of an
eccentricity. And yet, society cannot intervene at this stage by
material repression, since it is not affected in a material fashion.
It is confronted with something that makes it uneasy, but only as a
symptom--scarcely a threat, at the very most a gesture. A gesture,
therefore, will be its reply. Laughter must be something of this
kind, a sort of SOCIAL GESTURE. By the fear which it inspires, it
restrains eccentricity, keeps constantly awake and in mutual contact
certain activities of a secondary order which might retire into
their shell and go to sleep, and, in short, softens down whatever
the surface of the social body may retain of mechanical
inelasticity. 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. And yet there is something esthetic about it, since the
comic comes into being just when society and the individual, freed
from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as
works of art. In a word, if a circle be drawn round those actions
and dispositions--implied in individual or social life--to which
their natural consequences bring their own penalties, there remains
outside this sphere of emotion and struggle--and within a neutral
zone in which man simply exposes himself to man's curiosity--a
certain rigidity of body, mind and character, that society would
still like to get rid of in order to obtain from its members the
greatest possible degree of elasticity and sociability. This
rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective.

Still, we must not accept this formula as a definition of the comic.
It is suitable only for cases that are elementary, theoretical and
perfect, in which the comic is free from all adulteration. Nor do we
offer it, either, as an explanation. We prefer to make it, if you
will, the leitmotiv which is to accompany all our explanations. We
must ever keep it in mind, though without dwelling on it too much,
somewhat as a skilful fencer must think of the discontinuous
movements of the lesson whilst his body is given up to the
continuity of the fencing-match. We will now endeavour to
reconstruct the sequence of comic forms, taking up again the thread
that leads from the horseplay of a clown up to the most refined
effects of comedy, following this thread in its often unforeseen
windings, halting at intervals to look around, and finally getting
back, if possible, to the point at which the thread is dangling and
where we shall perhaps find--since the comic oscillates between life
and art--the general relation that art bears to life.


Let us begin at the simplest point. What is a comic physiognomy?
Where does a ridiculous expression of the face come from? And what
is, in this case, the distinction between the comic and the ugly?
Thus stated, the question could scarcely be answered in any other
than an arbitrary fashion. Simple though it may appear, it is, even
now, too subtle to allow of a direct attack. We should have to begin
with a definition of ugliness, and then discover what addition the
comic makes to it; now, ugliness is not much easier to analyse than
is beauty. However, we will employ an artifice which will often
stand us in good stead. We will exaggerate the problem, so to speak,
by magnifying the effect to the point of making the cause visible.
Suppose, then, we intensify ugliness to the point of deformity, and
study the transition from the deformed to the ridiculous.

Now, certain deformities undoubtedly possess over others the sorry
privilege of causing some persons to laugh; some hunchbacks, for
instance, will excite laughter. Without at this point entering into
useless details, we will simply ask the reader to think of a number
of deformities, and then to divide them into two groups: on the one
hand, those which nature has directed towards the ridiculous; and on
the other, those which absolutely diverge from it. No doubt he will
hit upon the following law: A deformity that may become comic is a
deformity that a normally built person, could successfully imitate.

Is it not, then, the case that the hunchback suggests the appearance
of a person who holds himself badly? His back seems to have
contracted an ugly stoop. By a kind of physical obstinacy, by
rigidity, in a word, it persists in the habit it has contracted. Try
to see with your eyes alone. Avoid reflection, and above all, do not
reason. Abandon all your prepossessions; seek to recapture a fresh,
direct and primitive impression. The vision you will reacquire will
be one of this kind. You will have before you a man bent on
cultivating a certain rigid attitude--whose body, if one may use the
expression, is one vast grin.

Now, let us go back to the point we wished to clear up. By toning
down a deformity that is laughable, we ought to obtain an ugliness
that is comic. A laughable expression of the face, then, is one that
will make us think of something rigid and, so to speak, coagulated,
in the wonted mobility of the face. What we shall see will be an
ingrained twitching or a fixed grimace. It may be objected that
every habitual expression of the face, even when graceful and
beautiful, gives us this same impression of something stereotyped?
Here an important distinction must be drawn. When we speak of
expressive beauty or even expressive ugliness, when we say that a
face possesses expression, we mean expression that may be stable,
but which we conjecture to be mobile. It maintains, in the midst of
its fixity, a certain indecision in which are obscurely portrayed
all possible shades of the state of mind it expresses, just as the
sunny promise of a warm day manifests itself in the haze of a spring
morning. But a comic expression of the face is one that promises
nothing more than it gives. It is a unique and permanent grimace.
One would say that the person's whole moral life has crystallised
into this particular cast of features. This is the reason why a face
is all the more comic, the more nearly it suggests to us the idea of
some simple mechanical action in which its personality would for
ever be absorbed. Some faces seem to be always engaged in weeping,
others in laughing or whistling, others, again, in eternally blowing
an imaginary trumpet, and these are the most comic faces of all.
Here again is exemplified the law according to which the more
natural the explanation of the cause, the more comic is the effect.
Automatism, inelasticity, habit that has been contracted and
maintained, are clearly the causes why a face makes us laugh. But
this effect gains in intensity when we are able to connect these
characteristics with some deep-seated cause, a certain fundamental
absentmindedness, as though the soul had allowed itself to be
fascinated and hypnotised by the materiality of a simple action.

We shall now understand the comic element in caricature. However
regular we may imagine a face to be, however harmonious its lines
and supple its movements, their adjustment is never altogether
perfect: there will always be discoverable the signs of some
impending bias, the vague suggestion of a possible grimace, in short
some favourite distortion towards which nature seems to be
particularly inclined. The art of the caricaturist consists in
detecting this, at times, imperceptible tendency, and in rendering
it visible to all eyes by magnifying it. He makes his models
grimace, as they would do themselves if they went to the end of
their tether. Beneath the skin-deep harmony of form, he divines the
deep-seated recalcitrance of matter. He realises disproportions and
deformations which must have existed in nature as mere inclinations,
but which have not succeeded in coming to a head, being held in
check by a higher force. His art, which has a touch of the
diabolical, raises up the demon who had been overthrown by the
angel. Certainly, it is an art that exaggerates, and yet the
definition would be very far from complete were exaggeration alone
alleged to be its aim and object, for there exist caricatures that
are more lifelike than portraits, caricatures in which the
exaggeration is scarcely noticeable, whilst, inversely, it is quite
possible to exaggerate to excess without obtaining a real
caricature. For exaggeration to be comic, it must not appear as an
aim, but rather as a means that the artist is using in order to make
manifest to our eyes the distortions which he sees in embryo. It is
this process of distortion that is of moment and interest. And that
is precisely why we shall look for it even in those elements of the
face that are incapable of movement, in the curve of a nose or the
shape of an ear. For, in our eyes, form is always the outline of a
movement. The caricaturist who alters the size of a nose, but
respects its ground plan, lengthening it, for instance, in the very
direction in which it was being lengthened by nature, is really
making the nose indulge in a grin. Henceforth we shall always look
upon the original as having determined to lengthen itself and start
grinning. In this sense, one might say that Nature herself often
meets with the successes of a caricaturist. In the movement through
which she has slit that mouth, curtailed that chin and bulged out
that cheek, she would appear to have succeeded in completing the
intended grimace, thus outwitting the restraining supervision of a
more reasonable force. In that case, the face we laugh at is, so to
speak, its own caricature.

To sum up, whatever be the doctrine to which our reason assents, our
imagination has a very clear-cut philosophy of its own: in every
human form it sees the effort of a soul which is shaping matter, a
soul which is infinitely supple and perpetually in motion, subject
to no law of gravitation, for it is not the earth that attracts it.
This soul imparts a portion of its winged lightness to the body it
animates: the immateriality which thus passes into matter is what is
called gracefulness. Matter, however, is obstinate and resists. It
draws to itself the ever-alert activity of this higher principle,
would fain convert it to its own inertia and cause it to revert to
mere automatism. It would fain immobilise the intelligently varied
movements of the body in stupidly contracted grooves, stereotype in
permanent grimaces the fleeting expressions of the face, in short
imprint on the whole person such an attitude as to make it appear
immersed and absorbed in the materiality of some mechanical
occupation instead of ceaselessly renewing its vitality by keeping
in touch with a living ideal. Where matter thus succeeds in dulling
the outward life of the soul, in petrifying its movements and
thwarting its gracefulness, it achieves, at the expense of the body,
an effect that is comic. If, then, at this point we wished to define
the comic by comparing it with its contrary, we should have to
contrast it with gracefulness even more than with beauty. It
partakes rather of the unsprightly than of the unsightly, of
RIGIDNESS rather than of UGLINESS.


