Charles Bernstein: Writing “On Theatricality” and Doing Poetic Stand-Up


I was recently looking through Charles Bernstein’s essay collection Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Side by side in the collection, I found two pieces that really caught my interest: one is an essay entitled “On Theatricality” and the other is a poetry piece entitled “G-/”. The difference between the two pieces really struck me because they reminded me that, at a certain time, writers on theatricality associated it with language and play. However, for some strange reason, they didn’t associate it with comedy. I think of Derrida’s work, for instance, on Artaud. His essays on Artaud are more concerned with emptying language of content via performing texts.  For Derrida, it seems, it’s all about metaphoricity and textuality.   Nothing in them gives an indication of comedy.

The “difference” that I’m referring to, above, is that Bernstein’s poetry piece “G-/”, which is next to “On Theatricality,” is comical.  It differs.   To be sure, when I read it, against the essay on language and theatricality, I felt it would be wrong to read it in terms of Bernstein’s theoretical reflections. Rather, it called for a comic sensibility.

Let me explain.

In the essay “On Theatricality,” Bernstein writes of the actor Joseph Chaiken’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and How It Is (200).   According to Bernstein, Chaiken has provided him with “one of the most satisfying performances of Beckett I have ever heard”(200). Bernstein explains why in a language that is clearly garnered from the a theoretical reading of theatricality and textuality:

Chaiken’s reading situates the address of the text not to a listener but to itself, as reverie, the self – or more properly the writing – talking to itself, proceeding, stopping, questioning, circling back: a textual practice organized by internal compositional necessities and not by the sound of a speaking voice.   By performing the text as a musician might play a score, rather than enacting a persona, Chaiken was able to realize the textual dimension of Becket’s work (200).

To accomplish this in poetry, Bernstein suggests that poets make a “sharp break” form “shamanistic incantation of neoritualistic sound poetry” and from “the presentation of personality as a projected coherent force”(200). All of this prevents language from being merely, as Heidegger would say of art, a form of equipment or a tool of expression. Rather, it lets language resonate as language.

While I know this reading very well, I find that it is missing the comical spirit of language that we find, oftentimes, in Bernstein’s poetry (especially his later work). The poem following this, to be sure, draws directly on the comedic.

Here are a few lines that will give a sense of how Bernstein does a kind of stand-up performance of poetry. It has the quality of what I call schlemiel-poetics. (And one should note that Chaiken did work with Yiddish theater and the schlemiel.). Notice how, in the midst of his meditation on possible failure (or his sense of failure, which is a key trait of the Jewish fool) he laughs:

I had this liberating thought the other night      imagine that nothing that I write or thought was good       it was all crummy   and the fact of crumminess would somehow free me up from this burden That I feel to express       to say something   meaningful     because I couldnt   and I an I started to laugh       it seemed a joyous kind of concept   and then this thinking lead me I mean sometimes I feel depressed I feel a little bit that way in the morning

These lines from the poem remind me of Woody Allen or Marc Maron’s self-deprecation. To be sure, stand-up poetics, playing the schlemiel on the stage or in a poem, is a way of doing more than theory says it does. The running joke and the act of self-deprecation in language do more to loosen up language and make it playful than any abstraction. Playing with failure is a way of playing with pathos.

I’ll end with this clip of RD Laing and Joseph Chaiken doing some very comical mirroring exercises. What you find in them is a play on bodily gesture by way of the face, something that actors portraying schlemiel have done since Yiddish theater got its start in Eastern Europe. Bernstein, it seems, is influenced by this kind of theater which is all about “facing” the audience as a stand-up comedian would. This isn’t simply language play…its comedy.   Comedians, after all, make faces.  They make the body comically signify.


In Memoriam of Samuel Beckett (and Raymond Federman): The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh


In case you may not have noticed, the subtitle of Schlemiel-in-Theory is the “The Place Where the Laugh Laughs at the Laugh.”    The notion of a laugh that laughs at a laugh comes from Samuel Beckett; namely, from his novel entitled Watt.  There, we read:

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

In this passage, we see three types of laughter.  The first and second kind of laughter can be seen in the work of Henri Bergson.  In his famous “Essay on Laughter,” Bergson argues that laughter is on the side of élan vital.  The laugh looks to reject mechanical, asocial behaviors from the social sphere.  Laughter, in other words, negates the mechanical while affirming life and change (becoming).  Bergson notes, explicitly, that all laughter is intellectual in the sense that, for life, becoming is true while the mechanical is false.  The same goes for Immanuel Kant who identified, in The Critique of Judgment, humor with incongruity:

In everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (in which the understanding, therefore, can find no satisfaction). Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. This transformation, which is certainly not enjoyable to the understanding, yet indirectly gives it very active enjoyment for a moment. Therefore its cause must consist in the influence of the representation upon the body, and the reflex effect of this upon the mind.

Beckett proposes a laugh that is neither ethical (in the Bergsonian sense) nor intellectual (in either Bergson or Kant’s sense).  Rather, his laugh, the “risus purus” is directed “at the laugh.”  It laughs, as he says, at “that which is unhappy.”

What does this mean?

First of all, I would submit that while the laugh that Kant and Bergson (and even Baudelaire) discuss enjoins one to power and superiority over the thing laughed at, the laugh that laughs at “that which is unhappy” is a laugh of powerlessness.

Theodor Adorno, in an essay entitled “Is Art Lighthearted,” ponders the “laugh that laughs at the laugh” along these lines:

In the face of Beckett’s plays especially, the category of the tragic surrenders to laughter, just as his plays cut off all humor that accepts the status quo.  They bear witness to a state of consciousness that no longer admits the alterative of seriousness and lightheartedness, nor the composite comedy.  Tragedy evaporates because the claims of the subjectiveity that was to have been tragic are so obviously inconsequential.  A dried up, tearless weeping takes the place of laughter.  Lamentation has become the mourning of hollow, empty eyes.  Humor is salvaged in Beckett’s plays because they infect the spectator with laughter about the absurdity of laughter and laughter about despair.  This process is linked with…a path leading to a survival minimum as the minimum of existence remaining.  This minimum discounts the historical catastrophe, perhaps in order to survive it (Notes on Literature, Volume 2; 253)

Adorno suggests, here, that the laugh that laughs at the laugh bears with it a minimal self.  It is, so to speak, so exhausted and laughs only for the sake of surviving the disaster.  It realizes that laughter can’t do any good and neither can tragedy.  The laugh that laughs at the laugh, therefore, can be seen as a mourning of both tragedy and comedy.

The risus purus, so to speak, is in the shadow of the disaster.

I also noticed this in an interview between the poet Charles Bernstein and the late Raymond Federman (who I was fortunate enough to have befriended and written several essays on).  Federman is best known for his post-Holocaust postmodern literature.  He, himself, survived the Holocaust and witnessed, while hiding in a closet, his parents taken away by the French authorities.  This disaster remained with him throughout his life.  And it is reflected in many of his novels, stories, and poems.

Strangely enough, when Federman left Europe, after the War, for America, he took on a doctoral project at Columbia University on Samuel Beckett.  His scholarship has gained much recognition in field of literary studies.  But his main love wasn’t literary criticism; it was writing fiction.  And, one cannot help but notice, in reading this fiction, that although its topic is horrific and unthinkable, Federman still maintains some kind of sense of humor.

In the interview with Bernstein, Bernstein hits directly on this issue:

But you’re very funny about it (the facts of history) as opposed to terribly solemn and serious memorials that we are perhaps more accustomed to.  Your work seems to mock not only the possibility of accurate representation but also the idea that mourning should be a solemn affair.  Should mourning be funny?

Federman’s reply to Bernstein hits directly on what Adorno reads in Beckett’s laugh at the laugh, yet, he adds another note with regard to laughter and the joy of survival:

And my answer is simple: I am a survivor.  That I survived this is a very happy occasion.  I am still alive.  That is an occasion for, well, if not great laughter, at least some kind of joy…I hope you can hear … the laughter and the nonseriousness of what I do.

Bernstein nudges Federman with regards to this response and says:

But I can hear the sadness and great seriousness, too.

Bernstein then goes on to note that Federman’s humor is certainly not “black humor.” So, what is it?   To explain what it is, Federman cites Beckett:

I…learned it from my great mentor Beckett the same kind of sadness and joy and laughter you find in Beckett.

This is what Federman, in his book Aunt Rachel’s Fur, calls “sad laughter.”

However, this still doesn’t satisfy Bernstein, who pushes him still further by saying that Federman is completely unlike Beckett:

Yes, but unlike Beckett, you are actually more sort of hysterical and more histrionic.

But instead of agreeing with him, and leaving Beckett behind, Federman cites his “mentor” and notes that in Beckett’s Molloy we see a major kind of histrionics and not simply a melancholy laugh.    Federman notes how, in that novel, there is a “Beckettian acrobat who does a beautiful set of somersaults and then falls back on his feet and everything is erased.”  However, Federman distinguishes himself from Beckett, his mentor, when he puts himself in the acrobat’s position:

I am the acrobat who falls down on his face, and so you don’t remember the somersault.   You remember the failure of the guy that falls on his face.  And that’s where you laugh – when the acrobat or the clown does that, that’s where the laughter is.  That’s the kind of laughter I’m trying to achieve.

In other words, Federman sees himself as an acrobatic schlemiel.  The schlemiel has us remember the fall not the somersalt.  Reading this line, I was struck by how oddly resonant it was with Nathan Englander’s post-Holocaust story “The Tumblers.”  As I pointed out in a blog entry I devoted to that story, the characters survive by virtue of being clumsy acrobats. No one knows that they are Jews and yet the irony is that the Nazis officials in the audience say that the klutz acrobats who fall on their faces act “like” Jews.

In retrospect, I can say that Beckett and Federman may both laugh at the laugh, they remind us that now our laughter is after the disaster; however, Federman’s laugh at the laugh puts a personal and a post-Holocaust Jewish accent on survival.  In the end, although his laughter is sad, it is also histrionic, happy, and contagious.   Like many Jews throughout history who know what its like to have survived numerous disasters and exiles, Federman knows what it’s like to survive disaster.  More importantly, Federman, like the creators of the schlemiel, knew how important it was to balance out sadness with the joy of humor.  Everyone who knew Federman personally knew that he wanted us to laugh with him.  He wanted us to laugh at the laugh and, like acrobats, to retain the tension between a skeptical laugh and an optimistic laugh.  His laugh, the laugh of a post-Holocaust schlemiel, does exactly that.  More importantly, the laughter of the post-Holocaust schlemiel is not based on some hidden logos or kernel of meaning; it is based on a kind of acrobatics or movement, the kind that, as Federman tells us, ultimately falls on its face.  Nonetheless, it survives.

The subtitle of this blog (and this blog entry) is in Memoriam of Samuel Beckett.  But it is also in Memoriam of Raymond Federman, who taught us how a Jew named Raymond Federman carried on Samuel Beckett’s legacy and gave it a post-Holocaust nuance.

After the Holocaust, after the disaster, Schlemiel-in-Theory is the place where the laugh (can still) laugh at the laugh.