At one point, I avidly read Henri Bergson (1859–1941), a French secular Jewish philosopher, who taught Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. My memory’s a bit odd. I probably don’t remember the “right” books by him. And the ones that I remember, I probably don’t remember very well.
The book by Henri Bergson that sticks out most in my memory is his book on laughter, Le Rire. It’s really a philosopher’s look at what can provoke laughter. No joke. Bergson follows in the tradition of, as he puts it, Aristotle in trying to actually care about these little things that are so central to the human condition.
For Bergson, what’s laughter? what’s humour?
There’s something very human about laughter. What is it? Where does it arise?
It’s a direct result of the mingling, in one nature, of the spiritual and the material. It’s a result of this material being clamouring after things spiritual. It’s the result of matter being a beggar for, if not heaven, at least intelligence. It comes from a contrast of a seemingly mechanical and heavy aspect of us with a creative, intelligent, overflowing, light aspect.
What might one call to mind to support this thesis?
- Slapstick is funny. A disjunction between the intentions of the soul and the abilities of the body can provoke laughter.
- A joke often involves a change of direction provoked either by the spirit or the matter of the situation, when we were following its complement (a pun, for example, or the revelation of a pattern that we’d missed).
- We laugh when we, in our body and by our strength, can’t do something that we want to put out mind to.
- Animals don’t (exactly) have a sense of humour. They might tend towards it, but the finishing touch is missing.
- A survey of some of the greats of literary comedy could find support in the humourous parts of Shakespeare, Dante, and others.
The list could be enumerated. No doubt it is in Le Rire. I just can’t remember.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been thinking of Bergson’s obervations for some years. I think they’re a closer to the nub of humour than most.
When I step outside the circle of those who were interested in Bergson, I also find Richard Butler OP writing,
Humor is based on man’s reasoned perception of incongruities. A lack of a sense of humor indicates a defect of the practical reason…
… and, of course, a defective practical reason is going to have trouble loving, let alone loving God, with regards to whom we are rather incongruous!
The human condition is what’s humourous. When we laugh, we’re only realizing it. Our condition is funny. We’re like a duck-billed platypus. Who ever thought of a physical being that was spiritual, too? Who ever thought of such an incongruity? Who ever thought up a creature with these greatnesses and these weaknesses? What an idea! What a reality to live!
It’s really quite funny when you think about it.
What’s more funny, and also joyful, is the raising of human nature above itself in love of God. When, as the Greek fathers from Maximus to Gregory Palamas never ceased insisting, the flesh is charged and lifted up above itself by an indwelling of spirit, when we love God through his own Love given to us, when we tend towards our source in a way that outstrips our nature and is only achieved by becoming light as God is Light: isn’t there something a bit funny about it? Not that we laugh at it. But we laugh with it. How can someone in such a situation not have a sense of humour? Me – little, bumbling, clutz of me – facing true north and beyond? A bit funny, that! And when I look at my feelings, I feel like I’m being robbed of myself in alienation and detachment, but I’m really gaining another world? At times, I can’t take myself seriously!
We see this necessity of humour in, for example, Saint Thomas. When he was considering becoming a friar and when his family was trying to dissuade him, they sent a woman of questionable reputation to his room. Sensing the situation, he ran to the fire, grabbed a firebrand, and chased the woman from the room. I don’t accept that Thomas, innocent Thomas, would have intended to seriously hurt a fly, let alone a child of God. Yet his weapon was one that could. There’s something funny about this. There’s something disproportionate. There’s something about the story of spirit and matter. Thomas’ spirit says one thing; his body locks onto the nearest way to fulfil his spirit’s will, but it’s a bit out of proportion with the situation, from the physical point of view!
I’m sure Thomas could laugh at himself.
Another example is the littleness of a Saint Thérèse or a Brother Marcel Văn. They were girlish and boyish with Jesus. They were very childlike. Surely it’s funny to see people talking with a great God so intimately! But that is something we all are: little children.
In short, how could anyone be a saint without a sense of humour?
How could anyone begin to love God without feeling that strange pull between spirit and matter which, in so many other situations, causes laughter or a smile? How could anyone who loves God not see the incongruity and humour in a creature being divinized by God’s own love?
And how could anyone, falling and failing because of this strange disjunction, not laugh at himself and his condition with the tender laugh of Jesus, his brother, and the whole Trinity, his father? That God wants me, with all my strange quirks and with my body that doesn’t seem to even know what it’s doing: what a joke! A serious joke, but a joke, nonetheless. Serious as a platypus has four legs and as much of a joke as its bill: littleness opening onto greatness, humans becoming like God.