We will now pass from the comic element in FORMS to that in GESTURES
and MOVEMENTS. Let us at once state the law which seems to govern
all the phenomena of this kind. It may indeed be deduced without any
difficulty from the considerations stated above. THE ATTITUDES,
need to follow this law through the details of its immediate
applications, which are innumerable. To verify it directly, it would
be sufficient to study closely the work of comic artists,
eliminating entirely the element of caricature, and omitting that
portion of the comic which is not inherent in the drawing itself.
For, obviously, the comic element in a drawing is often a borrowed
one, for which the text supplies all the stock-in-trade. I mean that
the artist may be his own understudy in the shape of a satirist, or
even a playwright, and that then we laugh far less at the drawings
themselves than at the satire or comic incident they represent. But
if we devote our whole attention to the drawing with the firm
resolve to think of nothing else, we shall probably find that it is
generally comic in proportion to the clearness, as well as the
subtleness, with which it enables us to see a man as a jointed
puppet. The suggestion must be a clear one, for inside the person we
must distinctly perceive, as though through a glass, a set-up
mechanism. But the suggestion must also be a subtle one, for the
general appearance of the person, whose every limb has been made
rigid as a machine, must continue to give us the impression of a
living being. The more exactly these two images, that of a person
and that of a machine, fit into each other, the more striking is the
comic effect, and the more consummate the art of the draughtsman.
The originality of a comic artist is thus expressed in the special
kind of life he imparts to a mere puppet.

We will, however, leave on one side the immediate application of the
principle, and at this point insist only on the more remote
consequences. The illusion of a machine working in the inside of the
person is a thing that only crops up amid a host of amusing effects;
but for the most part it is a fleeting glimpse, that is immediately
lost in the laughter it provokes. To render it permanent, analysis
and reflection must be called into play.

In a public speaker, for instance, we find that gesture vies with
speech. Jealous of the latter, gesture closely dogs the speaker's
thought, demanding also to act as interpreter. Well and good; but
then it must pledge itself to follow thought through all the phases
of its development. An idea is something that grows, buds, blossoms
and ripens from the beginning to the end of a speech. It never
halts, never repeats itself. It must be changing every moment, for
to cease to change would be to cease to live. Then let gesture
display a like animation! Let it accept the fundamental law of life,
which is the complete negation of repetition! But I find that a
certain movement of head or arm, a movement always the same, seems
to return at regular intervals. If I notice it and it succeeds in
diverting my attention, if I wait for it to occur and it occurs when
I expect it, then involuntarily I laugh. Why? Because I now have
before me a machine that works automatically. This is no longer
life, it is automatism established in life and imitating it. It
belongs to the comic.

This is also the reason why gestures, at which we never dreamt of
laughing, become laughable when imitated by another individual. The
most elaborate explanations have been offered for this extremely
simple fact. A little reflection, however, will show that our mental
state is ever changing, and that if our gestures faithfully followed
these inner movements, if they were as fully alive as we, they would
never repeat themselves, and so would keep imitation at bay. We
begin, then, to become imitable only when we cease to be ourselves.
I mean our gestures can only be imitated in their mechanical
uniformity, and therefore exactly in what is alien to our living
personality. To imitate any one is to bring out the element of
automatism he has allowed to creep into his person. And as this is
the very essence of the ludicrous, it is no wonder that imitation
gives rise to laughter.

Still, if the imitation of gestures is intrinsically laughable, it
will become even more so when it busies itself in deflecting them,
though without altering their form, towards some mechanical
occupation, such as sawing wood, striking on an anvil, or tugging
away at an imaginary bell-rope. Not that vulgarity is the essence of
the comic,--although certainly it is to some extent an ingredient,--
but rather that the incriminated gesture seems more frankly
mechanical when it can be connected with a simple operation, as
though it were intentionally mechanical. To suggest this mechanical
interpretation ought to be one of the favourite devices of parody.
We have reached this result through deduction, but I imagine clowns
have long had an intuition of the fact.

This seems to me the solution of the little riddle propounded by
Pascal in one passage of his Thoughts: "Two faces that are alike,
although neither of them excites laughter by itself, make us laugh
when together, on account of their likeness." It might just as well
be said: "The gestures of a public speaker, no one of which is
laughable by itself, excite laughter by their repetition." The truth
is that a really living life should never repeat itself. Wherever
there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some
mechanism at work behind the living. Analyse the impression you get
from two faces that are too much alike, and you will find that you
are thinking of two copies cast in the same mould, or two
impressions of the same seal, or two reproductions of the same
negative,--in a word, of some manufacturing process or other. This
deflection of life towards the mechanical is here the real cause of

And laughter will be more pronounced still, if we find on the stage
not merely two characters, as in the example from Pascal, but
several, nay, as great a number as possible, the image of one
another, who come and go, dance and gesticulate together,
simultaneously striking the same attitudes and tossing their arms
about in the same manner. This time, we distinctly think of
marionettes. Invisible threads seem to us to be joining arms to
arms, legs to legs, each muscle in one face to its fellow-muscle in
the other: by reason of the absolute uniformity which prevails, the
very litheness of the bodies seems to stiffen as we gaze, and the
actors themselves seem transformed into automata. Such, at least,
appears to be the artifice underlying this somewhat obvious form of
amusement. I daresay the performers have never read Pascal, but what
they do is merely to realise to the full the suggestions contained
in Pascal's words. If, as is undoubtedly the case, laughter is
caused in the second instance by the hallucination of a mechanical
effect, it must already have been so, though in more subtle fashion,
in the first.

Continuing along this path, we dimly perceive the increasingly
important and far-reaching consequences of the law we have just
stated. We faintly catch still more fugitive glimpses of mechanical
effects, glimpses suggested by man's complex actions, no longer
merely by his gestures. We instinctively feel that the usual devices
of comedy, the periodical repetition of a word or a scene, the
systematic inversion of the parts, the geometrical development of a
farcical misunderstanding, and many other stage contrivances, must
derive their comic force from the same source,--the art of the
playwright probably consisting in setting before us an obvious
clockwork arrangement of human events, while carefully preserving an
outward aspect of probability and thereby retaining something of the
suppleness of life. But we must not forestall results which will be
duly disclosed in the course of our analysis.


Before going further, let us halt a moment and glance around. As we
hinted at the outset of this study, it would be idle to attempt to
derive every comic effect from one simple formula. The formula
exists well enough in a certain sense, but its development does not
follow a straightforward course. What I mean is that the process of
deduction ought from time to time to stop and study certain
culminating effects, and that these effects each appear as models
round which new effects resembling them take their places in a
circle. These latter are not deductions from the formula, but are
comic through their relationship with those that are. To quote
Pascal again, I see no objection, at this stage, to defining the
process by the curve which that geometrician studied under the name
of roulette or cycloid,--the curve traced by a point in the
circumference of a wheel when the carriage is advancing in a
straight line: this point turns like the wheel, though it advances
like the carriage. Or else we might think of an immense avenue such
as are to be seen in the forest of Fontainebleau, with crosses at
intervals to indicate the cross-ways: at each of these we shall walk
round the cross, explore for a while the paths that open out before
us, and then return to our original course. Now, we have just
reached one of these mental crossways. Something mechanical
encrusted on the living, will represent a cross at which we must
halt, a central image from which the imagination branches off in
different directions. What are these directions? There appear to be
three main ones. We will follow them one after the other, and then
continue our onward course.

1. In the first place, this view of the mechanical and the living
dovetailed into each other makes us incline towards the vaguer image
of SOME RIGIDITY OR OTHER applied to the mobility of life, in an
awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness.
Here we perceive how easy it is for a garment to become ridiculous.
It might almost be said that every fashion is laughable in some
respect. Only, when we are dealing with the fashion of the day, we
are so accustomed to it that the garment seems, in our mind, to form
one with the individual wearing it. We do not separate them in
imagination. The idea no longer occurs to us to contrast the inert
rigidity of the covering with the living suppleness of the object
covered: consequently, the comic here remains in a latent condition.
It will only succeed in emerging when the natural incompatibility is
so deep-seated between the covering and the covered that even an
immemorial association fails to cement this union: a case in point
is our head and top hat. Suppose, however, some eccentric individual
dresses himself in the fashion of former times: our attention is
immediately drawn to the clothes themselves, we absolutely
distinguish them from the individual, we say that the latter IS
DISGUISING HIMSELF,--as though every article of clothing were not a
disguise!--and the laughable aspect of fashion comes out of the
shadow into the light.

Here we are beginning to catch a faint glimpse of the highly
intricate difficulties raised by this problem of the comic. One of
the reasons that must have given rise to many erroneous or
unsatisfactory theories of laughter is that many things are comic de
jure without being comic de facto, the continuity of custom having
deadened within them the comic quality. A sudden dissolution of
continuity is needed, a break with fashion, for this quality to
revive. Hence the impression that this dissolution of continuity is
the parent of the comic, whereas all it does is to bring it to our
notice. Hence, again, the explanation of laughter by surprise,
contrast, etc., definitions which would equally apply to a host of
cases in which we have no inclination whatever to laugh. The truth
of the matter is far from being so simple. But to return to our idea
of disguise, which, as we have just shown, has been entrusted with
the special mandate of arousing laughter. It will not be out of
place to investigate the uses it makes of this power.

