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.

Walking Like Charlie Chaplin and His Orphan Sister: On Delmore Schwartz’s Poem “Time’s Dedication”

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The poet Charles Baudelaire has written several poems in which the poetic voice or the narrator (of many prose pieces from Paris Spleen) wages a battle with TIME.  He wages his fight in the name of Timelessness and intoxication; however, many of those battles ring out with the sound of despair.  To be sure, Baudelaire was very pained by the fact that he had to constantly battle with time.  And, more importantly, he was all alone in this fight against Time.

Delmore Schwartz, no doubt, read Baudelaire.  And in many ways, he also struggled with Time.  However, he didn’t do it all alone.  In his poem “Time’s Dedication,” he calls on “you” the implied reader or some other to join him in this battle.  And, unlike Baudelaire, the battle doesn’t end in despair or tragedy.  Rather, it has a comic ending which includes a key reference to Charlie Chaplin (who, lest we not forget, Hannah Arendt saw as the last schlemiel of what she calls the ‘hidden tradition’).  Schwartz’s comic ending does what Baudelaire can’t: it redeems time by way of taking it away from the trajectory of death and realigns it with what Emmanuel Levinas would call the “time of the other.”  And what makes this so novel is that the poem is “time’s dedication” – not his.

“Time’s Dedication” starts off with a meditation on the self and its bout with the Time:

My heart beating, my blood running

The light brimming,

My mind moving, the ground turning,

My eyes blinking, the air flowing,

The clock’s quick-ticking

Time moving, time dying,

Time perpetually perishing!

Time is farewell! Time is farewell!

To be sure, the last words of this stanza bespeak the relation of time to death: Time will kill the poet.  However, the next stanza asks that an implied “you” stay with the voice of the poem and “stand still”:

Abide with me: do not go away,

But not as the dead who do not walk…

Quit the dance from which is flowing

Your blood and beauty: stand with me. 

But then the voice of the first stanza returns and insists that “we cannot stand still” because “time is dying” and “we are dying.”  This all translates into the same last words of the first stanza: “Time is farewell!”

In the face of this voice, the last stanza counters and insists that the voice obsessed with death and time to “wait for me”:

Stay then, stay! Wait now for me,

Deliberately, with care and circumspection,

Deliberately

Stop. 

This countering voice suggests that what “we” need to focus on, with deliberation, is “walking together.”  And this walking should be in a comic manner “like Chaplin and his orphan sister”:

Walking together,

Controlling our pace before we get old,

Walking together on the receding road,

Like Chaplin and his orphan sister,

Moving together through time to all good.

The last stanza suggests that “walking together” like “Chaplin and his orphan sister” – with their odd walk – is a manner of  “moving together through time to all good.”  Moving toward the good together is something we find in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III.  We also see it in Gimpel the fool who, it seems, is always walking toward the good even though it doesn’t seem to be in sight.  These characters, it seems, are not affected by a fatalistic approach to death.  They avoid it by way of trusting the other and the good.

The idea that one is moving toward the good, as the future, appears in Emmanuel Levinas’s work.  To be sure, he ends his book Totality and Infinity with a section entitled “Being as Goodness – The I – Pluralism – Peace.”

Goodness does not radiate over the anonymity of a collectivity presenting itself panoramically, to be absorbed into it.  It concerns a being which is revealed in a face, but thus it does not have eternity without commencement.  (305)

The word “commencement” is interesting as it suggest a meeting and a movement of two people.  Levinas goes on to describe goodness as an “absolute adventure” which is “transcendence itself.”  But this is the not the transcendence of an isolated “I.”  Rather, “transcendence or goodness is produced as pluralism” and it “proceeds” from me to you.   Elsewhere, Levinas calls this relation of goodness the “time of the other.”

What I like about Schwartz’s poem is the fact that it is “time’s dedication.”  The poem is dedicated to the poet by the time of the other.  And it ends with that time rather than dedicating it to the time of the self and death.  Most importantly, this dedication is translated into a comedic kind of walking down the road.  It isn’t exactly “heroic” in the Heideggarian sense of being-toward-death; rather, it is innocent and naïve.

This poem suggests that Schwartz would rather you “wait” for the poet than rush off to death.  And once you arrive, we can walk off together “like Chaplin and his orphan sister through time…toward the good.”

Walter Benjamin’s Messianic Butterflies

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In his introductory essay to Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood around 1900 entitled “Hope in the Past,” Peter Szondi argues that, in his belief that the past held the secret of the future, Benjamin became a schlemiel of sorts.  To illustrate, Szondi cites one of the passages in which Benjamin remembers his childhood experience of a party, when the rooms of his home were filled with “something…impalpable, slippery, and ready at any instant to strangle those around whom it played.”  Commenting on this passage, Szondi says that Benjamin’s metaphors bring together “the present and the future, the premonitions of the child and the knowledge of the grown man.”  As I have pointed out many times, often in relation to Walter Benjamin, a schlemiel is half-man/half-child; the schlemiel passes between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  What Szondi adds to my reflections on Benjamin is the claim that in going back to the past, in becoming a child, Benjamin was able to bring together the “present and the future.”   In other words, by becoming a child – and recording these reflections – Benjamin was not simply trying to understand himself; rather, he was trying to relate to his future and, to be sure, a messianic future shared by all.

Szondi suggests that Benjamin is close to Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire on this note because, in his search for “time past,” he is looking for the “disappearance of time.”  I would add, however, that this is not simply a search.  Drawing on Gershom Scholem’s reading of the Apocalyptic and Utopian elements of “The Messianic Idea,”  I would argue that Benjamin was looking for something that would “smash” history (as Scholem puts it) and expose him to something free of time.  For Scholem, what is free of time is…anarchic freedom.

And what better figure for freedom is there than a Butterfly?

Butterflies wander freely around space.  They move from thing to thing and aren’t touched by time or history.  To be sure, Benjamin was without a doubt familiar with Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Les Phares” (“Beacons”).  The poem begins by invoking a symbolist kind of garden.  And in each stanza, Baudelaire evokes several great artists such as Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo, Puget, Watteau, Goya, and Delacroix:

Rubens, garden of idleness watered by oblivion,

Where the quick flesh pillows the impotence of dreams,

Where life’s affluence writhes in eddying abandon.

Like air in the air, or water on streams.

The stanza on Watteau invokes butterflies:

Watteau, carnival where many a distinguished soul

Flutters like a butterfly, lost in the brilliance

Of chandeliers shedding frivolity on the cool,

Clear decors enclosing the changes in the dance.

Watteau, in this stanza, is associated with the carnival where “many a distinguished soul flutters like a butterfly, lost in brilliance.”   Besides acrobats, jugglers, and side show performers, we often find the clown.  And one of Watteau’s most famous series of paintings takes Commedia del Arte as their subject. One of the most famous of these, is his painting of Pierrot.   What I find so interesting about this painting is that the subject – a man-child – is separated from the others.  And his body, dress, and gaze are off.  Baudelaire, no doubt, was aware of this work, and wrote about it in his famous essay “The Painter of Modern Life.”

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What I find of interest is the fact that – for Baudelaire – people become like butterflies around this comic figure, lose their sense of time, and wander through space.  With this in mind, I read Walter Benjamin’s reflection on Butterflies, hoping to find what Szondi calls “omens of the future in the past” by way of becoming childlike (and, to some extent, like a clown).

Benjamin’s reflection on butterflies, in The Berlin Childhood around 1900, is entitled “Butterfly Hunt.”  Benjamin starts off his reflection by remembering “the beginnings of his butterfly collection.”  He goes on to provide a detailed description of some of these butterflies.  Following this, Benjamin remembers his movements which, to be sure, merge the present and the past and provide an opening on to the future.  And the main crux of these reflections points back to his own activity: to capture that which is fleeting from the past in the present so that it can be a sign for the future.  The butterflies take on the figure of this ephemera and, in a way, mark something almost “pre” and “post” historic”:

They would flutter toward a blossom, hover over it.  My butterfly net upraised, I stood waiting only for the spell that the flowers seemed to cast on the pair of wings to have finished its work, when all of a sudden the delicate body would glide off sideways with a gentle buffeting of the air, to cast its shadow – motionless as before – over another flower, which just as suddenly it would leave without touching.  (51)

As he follows the Butterfly move from flower to flower, Benjamin loses his sense of time.   He experiences freedom…a kind of experience that is like that of a dandy (moving from thing to thing and from space to space effortlessly).  But, as this happens, it seems he has forgotten to capture it.  But then he remembers his task to “capture” the butterfly and feels “as if” the Butterfly has made a “fool of me through its hesitations, vacillations, and delays.”  In response, Benjamin becomes a hunter by virtue of losing his identity as a man.  He becomes-a-butterfly in order to capture the butterfly. But this is not a simple act of hunting a butterfly; as Benjamin describes it, this act of becoming breaches the limits of the human:

Between us, now, the old law of the hunt took hold: the more I strove to conform, in all the fibers of my being, to the animal – the more butterfly-like I became in my heart and soul – the more this butterfly itself, in everything it did took on the color of human volition; and in the end, it was as if its capture was the price I had to pay to regain my human existence. (51)

What follows this capture, more or less, is a recording of how Benjamin became a “man” who had subdued his prey and gained new knowledge:  “His lust for blood had diminished and his confidence was grown all the greater”(52).

Instead of seeing this as the narrative of his movement toward maturity, I would like to suggest that Benjamin took the moment of following the butterfly and becoming the butterfly – while fearing that he may not come back to humanity – as the messianic moment in the text.  In this moment, Benjamin frees himself of the human while, at the same time, reflecting on it.  He has, in a sense, captured this moment of oscillation between the human and the non-human which, as Giorgio Agamben has argued in The Open (and elsewhere), has messianic resonance.

That said, how does this all connect to the fool, the butterfly, Watteau, and Baudelaire’s poem?  I would like to suggest that Benjamin was aware of Baudelaire’s “butterfly’ and understood how it was likened to the people who were amused at the circus.  These people get lost in what they say and move from thing to thing.  Of the things that fascinate them most, we find the clown or man-child. What he does is similar to what Benjamin does, he reflects back to them their deepest desire which is a desire to be free of Time and history.

Although Scholem associated this messianic moment with smashing history, Benjamin (at least during one point of his reflections) believed that, in becoming-a-butterfly (by becoming a child), one could, for a brief moment, gracefully touch upon this messianic moment.  However, as Benjamin notes, it also paved the way for his manhood.  The risk of capturing the butterfly is that, as Benjamin notes, a “price” must be paid. For him, the price of knowledge and manhood is the experience of timelessness and the sense that, in becoming a messianic butterfly, one may not come back to humanity.

When we watch the fool or schlemiel lose himself (as Sholem Aleichem’s Motl does with nature, Singer’s Gimpel with trust, etc) do we also experience that moment which is suspended between childhood and adulthood as well as between the human and the inhuman?  Is our “post-historical” hope (our future) locked up in this “pre-historic” past?

Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufmann and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part III)

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The last two targeting theories I’d like to look at, before I address Emmauel Levinas, Philip Roth, and Andy Kaufman come from Charles Baudelaire and Paul deMan who, apparently, follows in Baudelaire’s comic footsteps.   (I have written several blogs on Baudelaire and deMan’s reading of comedy.  What I look to do here is to summarize their views and to distinguish their approaches to a Levinas-ian one.)

Like many of the other theorists we have seen so far, the 19th century French Symbolist poet Charles Baudeliare, in his “The Essence of Laughter,” associated what he called “essential laughter” with Satanic superiority and human fallen-ness.  The target of this laughter is innocence and the result of this laughter is a kind of double consciousness of oneself in terms of otherness.  The consciousness of the Satanic – double consciousness – is sufficient to overcome and use the Satanic for social progress because, for Baudelaire, it marks a superiority over nature (one’s one and the world’s). However, in laughing at the fallen, one also feels a loss.  Both are incorporated into one’s consciousness and, taken together, they are for Baudeliare part and parcel of being modern.  The best examples Baudelaire gives come from the world of mime and the comic/horrific world of ETA Hoffman.

The element of blindness and naivite, which is found in the subject of any comic routine, act, joke, or passage, is the key to understanding the Satanic.  With respect to the mime, Baudelaire sees the movements of the mime as bringing out a blindness and a disregard for the civil (but this disregard is blind). We laugh at this disregard for the world and, at the same time, its falleness.  We identify with the excessive and odd gesturing of the mime, yet, at the same time, by laughing at the mime’s gestures we are indicating that we are superior.  And this marks our identification and dis-identification, our double consciousness that one is and one is not caught up in a kind of gestural fallen-ness.

But the fact that Baudeliare turns to the example of fallen-ness that comes to us by way of the German writer ETA Hoffman (as the final example) indicates that something is missing in the mime example.  What’s missing is a greater appreciation of how innocence and its loss play the main role in essential laughter.  The story that interests Baudelaire involves the laughter at a little girl’s shock at learning that the soldiers she has idealized are, ultimately, animal-like.  It is her father, a “magician,” who brings her to this profane revelation.  Her shock at fallen-ness and our laughter at it illustrate, for Baudelaire, our Satanic sensibility.  He calls it a kind of madness, a vertigo at this or that loss.  However, as Baudelaire argues, this madness is followed by a moral awareness of how laughter can be used for progress.  We go into the world with a, so to speak, tainted understanding of our “superiority.”  It is far from perfect and works by way of shocking the innocent.  Nonetheless, without such superiority over nature man would have no meaning.

Further to this last point, Baudelaire’s prose piece, “A Heroic Death,” shows us that laughter is far from progressive and positive; it also creates a wedge between the real artist and the artist of consumption.  The cynical conclusion of this piece is that the consumer, so to speak, has the last laugh while we, the readers, lose our innocence as we are exposed to the cruel truth that power is greater than “real” art (in this case the art of a comic mime).

In “A Heroic Death,” it is the Prince, a being in the position of the power, who embodies the Satanic-comic life.   He is the ultimate consumer.   After he learns that the comic mime (jester) has plotted to kill him with other nobles, he puts him into a test where the Mime has to make the performance of a lifetime.  When he, as Baudelaire notes, becomes one with the symbol and effaces the line between himself and what he is performing, he gives the audience something of a revelation.  They are all enraptured and “intoxicated” with what they see.

However, the Prince is troubled because he loses all of the attention of the people.  The comic mime wins their attention and, in effect, robs the Prince of his power.  In response, he laughs at the true artist who steals his power and this, in effect, leads to the mime’s pathetic (not heroic death).  To be sure, it is the artist and the correlation of acting and symbolism that are the target of modern Satanic laughter.  And we can have no doubt that Baudelaire identified with the comic mime who, in the end, although bearing the truth by way of comedy, is the target of power.  The “real artist” loses, while the artist-as-consumer wins.  The death of the mime is something of a premonition of reality TV since the Prince sees the mime’s acting under duress as a form of entertainment.  As the narrator of “A Heroic Death” tells us the prince turns to entertainment to eliminate his worst enemy: Boredom.  The murder of the artist – by way of Satanic laughter – is in the name of amusement.  It has entertainment value.  This disturbing conclusion shows that, for Baudelaire, the target of humor in the modern world is the artist.  Even s/he cannot escape the daemonic.  S/he becomes its target.

Paul DeMan’s challenge to us, today, is to argue that irony and comedy turn the target back on oneself.  Reading Baudealire, deMan sees humor as leading to madness.   But the madness he looks at is not simply the madness that the girl in the ETA Hoffman story experiences or the madness we witness at the failure of the mime’s art in “A Heroic Death.”  According to deMan, we don’t discover the Satanic in what Baudelaire called “essential laughter” so much as the nothingness of oneself.   Comedy shares nothing inter-subjective with the other.  It has no meaning save the destruction of meaning.  That is what DeMan calls the “irony of ironies.”  Meaning, the self, and the inter-subjective are, for deMan, the targets of irony.

For deMan, what we find in the wake of the Prince’s Satanic laughter, so to speak, is the abyss.  The best things humanity has to emulate – innocence, hope, and art – are the targets.   And the elimination of these targets leaves one alone, abandoned, speechless, and cynical.

I would like to suggest that Levinas’s interest in the relation to the other can be understood as a challenge to deMan and to the tradition of comic judgment and targeting.   As Levinas notes in several of his texts, the notion of the isolated consciousness and “essance” – which deMan and the other comic theorists we have discussed, return us to by way of laughter – are challenged by way of the other.  In relation to the other, I am vulnerable, exposed.  I cannot separate my consciousness from the other.  Using hyperbole, Levinas argues that we must use an “amphiblology” when speaking of our relation to the other because we are assymetically related to the other.  Our words cannot approximate our relation to the other; they fall short of what he, elsewhere, calls infinity.   Our signification in relation to the other is Saying.  And, as I would argue, it is comical.  In relation to the other, we are comical but we are not alone.  The comedy is in the relation and not in the act of targeting.

We risk ourselves when we relate to the other who can accept or reject our love or care.  We are, as Levinas says, “traumatized” and “inspired” by the other.   Although Levinas sees this as a very serious affair, the fact of the matter is that comedy can expose us to vulnerability. More importantly, it can expose the audience to its violence against the other.  Through comedy, we can bear witness to being traumatized and inspired by the other.  But, as I’d like to show in the next few blog entries, this witnessing can invert the targeting that is, as we have seen above, part and parcel of nearly every theory of comedy from Aristotle to deMan.

We can see the oscillation of the comic target in relation to what Phillip Roth would call the tradition of “sit down” comedy and to Andy Kaufmann’s “stand-up” comedy.   In the next blog entries, I’d like to contrast the two so as to show how the schlemiel, as a comic character, can be read in terms of traditional theories of comedy which lay emphasis on targets and superiority and to a Levinasian way of reading comedy – one which looks to show how the comic target is inverted by the other.

Who has the Last Word? Power or Comedy? On Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death”

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In our culture, comedians are cultural icons and, from time to time, they even come to influence public opinion.  Most recently, for instance, Jon Stewart’s parody of Egyptian President Mursi and the jailing of a comedian reached Mursi and caused a stir.  Sara Silverman, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert have also looked to use comedy to influence politics.  This trend, in fact, goes back to the Enlightenment where Satire was used quite often to influence public opinion and shape political debate.

As Leo Strauss, Peter Gay, and others have pointed out, satire (of the Enlightenment variety) errs on the side of the secular.  It has nothing holy about it.  Charles Baudelaire, however, had a different understanding of comedy and its relation to power.  Rather than put Satire into a conflictual relationship with power, he put the fool in such a relationship.

We see this best in his prose piece, “A Heroic Death.” In his prose piece, Baudelaire puts the fool in a battle with power.  To say that this battle is cosmic would not be an understatement.  To be sure, if one were to take the time to read his journals in tandem with his poetry and prose, one would see that Baudelaire was always looking to evoke and think through the conflict between the sacred and the profane.   More importantly, Baudelaire saw this conflict best pronounced in the fool and by way of irony.

“A Heroic Death” shows us that the tension between art (and for Baudeliare, as for Kierkegaard and Schlegel, comedy was the quintessence of art) and power was one of his greatest preoccupations.  We would be amiss if we were to think that Walter Benjamin, in his studies of Baudelaire, had simply missed this.  To be sure, the tension between comedy and power is something that Benjamin thought about – particularly, in his work on Kafka – right up to his untimely death.

By way of a close reading of Baudelaire’s prose piece, I hope to show what is at stake in the tension between comedy (art) and power.  Moreover, I hope to show how Baudelaire took this tension and its outcome personally.  I’d like to suggest that we also take it personally since, as the prose piece shows, it hits directly on the modern condition that we are all-to-familiar with, a condition that Baudelaire constantly addressed.

Baudelaire begins his prose piece by noting that Fancioulle, “an admirable buffoon and almost like one of the Prince’s friends,” got involved with a “conspiracy” with “certain discontented nobles in the court” to overthrow the Prince.  The narrator, waxing philosophical, observes that “for men whose profession is to be funny, serious things have a fatal attraction.”  In other words, the narrator believes that comedy may likelly lead the fool to politics and thus fatality.  This observation, and the opening plot of the story, suggest that politics and comedy are strange bedfellows.  When they collide, there will be a life and death battle.  “A Heroic Death” illustrates this.

The narrator tells us that once the Prince discovers the plot, “all of them faced certain death.”

But after saying this, the narrator pauses to consider the Prince and his reaction to learning that Fancioulle was a part of the plot.  In this pause, we learn about what kind of person the Prince is.

According to the narrator, the Prince was a lover of entertainment.  In fact, his desire for entertainment has no bounds: “having an excessive sensibility he was in general far more cruel than his fellows.”

To be sure, the Prince was so cruel in his pursuit of pleasure that he was “indifferent enough in regard to men and morals.”  Setting up the battle that will ensue between the Prince and the fool, the narrator calls the Prince “a real artist.”  This suggests that the consumer of art, who will bypass morality and humanity to be entertained, is a “real artist.”  This ironic statement should be disturbing.  First of all, the Prince doesn’t produce art he consumes it.  How, then, could he be called an artist (a person who “makes things” – a technes in Greek)? More importantly, the narrator tells us that a “real artist” is deemed to be someone who disregards morality and humanity.  This means that the “real artist” has no interest in helping or in inspiring humanity to pursue justice. This artist is not interested in art for art’s sake so much as consumption for the sake of ending or at least differing Boredom.

When the narrator points out that the Prince’s most “dreaded” enemy is Boredom, the reader may realize that he or she has a lot in common with the Prince.  In fact, like us, the Prince would go “to extravagant efforts to vanquish or outwit this tyrant of the world.”  These efforts would win the prince the “epithet of ‘monster’” if, in fact, anyone in the Kingdom were allowed to write what they really thought about him and his ways.

The narrator, in a sarcastic manner, notes that the “misfortune of the Prince was in not having a stage vast enough for his own genius.”   This genius is, obviously, Satanic.  And a vaster stage would mean the world.  This discloses the desire of the Prince: to turn the world into a reality TV show of sorts – a laboratory for his perpetual amusement.

The narrator spells this out when he reflects on how the Prince decided to let Fancioulle live and perform for him.  This clemency, the narrator muses, was not simply because the fool was the Prince’s friend.   The narrator said it would be “nice” to believe this; however, he notes:

It was infinitely more probable that the Prince wanted to test the value of the histrionic talent of a man condemned to die.  He wanted to profit by this occasion to make a physiological experiment of a capital interest, to find out to what extent an artist’s faculties might be challenged or modified as extraordinary as this.

The narrator muses to himself as to whether or not the Prince had a “more or less definite idea of mercy”; this, he says, “is a point that has never been clarified.”  This musing hits on the question of good and evil.  With the Prince, this remains a question.  However, the fool, for the narrator, is different.

The fool bespeaks the best in humanity.  And he does this by way of his art.  And this is where the battle ensues; namely, over the question “who is the real artist – the Prince or the Fool?”

The narrator makes this question explicit when he differentiates between a “good actor” and the exceptional actor:

When people say of the actor: ‘What a good actor,’ they are using an expression which implies that beneath the character they can still distinguish the actor, that is to say, art, effort, volition.  But if an actor should succeed in being, in relation to the part he played, what the best statues of antiquity, if miraculously animated they lived, walked and saw, would be in relation to the confused idea of beauty, that would indeed by a singular case and altogether unheard of.

The narrator then tells us that “Fancioulle was that night just such a perfect idealization, so that one could not help believing in the impersonation as alive, possible and real.”

In other words, Fancioulle is the epitome of the “real artist.”  He effaces the line between the real and the ideal.  He is laughter, beauty, comedy, and tragedy in the flesh.  He is holy and the narrator tells us that he, unlike anyone else, can see that the fool has an aura:

The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, and lashed into fury, with always about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all, but visible to me, that blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the glory of Martyrdom.

The narrator further testifies to this revelation when he notes how, in recording this experience, his pen “trembles and tears of an emotion that has never left him.”  In watching the fool, he has found certainty and faith. He realizes that art is greater than death:

Fancioulle proved to me in the most preemptory, the most irrefutable way, that the intoxication of Art is more apt than any other to veil the terrors of the eternal abyss.

But here is the twist.

The Prince notices that the whole audience, like the narrator, is intoxicated.  More importantly, he realizes that he has lost his power over his subjects.  The narrator notes this change when he remembers how the Prince’s face changes: “a new palor spread like snow falling upon snow.”

The narrator notices, in the midst of this, how the Prince whispers to one of his pages and, within a few moments, a “shrill prolonged hiss” is heard.  Upon hearing this hiss, the fool is awakened from his dream, shocked, and his performance ends, literally, with his death.

The end of the prose piece is fascinating because the narrator, instead of lamenting what he saw, poses several questions about whether the Prince knew the hiss would kill the fool.  He wonders whether or not he did it as a prank and whether the Prince regretted what he did: “It is sweet and legitimate to hope so.”

However, the narrator and the attentive reader will realize that regardless of this “sweet” thought, the fool lost the battle and the Real Artist is the Prince.

Baudelaire’s mediation on art is melancholic and autobiographical.  This prose piece is, in many ways, an Oracle of sorts.  It teaches us that he believed that if comedy is put in a battle with Power and politics, power and Entertainment will win.  Reflecting on ourselves, can we say that reality television and its cruel battle with boredom have displaced the art of the “Real Artist”? Each and every one of us, it seems, is the Prince.  And, like him, we will go to any lengths to be entertained and destroy our worst enemy, Boredom.  And, as Reality Television makes clearly evident, all of humanity, the world , is our laboratory.

Nonetheless, the merit of the fool is to give the narrator “evidence” that comedy can be revelatory.   He witnessed this possibility, but he also witnessed its end.   Will we ever see a fool like Fancioulle?  Can we hope for a religious and revelatory kind of comedy?  Can we say that the schlemiel is such a holy fool or is there a distinct difference between Baudelaire’s fool and the Jewish fool?   Did Baudelaire’s holy fool die “a heroic death” or was he murdered for the sake of Amusement (or jealousy)?

Perhaps Baudelaire was saying that the holy fool (not Satire) should steer clear of the political, for if it does not it will find a similar fate.  Like Fancioulle, entertainment and power will win and the holy fool (artist) will lose. The narrator’s sad tone, implies that boredom and the will-to-entertainment are too powerful.  They cannot be defeated.  Or so it seems.  After all, he did have the evidence of the Holy Fool.  But he also saw that Holy Fool murdered.  Nonetheless, he says, it would be “sweet” to think that the Prince was merciful on the fool.  Indeed, it would be “sweet” but its not.   In the end, the real and the ideal remain separate.  And why?

Because the Prince, who loves nothing more than to kill Boredom, killed the Fool. He killed someone who, as the narrator says in the beginning, may have been his friend.

Destroying Toys With Jacques Derrida and Charles Baudelaire

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In “The Philosophy of Toys,” Baudelaire writes of how the “overriding desire” of children is to destroy their toys so as to get at the soul of each toy:

The overriding desire of most children is to get and see the soul of their toys, some at the end of a period of use, others straightaway.  It is on the more or less swift invasion of this desire that depends the length of life of a toy.  I don’t find it in me to blame this infantile mania; it is a first metaphysical tendency.  When this desire is implanted itself in the child’s cerebral marrow, it fills his fingers and nails with an extraordinary agility and strength.  The child twists and turns his toy, scratches it, shakes it bumps it against walls, throws it on the ground….

But in the midst of destruction, Baudelaire tells us that there emerges a question:

But where is the soul?  This is the beginning of melancholy and gloom.

Contrast this to the celebrated French Philosopher Jacques Derrida’s portrayal of his “overriding desire” – in his book The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud to Beyond.  It brings him into contact with toys which he, like Baudelaire’s child, destroys:

In effect I believe that the idea imposes itself, this is indeed the word, in any event imposes itself upon me and I want it (want it horribly, flight, no, to enclose myself in a book project, to deploy all possible ruses and a maximum of consciousness, intelligence…while remaining…enclosed in this puerile (and masculine) enclosure of naivete, like a little boy in a playpen, with his construction toys.  That I spend the clearest part of my time taking them to pieces and throwing them overboard changes nothing essential in the matter.  I would still like to be admired and loved, to be sent back a good image of my facility for destruction and for throwing far away from me these rattles and pieces of tinkertoy), finally you will tell me why I still want all this.

Derrida’s destruction of toys is different from Baudelaire’s child.  He destroys them because he wants to be loved in “your” absence.  This “you,” in this passage, sounds like his mother.  He relates to her absence, to his desire for her, by destroying toys.  And he wants this as his image.  He wants “to be sent back a good image of my facility for destruction and throwing far away from me these rattles and pieces of tinkertoy.”

He says that he destroys toys for her “in order to prepare in your absence what I will give you on your return, at the end of time. What is it?”

Yes, indeed, what is it?  What will he give the absent mother when she returns?  It seems as if he has destroyed all of the toys she has given him.

What could this imply?  Is the destruction of the toy-gift a destruction of that which distracts the child for the mother’s absence?  And, on the contrary, wouldn’t the destruction of the toy do the opposite?

Instead of preparing the child for the mother’s absence, the destruction of the toy would expose the child to the mother’s absence.  And when I hear Derrida ask, regarding what gift he will give her upon her “return at the end of time,” I cannot help but hear a man-child’s impotent rage.

It seems as if Derrida is being very sarcastic and angry here.  Instead of Baudelaire’s child who sinks into melancholy and gloom, Derrida-as-man-child becomes mad.

Juxtapose this Derrida to the Derrida who celebrates play, the Derrida who plays with texts as if they were toys, and what you might find is the other – less playful – side of deconstruction.  Madness, it seems, is the remainder of this exercise in toy destruction since it is the mother, after all, who gives Derrida the toys to play with in her absence.  And now there is nothing – that is, there is no toy – that can distract him from her “betrayal.”

Derrida is, on the one hand, like the shocked child that Baudelaire sees as exemplary of the Absolute Comic.  But, unlike her, he is not in a stupor.  Derrida is mad.  He knows he has been duped.  And we are reminded of this by the fact that he has broken all of his toys and thrown them outside of his playpen.

And, although this seems different from the melancholy and gloom that Baudelaire refers to in the wake of discovering that the toy has no soul (that the soul is absent), the fact of the matter is that Derrida has ejected broken toy fragments away from him.  Nonetheless, they lay around his crib like melancholic ruins.  What he wants “back” (in return for his destruction) is an image of himself as a toy destroyer.  It is, what I noted in relation to Benjamin, a souvenir of sorts.

This is part and parcel of the man-child’s “overriding desire.”

I’ll close this blog entry with a 1935 Walt Disney Animation entitled “Broken Toys.”

The Schlemiel and Horror, or Zero Mostel on the Muppet Show

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Zero Mostel z”l (1915-1977), in this brilliant segment from a 1977 episode of the Muppet Show, laughs at the Horror genre (or I would argue, getting spooked by crisis theory). What better example do we have of the laugh that laughs at the (satanic) laugh (or smile)?

This is, as my father’s friend David Kaplan z’l, used to say: “Top notch!”

Zero Mostel was one of the greatest stars in the history of Yiddish theater and performance!  He moved hundreds of thousands of people to laughter and tears.  Mostel was certainly a (perhaps ‘the’?) King of Comedy.   He was a real schlemiel whose performances show us how impassioned physical comedy – though caught up in schlemiel dreams – can trump fantasies of terror and catastrophe.  The fantasies he plays with are the fantasies of fear, terror, and transgression; the fantasies that Baudelaire and Poe found so titillating.

By performing 1,001 terrors, filtered through all his “wide eyed” gestures, Mostel caricatures horror, fear, and spirit possession in a matter of minutes.

Instead of tricking us into being horrified, as Baudelaire believed the “Absolute Comic” should, Mostel tricks horror into being ridiculous.  And he does it in the best place one can to placate horror with comedy: The Muppet Show.

Horror is equivalent to formless Muppet dolls attacking Zero Mostel and driving him Mad.

Does Zero Mostel tear us from fear? Does he defeat it?  Or do Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire have the last word?