A Note on Goya and Sholem Aleichem’s Caricatures

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Charles Baudelaire, in his essay “Some Foreign Caricatures,” distinguishes between a “historical” and an “artistic” caricaturist. Writing on Goya, who took the horrors of the Spanish Insurrection and the war with Napoleonic France, Baudelaire notes that Goya opened up the field of caricature by introducing “fantasy” into the comic. And, in contrast to the categories he set up in his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Baudelaire argues that Goya’s brand of comedy fits neither into the category of the “absolute” or the “purely significative comic.” Unlike ETA Hoffman, who is the master of the “absolute comic” (and what Paul deMan, citing Baudealire, calls the “irony of irony”), while Goya may be able to “plunge down” into the depths of grotesque and “soar up to the heights of the absolute,” the “general aspect under which he sees all things is above all the fantastic.”

When an average person, who knows nothing about history, sees Goya’s historical figures, although they may not recognize the historical aspect, he will “experience a sharp shock at the core of his brain.” His works overcome us, says Baudelaire, like “chronic dreams” that “besiege” our sleep.   He calls Goya a “true artist” because in his caricatures, which Baudelaire calls “fugitive works,” he is able to remain “firm and indomitable.”   In other words, the test of the “true artist” is to bring shock to caricature.   And he ultimately accomplishes this, claims Baudelaire, by showing us how the “monstrous” is possible and “credible.”   And this “fantastic” element, because it made so tangible, is what shocks us:

No one has ventured further than in he in the direction of the possible absurd. All those distortions, those bestial faces, those diabolic grimaces are impregnated with humanity…In a word, the line of suture, the point of junction between the real and the fantastic is impossible to grasp; it is a vague frontier.

Reading this, I wonder how would Baudelaire regard the caricatures found in Yiddish literature and Jewish American literature. How would he interpret the choice of writers like Sholem Aleichem or Howard Jacobson who have cast schlemiels as caricaturists? Do they, as Baudelaire says of Goya, “remain firm and indomitable” in their “fugitive works”? And is their goal to make the “monstrous” credible, by way of caricature, or seem less “diabolical”?

To be sure, Dan Miron argues that Motl is not a “diabolical character” and neither are his caricatures. As Miron points out, the caricatures marks a “cold” relation to the past of a desponded and ailing world that he wants to leave behind. But he does this by way of humor.   Motl, to be sure, is the agent and reporter of this distortion. Miron tells us that he doesn’t change while his world does and this sounds like what Baudelaire would say regarding the caricaturist as an artist. However, the main difference between what Miron is saying about caricature and what Baudelaire is saying is that the schlemiel’s survival has more to do with the possibility of a new life and less to do with having an epiphany of the “possibility” of the “impossible.”

Baudelaire’s interest in caricature is focused on jarring humanity by way of shock while Sholem Aleichem’s interest is in providing a figure for Jews to understand how to relate to the past and the new future, promised by America. The schlemiel’s caricatures – rather than the schlemiel as a caricature – provide the vehicle, so to speak, to travel from Europe and arrive in America.   Caricature, for Aleichem (as opposed to Baudelaire) doesn’t suspend identity so much as provide a way of forging a new identity.   And the agent of that caricature is the schlemiel-artist (and not Baudelaire’s version of the modern artist).

Comedic horror, in other words, doesn’t seem to have a role in schlemiel literature and art while for Baudelaire it has a central place.

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