Comedy often deals with power and powerlessness. But as Baudelaire understands it, power usually has the upper hand. For Baudelaire, comedy brings out the Satanic, powerful side of man, not the powerless and humble aspects. It doesn’t return us to innocence.
Even though it has elements of “innocence” and although it is guided by the “law of ignorance,” the Absolute Comic is not a return to childhood in the full sense. It retains the Satanic element since the Absolute Comic still nods to the superiority of the viewer\reader and man`s superiority over nature:
I would say that when Hoffmann gives birth to the absolute comic it is perfectly true that he knows what he is doing; but he also knows that the essence of this type of the comic is that it should appear unaware of itself and that it should produce in the spectator, or rather the reader, a joy in his own superiority and in the superiority of man over nature(165).
Notice that the Absolute Comic is innocent (“unaware of itself”) AND it produces a joy in the viewer’s “own superiority” and in the “superiority of man over nature.”
It retains this duality.
But, as we pointed out in our previous blog entry, this superiority is tainted. It is a kind of madness. In fact, as I pointed out, Baudelaire sees the insane as expressing the essence of this comic superiority.
The madness of the Absolute comic, as Baudelaire understands it, is different from what he calls the “madness of humility.” Baudelaire associates the madness of humility with the “wise” who see the superiority of the comic as “inferior.”
Laughter is a sign of inferiority in relation to the wise, who, throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childhood state.
It seems as if there are not only two kinds of madness but also two types of children: the humble and the satanic. One is mad for God while the other is mad for itself and its superiority.
Which child does Baudelaire favor? Which madness is superior? The madness of humility or the madness of the comic? More importantly, why doesn’t Baudelaire, like Dostoevsky or Benjamin, imagine a holy fool? After all, isn’t a holy fool humble, unconscious of himself, innocent, and funny?
How would Benjamin address these questions? And when he talks about “Satanic Serenity” was Benjamin imagining a happy state that comes out of the Absolute Comic? Was he siding with the madness of the comic over the madness of humility? Could we call the “joy” that the viewers-slash-readers of the Absolute Comic feel when watching the Absolute Comic “Satanic Serenity?” And how is this serenity different from the serenity that emerges from the madness of humility?
These questions present a problem: if Benjamin was so into the “return to childhood,” which we saw in his reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, wouldn’t he aim for the serenity of the wise man? After all, wasn`t Dostoevsky leaning more toward the madness of humility in his novel? Would he stand on the side of the wise man, who would see the smile, and especially the satanic smile (like the laugh), as “inferior?” Or would Benjamin argue that the only way to attain happiness is, as Baudelaire might say, through the Absolute Comic?
If this is the case, then, one may only attain to partial childhood but not full. The madness of humility no longer seems to be an option for modernity. Violence seems to be more akin. To be sure, the Absolute Comic evinces a delight in the destruction of innocence and delights in the excesses of play: as we see in Baudelaire’s portrayals of the mime and in his reading ETA Hoffman’s story in which a girl is shocked when she realizes that her image of order and beauty are false. In fact, the negation of her childish superiority (the superiority of her ideas and military order) is the basis, according to Baudelaire, of the audience`s joy at its superiority. They – the audience – and not she – the comic character – are the masters of ignorance and are superior over nature. They are mad with superiority, yet in a way that is not ignorant.
To be sure, though the madness of humility is not an option for modern man, and although Baudelaire gives the madness of the comic center stage, he does mention the “madness of humility.” Moreover, Baudelaire notes that wise men, “throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach childhood.” He acknowledges different levels of innocence and the challenge to comedy made by the wise; nonetheless, he doesn`t pronounce either in a definitive manner.
I think Benjamin knew full well what was at stake in this comparison. And he ventured where Baudelaire did not. In his reflections on the Goethe Dream and on the Shuvalkin parable, Benjamin was engaging in the madness of humility and not simply in the madness of the comic.
True, he sees himself as double: as a man and a child. But did Benjamin see himself as superior as Baudelaire suggests of every reader or viewer of the Absolute Comic? Did Benjamin feel a “Satanic Serenity” when he saw himself as a man and a child; that is, when he discovered the meaning of the Goethe dream and when he penned the Shuvalkin parable? And wouldn`t Satanic Serenity imply an experience of comic superiority?
I would like to suggest that Benjamin didn`t feel comic superiority so much as a certain kind of powerlessness and astonishment when he looked at himself as a schlemiel. We also hear this in Benjamin’s claim about Kafka: that “the beauty of his work was the beauty of failure.” This comment evinces a sense of inferiority not superiority. In fact, Benjamin didn’t seem to take joy in this joke. This is in contrast to Baudelaire, who notes that joy goes hand-in-hand with the feeling of Comic Superiority. To be sure, I can’t imagine anything close to Satanic in this reflection. The same goes for his reflection on himself in the “Vestibule” aphorism. In fact, this destiny, to be marked as a child in Goethe’s house, is disheartening. More disheartening is the fact that he is the subject of a prank.
I would suggest that this experience leans more toward the “madness of humility” or rather the madness of humilation. Unless, that is, Benjamin would smile (satanically) at his misfortune.