In case you may not have noticed, the subtitle of Schlemiel-in-Theory is the “The Place Where the Laugh Laughs at the Laugh.” The notion of a laugh that laughs at a laugh comes from Samuel Beckett; namely, from his novel entitled Watt. There, we read:
The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.
In this passage, we see three types of laughter. The first and second kind of laughter can be seen in the work of Henri Bergson. In his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Bergson argues that laughter is on the side of élan vital. The laugh looks to reject mechanical, asocial behaviors from the social sphere. Laughter, in other words, negates the mechanical while affirming life and change (becoming). Bergson notes, explicitly, that all laughter is intellectual in the sense that, for life, becoming is true while the mechanical is false. The same goes for Immanuel Kant who identified, in The Critique of Judgment, humor with incongruity:
In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.
Beckett proposes a laugh that is neither ethical (in the Bergsonian sense) nor intellectual (in either Bergson or Kant’s sense). Rather, his laugh, the “risus purus” is directed “at the laugh.” It laughs, as he says, at “that which is unhappy.”
What does this mean?
First of all, I would submit that while the laugh that Kant and Bergson (and even Baudelaire) discuss enjoins one to power and superiority over the thing laughed at, the laugh that laughs at “that which is unhappy” is a laugh of powerlessness.
Theodor Adorno, in an essay entitled “Is Art Lighthearted,” ponders the “laugh that laughs at the laugh” along these lines:
In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo. They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy. Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectiveity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential. A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter. Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes. Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair. This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining. This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)
Adorno suggests, here, that the laugh that laughs at the laugh bears with it a minimal self. It is, so to speak, so exhausted and laughs only for the sake of surviving the disaster. It realizes that laughter can’t do any good and neither can tragedy. The laugh that laughs at the laugh, therefore, can be seen as a mourning of both tragedy and comedy.
The risus purus, so to speak, is in the shadow of the disaster.
I also noticed this in an interview between the poet Charles Bernstein and the late Raymond Federman (who I was fortunate enough to have befriended and written several essays on). Federman is best known for his post-Holocaust postmodern literature. He, himself, survived the Holocaust and witnessed, while hiding in a closet, his parents taken away by the French authorities. This disaster remained with him throughout his life. And it is reflected in many of his novels, stories, and poems.
Strangely enough, when Federman left Europe, after the War, for America, he took on a doctoral project at Columbia University on Samuel Beckett. His scholarship has gained much recognition in field of literary studies. But his main love wasn’t literary criticism; it was writing fiction. And, one cannot help but notice, in reading this fiction, that although its topic is horrific and unthinkable, Federman still maintains some kind of sense of humor.
In the interview with Bernstein, Bernstein hits directly on this issue:
But you’re very funny about it (the facts of history) as opposed to terribly solemn and serious memorials that we are perhaps more accustomed to. Your work seems to mock not only the possibility of accurate representation but also the idea that mourning should be a solemn affair. Should mourning be funny?
Federman’s reply to Bernstein hits directly on what Adorno reads in Beckett’s laugh at the laugh, yet, he adds another note with regard to laughter and the joy of survival:
And my answer is simple: I am a survivor. That I survived this is a very happy occasion. I am still alive. That is an occasion for, well, if not great laughter, at least some kind of joy…I hope you can hear … the laughter and the nonseriousness of what I do.
Bernstein nudges Federman with regards to this response and says:
But I can hear the sadness and great seriousness, too.
Bernstein then goes on to note that Federman’s humor is certainly not “black humor.” So, what is it? To explain what it is, Federman cites Beckett:
I…learned it from my great mentor Beckett the same kind of sadness and joy and laughter you find in Beckett.
This is what Federman, in his book Aunt Rachel’s Fur, calls “sad laughter.”
However, this still doesn’t satisfy Bernstein, who pushes him still further by saying that Federman is completely unlike Beckett:
Yes, but unlike Beckett, you are actually more sort of hysterical and more histrionic.
But instead of agreeing with him, and leaving Beckett behind, Federman cites his “mentor” and notes that in Beckett’s Molloy we see a major kind of histrionics and not simply a melancholy laugh. Federman notes how, in that novel, there is a “Beckettian acrobat who does a beautiful set of somersaults and then falls back on his feet and everything is erased.” However, Federman distinguishes himself from Beckett, his mentor, when he puts himself in the acrobat’s position:
I am the acrobat who falls down on his face, and so you don’t remember the somersault. You remember the failure of the guy that falls on his face. And that’s where you laugh – when the acrobat or the clown does that, that’s where the laughter is. That’s the kind of laughter I’m trying to achieve.
In other words, Federman sees himself as an acrobatic schlemiel. The schlemiel has us remember the fall not the somersalt. Reading this line, I was struck by how oddly resonant it was with Nathan Englander’s post-Holocaust story “The Tumblers.” As I pointed out in a blog entry I devoted to that story, the characters survive by virtue of being clumsy acrobats. No one knows that they are Jews and yet the irony is that the Nazis officials in the audience say that the klutz acrobats who fall on their faces act “like” Jews.
In retrospect, I can say that Beckett and Federman may both laugh at the laugh, they remind us that now our laughter is after the disaster; however, Federman’s laugh at the laugh puts a personal and a post-Holocaust Jewish accent on survival. In the end, although his laughter is sad, it is also histrionic, happy, and contagious. Like many Jews throughout history who know what its like to have survived numerous disasters and exiles, Federman knows what it’s like to survive disaster. More importantly, Federman, like the creators of the schlemiel, knew how important it was to balance out sadness with the joy of humor. Everyone who knew Federman personally knew that he wanted us to laugh with him. He wanted us to laugh at the laugh and, like acrobats, to retain the tension between a skeptical laugh and an optimistic laugh. His laugh, the laugh of a post-Holocaust schlemiel, does exactly that. More importantly, the laughter of the post-Holocaust schlemiel is not based on some hidden logos or kernel of meaning; it is based on a kind of acrobatics or movement, the kind that, as Federman tells us, ultimately falls on its face. Nonetheless, it survives.
The subtitle of this blog (and this blog entry) is in Memoriam of Samuel Beckett. But it is also in Memoriam of Raymond Federman, who taught us how a Jew named Raymond Federman carried on Samuel Beckett’s legacy and gave it a post-Holocaust nuance.
After the Holocaust, after the disaster, Schlemiel-in-Theory is the place where the laugh (can still) laugh at the laugh.