Charles Baudelaire and Daemonic Laughter (Take 2)

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Over several different blog entries, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his reflections on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Goethe Dream (“The Vestibule”), his entries on six children in One Way Street, and in the Shuvalkin parable (in the Kafka essay), makes it quite clear that he saw himself as a man-child (that is, as a schlemiel).  But, upon reflection, we noted that Benjamin, in the “Vestibule” and in the Shuvalkin Parable, saw himself as being the subject of a prank played by the Other.  This reflection was, as I argued, Daemonic.

Who else would play this prank on him but a power that wanted to reduce him to a child or fool?   In our previous blog on the topic of the Daemonic, we were looking for the source and meaning of such a reflection.  As we noted, Gershom Scholem suggested that Walter Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic didn’t come from the Jewish tradition; it came from Charles Baudelaire.

After reading a few important passages, we saw that Benjamin read Baudelaire’s “Essence of Laughter” as saying that every physical response to comedy, even the smile, was “Satanic.”  And as I noted, Baudelaire even thought that the most innocent of creatures, children, could not escape the Satanic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls them “budding Satans.”  Nonetheless, we find that Baudelaire and Benjamin were both interested in returning to a “childlike” state.

In truth, the daemonic element of comedy complicates everything.  We are confronted with many questions about what either Benjamin or Baudelaire meant by the Satanic.  For now, we can say a few things.  First, both of them thought that laughter and even the smile was Satanic.  Second, both of them thought that even children may be touched by the daemonic.  However, unlike Baudelaire, Benjamin distinguishes between “Satanic destruction” and “Satanic Serenity.”  In his notes, which Scholem points to as a key to Benjamin’s intense interest in the daemonic, he associates his “Satanic Smile” with “Satanic Serenity” rather than with “Satanic Destruction.”  What, exactly, is the basis of this distinction?  How could something be Satanic while not being destructive?  It doesn’t make sense.

And if Benjamin speaks in his essay on The Idiot about the healing powers of childhood and innocence, and insists that Dostoevsky (and himself) repeatedly insist on a return to childhood,  what do we make of his affirmation of “Satanic Serenity?”  Is Satanic Serenity an innocent, childlike state?  What, in fact, was true happiness for Benjamin?  Was it the attainment of “Satanic serenity” or childhood innocence? Both, it seems, were sites of happiness for Benjamin.  Both, it seems, brought a smile to his face.  But what happens when that smile or any smile is, as Baudelaire says, Satanic? This is a question that puzzled Benjamin, as we saw in his piece entitled “Central Park.”

Let’s begin our query with a closer examination of Baudelaire’s notion of Satanic laughter.  From here, we will have a better idea of what Benjamin may or may not have derived from it in his own reflections on children.  Most importantly, from a close reading of Baudelaire’s notion of Satanic laughter and children we can understand the meaning of the prank that Benjamin recounts in two places: 1) the prank played on him in the Goethe dreams and 2) the prank played on Shuvalkin.  Both pranks, as we pointed out, reduce the characters to children and fools; both call attention to the basis of the prank: namely a signature written by the Other.

Let’s turn to Baudelaire’s essay on laughter for answers.

First of all, Baudelaire notes that, for physiologists of laughter (such as Thomas Hobbes), “laughter comes from superiority.” But here is the twist.   Baudelaire revises this definition by taking into account the physiologist of laughter: “I should not be surprised if, on making this discovery, the physiologist had burst out laughing himself at the though of his own superiority.  Therefore, he should have said: Laughter comes from the idea of one’s own superiority”(152).

According to Baudelaire, laughing at one’s “own superiority” is Satanic!  It is not an idea, it is profoundly personal and real.  “A Satanic idea if there ever was one! And what pride and delusion!”

But there is more to the story.  The essence of this laughter is not simply tied up with pride and delusion, it is directly related to madness: “For it is a notorious fact that all madmen in asylums have an excessively overdeveloped idea of their own superiority: I hardly know any who suffer from the madness of humility”(152).

Baudelaire’s observation is fascinating since it suggests that the “madness of humility,” which is an apt name for the madness of the schlemiel (of the fool) is not to be found in those who laugh.

Baudelaire goes on to give an example of how a humble woman went mad and “declined in her purity” once she started “falling.”  At that point, she started feeling superior and laughing: “She will be more learned from the point of view of the world; and she will laugh.”

Baudelaire diagnoses laughter as a sickness of the soul; and although it is a sign of superiority, it is, Baudelaire states, a “symptom of failing”: “I said that laughter contained a symptom of failing; and, in fact, what more striking token of debility could you demand than a nervous convulsion, an involuntary spasm comparable to a sneeze and prompted by the sight of someone’s misfortune.  This misfortune is almost always a mental failing.”

Upon watching someone fail or fall, the laugher says, in Baudelaire’s words: “Look at me! I am not falling’, he seems to say. ‘Look at me! I am walking upright. I would never be so silly at to fail to see a gap in the pavement or a cobblestone blocking the way”(152)

Delighting in someone’s suffering is Satanic and, Baudelaire claims, at the core of mad laughter.  However, Baudelaire notes the hidden secret of this madness; namely, that the person who laughs is the most pitiable creature. The one who laughs is a failure.  He laughs, ultimately, because he is a failure.  He laughs because of his rage and suffering (what Baudeliare, elsewhere, calls Spleen).  Laughter is the explosion of this rage and suffering:

“See, therefore, how he laughs; see how he laughs as he ceaseless compares himself to the catipillars of humanity, he so strong, so intelligent, he for whom the conditional laws of mankind, both physical and intellectual, no longer exist!  And this laughter is the perpetual explosion of his rage and his suffering.  It is – you must understand – the necessary resultant of his contradictory double nature, which is infinitely greater in relation to man, and infinitely vile and base in relation to absolute truth and justice”(153, my emphasis).

Baudelaire divides the world between the Satanic and the Holy.  The latter are Wise and Humble; they are not haughty. They regard themselves as nothing in comparison to “absolute truth and justice.”

But where is the innocence of contemplation that we noted in the last blog?  Where is the childlike?  As we noted in the first blog entry on this topic, the childlike is not present.  It is messianic. It is to come.  In Baudelaire’s world, it seems as if the wise man and his “innocent contemplation” which come “close to childhood” are non-existent.  For Baudelaire, rage, suffering, and the Satanic seem to touch everything – the things that we take as most innocent like children, wise men, and holy fools.

He sees no way out of it save through an art that, so to speak, laughs at the laugh.  Through a more intellectual laughter, through a reflective kind of madness, one can participate in what he calls the “Absolute Comic.” And this Absolute comic comes by way of mimes and by way of the most exemplary Absolute Comic story which, as Baudelaire argues, was written by ETA Hoffman.   As we shall see, this mime and this story, necessarily, address children and absent-mindedness.  But, the question we must ask is whether the laughter the Absolute Comic evokes takes us beyond the Satanic aspect of laughter – whether it brings us closer to what Baudelaire regarded as the wisdom that the prophets spoke of  which, ultimately, sees laughter as “inferior.”

What is the absolute comic?  And does it lead to what Walter Benjamin called “Satanic Serenity?”  Is Benjamin’s recounting of the signature-prank an example of the “Absolute Comic?”  Is the smile that the Absolute Comic evokes like the Smile of the Buddah, a wise and innocent smile, or is it the smile of “Satanic Serenity?”  Is this what Benjamin felt when he discovered his name, in the Goethe dream, written in clumsy, big childlike letters?

(We will address these questions in our next blog entry).

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