Why do we laugh at a head of hair which has changed from dark to
blond? What is there comic about a rubicund nose? And why does one
laugh at a negro? The question would appear to be an embarrassing
one, for it has been asked by successive psychologists such as
Hecker, Kraepelin and Lipps, and all have given different replies.
And yet I rather fancy the correct answer was suggested to me one
day in the street by an ordinary cabby, who applied the expression
"unwashed" to the negro fare he was driving. Unwashed! Does not this
mean that a black face, in our imagination, is one daubed over with
ink or soot? If so, then a red nose can only be one which has
received a coating of vermilion. And so we see that the notion of
disguise has passed on something of its comic quality to instances
in which there is actually no disguise, though there might be.

In the former set of examples, although his usual dress was distinct
from the individual, it appeared in our mind to form one with him,
because we had become accustomed to the sight. In the latter,
although the black or red colour is indeed inherent in the skin, we
look upon it as artificially laid on, because it surprises us.

But here we meet with a fresh crop of difficulties in the theory of
the comic. Such a proposition as the following: "My usual dress
forms part of my body" is absurd in the eyes of reason. Yet
imagination looks upon it as true. "A red nose is a painted nose,"
"A negro is a white man in disguise," are also absurd to the reason
which rationalises; but they are gospel truths to pure imagination.
So there is a logic of the imagination which is not the logic of
reason, one which at times is even opposed to the latter,--with
which, however, philosophy must reckon, not only in the study of the
comic, but in every other investigation of the same kind. It is
something like the logic of dreams, though of dreams that have not
been left to the whim of individual fancy, being the dreams dreamt
by the whole of society. In order to reconstruct this hidden logic,
a special kind of effort is needed, by which the outer crust of
carefully stratified judgments and firmly established ideas will be
lifted, and we shall behold in the depths of our mind, like a sheet
of subterranean water, the flow of an unbroken stream of images
which pass from one into another. This interpenetration of images
does not come about by chance. It obeys laws, or rather habits,
which hold the same relation to imagination that logic does to

Let us then follow this logic of the imagination in the special case
in hand. A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is
also comic. So, by analogy, any disguise is seen to become comic,
not only that of a man, but that of society also, and even the
disguise of nature.

Let us start with nature. You laugh at a dog that is half-clipped,
at a bed of artificially coloured flowers, at a wood in which the
trees are plastered over with election addresses, etc. Look for the
reason, and you will see that you are once more thinking of a
masquerade. Here, however, the comic element is very faint; it is
too far from its source. If you wish to strengthen it, you must go
back to the source itself and contrast the derived image, that of a
masquerade, with the original one, which, be it remembered, was that
of a mechanical tampering with life. In "a nature that is
mechanically tampered with" we possess a thoroughly comic theme, on
which fancy will be able to play ever so many variations with the
certainty of successfully provoking the heartiest hilarity. You may
call to mind that amusing passage in Tartarin Sur Les Alpes, in
which Bompard makes Tartarin--and therefore also the reader to some
slight extent--accept the idea of a Switzerland choke-full of
machinery like the basement of the opera, and run by a company which
maintains a series of waterfalls, glaciers and artificial crevasses.
The same theme reappears, though transposed in quite another key, in
the Novel Notes of the English humorist, Jerome K. Jerome. An
elderly Lady Bountiful, who does not want her deeds of charity to
take up too much of her time, provides homes within easy hail of her
mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been specially
manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest folk
who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of their
failing, etc. There are comic phrases in which this theme is
audible, like a distant echo, coupled with an ingenuousness, whether
sincere or affected, which acts as accompaniment. Take, as an
instance, the remark made by a lady whom Cassini, the astronomer,
had invited to see an eclipse of the moon. Arriving too late, she
said, "M. de Cassini, I know, will have the goodness to begin it all
over again, to please me." Or, take again the exclamation of one of
Gondiinet's characters on arriving in a town and learning that there
is an extinct volcano in the neighbourhood, "They had a volcano, and
they have let it go out!"

Let us go on to society. As we are both in and of it, we cannot help
treating it as a living being. Any image, then, suggestive of the
notion of a society disguising itself, or of a social masquerade, so
to speak, will be laughable. Now, such a notion is formed when we
perceive anything inert or stereotyped, or simply ready-made, on the
surface of living society. There we have rigidity over again,
clashing with the inner suppleness of life. 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. It
might be said that ceremonies are to the social body what clothing
is to the individual body: they owe their seriousness to the fact
that they are identified, in our minds, with the serious object with
which custom associates them, and when we isolate them in
imagination, they forthwith lose their seriousness. For any
ceremony, then, to become comic, it is enough that our attention be
fixed on the ceremonial element in it, and that we neglect its
matter, as philosophers say, and think only of its form. Every one
knows how easily the comic spirit exercises its ingenuity on social
actions of a stereotyped nature, from an ordinary prize-distribution
to the solemn sitting of a court of justice. Any form or formula is
a ready-made frame into which the comic element may be fitted.

Here, again, the comic will be emphasised by bringing it nearer to
its source. From the idea of travesty, a derived one, we must go
back to the original idea, that of a mechanism superposed upon life.
Already, the stiff and starched formality of any ceremonial suggests
to us an image of this kind. For, as soon as we forget the serious
object of a solemnity or a ceremony, those taking part in it give us
the impression of puppets in motion. Their mobility seems to adopt
as a model the immobility of a formula. It becomes automatism. But
complete automatism is only reached in the official, for instance,
who performs his duty like a mere machine, or again in the
unconsciousness that marks an administrative regulation working with
inexorable fatality, and setting itself up for a law of nature.
Quite by chance, when reading the newspaper, I came across a
specimen of the comic of this type. Twenty years ago, a large
steamer was wrecked off the coast at Dieppe. With considerable
difficulty some of the passengers were rescued in a boat. A few
custom-house officers, who had courageously rushed to their
assistance, began by asking them "if they had anything to declare."
We find something similar, though the idea is a more subtle one, in
the remark of an M.P. when questioning the Home Secretary on the
morrow of a terrible murder which took place in a railway carriage:
"The assassin, after despatching his victim, must have got out the
wrong side of the train, thereby infringing the Company's rules."

A mechanical element introduced into nature and an automatic
regulation of society, such, then, are the two types of laughable
effects at which we have arrived. It remains for us, in conclusion,
to combine them and see what the result will be.

The result of the combination will evidently be a human regulation
of affairs usurping the place of the laws of nature. We may call to
mind the answer Sganarelle gave Geronte when the latter remarked
that the heart was on the left side and the liver on the right:
"Yes, it was so formerly, but we have altered all that; now, we
practise medicine in quite a new way." We may also recall the
consultation between M. de Pourceaugnac's two doctors: "The
arguments you have used are so erudite and elegant that it is
impossible for the patient not to be hypochondriacally melancholic;
or, even if he were not, he must surely become so because of the
elegance of the things you have said and the accuracy of your
reasoning." We might multiply examples, for all we need do would be
to call up Moliere's doctors, one after the other. However far,
moreover, comic fancy may seem to go, reality at times undertakes to
improve upon it. It was suggested to a contemporary philosopher, an
out-and-out arguer, that his arguments, though irreproachable in
their deductions, had experience against them. He put an end to the
discussion by merely remarking, "Experience is in the wrong." The
truth is, this idea of regulating life as a matter of business
routine is more widespread than might be imagined; it is natural in
its way, although we have just obtained it by an artificial process
of reconstruction. One might say that it gives us the very
quintessence of pedantry, which, at bottom, is nothing else than art
pretending to outdo nature.

To sum up, then, we have one and the same effect, which assumes ever
subtler forms as it passes from the idea of an artificial
MECHANISATION of the human body, if such an expression is
permissible, to that of any substitution whatsoever of the
artificial for the natural. A less and less rigorous logic, that
more and more resembles the logic of dreamland, transfers the same
relationship into higher and higher spheres, between increasingly
immaterial terms, till in the end we find a mere administrative
enactment occupying the same relation to a natural or moral law that
a ready-made garment, for instance, does to the living body. We have
now gone right to the end of the first of the three directions we
had to follow. Let us turn to the second and see where it will lead

2. Our starting-point is again "something mechanical encrusted upon
the living." Where did the comic come from in this case? It came
from the fact that the living body became rigid, like a machine.
Accordingly, it seemed to us that the living body ought to be the
perfection of suppleness, the ever-alert activity of a principle
always at work. But this activity would really belong to the soul
rather than to the body. It would be the very flame of life, kindled
within us by a higher principle and perceived through the body, as
if through a glass. When we see only gracefulness and suppleness in
the living body, it is because we disregard in it the elements of
weight, of resistance, and, in a word, of matter; we forget its
materiality and think only of its vitality, a vitality which we
regard as derived from the very principle of intellectual and moral
life, Let us suppose, however, that our attention is drawn to this
material side of the body; that, so far from sharing in the
lightness and subtlety of the principle with which it is animated,
the body is no more in our eyes than a heavy and cumbersome vesture,
a kind of irksome ballast which holds down to earth a soul eager to
rise aloft. Then the body will become to the soul what, as we have
just seen, the garment was to the body itself--inert matter dumped
down upon living energy. The impression of the comic will be
produced as soon as we have a clear apprehension of this putting the
one on the other. And we shall experience it most strongly when we
are shown the soul TANTALISED by the needs of the body: on the one
hand, the moral personality with its intelligently varied energy,
and, on the other, the stupidly monotonous body, perpetually
obstructing everything with its machine-like obstinacy. The more
paltry and uniformly repeated these claims of the body, the more
striking will be the result. But that is only a matter of degree,
and the general law of these phenomena may be formulated as follows:

Why do we laugh at a public speaker who sneezes just at the most
pathetic moment of his speech? Where lies the comic element in this
sentence, taken from a funeral speech and quoted by a German
philosopher: "He was virtuous and plump"? It lies in the fact that
our attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body.
Similar instances abound in daily life, but if you do not care to
take the trouble to look for them, you have only to open at random a
volume of Labiche, and you will be almost certain to light upon an
effect of this kind. Now, we have a speaker whose most eloquent
sentences are cut short by the twinges of a bad tooth; now, one of
the characters who never begins to speak without stopping in the
middle to complain of his shoes being too small, or his belt too
tight, etc. A PERSON EMBARRASSED BY HIS BODY is the image suggested
to us in all these examples. The reason that excessive stoutness is
laughable is probably because it calls up an image of the same kind.
I almost think that this too is what sometime makes bashfulness
somewhat ridiculous. The bashful man rather gives the impression of
a person embarrassed by his body, looking round for some convenient
cloak-room in which to deposit it.

This is just why the tragic poet is so careful to avoid anything
calculated to attract attention to the material side of his heroes.
No sooner does anxiety about the body manifest itself than the
intrusion of a comic element is to be feared. On this account, the
hero in a tragedy does not eat or drink or warm himself. He does not
even sit down any more than can be helped. To sit down in the middle
of a fine speech would imply that you remembered you had a body.
Napoleon, who was a psychologist when he wished to be so, had
noticed that the transition from tragedy to comedy is effected
simply by sitting down. In the "Journal inedit" of Baron Gourgaud--
when speaking of an interview with the Queen of Prussia after the
battle of Iena--he expresses himself in the following terms: "She
received me in tragic fashion like Chimene: Justice! Sire, Justice!
Magdeburg! Thus she continued in a way most embarrassing to me.
Finally, to make her change her style, I requested her to take a
seat. This is the best method for cutting short a tragic scene, for
as soon as you are seated it all becomes comedy."

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
SPIRIT. Is it not perchance this idea that comedy is trying to
suggest to us when holding up a profession to ridicule? It makes the
lawyer, the magistrate and the doctor speak as though health and
justice were of little moment,--the main point being that we should
have lawyers, magistrates and doctors, and that all outward
formalities pertaining to these professions should be scrupulously
respected. And so we find the means substituted for the end, the
manner for the matter; no longer is it the profession that is made
for the public, but rather the public for the profession. Constant
attention to form and the mechanical application of rules here bring
about a kind of professional automatism analogous to that imposed
upon the soul by the habits of the body, and equally laughable.
Numerous are the examples of this on the stage. Without entering
into details of the variations executed on this theme, let us quote
two or three passages in which the theme itself is set forth in all
its simplicity. "You are only bound to treat people according to
form," says Doctor Diafoirus in the "Malade imaginaire". Again, says
Doctor Bahis, in "L'Amour medecin": "It is better to die through
following the rules than to recover through violating them." In the
same play, Desfonandres had previously said: "We must always observe
the formalities of professional etiquette, whatever may happen." And
the reason is given by Tomes, his colleague: "A dead man is but a
dead man, but the non-observance of a formality causes a notable
prejudice to the whole faculty." Brid'oison's words, though.
embodying a rather different idea, are none the less significant:
"F-form, mind you, f-form. A man laughs at a judge in a morning
coat, and yet he would quake with dread at the mere sight of an
attorney in his gown. F-form, all a matter of f-form."

Here we have the first illustration of a law which will appear with
increasing distinctness as we proceed with our task. When a musician
strikes a note on an instrument, other notes start up of themselves,
not so loud as the first, yet connected with it by certain definite
relations, which coalesce with it and determine its quality. These
are what are called in physics the overtones of the fundamental
note. It would seem that comic fancy, even in its most far-fetched
inventions, obeys a similar law. For instance, consider this comic
note: appearance seeking to triumph over reality. If our analysis is
correct, this note must have as its overtones the body tantalising
the mind, the body taking precedence of the mind. No sooner, then,
does the comic poet strike the first note than he will add the
second on to it, involuntarily and instinctively. In other words, HE

When Brid'oison the judge comes stammering on to the stage, is he
not actually preparing us, by this very stammering, to understand
the phenomenon of intellectual ossification we are about to witness?
What bond of secret relationship can there be between the physical
defect and the moral infirmity? It is difficult to say; yet we feel
that the relationship is there, though we cannot express it in
words. Perhaps the situation required that this judging machine
should also appear before us as a talking machine. However it may
be, no other overtone could more perfectly have completed the
fundamental note.

When Moliere introduces to us the two ridiculous doctors, Bahis and
Macroton, in L'Amour medecin, he makes one of them speak very
slowly, as though scanning his words syllable by syllable, whilst
the other stutters. We find the same contrast between the two
lawyers in Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. In the rhythm of speech is
generally to be found the physical peculiarity that is destined to
complete the element of professional ridicule. When the author has
failed to suggest a defect of this kind, it is seldom the case that
the actor does not instinctively invent one.

Consequently, there is a natural relationship, which we equally
naturally recognise, between the two images we have been comparing
with each other, the mind crystallising in certain grooves, and the
body losing its elasticity through the influence of certain defects.
Whether or not our attention be diverted from the matter to the
manner, or from the moral to the physical, in both cases the same
sort of impression is conveyed to our imagination; in both, then,
the comic is of the same kind. Here, once more, it has been our aim
to follow the natural trend of the movement of the imagination. This
trend or direction, it may be remembered, was the second of those
offered to us, starting from a central image. A third and final path
remains unexplored, along which we will now proceed.

3. Let us then return, for the last time, to our central image:
something mechanical encrusted on something living. Here, the living
being under discussion was a human being, a person. A mechanical
arrangement, on the other hand, is a thing. What, therefore, incited
laughter was the momentary transformation of a person into a thing,
if one considers the image from this standpoint. Let us then pass
from the exact idea of a machine to the vaguer one of a thing in
general. We shall have a fresh series of laughable images which will
be obtained by taking a blurred impression, so to speak, of the
outlines of the former and will bring us to this new law: WE LAUGH

We laugh at Sancho Panza tumbled into a bed-quilt and tossed into
the air like a football. We laugh at Baron Munchausen turned into a
cannon-ball and travelling through space. But certain tricks of
circus clowns might afford a still more precise exemplification of
the same law. True, we should have to eliminate the jokes, mere
interpolations by the clown into his main theme, and keep in mind
only the theme itself, that is to say, the divers attitudes, capers
and movements which form the strictly "clownish" element in the
clown's art. On two occasions only have I been able to observe this
style of the comic in its unadulterated state, and in both I
received the same impression. The first time, the clowns came and
went, collided, fell and jumped up again in a uniformly accelerated
rhythm, visibly intent upon affecting a CRESCENDO. And it was more
and more to the jumping up again, the REBOUND, that the attention of
the public was attracted. Gradually, one lost sight of the fact that
they were men of flesh and blood like ourselves; one began to think
of bundles of all sorts, falling and knocking against each other.
Then the vision assumed a more definite aspect. The forms grew
rounder, the bodies rolled together and seemed to pick themselves up
like balls. Then at last appeared the image towards which the whole
of this scene had doubtless been unconsciously evolving--large
rubber balls hurled against one another in every direction. The
second scene, though even coarser than the first, was no less
instructive. There came on the stage two men, each with an enormous
head, bald as a billiard ball. In their hands they carried large
sticks which each, in turn, brought down on to the other's cranium.
Here, again, a certain gradation was observable. After each blow,
the bodies seemed to grow heavier and more unyielding, overpowered
by an increasing degree of rigidity. Then came the return blow, in
each case heavier and more resounding than the last, coming, too,
after a longer interval. The skulls gave forth a formidable ring
throughout the silent house. At last the two bodies, each quite
rigid and as straight as an arrow, slowly bent over towards each
other, the sticks came crashing down for the last time on to the two
heads with a thud as of enormous mallets falling upon oaken beams,
and the pair lay prone upon the ground. At that instant appeared in
all its vividness the suggestion that the two artists had gradually
driven into the imagination of the spectators: "We are about to
become ...we have now become solid wooden dummies."

A kind of dim, vague instinct may enable even an uncultured mind to
get an inkling here of the subtler results of psychological science.
We know that it is possible to call up hallucinatory visions in a
hypnotised subject by simple suggestion. If he be told that a bird
is perched on his hand, he will see the bird and watch it fly away.
The idea suggested, however, is far from being always accepted with
like docility. Not infrequently, the mesmeriser only succeeds in
getting an idea into his subject's head by slow degrees through a
carefully graduated series of hints. He will then start with objects
really perceived by the subject, and will endeavour to make the
perception of these objects more and more indefinite; then, step by
step, he will bring out of this state of mental chaos the precise
form of the object of which he wishes to create an hallucination.
Something of the kind happens to many people when dropping off to
sleep; they see those coloured, fluid, shapeless masses, which
occupy the field of vision, insensibly solidifying into distinct

Consequently, the gradual passing from the dim and vague to the
clear and distinct is the method of suggestion par excellence. I
fancy it might be found to be at the root of a good many comic
suggestions, especially in the coarser forms of the comic, in which
the transformation of a person into a thing seems to be taking place
before our eyes. But there are other and more subtle methods in use,
among poets, for instance, which perhaps unconsciously lead to the
same end. By a certain arrangement of rhythm, rhyme and assonance,
it is possible to lull the imagination, to rock it to and fro
between like and like with a regular see-saw motion, and thus
prepare it submissively to accept the vision suggested. Listen to
these few lines of Regnard, and see whether something like the
fleeting image of a DOLL does not cross the field of your

... Plus, il doit a maints particuliers La somme de dix mil une
livre une obole, Pour l'avoir sans relache un an sur sa parole
Habille, voiture, chauffe, chausse, gante, Alimente, rase,
desaltere, porte.

[Footnote: Further, he owes to many an honest wight Item-the sum
two thousand pounds, one farthing, For having on his simple word of
honour Sans intermission for an entire year Clothed him, conveyed
him, warmed him, shod him, gloved him, Fed him and shaved him,
quenched his thirst and borne him.]

Is not something of the same kind found in the following sally of
Figaro's (though here an attempt is perhaps made to suggest the
image of an animal rather than that of a thing): "Quel homme est-
ce?--C'est un beau, gros, court, jeune vieillard, gris pommele,
ruse, rase, blase, qui guette et furette, et gronde et geint tout a
la fois." [Footnote: "What sort of man is here?--He is a handsome,
stout, short, youthful old gentleman, iron-grey, an artful knave,
clean shaved, clean 'used up,' who spies and pries and growls and
groans all in the same breath."]

Now, between these coarse scenes and these subtle suggestions there
is room for a countless number of amusing effects, for all those
that can be obtained by talking about persons as one would do about
mere things. We will only select one or two instances from the plays
of Labiche, in which they are legion.

Just as M. Perrichon is getting into the railway carriage, he makes
certain of not forgetting any of his parcels: "Four, five, six, my
wife seven, my daughter eight, and myself nine." In another play, a
fond father is boasting of his daughter's learning in the following
terms: "She will tell you, without faltering, all the kings of
France that have occurred." This phrase, "that have occurred,"
though not exactly transforming the kings into mere things, likens
them, all the same, to events of an impersonal nature.

As regards this latter example, note that it is unnecessary to
complete the identification of the person with the thing in order to
ensure a comic effect. It is sufficient for us to start in this
direction by feigning, for instance, to confuse the person with the
function he exercises. I will only quote a sentence spoken by a
village mayor in one of About's novels: "The prefect, who has always
shown us the same kindness, though he has been changed several times
since 1847..."

All these witticisms are constructed on the same model. We might
make up any number of them, when once we are in possession of the
recipe. But the art of the story-teller or the playwright does not
merely consist in concocting jokes. The difficulty lies in giving to
a joke its power of suggestion, i.e. in making it acceptable. And we
only do accept it either because it seems to be the natural product
of a particular state of mind or because it is in keeping with the
circumstances of the case. For instance, we are aware that M.
Perrichon is greatly excited on the occasion of his first railway
journey. The expression "to occur" is one that must have cropped up
a good many times in the lessons repeated by the girl before her
father; it makes us think of such a repetition. Lastly, admiration
of the governmental machine might, at a pinch, be extended to the
point of making us believe that no change takes place in the prefect
when he changes his name, and that the function gets carried on
independently of the functionary.

We have now reached a point very far from the original cause of
laughter. Many a comic form, that cannot be explained by itself, can
indeed only be understood from its resemblance to another, which
only makes us laugh by reason of its relationship with a third, and
so on indefinitely, so that psychological analysis, however luminous
and searching, will go astray unless it holds the thread along which
the comic impression has travelled from one end of the series to the
other. Where does this progressive continuity come from? What can be
the driving force, the strange impulse which causes the comic to
glide thus from image to image, farther and farther away from the
starting-point, until it is broken up and lost in infinitely remote
analogies? But what is that force which divides and subdivides the
branches of a tree into smaller boughs and its roots into radicles?
An inexorable law dooms every living energy, during the brief
interval allotted to it in time, to cover the widest possible extent
in space. Now, comic fancy is indeed a living energy, a strange
plant that has nourished on the stony portions of the social soil,
until such time as culture should allow it to vie with the most
refined products of art. True, we are far from great art in the
examples of the comic we have just been reviewing. But we shall draw
nearer to it, though without attaining to it completely, in the
following chapter. Below art, we find artifice, and it is this zone
of artifice, midway between nature and art, that we are now about to
enter. We are going to deal with the comic playwright and the wit.




We have studied the comic element in forms, in attitudes, and in
movements generally; now let us look for it in actions and in
situations. We encounter, indeed, this kind of comic readily enough
in everyday life. It is not here, however, that it best lends itself
to analysis. Assuming that the stage is both a magnified and a
simplified view of life, we shall find that comedy is capable of
furnishing us with more information than real life on this
particular part of our subject. Perhaps we ought even to carry
simplification still farther, and, going back to our earliest
recollections, try to discover, in the games that amused us as
children, the first faint traces of the combinations that make us
laugh as grown-up persons. We are too apt to speak of our feelings
of pleasure and of pain as though full grown at birth, as though
each one of them had not a history of its own. Above all, we are too
apt to ignore the childish element, so to speak, latent in most of
our joyful emotions. And yet, how many of our present pleasures,
were we to examine them closely, would shrink into nothing more than
memories of past ones! What would there be left of many of our
emotions were we to reduce them to the exact quantum of pure feeling
they contain, by subtracting from them all that is merely
reminiscence? Indeed, it seems possible that, after a certain age,
we become impervious to all fresh or novel forms of joy, and the
sweetest pleasures of the middle-aged man are perhaps nothing more
than a revival of the sensations of childhood, a balmy zephyr wafted
in fainter and fainter breaths by a past that is ever receding. In
any case, whatever reply we give to this broad question, one thing
is certain: there can be no break in continuity between the child's
delight in games and that of the grown-up person. Now, comedy is a
game, a game that imitates life. And since, in the games of the
child when working its dolls and puppets, many of the movements are
produced by strings, ought we not to find those same strings,
somewhat frayed by wear, reappearing as the threads that knot
together the situations in a comedy? Let us, then, start with the
games of a child, and follow the imperceptible process by which, as
he grows himself, he makes his puppets grow, inspires them with
life, and finally brings them to an ambiguous state in which,
without ceasing to be puppets, they have yet become human beings. We
thus obtain characters of a comedy type. And upon them we can test
the truth of the law of which all our preceding analyses gave an
inkling, a law in accordance with which we will define all broadly
comic situations in general. ANY ARRANGEMENT OF ACTS AND EVENTS IS

1. THE JACK-IN-THE-BOX.--As children we have all played with the
little man who springs out of his box. You squeeze him flat, he
jumps up again. Push him lower, and he shoots up still higher. Crush
him down beneath the lid, and often he will send everything flying.
It is hard to tell whether or no the toy itself is very ancient, but
the kind of amusement it affords belongs to all time. It is a
struggle between two stubborn elements, one of which, being simply
mechanical, generally ends by giving in to the other, which treats
it as a plaything. A cat playing with a mouse, which from time to
time she releases like a spring, only to pull it up short with a
stroke of her paw, indulges in the same kind of amusement.

We will now pass on to the theatre, beginning with a Punch and Judy
show. No sooner does the policeman put in an appearance on the stage
than, naturally enough, he receives a blow which fells him. He
springs to his feet, a second blow lays him flat. A repetition of
the offence is followed by a repetition of the punishment. Up and
down the constable flops and hops with the uniform rhythm of the
bending and release of a spring, whilst the spectators laugh louder
and louder.

Now, let us think of a spring that is rather of a moral type, an
idea that is first expressed, then repressed, and then expressed
again; a stream of words that bursts forth, is checked, and keeps on
starting afresh. Once more we have the vision of one stubborn force,
counteracted by another, equally pertinacious. This vision, however,
will have discarded a portion of its materiality. No longer is it
Punch and Judy that we are watching, but rather a real comedy.

Many a comic scene may indeed be referred to this simple type. For
instance, in the scene of the Mariage force between Sganarelle and
Pancrace, the entire vis comica lies in the conflict set up between
the idea of Sganarelle, who wishes to make the philosopher listen to
him, and the obstinacy of the philosopher, a regular talking-machine
working automatically. As the scene progresses, the image of the
Jack-in-the-box becomes more apparent, so that at last the
characters themselves adopt its movements,--Sganarelle pushing
Pancrace, each time he shows himself, back into the wings, Pancrace
returning to the stage after each repulse to continue his patter.
And when Sganarelle finally drives Pancrace back and shuts him up
inside the house--inside the box, one is tempted to say--a window
suddenly flies open, and the head of the philosopher again appears
as though it had burst open the lid of a box.

