A Map of Misreading: Paul deMan’s (Mis)reading of Madness in Baudelaire’s “Essay on Laughter.”

DownloadedFile

One can tell a lot about an author by virtue of things that he or she mentions and highlights in his or her writings.  Charles Baudelaire, a poet and an incredibly talented prose writer, was fully aware of what is at stake in an essay.  And he knew full well that the final “notes” of any essay should hit on the main point.

To be sure, Baudelaire’s essay on laughter ends on a positive note.  There, he points out that the Absolute Comic, which is best illustrated in the work of ETA Hoffman, evinces man’s superiority over nature.  And that all laughter, all comedy, is inter-subjective and shared by human beings.  Baudelaire’s reading of laughter is amplified and given exquisite detail by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who, like Baudelaire, sees an intersubjective element of comedy which is based on the superiority of élan vital over the mechanical.  Laughter, for Bergson, is equated with life and becoming (not stasis and empty repetition).  And like Baudelaire, Bergson emphasizes the progressive aspects of comedy.

However, Baudelaire doesn’t arrive at such a view without a few misgivings.  It must be noted that, earlier in the essay, Baudelaire points out that the significant comic and the laughter that attends it do in fact manifest a kind of (Satanic) madness of superiority.  And, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, he also notes that comic madness is diametrically opposed to the madness of humility.  Nonetheless, he argues that, in the end, man’s sense of himself as different from nature may manifest madness, but, ultimately, this madness is mitigated by the Absolute comic.

To be sure, Baudelaire says that since the madness of humility is no longer an option for modern society, all nations must become pure by way of a madness that asserts superiority over nature.  And comedy is the means to achieving such an intersubjective “purification.”

In other words, comedy, for Baudelaire, is a “good” thing.  As Baudelaire notes in his description of mimes like Pierrot, the laughter evoked by the Absolute Comic is intoxicating.  It enlivens the crowd and produces joy.

There is one problem.

As I mentioned above, Baudelaire notes, early on, that the comic is Satanic.  He points out that it is a manifestation of fallen-ness.  But by the time he finishes the essay, this is no longer the main issue.  Baudelaire decided that it was more important to emphasize man’s inter-subjective superiority over nature than to emphasize fallen-ness, madness, and the Satanic.

Paul deMan, in his essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” was not satisfied with Baudelaire’s conclusion.  He ignores Baudelaire’s final note and, instead, focuses in on madness and the hidden meaning of man’s superiority over nature.  In deMan’s hands, “superiority” has a very negative and alienating note.  In addition, Baudelaire’s insistence that comedy is shared and inter-subjective is rejected.

Right off the bat, deMan notes:

In the first place, the accent falls on the notion of dedoublemant (duality) as the characteristic that sets apart reflective activity, such as that of the philosopher, from the activity of the ordinary self caught in everyday activities.  Hidden away at first in side-remarks such as this one, or masked behind a vocabulary of superiority and inferiority…the notion of self-duplication or self-multiplication emerges at the end of the essay as the key concept of the article, the concept for the sake of which the essay had in fact been written (212).

In this gesture, deMan shifts the focus from superiority and doubling to “self-duplication or self-multiplication.”  DeMan goes on to argue that “superiority” is not in relation to others – which is what Baudelaire and also Henri Bergson note.  Rather, superiority “merely designates the distance constituitive of all acts of reflection.”

In deMan’s reading, Baudelaire is really telling us that the effect of laughter is extreme alienation from the world and oneself.  Instead of attaining self-knowledge by way of laughter, deMan tells us that the laughing subject experiences the abyss.  His madness is not based on superiority so much as on a radical and debilitating loss of his center.

