Comic Impositions: The Comedian as Imposter and Parasite

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In my last blog entry on Walter Benjamin and comedy, I pointed out how Benjamin was deeply interested in the relationship of comedy to tragedy. The figure of the rogue and the comic schemer are, for Benjamin, central figures which disclose the comic “inner lining” of tragedy which we see in the mourning play.   Comedy, in the figure of the rogue or imposter, is “linked to the representative of mourning.”  The mystery of mourning, for Benjamin, can be found in this comic figure.   And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Benjamin marks the original relation between comedy and tragedy in the displacement of tragedy by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Socrates “silence” is different from the silence of the tragic figure because it is “histrionic” and it spurs dialogue.  Socratic dialogue works by way of irony.  And as Benjamin notes, at the end of The Symposium Agathon (a tragedian) sits together with Aristophanes (a comic playwright) and Socrates (who mediates between the two).  But what does this mean?  What makes the “intriguer” or the “imposter” so special in Benjamin’s mind?  Does he bring out something that we find with Socrates?

To be sure, Benjamin leaves this out, in a Socratic manner, and asks us to connect the dots.  First of all, isn’t Socrates called an “imposter” by Alciabades in The Symposium?  And isn’t their dialogue, which is prior to the final scene Benjamin discusses, historionic?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  Benjamin leaves out the fact that Alciabades tries to expose Socrates as a fake.  He is leading young people on so as to seduce them.  Socrates, in response to the drunken reveler, argues that Alciabades is an overemotional lover and that he lies.  And, to be sure, when Alciabades comes into the room he takes over the space.   He knocks loudly at the door and when they open it he stumbles in with an entourage of flautists.  In the sense I discussed recently vis-à-vis Michel Serres’s reading of sound, space, and imposition, we can say that this gesture was comical. It, as Serres might say, “occupies” the space.  And Socrates, with his retort, comes to “counter occupy” it.   And, as Serres might say, this occupation is parasitic.  It is an imposition.

Socrates, in response, is also parasitic. He feeds, so to speak, on what Alciabades has introduced into the space.  And, in shaming him, Socrates demotes him.  He refuses to let Alciabades sit next to him and, instead, he chooses Agathon and Aristophanes.  In other words, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, established by Socrates, was created out of a cruel joke at Alciabades expense. There is something daemonic about it since Socrates sees Alciabades as an imposter when, in fact, he is.

An imposter is not simply someone who interrupts a party or space; rather, an imposter “imposes” something on this or that space. As Serres would claim, the imposter takes over the space.  Serres’s reading can certainly be used to interpret what Bejamin’s understanding of comedy as the “inner side of mourning.”  After all, in the displacement of one thing by another (for instance tragedy by comedy) there is something comical going on. But that comedy is, in some senses cruel because, in order to speak and to draw on energy, it must feed on the already existing energy in this or that space.

Serres, near the end of The Parasite, discusses the comedic in terms of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  As Serres notes, Tartuffe is described, by one of Moliere’s characters as “The swindler who was able to impose on you for so long”(201).  As Serres notes, this imposition was “usually understood as cheating, the swindler imposing himself”(201).  But this meaning misses the root of the word, which, Serres points out, would “teach us that he keeps, collects, or intercepts a tax.” The tax collector is an “imposter” of sorts because he collects money, goods, etc.  He is a “parasite” who lives off of the money of the people.  Serres notes that in Italian “tartuffe” is associated with a “mushroom” which “detours and captures.”

What Serres is most interested in is the fact that the “economic” meaning of the term has been lost.  He wants to retain it and to take it away from all its negative uses.  (On this note, I would like to point out that he overlooks the association of Jews with parasites in his reading; this omission is telling because it was used, for instance, by Nazi propagandists in many caricatures; I hope to return to this in the near future).  Serres sees the comic imposture as brining out the workings of energy and force.

Like Socrates or Alciabades, the “imposture” slash comedian “takes over the house.” And he “imposes” the ultimate dilemma of human existence, culture, and politics: “exclude or be excluded.” “he chases everyone out so that he can be the master of the house.  He imposes the following dilemma: exclude or be excluded”(202).

This is the sinister aspect of the imposture. It works by way of mimicry – and, like a chameleon, it changes – so that it can insinuate itself into different spaces so as to “feast on the table of the master”:

I am starting with the mimetic action in the sense of a chameleon, of a polar bear or a polar hare in the Artic snows, of a butterfly that becomes a flower, of a walking stick…It is an erasure of individuality and its dissolution in the environment; it is a good means of protection in both defense and attack…I am an other, a and b, once again a synthetic judgment and the birth of the joker and the white domino. (202)

But there is more to the story.  As Serres notes, comedy has a relation to religion. This is what Benjamin suggests when he sees the comic as a secularization of sorts. What counts, for Serres, is that the parasite comedian is that he “sets things right.”  He sets things in the right direction: he “straightens out sinners, sends them to heaven.”

Referring to blood and wine, two major elements of Christianity, Serres points out that in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe, the “hostess loses blood and Tartuffe gets wine.” And “between blood and wine, between wine and blood, a new process appears that tradition calls transubstantiation.” So that now “the question of Tartuffe is suddenly turned over as it has always been: what is religion doing here in the parasitic relation?  Religion is not the subject of the play; it is the problem of comedy”(205).

In a Derridian kind of turn, Serres points out that in the Moliere play the host becomes the “guest of the guest.”   And this suggests that he becomes a parasite who feeds off of the real guest.  This inversion, suggests, Serres, may have religious import.  And it turns the comedy into a tragedy.  He asks, “did you pay for the comedy or the tragedy?”  This turn is a kind of imposture.  It imposes on the audience.  But, in the end, Serres says it is a comedy if the people still remain on stage.”  And this is the final swindle.   The end of play we learn that Tartuffe isn’t a tragedy. Rather, its only a “sickness.” And the “canonic character of comedy is the sick person.”  He survives, but he is sick.

Serres notes that this wasn’t simply a jab at the clergy of France.  On the contrary, it is a near death.  The parasite-comic feeds on but doesn’t kill the host.  He wounds the target and, in the process, he becomes sick. And, in the process, he excludes and is excluded. But, as Serres suggests, he survives.  He, the comic, drinks the wine of religion. He secularizes and is truly an imposter and an imposer…but he gets away with it.  In the end, someone has to pay.   And, as I showed above, that someone, for Socrates was Alciabades.  Or, as Benjamin argues, it was tragedy.

Comedy, it seems, comes with a price.  But it doesn’t kill its host so much as drain it of some of its life-blood. Nonetheless, as Serres suggests, even in the house of religion, where the comedian is a guest, the host becomes a guest and also becomes a parasite.  For this reason, in the end, the comedian is sick because he is also fed on.   Although he takes over the house, so to speak, through comedy, the comedian is also fed on; and, in the process, he narrowly averts death.  The crowd gives him life, but it also makes him sick.

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