Roland Barthes on Charlie Chaplin as the “Primitive Proletarian”

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In 1984, Bernard Malamud gave an important talk at Bennington College – where he taught writing –which was entitled “Long Work, Short Life.”   In the talk, he tells the audience that he began to write at an early age. He told stories “for praise.” But his inspiration didn’t come from within; it came from the “movies”(Talking Horse, 26).   He remembers his first major encounter with film on a “wet Sunday.” And the film he saw was by Charlie Chaplin. Malamud tells the audience that the “comedy haunted my soul.”   Out of his experience of Chaplin, he recalls how he would retell the movies to his “school friends.” This retelling of Chaplin’s “impossible tale” gave him great pleasure (26).   Chaplin shares something with the schlemiel: they “live on air.” Malamud was familiar “with this kind of person from childhood”(82). The poor would dream big but, in the end, most of them – like many characters in Sholom Aliechem or I.L. Peretz – turned into peddlers (26).   Notice that, for Malamud, the economic aspect of Chaplin’s comedy – as with the schlemiel – is foregrounded. But it is his survival through a variety of nuanced gestures that inspires him to become a writer and tell the “impossible tale.”

Speaking of Chaplin’s performance in Modern Times (1936) , Roland Barthes says that “no socialist work has yet succeeded in expressing the humiliated condition of the worker with so much violence and generosity.” For Barthes, Chaplain plays a “kind of primitive proletarian.”

Chaplin has always been the proletarian under the guise of the poor man: hence the broadly human force of his representations but also their political ambiguity. (Mythologies, 39)

According to Barthes, Chaplin is a few cards short of a Marxist reading of the proletarian. This is evident, claims Barthes, in the fact that with Chaplin we find the “proletarian still blind and mystified, defined by the immediate character of his needs, and his total alienation at the hands of his masters (the employees and the police)”(39).   Chaplin plays the “hungry” proletarian and is “ensnared in his starvation,” but “Chaplin-Man is always just below political awareness”(39).

Chaplin-Man, according to Barthes, may rebel against machines, but he is “at a loss before strikes, fascinated by the problem of bread-winning….but as yet unable to reach a knowledge of political causes and an insistence of collective strategy”(39).

Barthes Marxist reading of Chaplin sees schlemiel comedy through the eyes of Bertolt Brecht:

Brecht alone, perhaps, has glimpsed the necessity, for socialist art, of always taking Man on the eve of Revolution, that is to say, alone, still blind, on the point of having his eyes opened to the revolutionary light by the ‘natural’ excess of his wretchedness. (40)

In other words, while Chaplin-Man is blind, we, the viewers, are not. We are exposed: “Chaplin, in conformity with Brecht’s idea, shows the public its blindness by presenting at the same time a man who is blind and what is in front of him”(40).

As in a “Punch and Judy show,” it is the “children who announce to Punch what he pretends to see”(40).   Barthes’ Brechtian reading of the schlemiel turns it into a political figure that shows how not to see.   But there is a twist that displaces this the negative Marxist reading and that is his act of defying the “ideal of the American petit-bourgeois”(40).  He does this by not acting like they do; by being the odd one out, “the slightest ensnarements are made harmless, and the man who is poor is cut off from temptation”(40). The “temptation” Barthes refers to is the temptation of the petit-bourgeois ideal.

The impossible story that Malamud retold to his friends finds an interesting analogue in Barthes final words on Chaplin. Barthes tells us that, although Chaplin is a primitive proletarian, his anarchy makes for the “most efficient form of revolution in the realm of art.”

He escapes from everything, eschews any kind of sleeping partner, and never invests in man anything but man himself. His anarchy, politically open to discussion, perhaps represents the most efficient form of revolution in the realm of art. (40)

What matters most here, as in many a Buster Keaton film, is the art of escape. He frees himself of the very things that could trap him in the world. And although he is “blind,” a thinker like Walter Benjamin would see this not a political sense, as Barthes or Brecht would, but in a mystical sense. Chaplin’s blindness enables him to defy the world and suspend the political in the name of what Jacques Derrida would call politics to come. Schlemiel comedy – vis-à-vis Chaplin, Keaton, Aleichem, etc – comedy shows us something that is beyond even the Marxist framework which Brecht used to typify all art.  Chaplin-Man is more than just a “primitive proletarian,” he is feeling toward another event; and, at each turn, meets with it by way of this or that unexpected turn of events.   His “anarchy” is built into the fact that he faces the unexpected turn with a blind tenacity and hope for something better.   But, contrary to Barthes and Brecht, the audience can’t see it either.

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