Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and the Daemonic (Take 1)

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In an essay on Walter Benjamin entitled “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” Gershom Scholem notes that one of the things that disturbed him most about Benjamin was his interest in the daemonic.  Scholem, in this essay, notes that Benjamin’s interest increased the more he delved into the work of the Parisian poet and cultural critic Charles Baudelaire:

The Luciferian element…entered Benjamin’s meditations…not directly from the Jewish tradition, but rather from the occupation with Baudelaire that fascinated him for so many years.  The Luciferian element of the beauty of the Satanic, stemming from this side of Benjamin’s interests, comes out often enough in his notes.  (213, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis).

Scholem goes on to provide examples of this element by noting a “Satanic phase” that Benjamin went through when he was writing on a Hashish impression of January 15, 1928.  Strangely enough, Scholem cites a passage from Benjamin that associates the Satanic with the smile:

My smile assumed Satanic features: though more the expression of Satanic knowing, Satanic contentment, Satanic Serenity than from Satanic destructive activity. (214)

Scholem latches on to Benjamin’s reading of the Satanic smile. He notes that, for Benjamin, everything is tainted by the Satanic.  Even the “’indescribable beautiful face’ of a human being can appear as ‘Satanic features – with a half-suppressed smile”(ibid).

The fact that Scholem finds Benjamin’s interest in Baudeliare to be the basis for his description of the smile as Satanic is instructive.  Although Scholem doesn’t delve deeper into this, we will.   To be sure, we can learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to humor  by reading his reflections on Baudelaire’s reading of comedy, the smile, and laughter.   We can also learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to comedy by simply reading Baudelaire’s reflections on the comic and, as I will point out, children (which, for Baudelaire, are related).  What we will find in both Benjamin’s reflections and in Baudelaire’s work is a keen interest in the relationship of humor to the daemonic.

In an unpublished piece called “Central Park,” written between 1938 and 1939, Benjamin devotes several reflections to Baudelaire’s prose, poetry, and critical essays.  The reflection that interests me most is Benjamin’s reflection on Baudelaire’s well-known essay “De l’essence du rire” (“The Essence of Humor”).

In this reflection, Benjamin writes:

De l’essence du rire” contains nothing other than the theory of satanic laughter.  In this essay, Baudelaire goes so far as to view even smiling from the standpoint of laughter.  Contemporaries often testified to something frightful in his own manner of laughter (182, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4)

Benjamin is correct in his claim that Baudelaire argues that all laughter is daemonic.  As Baudelaire explains:

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human.  It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority.  And since laughter is essentially human, it is essentially contradictory; that is to say, it is a token of infinity grandeur and infinite misery (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 154).

However, Baudelaire notes that there is a position that challenges this one; namely, the position of the “wise man”: “Laughter is a sign of inferiority to the wise, who, through contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childlike state.”

This childlike state, however, seems, for Baudelaire, to be unattainable.  It is messianic: “As the comic is a sign of superiority, it is natural to hold that, before they can achieve absolute purification promised by certain mystical prophets, the nations of the world will see a multiplication of comic themes in proportion as their superiority increases”(ibid).

Baudelaire is basically saying that, as civilization advances, we will need to laugh more as we will feel more and more “superior” to nature.  This is not something to celebrate. Rather, for Baudelaire, it is something to lament.  And he hopes that one day we will become wise and transcend laughter altogether.

Benjamin is aware of this, hence, he notes that even the smile is tainted with the daemonic.

But if one reads Baudelaire’s essay on laughter, one will see that the grimace (the smile) only receives one sentence from Baudelaire while the laugh is mentioned throughout the essay: “All the miscreants of melodrama, accursed damned and fatally marked with a grin which runs from ear to ear, are in the pure orthodoxy of laughter.”

Benjamin latches on to this single sentence to argue that any bodily response which indicates humor is daemonic. To be sure, Baudelaire notes that no kind of laugh, even the laugh of a child, escapes the Satantic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls the laughter of little children the laughter of “budding Satans”(156).

Given this reading, what can we say of Benjamin’s reflections on children? As we saw in the hiding aphorism, which we addressed in an earlier blog, Benjamin argues that they “hide from the demon.”   And, as I suggested in that entry, this hiding place may be the shelter provided by a book.  Benjamin sees such hiding as an admirable strategy which, he claims, he learns from children.

The question we must ask is why Benjamin would see any response to humor is daemonic and whether he agreed, wholeheartedly, with Baudelaire’s reading of laughter and humor. This would imply that Kafka’s humor and Benjamin’s humor are or may be daemonic.  It would imply that Benjamin saw the signature-prank in his dream as wholly daemonic.  This would imply that Benjamin’s awareness of his identity – of his being a man-child – his awareness of a prank – was daemonic knowledge.  But is this knowledge, following a smile or a laugh, linked to superiority?  Did Benjamin read his calling, rather, in the opposite manner? After all, he is the butt of this joke.  As is the kingdom in the Shuvalkin parable we read and explained yesterday.

To be laughed at, to be a schlemiel, is entirely different from being the one who laughs or, as Benjamin notes, smiles.  Perhaps we can say that in the two moments where Benjamin reads himself and Shuvalkin as having been the butt of a joke, which reduced them to children, there is a challenge to the Satanic.  This would imply that masochism is redemptive.

In the end it is the same, Benjamin is not superior, he is a failure, a man-child, and a schlemiel. And perhaps, the “entire kingdom” is sunk into exile because the letters of a schlemiel named Shuvalkin hovers over its head. The implications of this reading are that Benjamin thought that he and “we” are not superior.  The joke, on the contrary, is on us.  And this bleak view suggests that if Benjamin is a schlemiel then Satan (the Other) must have written his name and Shuvalkin’s.  And if the herald who bears that message runs ahead of Kafka, as Benjamin claims, perhaps he runs ahead of us as well.  If this is so, then we are all doomed to endless failure and humiliation.   We are and will be the victims of a prank in which Satan has the last laugh and, as Benjamin seems to imply, doesn’t stop laughing.

Even so, Benjamin’s reflection on his (and our) destiny may in fact be redemptive, quite simply, because, in it, he (and we) is (are) not superior (he is not, as Baudelaire would say, Satanic); in his reflection, he sees himself as a powerless man-child.  And it is fascinating that this reflection on powerlessness stretches beyond Benjamin and finds itself in the pages of French thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze.  They all seem to have taken Baudelaire and Benjamin seriously.  (We will return to this in future blogs.)

In our next blog entries, we will, hopefully, explore Baudelaire’s notion of the “absolute comic” and its relationship to the child and the mime.  This may give us another clue as to where Benjamin may have been going with his childish reflections.

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