Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Debt to Childhood – Part I

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Critics like A.O. Scott and Josh Eells are frustrated when it comes to Hollywood. They feel that the possibility of adulthood – which they equate with progress – is stifled by countless films that encourage “perpetual adolescence.”   Scott, at the end of his essay “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” tells that “to get off his lawn.” But his mocked crankiness discloses his witty insight: that he’s half serious. Likewise, Josh Eels in a feature article of Seth Rogen’s The Interview, insists that Rogen is finally at a “crossroads” and must decide whether or not he wants to grow up. The Interview, muses Eells, seems to be a step in that direction.

Although many people would nod their heads in agreement to Eells and Scott’s pronouncements, I would like to suggest that we stop and think about what, exactly, this framework of maturity is. For me, one of the most interesting reflections on the meaning of growing up comes from the introduction of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Inhuman. Like many thinkers, Lyotard is interested in what it means to be human. Aristotle linked the meaning of being human to thinking. And many followed in his path. Lyotard takes a different path toward childhood and its battle with “adult consciousness.” His question opens up this path:

What shall we call human in humans, the initial misery of their childhood, or their capacity to acquire a ‘second’ nature which, thanks, to language, makes them fit to share in communal life, adult consciousness, and reasons? (3)

In response to his question, Lyotard notes that what matters is not simply how this “dialectic” means so much as whether it “leaves a remainder”(3).   “If this were so,” writes Lyotard, the remainder would be “inexplicable” to the adult.   It remainder leaves its mark on humankind because one has to “struggle constantly to assure his or her conformity to institutions or even to arrange them with a view to a better living-together”(3).

But this is not freedom.

And there is nothing comical about this kind of life.  Is it….really human?

Lyotard tells us that what we need to draw from the “remainder” is the “power of criticizing them,” “the pain of supporting them,” and “the temptation to escape them.” And that power can be found manifested in “literature, the arts, philosophy.” But what makes them special, this remainder, is what Lyotard calls “the traces of an indetermination, a childhood, persisting up to the age of adulthood”(3).

Lyotard, in other words, suggests that the freedom of literature is informed by a “childhood” that remains.

…..to be continued….

Witold Gombrowicz’s Affirmation of “Difficult Childhood”

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Following the passages of Witold Gombrowicz’s diary entries on Simone Weil, which I commented on the other day, there is a fascinating entry labeled “Friday.” It’s first two words – at the top of the entry – are “Polish Catholicism.” In this passage, Gombrowicz expresses his past and present ambivalent attitude toward “childishness” by way of his reading of Polish Catholicism.   His reading has strange resonances with the man-childish-ness we find in many instances of the schlemiel.

The first childishness, for Gombrowicz, has to do with Catholicism “such as the one that historically developed in Poland.”  As he understood it, the Polish people became like children in relation to God.  They gave up their “burdens” to God and, like a child, “sought God’s protection.”  By “listening..respecting…loving…and abiding” by God’s commandments, man gained “a green world, green because it was immature.”  Although Gombrowicz looks down on this, he notes that it was also a “green world” because it was not the “black world” of metaphysics: “To live in the lap of nature, in a limited world, leaving the black universe to God.”

But this isn’t enough.  To be sure, Gombrowicz is more interested in criticizing the Polish Green of “immaturity” than in its embrace of nature. And this is because, he wants to be critical of Poland and its Catholicism.  He notes that this childish religiosity was responsible for a “historical lack of dynamism” and for Poland’s “cultural impotence.”