The same by-play occurs in the Malade Imaginaire. Through the mouth
of Monsieur Purgon the outraged medical profession pours out its
vials of wrath upon Argan, threatening him with every disease that
flesh is heir to. And every time Argan rises from his seat, as
though to silence Purgon, the latter disappears for a moment, being,
as it were, thrust back into the wings; then, as though Impelled by
a spring, he rebounds on to the stage with a fresh curse on his
lips. The self-same exclamation: "Monsieur Purgon!" recurs at
regular beats, and, as it were, marks the TEMPO of this little

Let us scrutinise more closely the image of the spring which is
bent, released, and bent again. Let us disentangle its central
element, and we shall hit upon one of the usual processes of classic

Why is it there is something comic in the repetition of a word on
the stage? No theory of the ludicrous seems to offer a satisfactory
answer to this very simple question. Nor can an answer be found so
long as we look for the explanation of an amusing word or phrase in
the phrase or word itself, apart from all it suggests to us. Nowhere
will the usual method prove to be so inadequate as here. With the
exception, however, of a few special instances to which we shall
recur later, the repetition of a word is never laughable in itself.
It makes us laugh only because it symbolises a special play of moral
elements, this play itself being the symbol of an altogether
material diversion. It is the diversion of the cat with the mouse,
the diversion of the child pushing back the Jack-in-the-box, time
after time, to the bottom of his box,--but in a refined and
spiritualised form, transferred to the realm of feelings and ideas.
Let us then state the law which, we think, defines the main comic
varieties of word-repetition on the stage: IN A COMIC REPETITION OF

When Dorine is telling Orgon of his wife's illness, and the latter
continually interrupts him with inquiries as to the health of
Tartuffe, the question: "Et tartuffe?" repeated every few moments,
affords us the distinct sensation of a spring being released. This
spring Dorine delights in pushing back, each time she resumes her
account of Elmire's illness. And when Scapin informs old Geronte
that his son has been taken prisoner on the famous galley, and that
a ransom must be paid without delay, he is playing with the avarice
of Geronte exactly as Dorine does with the infatuation of Orgon. The
old man's avarice is no sooner repressed than up it springs again
automatically, and it is this automatism that Moliere tries to
indicate by the mechanical repetition of a sentence expressing
regret at the money that would have to be forthcoming: "What the
deuce did he want in that galley?" The same criticism is applicable
to the scene in which Valere points out to Harpagon the wrong he
would be doing in marrying his daughter to a man she did not love.
"No dowry wanted!" interrupts the miserly Harpagon every few
moments. Behind this exclamation, which recurs automatically, we
faintly discern a complete repeating-machine set going by a fixed

At times this mechanism is less easy to detect, and here we
encounter a fresh difficulty in the theory of the comic. Sometimes
the whole interest of a scene lies in one character playing a double
part, the intervening speaker acting as a mere prism, so to speak,
through which the dual personality is developed. We run the risk,
then, of going astray if we look for the secret of the effect in
what we see and hear,--in the external scene played by the
characters,--and not in the altogether inner comedy of which this
scene is no more than the outer refraction. For instance, when
Alceste stubbornly repeats the words, "I don't say that!" on Oronte
asking him if he thinks his poetry bad, the repetition is laughable,
though evidently Oronte is not now playing with Alceste at the game
we have just described. We must be careful, however, for, in
reality, we have two men in Alceste: on the one hand, the
"misanthropist" who has vowed henceforth to call a spade a spade,
and on the other the gentleman who cannot unlearn, in a trice, the
usual forms of politeness, or even, it may be, just the honest
fellow who, when called upon to put his words into practice, shrinks
from wounding another's self-esteem or hurting his feelings.
Accordingly, the real scene is not between Alceste and Oronte, it is
between Alceste and himself. The one Alceste would fain blurt out
the truth, and the other stops his mouth just as he is on the point
of telling everything. Each "I don't say that!" reveals a growing
effort to repress something that strives and struggles to get out.
And so the tone in which the phrase is uttered gets more and more
violent, Alceste becoming more and more angry--not with Oronte. as
he thinks--but with himself. The tension of the spring is
continually being renewed and reinforced until it at last goes off
with a bang. Here, as elsewhere, we have the same identical
mechanism of repetition.

For a man to make a resolution never henceforth to say what he does
not think, even though he "openly defy the whole human race," is not
necessarily laughable; it is only a phase of life at its highest and
best. For another man, through amiability, selfishness, or disdain,
to prefer to flatter people is only another phase of life; there is
nothing in it to make us laugh. You may even combine these two men
into one, and arrange that the individual waver between offensive
frankness and delusive politeness, this duel between two opposing
feelings will not even then be comic, rather it will appear the
essence of seriousness if these two feelings through their very
distinctness complete each other, develop side by side, and make up
between them a composite mental condition, adopting, in short, a
modus vivendi which merely gives us the complex impression of life.
But imagine these two feelings as INELASTIC and unvarying elements
in a really living man, make him oscillate from one to the other;
above all, arrange that this oscillation becomes entirely mechanical
by adopting the well-known form of some habitual, simple, childish
contrivance: then you will get the image we have so far found in all
fact, something comic.

We have dwelt on this first image, the Jack-in-the-box, sufficiently
to show how comic fancy gradually converts a material mechanism into
a moral one. Now we will consider one or two other games, confining
ourselves to their most striking aspects.

2. THE DANCING-JACK.--There are innumerable comedies in which one of
the characters thinks he is speaking and acting freely, and,
consequently, retains all the essentials of life, whereas, viewed
from a certain standpoint, he appears as a mere toy in the hands of
another who is playing with him. The transition is easily made, from
the dancing-jack which a child works with a string, to Geronte and
Argante manipulated by Scapin. Listen to Scapin himself: "The
MACHINE is all there"; and again: "Providence has brought them into
my net," etc. Instinctively, and because one would rather be a cheat
than be cheated, in imagination at all events, the spectator sides
with the knaves; and for the rest of the time, like a child who has
persuaded his playmate to lend him his doll, he takes hold of the
strings himself and makes the marionette come and go on the stage as
he pleases. But this latter condition is not indispensable; we can
remain outside the pale of what is taking place if only we retain
the distinct impression of a mechanical arrangement. This is what
happens whenever one of the characters vacillates between two
contrary opinions, each in turn appealing to him, as when Panurge
asks Tom, Dick, and Harry whether or no he ought to get married.
Note that, in such a case, a comic author is always careful to
PERSONIFY the two opposing decisions. For, if there is no spectator,
there must at all events be actors to hold the strings.

All that is serious in life comes from our freedom. The feelings we
have matured, the passions we have brooded over, the actions we have
weighed, decided upon, and carried through, in short, all that comes
from us and is our very own, these are the things that give life its
ofttimes dramatic and generally grave aspect. What, then, is
requisite to transform all this into a comedy? Merely to fancy that
our seeming, freedom conceals the strings of a dancing-Jack, and
that we are, as the poet says,

... humble marionettes The wires of which are pulled by Fate.
[Footnote: ... d'humbles marionnettes Dont le fil est aux mains de
la Necessite. SULLY-PRUDHOMME.]

So there is not a real, a serious, or even a dramatic scene that
fancy cannot render comic by simply calling forth this image. Nor is
there a game for which a wider field lies open.

3. THE SNOW-BALL.--The farther we proceed in this investigation into
the methods of comedy, the more clearly we see the part played by
childhood's memories. These memories refer, perhaps, less to any
special game than to the mechanical device of which that game is a
particular instance. The same general device, moreover, may be met
with in widely different games, just as the same operatic air is
found in many different arrangements and variations. What is here of
importance and is retained in the mind, what passes by imperceptible
stages from the games of a child to those of a man, is the mental
diagram, the skeleton outline of the combination, or, if you like,
the abstract formula of which these games are particular
illustrations. Take, for instance, the rolling snow-ball, which
increases in size as it moves along. We might just as well think of
toy soldiers standing behind one another. Push the first and it
tumbles down on the second, this latter knocks down the third, and
the state of things goes from bad to worse until they all lie prone
on the floor. Or again, take a house of cards that has been built up
with infinite care: the first you touch seems uncertain whether to
move or not, its tottering neighbour comes to a quicker decision,
and the work of destruction, gathering momentum as it goes on,
rushes headlong to the final collapse.