For Baudelaire…the movement of the ironic consciousness is anything but reassuring. The moment the innocence or authenticity of our sense of being in the world is put into question, a far from harmless process gets underway.  It may start as a casual bit of play with a stray loose end of fabric, but before long the entire texture of the self is unraveled and comes apart.  The whole process happens at an unsettling speed. (214)

DeMan’s rhetoric, as Jacques Derrida might say, “supplements” Baudelaire and rewrites his text.  In deMan’s hands, Baudelaire affirms madness and eschews all forms of inter-subjectivity.

Irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness.  Sanity can exist only because we are willing to function within the conventions of duplicity and dissimulation, just as social language dissimulates the inherent violence of the actual relationships between human beings (216).

By writing in this way, DeMan is, so to speak, going backwards.  He is unraveling Baudelaire’s text to show that at the root of his comedy is what Baudelaire would call Spleen: the physical and symbolic organ associated with rage, anger, and melancholy.

Walter Benjamin saw Baudelaire’s allegorical prose and poetry as a response to Spleen – or what Max Pensky calls “impotent rage against the world.” Benjamin saw such aesthetic responses as a manifestation of “Heroic Melancholy.”  However, deMan does not.  Rather, beneath all of Baudelaire’s laughter he only sees insanity and Spleen.

What we need to ask is whether such a reading has any validity.  Is laughter or irony, in reality, an admittance to one’s radical alienation from the world and oneself?  Is laughter, in other words, self-destructive and anti-social?

And, with respect to Walter Benjamin, is his ironic return to childhood noting more than the experience and re-experience of his radical alienation from himself and others?  In other words, can we apply deMan’s reading of irony and laughter to Walter Benjamin’s humor?

Is Paul deMan right or radically wrong in his reading of irony?  To paraphrase Harold Bloom, how do we read Paul deMan’s “map of misreading” Baudelaire?  Was Baudelaire – or even Walter Benjamin- hiding something behind his laughter? Namely, his endless comic humiliation and fallenness?

Baudelaire and Benjamin: The Madness of Humility or the Madness of Humiliation?

images-3

Comedy often deals with power and powerlessness.  But as Baudelaire understands it, power usually has the upper hand.  For Baudelaire, comedy brings out the Satanic, powerful side of man, not the powerless and humble aspects.  It doesn’t return us to innocence.

Even though it has elements of “innocence” and although it is guided by the “law of ignorance,” the Absolute Comic is not a return to childhood in the full sense.  It retains the Satanic element since the Absolute Comic still nods to the superiority of the viewer\reader and man`s superiority over nature:

I would say that when Hoffmann gives birth to the absolute comic it is perfectly true that he knows what he is doing; but he also knows that the essence of this type of the comic is that it should appear unaware of itself and that it should produce in the spectator, or rather the reader, a joy in his own superiority and in the superiority of man over nature(165).

Notice that the Absolute Comic is innocent (“unaware of itself”) AND it produces a joy in the viewer’s “own superiority” and in the “superiority of man over nature.”

It retains this duality.

But, as we pointed out in our previous blog entry, this superiority is tainted.  It is a kind of madness.  In fact, as I pointed out, Baudelaire sees the insane as expressing the essence of this comic superiority.

The madness of the Absolute comic, as Baudelaire understands it, is different from what he calls the “madness of humility.”   Baudelaire associates the madness of humility with the “wise” who see the superiority of the comic as “inferior.”

Laughter is a sign of inferiority in relation to the wise, who, throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childhood state.

It seems as if there are not only two kinds of madness but also two types of children: the humble and the satanic.  One is mad for God while the other is mad for itself and its superiority.

Which child does Baudelaire favor?  Which madness is superior? The madness of humility or the madness of the comic?  More importantly, why doesn’t Baudelaire, like Dostoevsky or Benjamin, imagine a holy fool?  After all, isn’t a holy fool humble, unconscious of himself, innocent, and funny?

How would Benjamin address these questions?   And when he talks about “Satanic Serenity” was Benjamin imagining a happy state that comes out of the Absolute Comic?  Was he siding with the madness of the comic over the madness of humility?  Could we call the “joy” that the viewers-slash-readers of the Absolute Comic feel when watching the Absolute Comic “Satanic Serenity?”  And how is this serenity different from the serenity that emerges from the madness of humility?

