The Odd Couple: Kairos and Masochism


Going through Roland Barthes lecture notes (for his lectures in Morocco in 1978), I came across an odd relationship, one I have never seen posited by any scholar; namely, the relationship between Kairos and Masochism.  Giving some thought to it this morning, it occurred to me that timing may in fact have something to do with masochism if, that is, one doesn’t try to master it.  On the other hand, I wondered what this has to do with the schlemiel or humor.  To be sure, Leopold Sacher Masoch, the father of masochism, did write a novel or two about Jews who he lived side by side with and who, some argue, taught him about the masochism.  Gilles Deleuze, in his book Masochism, posits a relationship between humor and masochism and contrasts it to the relationship of irony to mastery.  Although he discusses the relationship of masochism to contingency (something Barthes is interested in), he doesn’t discuss the relationship of masochism to time.

How does Barthes approach this topic?  And can we learn anything about the schlemiel’s relation to time by way of addressing it?

In a sub-section of his notes entitled “the Perishable,” Barthes notes that the “right moment” that informs his notion of Kairos is one that “passes” and that, in terms of the subject, it is a “perishable quality” of this passing moment is “accepted, wanted.”  But, says Barthes, desire is not an act of “resignation” – rather, it is an act of “consecration.”  But this consecration is not the creation of monument to one’s mourning of the passing moment.  It is, instead, an “acceptance” of the moment’s contingency, fragility, and perishability. And it exists, says Barthes, in the parenthesis.  In other words, it is not something that can be affirmed or denied; it is neutral.  But if this is the case, how do we understand what he means by desire or acceptance?  Isn’t that an affirmation or an act of the will?

Anticipating this question, Barthes looks to create a notion of acceptance that has nothing to do with the will.  And all of this, for Barthes, is a preface to his claim that masochism is related to Kairos.  To this end, Barthes evokes a non-western concept so as to challenge the western notion of the will which, as anyone who has studied 20th century philosophy knows, is a central concept that has met with much debate and discussion.

(To be sure, the assumption of the will is an ancient notion which finds its culmination in Nietzsches’s idea of the “will-to-power.”  The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argues that Nietzsches’ notion of the will-to-power marks the end – or the completion – of metaphysics.  Barthes, in the spirit of Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and other Continental thinkers is also putting the notion of the will and its metaphysical foundations into question.)

The non-western concept that Barthes brings to the fore is “Wou-Wei” – a concept drawn from the Tao.  He contrasts it to the “will to live,” but says that it is “not the opposite”:

It’s not the will-to-die: it’s what baffles, dodges, disorients the will to life.  It’s therefore, structurally, a Neutral: what baffles the paradigm.

Continuing on this line of reasoning, Barthes says that “wou-wei” privileges the “spontaneous” to the “detriment of” the “voluntary.”  It is something that doesn’t come from us.  But it also involves “not-doing”:

Wou-wei: not to direct, not to aim one’s strength, to leave it marking time in place.  For example the Melting of Breath (lianqi) is superior to the Control of Breath (xingqui).

This also includes not using one’s strength, intelligence, wisdom, or knowledge or “to use it to the minimum, within the limits of a pure concern for protection, for prudence.”

In the face of Wou-wei, Barthes points out that the West is baffled since it is a “subversion of all our moral values, and notably of the “progressive” ones.”  The wise person, notes Barthes does not “strive” or struggle.”  Citing a Taoist, Barthes notes that the wise man has a “tranquility in disorder.”  This, of course, goes against what Barthes calls “the moral ideology of the will,” which he defines in terms of the will to “dominate, to live, to impose one’s truth.”

In terms of temporality and time, the will is in accord with the individual who looks to dominate and shape the moment.  In contrast, Barthes notes that Wou-wei is not a moment dictated by the individual “but according to what one says of him.”  Citing Freud’s work of Leonardo DiVinci, Barthes associates this with a “feminine sensibility” which did not “abstain from the world.”  DiVinici’s gesture is non-western – it is an illustration of Wou-wei – since he exposes himself to the sensory world and judgment.

And this is where Barthes brings in the relation of time/Kairos to masochism.

Citing a passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Barthes points out a moment in the text where the main character is, so to speak, experiences his hopelessness.  This experience, because it is narrated and makes extensive reference to time, has a temporal quality.  In addition, it illustrate a state of non-action and non-striving of the will:

During his journey he, as it were, considered his life afresh and arrived at his old conclusion, restful in its hopelessness: that is was not for him to begin anything anew – – but that he must live out his life, content to do no harm, and not disturbing himself or desiring anything.

This “disenchantment,” says Barthes, has a “slightly masochistic tonality.”  I find this suggestion to be very telling as it implies that the Kairos, for Barthes, has a lot to do with acknowledging one’s hoplessness in relation to the other.  Unfortunately, Barthes spends more time thinking about the “surprise” of these moments and of accepting them and not enough time on the masochistic element.  Nonetheless, he does celebrate the fact that, in these states, one is “good for nothing.”

I find it fascinating that Barthes can see a link between Kairos and masochism.  But that the link to the other is displaced by the reflection of the self’s relation to the event while Deleuze thinks about masochism in terms of this relation but without thinking the relation to time (save for the claim that masochism exposes one to the contingency of terms and relations).

What I would like to suggest is that we address the temporality of the schlemiel in terms of a masochism that is temporal and relational.  However, as Ruth Wisse suggests at the outset of her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, in the midst of this gesture there is a reversal victimization and, as I would argue, masochism.   I would like to look more into the presence of masochism in the comic but I want to juxtapose it to the irony we also see. Deleuze insists that we separate irony from humor, but as I would like to show in future entries, how they often work together in schlemiel comedy. And, more importantly, this is not simply a matter of relation; it is a matter of timing.

The schlemiel is and is not a masochistic figure and the communication of that paradox is all in the timing.  Kairos and masochism are an odd couple…like Felix and Oscar….

Perhaps that is what makes schlemiel comedy so (un)timely.

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