Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin knew very well of the trickster. To be sure, they saw themselves as tricksters who, in doing their comic tricks, looked to destroy something and find something else (something new) in the midst of ruin. By way of shock, they both believed they could arrive at some kind of “hidden” knowledge. What happens, however, when the trickster is tricked? What happens when the trickser is the butt of the joke?
As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Charles Baudelaire, in his “Essay on Laughter” turned to the horrific moment of a child’s shock at the loss of her innocence. In the ETA Hoffman short story “Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots” Baudealire found this moment to be an illustration of the Absolute Comic. Before he gets to this shocking moment, he intentionally takes on the role of a children’s storyteller.
Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses! The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility. The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…(163)
This delightful narration shifts and becomes dark. Baudelaire’s voice changes.
The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds! That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction.
Baudelaire notes that the girl’s father, a magician (“a man well-versed in sorcery”), tricks his daughter and robs her of her childish innocence.
Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp.
Baudelaire, no doubt, sees himself as a Satanic magician, much like the father in the story. He delights in tricking his reader (his child) into thinking they get one side of the coin and then he flips it. This trick, for Baudelaire, is at the core of the Absolute Comic.
As I pointed out, Baudelaire in his May 13, 1856 journal noted that he will have “conquered solitude” when he has inspired “universal horror and disgust.” To be sure, this is the job of the magician-slash-writer who can flip the coin and shock his readers. In other words, Baudelaire saw his task as destructive and magical.
As we noted yesterday, Baudelaire identified with Poe’s destructive spirit insofar as he saw in Poe’s destructive drive a vitality that was repressed by civility. Baudelaire turned this destructive drive on his view of children and fools. Moreover, I would like to suggest that this was done in an experimental manner and, as I noted in a previous entry, this act of Spleen was aimed at producing a souvenir. In other words, the magic of Baudeliare was to destroy something yet to cling to what remains.
Notice that for Baudelaire, the “coin” is still there. It is just turned over. Baudelaire doesn’t destroy the coin (that is, the child). She remains but as a damaged child. And this shock, according to Baudelaire, illustrated the essence of laughter.
The poet, in other words, is a Satanic kind of trickster. He fools the reader into seeing something he or she does not want to see. Yet, the revelation of what he or she doesn’t want to see gives the reader some kind of secret knowledge that can only be garnered through destruction.
In my readings of Benjamin, we have seen that this art can also be turned against oneself. Indeed, Benjamin, in seeing himself as a schlemiel, as duped, traveled down the same road as Baudelaire. For Benjamin, the trickster is tricked.
Baudelaire understood this lesson very well. It marks the dark side of the magician who is not simply to be seen as a Satanic devilish poet who lives on vitality. Indeed, that vitality is often weak. And the solitude that Baudelaire wished to “conquer” is, to be sure, solitary and pathetic.
Destruction has a negative effect that, for some strange reason, Baudelaire and Benjamin were attracted to as artists. Solitude has its price. And in the modern world, the comic – though found everywhere – has no place.
Baudelaire’s prose pieces finely illustrate this. Today, I will look at “The Old Clown.”
This prose piece, in Paris Spleen, is autobiographical and it teaches us a lesson about the Satanic comedian who is, in essence, a clown.
Underlying the piece is a question: what would it mean to spend one’s life as a clown? What would happen if, instead of producing vitality, the clown produced nothing? This is the dark side of Baudelaire’s venture and we see it in this prose piece. Perhaps the “old clown” has “conquered solitude” by, in his very existence, inspiring “universal horror.”
To emphasize vitality and the end of vitality, Baudelaire starts off the piece with a major emphasis on the life of the carnival:
Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere. It was one of those gala days that all the clowns, jugglers, animal trainers, and ambulant hucksters count on, long in advance, to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25).
Baudelaire tells us that on these days people “forget everything” and they “become like children.”
Baudelaire then goes on to give a fantastic and exciting description of the carnival: “There was a mixture of cries, crashing brass, and exploding fireworks…and dancers, as lovely as fairies or princesses, leaped and pirouetted with the lantern light sparkling their skirts….There was nothing but light, dust, shouts, tumult”(25).
But then, in a Poe-like or Hoffman-like moment, the narrator sees the “old clown” and the shock it sends throughout him was uncanny:
Everywhere joy, money-making, debauchery; everywhere the assurance of tomorrow’s daily bread; everywhere frenetic outbursts of vitality. Here absolute misery, and a misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags, whose motely contrast was due more to necessity than to art. He was not laughing, the poor wretch!…He was mute and motionaless. He had given up, he had abdicated. His fate was sealed. (26)
The narrator then describes his own breakdown at the sight of the clown. He, the recipient of the sad joke or “trick” of reality, doesn’t know what to do:
I felt the terrible hand of hysteria grip my throat, I felt rebellious tears that would not fall, blurring my sight. What was I to do?
Instead of talking to him or asking him questions, he decides to leave some charity. He felt that compassion would redeem him. However, before he can do this “a sudden surge of the crowd, caused by I know not what disturbance, swept me away from him.”
It is the crowd that robs him of his opportunity to give charity. But now, as he looks back at the old clown, he can reflect on himself. He sees an emblem of himself in the clown; he sees (or rather creates) what Walter Benjamin would call a souvenir:
I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived; the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by poverty and the ingratitude of the public, and to whose booth the fickle world no longer cares to come! (27)
It’s fascinating how for Baudelaire the destruction of innocence and joy is “magical.” To be sure, he was fascinated with his own failure and with the destruction of happiness in children. This piece, though tragic to us, fits into what Baudelaire calls the Absolute Comic. But here he is the butt of the joke. He, the writer, is a joke. He is an “old clown.” He, the entertainer of children, the child who never grew up, is a joke.
We can have no doubt that Walter Benjamin was very moved by Baudelaire’s “souvenir.” It is echoed in his own vision of himself as a Schlemiel. In his own s(c)h(l)ocking discovery, Benjamin, like Baudelaire, was able to retain a souvenir out of his own comic, self-destruction.