These questions present a problem: if Benjamin was so into the “return to childhood,” which we saw in his reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, wouldn’t he aim for the serenity of the wise man?  After all, wasn`t Dostoevsky leaning more toward the madness of humility in his novel?  Would he stand on the side of the wise man, who would see the smile, and especially the satanic smile (like the laugh), as “inferior?”  Or would Benjamin argue that the only way to attain happiness is, as Baudelaire might say, through the Absolute Comic?

If this is the case, then, one may only attain to partial childhood but not full. The madness of humility no longer seems to be an option for modernity.  Violence seems to be more akin.   To be sure, the Absolute Comic evinces a delight in the destruction of innocence and delights in the excesses of play: as we see in Baudelaire’s portrayals of the mime and in his reading ETA Hoffman’s story in which a girl is shocked when she realizes that her image of order and beauty are false.  In fact, the negation of her childish superiority (the superiority of her ideas and military order) is the basis, according to Baudelaire, of the audience`s joy at its superiority.  They – the audience – and not she – the comic character – are the masters of ignorance and are superior over nature.  They are mad with superiority, yet in a way that is not ignorant.

To be sure, though the madness of humility is not an option for modern man, and although Baudelaire gives the madness of the comic center stage, he does mention the “madness of humility.”  Moreover, Baudelaire notes that wise men, “throughout the contemplative innocence of their minds, approach childhood.”  He acknowledges different levels of innocence and the challenge to comedy made by the wise; nonetheless, he doesn`t pronounce either in a definitive manner.

I think Benjamin knew full well what was at stake in this comparison.  And he ventured where Baudelaire did not.  In his reflections on the Goethe Dream and on the Shuvalkin parable, Benjamin was engaging in the madness of humility and not simply in the madness of the comic.

True, he sees himself as double: as a man and a child.  But did Benjamin see himself as superior as Baudelaire suggests of every reader or viewer of the Absolute Comic? Did Benjamin feel a “Satanic Serenity” when he saw himself as a man and a child; that is, when he discovered the meaning of the Goethe dream and when he penned the Shuvalkin parable?  And wouldn`t Satanic Serenity imply an experience of comic superiority?

I would like to suggest that Benjamin didn`t feel comic superiority so much as a certain kind of powerlessness and astonishment when he looked at himself as a schlemiel.  We also hear this in Benjamin’s claim about Kafka: that “the beauty of his work was the beauty of failure.” This comment evinces a sense of inferiority not superiority.  In fact, Benjamin didn’t seem to take joy in this joke.  This is in contrast to Baudelaire, who notes that joy goes hand-in-hand with the feeling of Comic Superiority. To be sure, I can’t imagine anything close to Satanic in this reflection. The same goes for his reflection on himself in the “Vestibule” aphorism.  In fact, this destiny, to be marked as a child in Goethe’s house, is disheartening.  More disheartening is the fact that he is the subject of a prank.

I would suggest that this experience leans more toward the “madness of humility” or rather the madness of humilation.  Unless, that is, Benjamin would smile (satanically) at his misfortune.

Getting Comically Wasted: On Charles Baudelaire’s Notion of Absolute Comedy

170px-Paul_Cézanne_060

Baudelaire had a penchant for “intoxication” and comedy.  And what better day to discuss Baudelaire’s notion of the comic than on St. Patrick’s Day!  To be sure, Baudelaire thinks that the absolute comic, at its best, is like “intoxication.” Perhaps the “Satanic Serenity” that Walter Benjamin takes note of has a source in this; after all, Benjamin wrote about “Satanic Serenity” in his notes for his essay “Hashish in Marseille.”  As Baudelaire understands it, the state that one enters in the Absolute comic includes a sense of being “double.”   The irony of it all is that  this duality reminds one that one is “innocent” and, literally, destroyed.  And on St. Patrick’s day people usually talk about getting “wasted,” “destroyed,” and “hammered.”  All of these phrases suggest some kind of violence and, as Baudelaire suggests, some kind of innocence.

