The dancers vs. those who cannot hear the music

Yes, Bergson sort of said it, but neither as wittily nor as profoundly as whoever wrote that bumper sticker.

The mystery of the “dancers-seem-insane-to-those-who-cannot-hear-the-music” quotation is solved. Jeremy Paretsky writes:

Bergson it is, sort of. James Wood seems to be rewriting Bergson to make him say what Wood wants him to say. As you see below, he either doesn’t know French or chose to stitch together something that sounded more profound than the original. The relevant passage occurs near the beginning of chapter one of Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (“Laughter: An Essay on the meaning of the comic”). The comment in question takes up just one sentence. And, yes, the bumper-sticker is substantially more profound than the philosopher.

Here is the French original followed by my slightly clumsy translation. I include the whole paragraph so that you can see how Wood selectively rewords his own version.

Je voudrais signaler maintenant, comme un symptôme non moins digne de remarque, l’insensibilité qui accompagne d’ordinaire le rire. Il semble que le comique ne puisse produire son ébranlement qu’à la condition de tomber sur une surface d’âme bien calme, bien unie. L’indifférence est son milieu naturel. Le rire n’a pas de plus grand ennemi que l’émotion. Je ne veux pas dire que nous ne puissions rire d’une personne’ qui nous inspire de la pitié, par exemple, ou même de l’affection : seulement alors, pour quelques instants, il faudra oublier cette affection, faire taire cette pitié. Dans une société de pures intelligences on ne pleurerait probablement plus, mais on rirait peut-être encore; tandis que des âmes invariablement sensibles, accordées à l’unisson de la vie, où tout événement se prolongerait en résonance sentimentale, ne connaîtraient ni ne comprendraient le rire. Essayez, un moment, de vous intéresser à tout ce qui se dit et à tout ce qui se fait, agissez, en imagination, avec ceux qui agissent, sentez avec ceux qui sentent, donnez enfin à votre sympathie son plus large épanouissement comme sous un coup de baguette magique vous verrez les objets les plus légers prendre du poids, et une coloration sévère passer sur toutes choses. Détachez-vous maintenant, assistez à la vie en spectateur indifférent: bien des drames tourneront à la comédie. Il suffit que nous bouchions nos oreilles au son de la musique, dans un salon où l’on danse pour que les danseurs nous paraissent aussitôt ridicules. Combien d’actions humaines résisteraient à une épreuve de ce genre ? et ne verrions-nous pas beaucoup d’entre elles passer tout à coup du grave au plaisant, si nous les isolions de la musique de sentiment qui les accompagne ? Le comique exige donc enfin, pour produire tout son effet, quelque chose comme une anesthésie momentanée du coeur. Il s’adresse à l’intelligence pure.”


I would now like to draw attention, as a symptom no less worthy of note, the lack of feeling which ordinarily accompanies laughter. It seems that the comic can only shake a person up on condition of falling upon the surface of a truly calm soul, one that is well integrated. Indifference is its natural environment. Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. I’m not saying that we cannot laugh at a person who arouses, for example, pity in us, or even affection; only that for a few moments it would be necessary to forget affection, to tell pity to be silent. In a society of pure intelligences one would probably no longer cry, but one would perhaps still laugh; whereas souls that are invariably sensitive &#8212 in agreement and at one with life, where every event would be prolonged as a resonance of feeling &#8212 would not recognize or understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to let everything that is said or is being done capture your attention; act, in your imagination, with those who act, feel with those who feel, let your sympathy open up as wide as possible, and as though struck by a magic wand you will see the lightest objects take on weight, and all things imbued with a severe color. Now detach yourself, look upon life as an indifferent observer; even dramas will turn into comedy. It is enough for us to stop up our ears to the sound of music, in a room where people are dancing, in order that the dancers immediately appear ridiculous. How many human actions would be able to resist a test of this type? and would we not see many of them go from being solemn to funny, if we isolated them from the feeling that accompanies them? Therefore, the comic, in order to produce its complete effect, in the end demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. It is addressed to pure intelligence.

Yet another proof that blegging beats Googling.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: