We love the cynical comedy of comedians like Louis CK. He scratches and sometimes plunges into the depths of despair in his comedy routines. And from time to time his pieces have philosophical resonance. He appropriates what I would call a “phenomenology of aging.” Although his work may resonate with the phenomenology of aging we find in Jean Amery, he doesn’t bring in the discourse of philosophy into his cynical routines.
When the two come together – as they do in Michel Houllebecq’s fiction – the reader can grasp what is philosophically at stake in cynical comedy. He is a European writer. And like Charles Baudelaire, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, and many (modernist) others, Houellebecq brings philosophy and cynicism (with teaspoons of comedy) into a nexus of intensity. But what would, for me, be a greater find is an American writer or comedian who can bring to bear the interplay of comedy, philosophy, and cynicism. My wish was recently granted when I came across a piece of short fiction by Delmore Schwartz entitled “Pleasure.”
Much like many fictional pieces in Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, the narrator in this piece – who is a comedian of sorts – makes use of cynicism to prompt the reader to ask questions about ideas he or she may take for granted. The narrator starts his routine as would a cynical stand up comedian but he slips into the kinds of words we might hear from an existential philosopher :
I come, I said, to be useful and to entertain. What else can one do? Between the acts something must be done to occupy our minds or we become to aware of our emptiness. It is true, we might converse with one another. But then we would learn again how little all of us have to say to each other. Love is not American. Neither is conversation, but that is exactly what I mean. (92, Selected Poems, Summer Knowledge)
The reader of this story, most likely an American (to whom Schwartz addressed all of his pieces), would be surprised to find that he accuses Americans of being incapable of love or conversation. It creates what Baudelaire would call spleen. And that is what a good stand up comedian can do. And this can either turn the audience against you or, if done carefully, win their attention.
Rejoining this, the narrator becomes self-deprecating. And this serves as a means of gaining sympathy back from the American reader:
One aught to be amusing, but unfortunately I know very few witty sayings, entertaining stories. I find that my idea of the comical is not, as they say, objective. (92)
His “idea” of comedy, nonetheless, is appealing to the reader. The narrator gives some examples of one-liners he has “invented” for “this occasion”: “ABC says to DEF: ‘Who was that lady I saw you with last night? DEF, offended by the lightness with which his passion is regarded, replies: “That was no lady, that was your wife!” But then he realizes that this joke makes him look too unserious. For this reason, he evokes Fichte – the German philosopher. But he tells a joke about his philosophy that hits at a subject he wants to mock, the “I” and the claim that “individuality is an abstraction” (made by Trotsky):
I recall the fact that Fichte drank champagne for the first time when his infant boy said “I” for the first time. (92)
Following this, he mocks the young Engels, as an upper-middle class “friend of the audience” who notes how cynicism is a disease produced by class conflict: The “most appalling evil produced class conflict was its corruption and degradation of the ruling class – barbarism, inexorable cynicism, contempt for all values on the part of those who enjoy the greatest benefits of society. (92)
He goes on to cynically contrast Engels’ contempt for the cynical byproduct of class conflict with Sophocles who says that “man is the most admirable of beings.” And he appends a cynical joke to this (which also mocks philosophical dialectics):
It is true. The most disgusting also, one ought to add. It is dialectical. The possibility of one means the possibility of the other. (92)
The possibility of man’s goodness and degradation by the class system lead him to turn his sights on the deeds of history in which man is trampled underfoot. His figuration takes on a question: “Hence, more and more facts are dragged on the stage, as this moving individual passes before the floodlights. Who knows, indeed, will there be sufficient room?”(92).
In other words, in our world of endless facts and information, humanity doesn’t have a chance. Man, the individual, seems to be pushed off stage. But he doesn’t seem to like Trotsky’s conclusion that man, as individual, is a meaningless abstraction perpetuated by the working class:
He is right and yet you know and so do I as we sit here in this theater….we both know that we cannot regard the warm identity beneath our faces as being no more than an abstraction. Man is always in the world, yes! Inconceivable apart from being surrounded by a greater whole than himself. (93)
But, he cynically thinks, man can detach himself from the world. That is man’s greatness. He need not remain in the world. But that may also be a curse since he many not be able to leave as he will die in the world he tries to escape from. That aside, the comedian narrator – faced with death and cynicism – calls out to pleasure. But he does so by way of a appealing to a kind of advertisement for pleasure:
Food, for example, improves the spirit, coffee consoles the soul. Most men, to quote again, live lives of quiet desperation, the victims, all of them, of innumerable intentions. Hence the enormous spiritual and emotional quality of food and drink. There is also tobacco and alcohol, although wine too is not American….A cup of coffee destroys your sadness. (93)
From praising coffee, he turns, poetically, to pleasure itself. His writing gives one the sense that he has left cynicism far behind for something that he can believe in:
To each age and each stage a special quality of satisfaction, enough for everyone, and enough for all time, no need to compete. States of being suffice. Let the handsome be familiar with the looking-glass…Let the unwarranted sadness come to an end, sound and fury signify a multiple enjoyments….Pleasure believes in friends, pleasure creates communities, pleasure crumbles faces into smiles, pleasure links hand to hand. (95)
But he ends on a cynical note:
And, yet, I know, all this is nothing, nothing consoles me, and our problem and pain are still before us. Let us continue to gaze upon it….Let us require of ourselves the strength and power to view ourselves and the heart of man with disgust. (95)
The “power to view ourselves and the heart of man with disgust” is something we see advocated by Michel Houellebecq and Charles Baudelaire. But what makes it different is that this cynical prayer comes from an American not a European. And it goes against the American grain because it is not satisfied with a cup of coffee or the “looking glass” of pleasure. In a society surfeited by images and Starbucks, one wonders how Schwartz’s narrator – and Schwartz himself – would fare. Schwartz’s cynicism seems to have driven him from the world. Ultimately, he lacked the “power” to give a sustained look at “the heart of man with disgust.” Neither coffee nor alcohol “destroyed his sadness.”