Russell Ford
Elmhurst College
Freud had read Bergson’s 1900 book Laughter when he composed his own book on jokes, and, even prior to his development of the concept of the super-ego, Freud had criticized Bergson for not following up his insights into the linkage between comedy and childhood experiences. Freud thus chides Bergson for failing to pursue a line of inquiry that would confirm the ultimately tragic underpinnings of comedy. Wise to this clever and even mischievous little suggestion, Bergson’s book can be read as an account of comedy that might avoid the perennial temptation of yoking it to tragedy. Bergson approaches the problem of comedy in its concreteness, in its liveliness, and follows the various paths of its unfolding. What results is an analysis that shares some similarities with Freud’s investigations but that also eliminates the theoretical prejudices that guide Freud’s reflections. The comic spirit is, first of all, “undefinable.” A strange way to begin an essay on the subject except that, for Bergson, this designation is not a strictly negative one: “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.” In a deliberate departure from the sort of circumscription that characterizes the style of Aristotle’s Poetics – as well as its progeny – Bergson’s strategy is an indefinite one appropriate to the particular complexity of the subject. The text of the investigation will then share its subject’s style – it will dramatize rather than describe the comic – in order to give an account that is suited to the nature of the comic: it will be neither a joke nor a tragedy. Bergson’s book is of an essential different kind than Freud’s: its focus is upon the motivation or forces that bring laughter and the comic situation into existence. Freud’s analysis ultimately moves in a circle, discovering the tragic principles of its investigation in its conclusion, because it fails to begin with the question closer to the vital complex of which humour and the comic are a part: what advantage does comedy procure for life?
Keywords Bergson  comedy  tragedy
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DOI 10.1080/00071773.2004.11007425
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