These instances are all different, but they suggest the same
abstract vision, that of an effect which grows by arithmetical
progression, so that the cause, insignificant at the outset,
culminates by a necessary evolution in a result as important as it
is unexpected. Now let us open a children's picture-book; we shall
find this arrangement already on the high road to becoming comic.
Here, for instance--in one of the comic chap-books picked up by
chance--we have a caller rushing violently into a drawing-room; he
knocks against a lady, who upsets her cup of tea over an old
gentleman, who slips against a glass window which falls in the
street on to the head of a constable, who sets the whole police
force agog, etc. The same arrangement reappears in many a picture
intended for grownup persons. In the "stories without words"
sketched by humorous artists we are often shown an object which
moves from place to place, and persons who are closely connected
with it, so that through a series of scenes a change in the position
of the object mechanically brings about increasingly serious changes
in the situation of the persons. Let us now turn to comedy. Many a
droll scene, many a comedy even, may be referred to this simple
type. Read the speech of Chicanneau in the Plaideurs: here we find
lawsuits within lawsuits, and the mechanism works faster and faster-
-Racine produces in us this feeling of increasing acceleration by
crowding his law terms ever closer together--until the lawsuit over
a truss of hay costs the plaintiff the best part of his fortune. And
again the same arrangement occurs in certain scenes of Don Quixote;
for instance, in the inn scene, where, by an extraordinary
concatenation of circumstances, the mule-driver strikes Sancho, who
belabours Maritornes, upon whom the innkeeper falls, etc. Finally,
let us pass to the light comedy of to-day. Need we call to mind all
the forms in which this same combination appears? There is one that
is employed rather frequently. For instance, a certain thing, say a
letter, happens to be of supreme importance to a certain person and
must be recovered at all costs. This thing, which always vanishes
just when you think you have caught it, pervades the entire play,
"rolling up" increasingly serious and unexpected incidents as it
proceeds. All this is far more like a child's game than appears at
first blush. Once more the effect produced is that of the snowball.

It is the characteristic of a mechanical combination to be generally
REVERSIBLE. A child is delighted when he sees the ball in a game of
ninepins knocking down everything in its way and spreading havoc in
all directions; he laughs louder than ever when the ball returns to
its starting-point after twists and turns and waverings of every
kind. In other words, the mechanism just described is laughable even
when rectilinear, it is much more so on becoming circular and when
every effort the player makes, by a fatal interaction of cause and
effect, merely results in bringing it back to the same spot. Now, a
considerable number of light comedies revolve round this idea. An
Italian straw hat has been eaten up by a horse. [Footnote: Un
Chapeau de paille d'Italie (Labiche).] There is only one other hat
like it in the whole of Paris; it MUST be secured regardless of
cost. This hat, which always slips away at the moment its capture
seems inevitable, keeps the principal character on the run, and
through him all the others who hang, so to say, on to his coat
tails, like a magnet which, by a successive series of attractions,
draws along in its train the grains of iron filings that hang on to
each other. And when at last, after all sorts of difficulties, the
goal seems in sight, it is found that the hat so ardently sought is
precisely the one that has been eaten. The same voyage of discovery
is depicted in another equally well-known comedy of Labiche.
[Footnote: La Cagnotte.] The curtain rises on an old bachelor and an
old maid, acquaintances of long standing, at the moment of enjoying
their daily rubber. Each of them, unknown to the other, has applied
to the same matrimonial agency. Through innumerable difficulties,
one mishap following on the heels of another, they hurry along, side
by side, right through the play, to the interview which brings them
back, purely and simply, into each other's presence. We have the
same circular effect, the same return to the starting-point, in a
more recent play. [Footnote: Les Surprises du divorce.] A henpecked
husband imagines he has escaped by divorce from the clutches of his
wife and his mother-in-law. He marries again, when, lo and behold,
the double combination of marriage and divorce brings back to him
his former wife in the aggravated form of a second mother-in-law!

When we think how intense and how common is this type of the comic,
we understand why it has fascinated the imagination of certain
philosophers. To cover a good deal of ground only to come back
unwittingly to the starting-point, is to make a great effort for a
result that is nil. So we might be tempted to define the comic in
this latter fashion. And such, indeed, seems to be the idea of
Herbert Spencer: according to him, laughter is the indication of an
effort which suddenly encounters a void. Kant had already said
something of the kind: "Laughter is the result of an expectation,
which, of a sudden, ends in nothing." No doubt these definitions
would apply to the last few examples given, although, even then, the
formula needs the addition of sundry limitations, for we often make
an ineffectual effort which is in no way provocative of laughter.
While, however, the last few examples are illustrations of a great
cause resulting in a small effect, we quoted others, immediately
before, which might be defined inversely as a great effect springing
from a small cause. The truth is, this second definition has
scarcely more validity than the first. Lack of proportion between
cause and effect, whether appearing in one or in the other, is never
the direct source of laughter. What we do laugh at is something that
this lack of proportion may in certain cases disclose, namely, a
particular mechanical arrangement which it reveals to us, as through
a glass, at the back of the series of effects and causes. Disregard
this arrangement, and you let go the only clue capable of guiding
you through the labyrinth of the comic. Any hypothesis you otherwise
would select, while possibly applicable to a few carefully chosen
cases, is liable at any moment to be met and overthrown by the first
unsuitable instance that comes along.

But why is it we laugh at this mechanical arrangement? It is
doubtless strange that the history of a person or of a group should
sometimes appear like a game worked by strings, or gearings, or
springs; but from what source does the special character of this
strangeness arise? What is it that makes it laughable? To this
question, which we have already propounded in various forms, our
answer must always be the same. The rigid mechanism which we
occasionally detect, as a foreign body, in the living continuity of
human affairs is of peculiar interest to us as being a kind of
ABSENTMINDEDNESS on the part of life. Were events unceasingly
mindful of their own course, there would be no coincidences, no
conjunctures and no circular series; everything would evolve and
progress continuously. And were all men always attentive to life,
were we constantly keeping in touch with others as well as with
ourselves, nothing within us would ever appear as due to the working
of strings or springs. The comic is that side of a person which
reveals his likeness to a thing, that aspect of human events which,
through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure
mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life. Consequently it
expresses an individual or collective imperfection which calls for
an immediate corrective. This corrective is laughter, a social
gesture that singles out and represses a special kind of
absentmindedness in men and in events.

But this in turn tempts us to make further investigations. So far,
we have spent our time in rediscovering, in the diversions of the
grownup man, those mechanical combinations which amused him as a
child. Our methods, in fact, have been entirely empirical. Let us
now attempt to frame a full and methodical theory, by seeking, as it
were, at the fountainhead, the changeless and simple archetypes of
the manifold and transient practices of the comic stage. Comedy, we
said, combines events so as to introduce mechanism into the outer
forms of life. Let us now ascertain in what essential
characteristics life, when viewed from without, seems to contrast
with mere mechanism. We shall only have, then, to turn to the
opposite characteristics, in order to discover the abstract formula,
this time a general and complete one, for every real and possible
method of comedy.

Life presents itself to us as evolution in time and complexity in
space. Regarded in time, it is the continuous evolution of a being
ever growing older; it never goes backwards and never repeats
anything. Considered in space, it exhibits certain coexisting
elements so closely interdependent, so exclusively made for one
another, that not one of them could, at the same time, belong to two
different organisms: each living being is a closed system of
phenomena, incapable of interfering with other systems. A continual
change of aspect, the irreversibility of the order of phenomena, the
perfect individuality of a perfectly self-contained series: such,
then, are the outward characteristics--whether real or apparent is
of little moment--which distinguish the living from the merely
mechanical. Let us take the counterpart of each of these: we shall
obtain three processes which might be called REPETITION, INVERSION,
and RECIPROCAL INTERFERENCE OF SERIES. Now, it is easy to see that
these are also the methods of light comedy, and that no others are

As a matter of fact, we could discover them, as ingredients of
varying importance, in the composition of all the scenes we have
just been considering, and, a fortiori, in the children's games, the
mechanism of which they reproduce. The requisite analysis would,
however, delay us too long, and it is more profitable to study them
in their purity by taking fresh examples. Nothing could be easier,
for it is in their pure state that they are found both in classic
comedy and in contemporary plays.

1. REPETITION.-Our present problem no longer deals, like the
preceding one, with a word or a sentence repeated by an individual,
but rather with a situation, that is, a combination of
circumstances, which recurs several times in its original form and
thus contrasts with the changing stream of life. Everyday experience
supplies us with this type of the comic, though only in a
rudimentary state. Thus, you meet a friend in the street whom you
have not seen for an age; there is nothing comic in the situation.
If, however, you meet, him again the same day, and then a third and
a fourth time, you may laugh at the "coincidence." Now, picture to
yourself a series of imaginary events which affords a tolerably fair
illusion of life, and within this ever-moving series imagine one and
the same scene reproduced either by the same characters or by
different ones: again you will have a coincidence, though a far more
extraordinary one.

Such are the repetitions produced on the stage. They are the more
laughable in proportion as the scene repeated is more complex and
more naturally introduced--two conditions which seem mutually
exclusive, and which the play-writer must be clever enough to

Contemporary light comedy employs this method in every shape and
form. One of the best-known examples consists in bringing a group of
characters, act after act, into the most varied surroundings, so as
to reproduce, under ever fresh circumstances, one and the same
series of incidents or accidents more or less symmetrically

In several of Moliere's plays we find one and the same arrangement
of events repeated right through the comedy from beginning to end.
Thus, the Ecole des femmes does nothing more than reproduce and
repeat a single incident in three tempi: first tempo, Horace tells
Arnolphe of the plan he has devised to deceive Agnes's guardian, who
turns out to be Arnolphe himself; second tempo, Arnolphe thinks he
has checkmated the move; third tempo, Agnes contrives that Horace
gets all the benefit of Arnolphe's precautionary measures. There is
the same symmetrical repetition in the Ecole des marts, in
L'Etourdi, and above all in George Dandin, where the same effect in
three tempi is again met with: first tempo, George Dandin discovers
that his wife is unfaithful; second tempo, he summons his father--
and mother-in-law to his assistance; third tempo, it is George
Dandin himself, after all, who has to apologise.

