Who has the Last Word? Power or Comedy? On Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death”

Jester-with-a-Lute-Frans-Hals

In our culture, comedians are cultural icons and, from time to time, they even come to influence public opinion.  Most recently, for instance, Jon Stewart’s parody of Egyptian President Mursi and the jailing of a comedian reached Mursi and caused a stir.  Sara Silverman, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert have also looked to use comedy to influence politics.  This trend, in fact, goes back to the Enlightenment where Satire was used quite often to influence public opinion and shape political debate.

As Leo Strauss, Peter Gay, and others have pointed out, satire (of the Enlightenment variety) errs on the side of the secular.  It has nothing holy about it.  Charles Baudelaire, however, had a different understanding of comedy and its relation to power.  Rather than put Satire into a conflictual relationship with power, he put the fool in such a relationship.

We see this best in his prose piece, “A Heroic Death.” In his prose piece, Baudelaire puts the fool in a battle with power.  To say that this battle is cosmic would not be an understatement.  To be sure, if one were to take the time to read his journals in tandem with his poetry and prose, one would see that Baudelaire was always looking to evoke and think through the conflict between the sacred and the profane.   More importantly, Baudelaire saw this conflict best pronounced in the fool and by way of irony.

“A Heroic Death” shows us that the tension between art (and for Baudeliare, as for Kierkegaard and Schlegel, comedy was the quintessence of art) and power was one of his greatest preoccupations.  We would be amiss if we were to think that Walter Benjamin, in his studies of Baudelaire, had simply missed this.  To be sure, the tension between comedy and power is something that Benjamin thought about – particularly, in his work on Kafka – right up to his untimely death.

By way of a close reading of Baudelaire’s prose piece, I hope to show what is at stake in the tension between comedy (art) and power.  Moreover, I hope to show how Baudelaire took this tension and its outcome personally.  I’d like to suggest that we also take it personally since, as the prose piece shows, it hits directly on the modern condition that we are all-to-familiar with, a condition that Baudelaire constantly addressed.

Baudelaire begins his prose piece by noting that Fancioulle, “an admirable buffoon and almost like one of the Prince’s friends,” got involved with a “conspiracy” with “certain discontented nobles in the court” to overthrow the Prince.  The narrator, waxing philosophical, observes that “for men whose profession is to be funny, serious things have a fatal attraction.”  In other words, the narrator believes that comedy may likelly lead the fool to politics and thus fatality.  This observation, and the opening plot of the story, suggest that politics and comedy are strange bedfellows.  When they collide, there will be a life and death battle.  “A Heroic Death” illustrates this.

The narrator tells us that once the Prince discovers the plot, “all of them faced certain death.”

But after saying this, the narrator pauses to consider the Prince and his reaction to learning that Fancioulle was a part of the plot.  In this pause, we learn about what kind of person the Prince is.

According to the narrator, the Prince was a lover of entertainment.  In fact, his desire for entertainment has no bounds: “having an excessive sensibility he was in general far more cruel than his fellows.”

To be sure, the Prince was so cruel in his pursuit of pleasure that he was “indifferent enough in regard to men and morals.”  Setting up the battle that will ensue between the Prince and the fool, the narrator calls the Prince “a real artist.”  This suggests that the consumer of art, who will bypass morality and humanity to be entertained, is a “real artist.”  This ironic statement should be disturbing.  First of all, the Prince doesn’t produce art he consumes it.  How, then, could he be called an artist (a person who “makes things” – a technes in Greek)? More importantly, the narrator tells us that a “real artist” is deemed to be someone who disregards morality and humanity.  This means that the “real artist” has no interest in helping or in inspiring humanity to pursue justice. This artist is not interested in art for art’s sake so much as consumption for the sake of ending or at least differing Boredom.

When the narrator points out that the Prince’s most “dreaded” enemy is Boredom, the reader may realize that he or she has a lot in common with the Prince.  In fact, like us, the Prince would go “to extravagant efforts to vanquish or outwit this tyrant of the world.”  These efforts would win the prince the “epithet of ‘monster’” if, in fact, anyone in the Kingdom were allowed to write what they really thought about him and his ways.

The narrator, in a sarcastic manner, notes that the “misfortune of the Prince was in not having a stage vast enough for his own genius.”   This genius is, obviously, Satanic.  And a vaster stage would mean the world.  This discloses the desire of the Prince: to turn the world into a reality TV show of sorts – a laboratory for his perpetual amusement.