As we learned in the last blog entry, Satanic laughter is associated with a sense of superiority.  Baudelaire sees the insane (“the mad”) as the best illustration of an extreme sense of superiority.  The laughter of the insane, based on the psychotic insistence on the superiority of the laugher, brings out the essence of the “significant comic” (the comique significatif).  Mad laughter is, for Baudelaire, Satanic.  It has a total disregard for the world. It laughs at the world.  But it is deluded.  It has no innocence about it whatsoever.  It takes on a destructive daemonic aspect.

The significant comic doesn’t seem to embody what Benjamin would call “Satanic Serenity” since it is solely destructive.  The significant comic is not simply comic because she is “wasted”; no, s/he is comic because s/he wastes people with her daemonic humor and laugh.

(Mind you, for Baudelaire, children, “budding Satans,” are included in this category.)

The Absolute comic is different from, yet related to, the “significant comic.”  It is the kind of comedy that would attract Walter Benjamin who appreciated, like Baudelaire, gestural comedy (mime) and the kind of comedy that included what Baudeliare called the “law of ignorance.”

Baudelaire first introduces the Absolute comic when he discusses “laughter at the grotesque.”  To be sure, “the laughter caused by the grotesque has about it something profound, primitive, axiomatic, which is much closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy than is the laughter caused by the comic in man’s behavior”(157).

For Baudelaire, this is the superior form of comedy because it brings man “closer to the innocent life and to absolute joy.”

Baudelaire notes that the “absolute comic” has “one criterion”: “that is laughter – immediate laughter.”  However, there is one condition for comedy to be absolute, besides immediate laughter and that relates to the disclosure of what is most pathetic in humankind:  “the comic can only be absolute in relation to fallen humanity”(158).

In other words, the absolute comic must signify through falleness.  It must be – so to speak – wasted.

And it is only the best artists, Baudelaire tells us, who apprehend it. For these minds “are sufficiently open to receive absolute ideas”(158).  Baudelaire, after saying this, writes of an author who is the master of German horror and the grotesque; namely, the late  18th century German writer ETA Hoffman (158): “He always made a proper distinction between the ordinary comic and the type which he called the “innocent comic.”

What Hoffman calls “the innocent comic” is a blending of the innocent and the grotesque.  Moreover, it isn’t so “innocent” in the sense that it includes a distinct form of “violence.”  It doesn’t escape violence.

Baudelare notes that we also see such violence and innocence in the work of French mimes like Pierrot.  Regarding the mime and the clown, Baudelaire notes that Pierrot mixed the innocent and the grotesque by way of facepaint and gesture: “Upon his floured face he had stuck, crudely and without transition or gradation, two enormous patches of pure red.  A feigned prolongation of the lips, by means of two bands of carmine, brought it about that when he laughed his mouth seemed to run from ear to ear”(160).

170px-Léon_Hennique_-_Pierrot_sceptique

And although he appeared childish and innocent, he certainly was not: “As for his moral nature, it was basically the same as that of the Pierrot whom we all know – heedlessness and indifference, and consequently the gratification of every kind of greedy and rapacious whim”(161).

In other words, while he appears innocent, he is “devilish.”

The act of this rude yet innocent clown leads us to “a dizzy intoxication.” When one watches them “intoxication swims in the air; it is intoxication that fills the lung and renews the blood in the arteries”(163).  The “absolute comic” has “taken charge of each one of them.” And by each one, Baudelaire suggests that the comic and the audience are possessed.  Everyone is intoxicated.