Gombrowicz precedes to tell us why he thinks of Poland has culturally impotent.  Strangely enough, his reading echoes a view that Sander Gilman uncovers in his book Jewish Self-Hatred.  But, here, it is not the view of an Enlightened Western Jew criticizing his “backwards” Eastern European brethren (the Ostjuden), but the view of a Pole towards the Polish people:

The nation without a philosophy, without a conscious history, intellectually soft and spiritually timid, a nation that produced only “kindly” and “noble-minded” art, a languid people of lyrical scribblers of poetry, folklorists, pianists, actors…

In other words, the Poles are not autonomous.  They are childish and even
“effeminate.”   And Gombrowicz notes that his work, in the present tense, “is guided by the desire to extricate the Pole from all secondary realities and to put him in direct confrontation with the universe.”  His utmost “desire” is to “ruin his (Poland’s) childhood.”  And by ruining it, Gombrowicz would compel him to become a man.

However, in the following paragraph, Gombrowicz takes a radical turn and suggests he has just contradicted himself.  He cannot and doesn’t want to ruin childhood; rather, he wants to find a way to affirm (albeit with a difference):

But now in the pursuant din, in the face of my own helplessness, in this inability to straighten things out, it occurs to me that I have just contradicted myself.  Ruin a childhood? In the name of what?  IN the name of a maturity that I myself can neither bear nor accept?

Gombrowicz, at this point, realizes that he cannot “ruin” the childishness of the Polish people because he himself wants to be a child! “How can I desire that they (the Polish) not be children if I myself, per fas et nefas, want to be a child?”

But then he explains the difference, and this is crucial.  He wants to be a man-child; in short, a schlemiel (albeit of a Polish variety): “A child, yes, but one that has come to know and has exhausted all the possibilities of adult seriousness.  This is the big difference.”

What he means by this is still in need of explanation. To this end, Gombrowicz suggests a process that brings out to this “other” kind of childishness: “First, push away all the things that make everything easier, find yourself in a cosmos that is as bottomless as you can stand…where you are left to your own loneliness and your own strength.”  This first part of the process sounds no different from what he had claimed, originally, was his task; namely, autonomy.  However, this leads one to the next step which is, more or less, failure and retreat to childhood: “Then, when the abyss which you have not managed to tame throws you from the saddle, sit down on the earth and discover the sand and grass anew.”  This process, for Gombrowicz, is – in-itself – a justification of childhood:

For childhood to be allowed, one must have driven maturity to bankruptcy.

While Gombrowicz, as we saw in the last blog entry, thinks that on his lips Simone Weil’s religious passion sounds “stupid,” he, in contrast, thinks the word “childhood” sounds much more earnest:

When I pronounce the word “childishness,” I have the feeling that I am expressing the deepest but not yet roused contents of the people who gave me birth.

In other words, the desire for “childishness” – true childishness as opposed to the Catholic variety – is hidden within the Polish people.  And this is “not the childhood of a child, but the difficult childhood of an adult.”

When I first read these words, I couldn’t help but think of Emmanuel Levinas’s expression: “difficult freedom.”  But this seems to be the opposite.  In fact, Levinas speaks a lot about maturity in his essay – in the book Difficult Freedom – entitled “A Religion for Adults.”  Like Gombrowicz, Levinas also uses “childhood” to express a kind of lack.  For him it is the lack of responsibility.  The “religion for adults” that Levinas speaks of is not a religion that is based on the passion of ecstasy and losing one’s freedom.  To be sure, the religion for adults insists that one’s freedom stay in tact but not, as Gombrowicz would seem to insist, in relation to the world, but in relation to the other.

Gombrowicz’s “difficult childhood,” however, does retain a kind of freedom.  It seems that this freedom is, on the one hand, the freedom of retreat from a ridiculous world of maturity that one “must,” on the other hand, “drive” to “bankruptcy.”

In future posts, I hope to look more into what Gombrowicz calls “difficult childhood.”  It resurfaces throughout this work and provides us an innovative way of thinking the schlemiel.  In light of this research, we will be in a better position to ask several relevant questions: Does the schlemiel also have a “difficult childhood?”  Or is the schlemiel’s difficult childhood entirely different? What, after all, is difficult about the man-childhood of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel, Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, or Philip Roth’s Portnoy?   Or is the “difficult childhood” that of the author?  If it is the author’s, does this imply that the author and not the character is the real schlemiel?

 

 

 

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 Trick is on the Trickster or Comic Self-Destruction: Traumatized Children and A Ruined Old Clown named Charles Baudelaire

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Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin knew very well of the trickster.  To be sure, they saw themselves as tricksters who, in doing their comic tricks, looked to destroy something and find something else (something new) in the midst of ruin.  By way of shock, they both believed they could arrive at some kind of “hidden” knowledge.  What happens, however, when the trickster is tricked?  What happens when the trickser is the butt of the joke?

As I pointed out in yesterday’s blog, Charles Baudelaire, in his “Essay on Laughter” turned to the horrific moment of a child’s shock at the loss of her innocence.  In the ETA Hoffman short story “Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots Baudealire found this moment to be an illustration of the Absolute Comic.   Before he gets to this shocking moment, he intentionally takes on the role of a children’s storyteller.

Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses!  The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility.  The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…(163)

This delightful narration shifts and becomes dark.  Baudelaire’s voice changes.

The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds!  That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction.

Baudelaire notes that the girl’s father, a magician (“a man well-versed in sorcery”), tricks his daughter and robs her of her childish innocence.

Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp.

Baudelaire, no doubt, sees himself as a Satanic magician, much like the father in the story.   He delights in tricking his reader (his child) into thinking they get one side of the coin and then he flips it.  This trick, for Baudelaire, is at the core of the Absolute Comic.

As I pointed out, Baudelaire in his May 13, 1856 journal noted that he will have “conquered solitude” when he has inspired “universal horror and disgust.”  To be sure, this is the job of the magician-slash-writer who can flip the coin and shock his readers.  In other words, Baudelaire saw his task as destructive and magical.

As we noted yesterday, Baudelaire identified with Poe’s destructive spirit insofar as he saw in Poe’s destructive drive a vitality that was repressed by civility.  Baudelaire turned this destructive drive on his view of children and fools.  Moreover, I would like to suggest that this was done in an experimental manner and, as I noted in a previous entry, this act of Spleen was aimed at producing a souvenir.  In other words, the magic of Baudeliare was to destroy something yet to cling to what remains.

Notice that for Baudelaire, the “coin” is still there.  It is just turned over.  Baudelaire doesn’t destroy the coin (that is, the child).  She remains but as a damaged child.  And this shock, according to Baudelaire, illustrated the essence of laughter.

The poet, in other words, is a Satanic kind of trickster.  He fools the reader into seeing something he or she does not want to see.  Yet, the revelation of what he or she doesn’t want to see gives the reader some kind of secret knowledge that can only be garnered through destruction.

In my readings of Benjamin, we have seen that this art can also be turned against oneself.     Indeed, Benjamin, in seeing himself as a schlemiel, as duped, traveled down the same road as Baudelaire.  For Benjamin, the trickster is tricked.

Baudelaire understood this lesson very well.  It marks the dark side of the magician who is not simply to be seen as a Satanic devilish poet who lives on vitality.  Indeed, that vitality is often weak.   And the solitude that Baudelaire wished to “conquer” is, to be sure, solitary and pathetic.

Destruction has a negative effect that, for some strange reason, Baudelaire and Benjamin were attracted to as artists.  Solitude has its price.  And in the modern world, the comic – though found everywhere – has no place.

Baudelaire’s prose pieces finely illustrate this.  Today, I will look at “The Old Clown.”

This prose piece, in Paris Spleen, is autobiographical and it teaches us a lesson about the Satanic comedian who is, in essence, a clown.

Underlying the piece is a question: what would it mean to spend one’s life as a clown?  What would happen if, instead of producing vitality, the clown produced nothing?  This is the dark side of Baudelaire’s venture and we see it in this prose piece.  Perhaps the “old clown” has “conquered solitude” by, in his very existence, inspiring “universal horror.”

