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.
We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absentmindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen. In Moliere's plays how many comic scenes can be reduced to this simple type: A CHARACTER FOLLOWING UP HIS ONE IDEA, and continually recurring to it in spite of incessant interruptions! The transition seems to take place imperceptibly from the man who will listen to nothing to the one who will see nothing, and from this latter to the one who sees only what he wants to see. A stubborn spirit ends by adjusting things to its own way of thinking, instead of accommodating its thoughts to the things.
Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic
We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.
Robert Ezra Park, Race and Culture
Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday
Who could hang a name on you?
When you change with every new day . . . .
The Rolling Stones
Thumbing my way recently through the pages of DVDs that Amazon.com has generously offered as recommendations for my taste (I Wake Up Screaming, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, et al), I instantly glommed onto a cover that I didn’t have to read to know the contents of the DVD: in profile, a figure with a sharp, down-pointing nose, prominent chin, smoking a curved pipe, and wearing a deerstalker’s cap. Sherlock Holmes. But what if the profile on the cover had been that of Holmes’ associate, Dr. Watson? I think I can speak for everyone in saying that none of us would have the least notion of what awaited us in the DVD box.
Holmes, not just because of his appearance, but because of his nature, is one of the most recognizable characters in literature: rational, arrogant, dismissive of others, unemotional. But Dr Watson? Is his the bumbling persona of Nigel Bruce’s portrayals or the level-headed persona of Edward Hardwicke’s?
In life as in art, one achieves character by being consistent. In fact, the more consistent one becomes, the more one becomes a “character,” someone whose described actions evoke one’s name and whose name calls up one’s actions and reactions. That is because we turn loose, in the words of Bergson, the “ready-made element in our personality, that mechanical element which resembles a piece of clockwork wound up once for all and capable of working automatically.” Think of Alceste (of The Misanthrope). Think of his friend Philinte standing by, raising his eyebrows, silently acknowledging, “There he goes again!”
The consistency of character is also a good thing. “He showed great character”—what a phrase of praise! When the mechanical element refuses to depart from its path under the influence of dubious, dangerous or evil pressures, one can become heroic. Even poor muddled Alceste, whom we have been giving a hard time to over several blogs, had his noble side. The estimable Eliante asserted:
“The honesty in which he takes such pride
Has—to my mind—its noble, heroic side.”
That “honesty,” which he mechanically (and foolishly) applied against the molehills of court manners, was noble in his refusal to capitulate to the mountainous corruption of the legal system.
The essence of character is not split between the noble and the foolish, the heroic and the comic. It is of one piece. To have a name—to be able to be named by others—one must be consistent up to the borderlands of the comic. And must not be surprised when one steps over the edge and becomes laughable.