The mime becomes possessed and seems to leave the realm of men: “Every gesture, every cry, every look seems to be saying: ‘The fairy has willed it, and our fate hurls us on – it doesn’t worry me! Come, let’s get started! Let’s get down to business!’ And then they do…which starts at this point – that is to say, on the frontier of the marvelous”(162).  In other words, the mime takes us into another realm by way of his gestures – a realm that, while laughable, brings us closer to childhood.

This can only mean that in his grotesque and childish disregard of limits, the mime’s gestures, his madness, while destructive counters the solely destuctive madness of the regular comic.   The mime is not simply mad – he is, actually; he certainly flaunts a superiority and indifference to the civilized world of adults.  But this madness, because it is childish, is also innocent.  The mime is a drunk of sorts and he spreads the feeling of intoxication through his rude and innocent gestures.

Baudelaire notes that nothing can surpass the absolute comic that we find in the mime: “But how could the pen rival the pantomime? The pantomime is the quitessence of comedy; it is the pure comic element, purged and concentrated”(162).

Nonetheless, Baudelaire ends his essay on laughter and devotes the most space to discussing this mad innocence by way of a close reading of ETA Hoffman’s story “Dacus Carota, The King of the Carrots.”

This story is exemplary because it shows us how a little girl, a “budding Satan,” loses her sense of comic superiority by way of the grotesque.  Her astonishment, her shock, brings us in touch with the “Absolute Comic.”

Baudeliare tells us that “the unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by a display of military might.”  When the girl is shown the soldiers sleeping at night, by her “magician” father, she experiences shock and vertigo.  Her exposure to the grotesque display of soldiers sleeping at night, when her father opens the “flap” of the tent, leads to what Baudelaire calls a “comic emanation, explosion, as it were, a chemical separation.”

What “emanates” from the comic explosion?

In the comic explosion we become aware of our childish part, which is unaware of itself.

This is the “law of ignorance.”  Indeed, for Baudelaire, “the most distinctive mark of the absolute comic is that it remains unaware of itself.”

This translates into a double consciousness for the viewer or reader. It indicates “the permanent dualism in the human being – that is, the power of being oneself and someone else at the same time”(165).

This experience, since it includes ignorance is double. As we saw above with the little girl who is astonished when she sees the grotesque soldiers but doesn’t know why she is astonshed: she is double.  She doesn’t know herself, but we do. Its an uncanny sense of self that the reader or viewer takes on. Baudelaire says it is superior – and, as we have seen superiority is the core of the satanic-slash-comic. It is the essence of laughter.

Perhaps this sense of duality is the cause of what Walter Benjamin’s calls a “Satanic smile.” Benjamin argues that it is based on a “Satanic Serenity” and not on destructive element of the Satanic.  But this misses one essential point made by Baudeliare: the serenity one has, which enables one to be oneself and someone else at the same time, is based on some kind of explosion.  It is based on some kind of destructive violence which, as Baudelaire, notes is inevitable when it comes to comedy.

This resonates with what we saw in Benjamin’s reading of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  There, he notes that a return to childhood, will not come without an “implosion.”

The violence that the mime and Hoffman apply leads to childhood.  This is the paradox.  With Benjamin this takes on a fascinating element because Benjamin sees himself as the butt of the joke.  He sees himself as a man and as a child: as himself and someone else.  But, and here is the point: he is both a man and a child.  He is double.

But there is one missing ingredient: the real basis for the Absolute Comic’s performance – as for the significant comic – is failure.  The secret of comedy is that it is based on what Baudelaire called Spleen – that is, rage and anger at one’s meaningless suffering in the world.  Superiority – whether of the significant or the Absolute comic variety – is ultimately a delusion.  But a necessary one as it casts out the hope that even though one is pathetic, one is innocent.  This can either bring about a Satanic Serenity or, perhaps, depression and melancholy.

Benjamin brought this double sense of himself in the Goethe aphorism and in the Shuvalkin parable. The absolute comic – and its sense of duality – is evident insofar as “the law of ignorance” pervades both: Benjamin was asked to sign but he had not idea that his name was already signed; and Shuvalkin thought he had the signatures of Potemkin but found that he was ignorant.  Shuvalkin, like Benjamin in the “Vestibule” dream, didn’t realize that the king had singed his name on each paper.  In both, the prank, though Satanic, is an emanation and explosion within which Benjamin sees himself as other: in which he sees himself as a schlemiel.. He sees himself as double: as man and child.

Perhaps we can say that every day was St. Patrick’s day for Benjamin insofar as every day he looked in the mirror he realized he was “wasted.”  Perhaps this gave him “Satanic Serenity.”  On the other hand, perhaps this made him a Sad Clown?  (As we shall see, in upcoming blog entries, this was one of Baudelaire’s double self-images.  Perhaps it was Benjamin’s too?)

(Here is one of the first animated films ever made.  This film, made in 1892, was named after the clown Pierrot that Baudelaire sees as exemplary of the Absolute Comic. Its entitled Pauvre Pierrot.  Can you spot Benjamin in this animated film (wink, wink)?)

Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and the Daemonic (Take 1)

images-1

In an essay on Walter Benjamin entitled “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” Gershom Scholem notes that one of the things that disturbed him most about Benjamin was his interest in the daemonic.  Scholem, in this essay, notes that Benjamin’s interest increased the more he delved into the work of the Parisian poet and cultural critic Charles Baudelaire:

The Luciferian element…entered Benjamin’s meditations…not directly from the Jewish tradition, but rather from the occupation with Baudelaire that fascinated him for so many years.  The Luciferian element of the beauty of the Satanic, stemming from this side of Benjamin’s interests, comes out often enough in his notes.  (213, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis).

Scholem goes on to provide examples of this element by noting a “Satanic phase” that Benjamin went through when he was writing on a Hashish impression of January 15, 1928.  Strangely enough, Scholem cites a passage from Benjamin that associates the Satanic with the smile:

My smile assumed Satanic features: though more the expression of Satanic knowing, Satanic contentment, Satanic Serenity than from Satanic destructive activity. (214)

Scholem latches on to Benjamin’s reading of the Satanic smile. He notes that, for Benjamin, everything is tainted by the Satanic.  Even the “’indescribable beautiful face’ of a human being can appear as ‘Satanic features – with a half-suppressed smile”(ibid).

The fact that Scholem finds Benjamin’s interest in Baudeliare to be the basis for his description of the smile as Satanic is instructive.  Although Scholem doesn’t delve deeper into this, we will.   To be sure, we can learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to humor  by reading his reflections on Baudelaire’s reading of comedy, the smile, and laughter.   We can also learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to comedy by simply reading Baudelaire’s reflections on the comic and, as I will point out, children (which, for Baudelaire, are related).  What we will find in both Benjamin’s reflections and in Baudelaire’s work is a keen interest in the relationship of humor to the daemonic.

In an unpublished piece called “Central Park,” written between 1938 and 1939, Benjamin devotes several reflections to Baudelaire’s prose, poetry, and critical essays.  The reflection that interests me most is Benjamin’s reflection on Baudelaire’s well-known essay “De l’essence du rire” (“The Essence of Humor”).

In this reflection, Benjamin writes:

De l’essence du rire” contains nothing other than the theory of satanic laughter.  In this essay, Baudelaire goes so far as to view even smiling from the standpoint of laughter.  Contemporaries often testified to something frightful in his own manner of laughter (182, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4)

Benjamin is correct in his claim that Baudelaire argues that all laughter is daemonic.  As Baudelaire explains:

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human.  It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority.  And since laughter is essentially human, it is essentially contradictory; that is to say, it is a token of infinity grandeur and infinite misery (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 154).

However, Baudelaire notes that there is a position that challenges this one; namely, the position of the “wise man”: “Laughter is a sign of inferiority to the wise, who, through contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childlike state.”