At times the same scene is reproduced with groups of different
characters. Then it not infrequently happens that the first group
consists of masters and the second of servants. The latter repeat in
another key a scene already played by the former, though the
rendering is naturally less refined. A part of the Depit amoureux is
constructed on this plan, as is also Amphitryon. In an amusing
little comedy of Benedix, Der Eigensinn, the order is inverted: we
have the masters reproducing a scene of stubbornness in which their
servants have set the example.

But, quite irrespective of the characters who serve as pegs for the
arrangement of symmetrical situations, there seems to be a wide gulf
between classic comedy and the theatre of to-day. Both aim at
introducing a certain mathematical order into events, while none the
less maintaining their aspect of likelihood, that is to say, of
life. But the means they employ are different. The majority of light
comedies of our day seek to mesmerise directly the mind of the
spectator. For, however extraordinary the coincidence, it becomes
acceptable from the very fact that it is accepted; and we do accept
it, if we have been gradually prepared for its reception. Such is
often the procedure adopted by contemporary authors. In Moliere's
plays, on the contrary, it is the moods of the persons on the stage,
not of the audience, that make repetition seem natural. Each of the
characters represents a certain force applied in a certain
direction, and it is because these forces, constant in direction,
necessarily combine together in the same way, that the same
situation is reproduced. Thus interpreted, the comedy of situation
is akin to the comedy of character. It deserves to be called
classic, if classic art is indeed that which does not claim to
derive from the effect more than it has put into the cause.

2. Inversion.--This second method has so much analogy with the first
that we will merely define it without insisting on illustrations.
Picture to yourself certain characters in a certain situation: if
you reverse the situation and invert the roles, you obtain a comic
scene. The double rescue scene in Le Voyage de M. Perrichon belongs
to this class. [Footnote: Labiche, "Le Voyage de M. Perrichon."]
There is no necessity, however, for both the identical scenes to be
played before us. We may be shown only one, provided the other is
really in our minds. 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." Not infrequently comedy sets before us a character
who lays a trap in which he is the first to be caught. The plot of
the villain who is the victim of his own villainy, or the cheat
cheated, forms the stock-in-trade of a good many plays. We find this
even in primitive farce. Lawyer Pathelin tells his client of a trick
to outwit the magistrate; the client employs the self-same trick to
avoid paying the lawyer. A termagant of a wife insists upon her
husband doing all the housework; she has put down each separate item
on a "rota." Now let her fall into a copper, her husband will refuse
to drag her out, for "that is not down on his 'rota.'" In modern
literature we meet with hundreds of variations on the theme of the
robber robbed. In every case the root idea involves an inversion of
roles, and a situation which recoils on the head of its author.

Here we apparently find the confirmation of a law, some
illustrations of which we have already pointed out. When a comic
scene has been reproduced a number of times, it reaches the stage of
being a classical type or model. It becomes amusing in itself, quite
apart from the causes which render it amusing. Henceforth, new
scenes, which are not comic de jure, may become amusing de facto, on
account of their partial resemblance to this model. They call up in
our mind a more or less confused image which we know to be comical.
They range themselves in a category representing an officially
recognised type of the comic. The scene of the "robber robbed"
belongs to this class. It casts over a host of other scenes a
reflection of the comic element it contains. In the end it renders
comic any mishap that befalls one through one's own fault, no matter
what the fault or mishap may be,--nay, an allusion to this mishap, a
single word that recalls it, is sufficient. There would be nothing
amusing in the saying, "It serves you right, George Dandin," were it
not for the comic overtones that take up and re-echo it.

3. We have dwelt at considerable length on repetition and inversion;
we now come to the reciprocal interference [Footnote: The word
"interference" has here the meaning given to it in Optics, where it
indicates the partial superposition and neutralisation, by each
other, of two series of light-waves.] of series. This is a comic
effect, the precise formula of which is very difficult to
disentangle, by reason of the extraordinary variety of forms in
which it appears on the stage. Perhaps it might be defined as
follows: 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.

You will at once think of an equivocal situation. And the equivocal
situation is indeed one which permits of two different meanings at
the same time, the one merely plausible, which is put forward by the
actors, the other a real one, which is given by the public. We see
the real meaning of the situation, because care has been taken to
show us every aspect of it; but each of the actors knows only one of
these aspects: hence the mistakes they make and the erroneous
judgments they pass both on what is going on around them and on what
they are doing themselves. We proceed from this erroneous judgment
to the correct one, we waver between the possible meaning and the
real, and it is this mental seesaw between two contrary
interpretations which is at first apparent in the enjoyment we
derive from an equivocal situation. It is natural that certain
philosophers should have been specially struck by this mental
instability, and that some of them should regard the very essence of
the ludicrous as consisting in the collision or coincidence of two
judgments that contradict each other. Their definition, however, is
far from meeting every case, and even when it does, it defines--not
the principle of the ludicrous, but only one of its more or less
distant consequences. Indeed, it is easy to see that the stage-made
misunderstanding is nothing but a particular instance of a far more
general phenomenon,--the reciprocal interference of independent
series, and that, moreover, it is not laughable in itself, but only
as a sign of such an interference.

As a matter of fact, each of the characters in every stage-made
misunderstanding has his setting in an appropriate series of events
which he correctly interprets as far as he is concerned, and which
give the key-note to his words and actions. Each of the series
peculiar to the several characters develop independently, but at a
certain moment they meet under such conditions that the actions and
words that belong to one might just as well belong to another. Hence
arise the misunderstandings and the equivocal nature of the
situation. But this latter is not laughable in itself, it is so only
because it reveals the coincidence of the two independent series.
The proof of this lies in the fact that the author must be
continually taxing his ingenuity to recall our attention to the
double fact of independence and coincidence. This he generally
succeeds in doing by constantly renewing the vain threat of
dissolving partnership between the two coinciding series. Every
moment the whole thing threatens to break down, but manages to get
patched up again; it is this diversion that excites laughter, far
more than the oscillation of the mind between two contradictory
ideas. It makes us laugh because it reveals to us the reciprocal
interference of two independent series, the real source of the comic

And so the stage-made misunderstanding is nothing more than one
particular instance, one means--perhaps the most artificial--of
illustrating the reciprocal interference of series, but it is not
the only one. Instead of two contemporary series, you might take one
series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the
present: if the two series happen to coincide in our imagination,
there will be no resulting cross-purposes, and yet the same comic
effect will continue to take place. Think of Bonivard, captive in
the Castle of Chillon: one series of facts. Now picture to yourself
Tartarin, travelling in Switzerland, arrested and imprisoned: second
series, independent of the former. Now let Tartarin be manacled to
Bonivard's chain, thus making the two stories seem for a moment to
coincide, and you will get a very amusing scene, one of the most
amusing that Daudet's imagination has pictured. [Tartarin sur les
Alpes, by Daudet.] Numerous incidents of the mock-heroic style, if
analysed, would reveal the same elements. The transposition from the
ancient to the modern--always a laughable one--draws its inspiration
from the same idea. Labiche has made use of this method in every
shape and form. Sometimes he begins by building up the series
separately, and then delights in making them interfere with one
another: he takes an independent group--a wedding-party, for
instance--and throws them into altogether unconnected surroundings,
into which certain coincidences allow of their being foisted for the
time being. Sometimes he keeps one and the same set of characters
right through the play, but contrives that certain of these
characters have something to conceal--have, in fact, a secret
understanding on the point--in short, play a smaller comedy within
the principal one: at one moment, one of the two comedies is on the
point of upsetting the other; the next, everything comes right and
the coincidence between the two series is restored. Sometimes, even,
he introduces into the actual series a purely immaterial series of
events, an inconvenient past, for instance, that some one has an
interest in concealing, but which is continually cropping up in the
present, and on each occasion is successfully brought into line with
situations with which it seemed destined to play havoc. But in every
case we find the two independent series, and also their partial

We will not carry any further this analysis of the methods of light
comedy. Whether we find reciprocal interference of series,
inversion, or repetition, we see that the objective is always the
same--to obtain what we have called a MECHANISATION of life. You
take a set of actions and relations and repeat it as it is, or turn
it upside down, or transfer it bodily to another set with which it
partially coincides--all these being processes that consist in
looking upon life as a repeating mechanism, with reversible action
and interchangeable parts. Actual life is comedy just so far as it
produces, in a natural fashion, actions of the same kind,--
consequently, just so far as it forgets itself, for were it always
on the alert, it would be ever-changing continuity, irrevertible


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