Two Bodies of Comedy: On Friedrich Nietzsche & Robert Walser’s Bodies of Comedy

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Nietzsche was obsessed with the relationship of the body to thought.   And whenever he articulated his reading of the body, he always made sure to put it forth in what Peter Sloterdijk (winking at Diogenes) called a “cheeky” manner.  He looked to offend and this gesture, for Nietzsche, was healthy.    In the beginning of his book, Ecce Homo, he assesses his health in a cheeky manner. He looks to what he has taken, physiologically, from his mother and father* and what this means to his personal (“unique”) fate:

The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old.  The dual descent, as it were, both from the highest and the lowest rung of the ladder of life, at the same time, decadent and a beginning….I have a subtler sense of smell for the signs of ascent and decline than any other human being before me; I am the teacher par excellence for this –  I know both, I am both.  (222, Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo).

These claims to being the “teacher par excellence for this” are outrageous.  They are meant to be.  He wants to be challenged.  And he doesn’t stop on the first page to demonstrate how much he knows about the relationship of the body to thinking. Throughout Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the body and its relation to thought and power (or decadence). He takes any tendency to “dialectic” as a “symptom of decadence” and cites Socrates as a sick thinker.   But he is only one enemy, the other is the moral enemy who asks us to pity or feel for the other:

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as “Zarathustra’s temptation.” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself.  (228)

The “proof” of his strength is to be found in a rejection not just of pity but a kind of humor that goes along with it.  This kind of humor is the anti-thesis of the humor he employs in his endless satire and cheekiness.  He sees this cheekiness as poetic.  His model for this is not just the cynic Diogenes (Nietzsche calls himself the “medical cynic”); it is also Heinrich Heine:

The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine…He possessed the divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection: I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive of god apart from the satyr. (247)

Nietzsche saw the health of Heine’s poetry to be associated with his sarcasm. Heine’s strength could be “measured” by the strength of the opponents he chose to target in his satire: “The strength of those who attack can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent”(232).

The irony of Nietzsche’s interest in Heine is brought out in the fact that Heine was, according to Hannah Arendt, not just interested in satire.  He was also interested in the schlemiel, a comic character that Nietzsche would find to be unhealthy and weak since, through its charm, it called on the reader to laugh in a way that was not satirical.

Hannah Arendt saw Charlie Chaplin as the last in a long line of schlemiels that were first introduced into the German bloodstream by Heine.  His vulnerable and clumsy comic subjects of schlemieldom were poor and simple, not clever and cheeky in the Nietzschean sense.

Robert Walser, who had a major influence on Kafka’s fiction, was fascinated with comic characters who many would find pitiable but charming.   They present another body of comedy which, to be sure, differs significantly from Nietzsche’s body of comedy.   In his short story, “Helbling’s  Story,” Walser has the narrator, Helbling, give his view on himself and work world he has decided to enter.  He is the everyman (who Nietzsche despised) and yet he is different in a way that sets him not a height so much as on a comical plane of existence:  “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31).    He finds it strange because he realizes that, unlike them, he is, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), unable to work or be like them.

 

He tells us that he is not cut out for work.  He’s too fragile and slow.  Like many a schlemiel, he is belated:

I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as being not nearly so delectable and refined.  How can that be so?  It is just as if one were not coarse enough for this life.  It is in any case an obstacle which hinders me from distinguishing myself, for when I have a task to perform, let’s say, I always take thought for half an hour, sometimes for a whole one. (32)

His body, when he works, is comical.   Like Chaplin’s body, it can’t keep up and ends up gesticulating in all different directions:

A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I noticed that I am being scornfully observed, or I twiddle my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, and push the hair back from my forehead, as if my task lay in that, and not in the sheet of paper which lies before me, outspread, on the desk. 

He can’t seem to stay on task.  He seems to be constantly distracted.  And when he is called a “dreamer and a lazybones,” he refuses to accept these descriptions: 

Perhaps I have the wrong profession, and yet I confidently believe that in any profession I would be the same, do the same, and fail in the same way…People call me a dreamer and a lazybones.  What a talent people have for giving me the wrong labels.  (32)

But when he reflects, he realizes that he is a simpleton:

I do not know if I have an intellect, and I can hardly claim to believe that I have, for I have been convinced that I behave stupidly whenever I am given a task which requires understanding and acumen….I have a quantity of clever, beautiful, subtle thoughts; but as soon as I apply them, they fail and desert me, and I am left standing there like an ignorant apprentice. (33)

Unlike Nietzsche’s body of comedy, he doesn’t aim to always win and overpower.  He is, a Michel Serres would say, “inventing weakness” and is calling on us to pity him.  But when he messes up he does so with such charm that we, like millions who were adored by Charlie Chaplin, forgive him.   But Nietzsche would not.

While the body of comedy that Nietzsche favors is tough, invulnerable, rude, and on the offensive, the body of Walser’s comedy is vulnerable, weak, flexible, and self-deprecating.  It fumbles and stumbles when it has to do a task and, for that reason, is more human.  Nietzsche’s body of comedy is that of the overman who looks down at the world it came from and laughs a laugh of health and defiance.  It laughs, as Zarathustra did, from the mountaintops; not from the valley.


 

*Compare Nietzsche’s reading of the relationship of his father and mother legacy to his fate, to that of Gene Wilder (which, to be sure, is completely different because Wilder frames his birth in terms of the schlemiel not the healthy overman.)

 

 

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