This childlike state, however, seems, for Baudelaire, to be unattainable.  It is messianic: “As the comic is a sign of superiority, it is natural to hold that, before they can achieve absolute purification promised by certain mystical prophets, the nations of the world will see a multiplication of comic themes in proportion as their superiority increases”(ibid).

Baudelaire is basically saying that, as civilization advances, we will need to laugh more as we will feel more and more “superior” to nature.  This is not something to celebrate. Rather, for Baudelaire, it is something to lament.  And he hopes that one day we will become wise and transcend laughter altogether.

Benjamin is aware of this, hence, he notes that even the smile is tainted with the daemonic.

But if one reads Baudelaire’s essay on laughter, one will see that the grimace (the smile) only receives one sentence from Baudelaire while the laugh is mentioned throughout the essay: “All the miscreants of melodrama, accursed damned and fatally marked with a grin which runs from ear to ear, are in the pure orthodoxy of laughter.”

Benjamin latches on to this single sentence to argue that any bodily response which indicates humor is daemonic. To be sure, Baudelaire notes that no kind of laugh, even the laugh of a child, escapes the Satantic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls the laughter of little children the laughter of “budding Satans”(156).

Given this reading, what can we say of Benjamin’s reflections on children? As we saw in the hiding aphorism, which we addressed in an earlier blog, Benjamin argues that they “hide from the demon.”   And, as I suggested in that entry, this hiding place may be the shelter provided by a book.  Benjamin sees such hiding as an admirable strategy which, he claims, he learns from children.

The question we must ask is why Benjamin would see any response to humor is daemonic and whether he agreed, wholeheartedly, with Baudelaire’s reading of laughter and humor. This would imply that Kafka’s humor and Benjamin’s humor are or may be daemonic.  It would imply that Benjamin saw the signature-prank in his dream as wholly daemonic.  This would imply that Benjamin’s awareness of his identity – of his being a man-child – his awareness of a prank – was daemonic knowledge.  But is this knowledge, following a smile or a laugh, linked to superiority?  Did Benjamin read his calling, rather, in the opposite manner? After all, he is the butt of this joke.  As is the kingdom in the Shuvalkin parable we read and explained yesterday.

To be laughed at, to be a schlemiel, is entirely different from being the one who laughs or, as Benjamin notes, smiles.  Perhaps we can say that in the two moments where Benjamin reads himself and Shuvalkin as having been the butt of a joke, which reduced them to children, there is a challenge to the Satanic.  This would imply that masochism is redemptive.

In the end it is the same, Benjamin is not superior, he is a failure, a man-child, and a schlemiel. And perhaps, the “entire kingdom” is sunk into exile because the letters of a schlemiel named Shuvalkin hovers over its head. The implications of this reading are that Benjamin thought that he and “we” are not superior.  The joke, on the contrary, is on us.  And this bleak view suggests that if Benjamin is a schlemiel then Satan (the Other) must have written his name and Shuvalkin’s.  And if the herald who bears that message runs ahead of Kafka, as Benjamin claims, perhaps he runs ahead of us as well.  If this is so, then we are all doomed to endless failure and humiliation.   We are and will be the victims of a prank in which Satan has the last laugh and, as Benjamin seems to imply, doesn’t stop laughing.

Even so, Benjamin’s reflection on his (and our) destiny may in fact be redemptive, quite simply, because, in it, he (and we) is (are) not superior (he is not, as Baudelaire would say, Satanic); in his reflection, he sees himself as a powerless man-child.  And it is fascinating that this reflection on powerlessness stretches beyond Benjamin and finds itself in the pages of French thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze.  They all seem to have taken Baudelaire and Benjamin seriously.  (We will return to this in future blogs.)

In our next blog entries, we will, hopefully, explore Baudelaire’s notion of the “absolute comic” and its relationship to the child and the mime.  This may give us another clue as to where Benjamin may have been going with his childish reflections.