The narrator spells this out when he reflects on how the Prince decided to let Fancioulle live and perform for him.  This clemency, the narrator muses, was not simply because the fool was the Prince’s friend.   The narrator said it would be “nice” to believe this; however, he notes:

It was infinitely more probable that the Prince wanted to test the value of the histrionic talent of a man condemned to die.  He wanted to profit by this occasion to make a physiological experiment of a capital interest, to find out to what extent an artist’s faculties might be challenged or modified as extraordinary as this.

The narrator muses to himself as to whether or not the Prince had a “more or less definite idea of mercy”; this, he says, “is a point that has never been clarified.”  This musing hits on the question of good and evil.  With the Prince, this remains a question.  However, the fool, for the narrator, is different.

The fool bespeaks the best in humanity.  And he does this by way of his art.  And this is where the battle ensues; namely, over the question “who is the real artist – the Prince or the Fool?”

The narrator makes this question explicit when he differentiates between a “good actor” and the exceptional actor:

When people say of the actor: ‘What a good actor,’ they are using an expression which implies that beneath the character they can still distinguish the actor, that is to say, art, effort, volition.  But if an actor should succeed in being, in relation to the part he played, what the best statues of antiquity, if miraculously animated they lived, walked and saw, would be in relation to the confused idea of beauty, that would indeed by a singular case and altogether unheard of.

The narrator then tells us that “Fancioulle was that night just such a perfect idealization, so that one could not help believing in the impersonation as alive, possible and real.”

In other words, Fancioulle is the epitome of the “real artist.”  He effaces the line between the real and the ideal.  He is laughter, beauty, comedy, and tragedy in the flesh.  He is holy and the narrator tells us that he, unlike anyone else, can see that the fool has an aura:

The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, and lashed into fury, with always about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all, but visible to me, that blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the glory of Martyrdom.

The narrator further testifies to this revelation when he notes how, in recording this experience, his pen “trembles and tears of an emotion that has never left him.”  In watching the fool, he has found certainty and faith. He realizes that art is greater than death:

Fancioulle proved to me in the most preemptory, the most irrefutable way, that the intoxication of Art is more apt than any other to veil the terrors of the eternal abyss.

But here is the twist.

The Prince notices that the whole audience, like the narrator, is intoxicated.  More importantly, he realizes that he has lost his power over his subjects.  The narrator notes this change when he remembers how the Prince’s face changes: “a new palor spread like snow falling upon snow.”

The narrator notices, in the midst of this, how the Prince whispers to one of his pages and, within a few moments, a “shrill prolonged hiss” is heard.  Upon hearing this hiss, the fool is awakened from his dream, shocked, and his performance ends, literally, with his death.

The end of the prose piece is fascinating because the narrator, instead of lamenting what he saw, poses several questions about whether the Prince knew the hiss would kill the fool.  He wonders whether or not he did it as a prank and whether the Prince regretted what he did: “It is sweet and legitimate to hope so.”

However, the narrator and the attentive reader will realize that regardless of this “sweet” thought, the fool lost the battle and the Real Artist is the Prince.

Baudelaire’s mediation on art is melancholic and autobiographical.  This prose piece is, in many ways, an Oracle of sorts.  It teaches us that he believed that if comedy is put in a battle with Power and politics, power and Entertainment will win.  Reflecting on ourselves, can we say that reality television and its cruel battle with boredom have displaced the art of the “Real Artist”? Each and every one of us, it seems, is the Prince.  And, like him, we will go to any lengths to be entertained and destroy our worst enemy, Boredom.  And, as Reality Television makes clearly evident, all of humanity, the world , is our laboratory.

Nonetheless, the merit of the fool is to give the narrator “evidence” that comedy can be revelatory.   He witnessed this possibility, but he also witnessed its end.   Will we ever see a fool like Fancioulle?  Can we hope for a religious and revelatory kind of comedy?  Can we say that the schlemiel is such a holy fool or is there a distinct difference between Baudelaire’s fool and the Jewish fool?   Did Baudelaire’s holy fool die “a heroic death” or was he murdered for the sake of Amusement (or jealousy)?

Perhaps Baudelaire was saying that the holy fool (not Satire) should steer clear of the political, for if it does not it will find a similar fate.  Like Fancioulle, entertainment and power will win and the holy fool (artist) will lose. The narrator’s sad tone, implies that boredom and the will-to-entertainment are too powerful.  They cannot be defeated.  Or so it seems.  After all, he did have the evidence of the Holy Fool.  But he also saw that Holy Fool murdered.  Nonetheless, he says, it would be “sweet” to think that the Prince was merciful on the fool.  Indeed, it would be “sweet” but its not.   In the end, the real and the ideal remain separate.  And why?

Because the Prince, who loves nothing more than to kill Boredom, killed the Fool. He killed someone who, as the narrator says in the beginning, may have been his friend.

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