Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 118 pages of information about Laughter .
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.

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Laughter : an Essay on the Meaning of the Comic from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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