To emphasize vitality and the end of vitality, Baudelaire starts off the piece with a major emphasis on the life of the carnival:

Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere.  It was one of those gala days that all the clowns, jugglers, animal trainers, and ambulant hucksters count on, long in advance, to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25).

Baudelaire tells us that on these days people “forget everything” and they “become like children.”

Baudelaire then goes on to give a fantastic and exciting description of the carnival: “There was a mixture of cries, crashing brass, and exploding fireworks…and dancers, as lovely as fairies or princesses, leaped and pirouetted with the lantern light sparkling their skirts….There was nothing but light, dust, shouts, tumult”(25).

But then, in a Poe-like or Hoffman-like moment, the narrator sees the “old clown” and the shock it sends throughout him was uncanny:

Everywhere joy, money-making, debauchery; everywhere the assurance of tomorrow’s daily bread; everywhere frenetic outbursts of vitality.  Here absolute misery, and a misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags, whose motely contrast was due more to necessity than to art.  He was not laughing, the poor wretch!…He was mute and motionaless.  He had given up, he had abdicated.  His fate was sealed. (26)

The narrator then describes his own breakdown at the sight of the clown.  He, the recipient of the sad joke or “trick” of reality, doesn’t know what to do:

I felt the terrible hand of hysteria grip my throat, I felt rebellious tears that would not fall, blurring my sight.  What was I to do?

Instead of talking to him or asking him questions, he decides to leave some charity.  He felt that compassion would redeem him.  However, before he can do this “a sudden surge of the crowd, caused by I know not what disturbance, swept me away from him.”

It is the crowd that robs him of his opportunity to give charity.  But now, as he looks back at the old clown, he can reflect on himself.  He sees an emblem of himself in the clown; he sees (or rather creates) what Walter Benjamin would call a souvenir:

I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived; the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by poverty and the ingratitude of the public, and to whose booth the fickle world no longer cares to come! (27)

It’s fascinating how for Baudelaire the destruction of innocence and joy is “magical.”  To be sure, he was fascinated with his own failure and with the destruction of happiness in children.  This piece, though tragic to us, fits into what Baudelaire calls the Absolute Comic.  But here he is the butt of the joke.  He, the writer, is a joke.  He is an “old clown.”   He, the entertainer of children, the child who never grew up, is a joke.

We can have no doubt that Walter Benjamin was very moved by Baudelaire’s “souvenir.”  It is echoed in his own vision of himself as a Schlemiel.  In his own s(c)h(l)ocking discovery, Benjamin, like Baudelaire, was able to retain a souvenir out of his own comic, self-destruction.

Baudelaire, Children, and Horror (Take 1)

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As can be seen from many of my previous posts, I have been addressing the work of Charles Baudelaire on laughter and the comic. The reason I have spent so much time on this is because I have been attempting to understand Walter Benjamin’s reading of (and identification with) the comic (in general) and the schlemiel (in particular). To be sure, Benjamin had great interest in Baudelaire’s approach to the comic and, something we have not yet explored, children. Moreover, he was also interested in the comic as it appeared in Franz Kafka’s work.

Jeffrey Mehlman, in his book Walter Benjamin for Children, correctly notes that Baudelaire and Kafka were “nodal” points for Benjamin. This insight can be drawn from Gershom Scholem’s reflections on Benjamin which clearly show that Benjamin was preoccupied with two projects: one with Kafka and the other with Baudelaire and the Arcades Project. Mehlman claims that a close reading of Benjamin’s radio plays for children, which were written between 1929 and 1933 in Germany, can bridge the gap between the Kafka and Baudelaire projects.

Mehlman uses an approach influenced by psychoanalysis to do this. While Mehlman deserves much credit for his bringing these radio plays to the attention of English speaking critics and for his attempt to relate this work to Benjamin’s academic work, his reflections are preliminary. His book has a total of 97 pages and this makes sense since he moves from idea to idea at a very quick pace. Nonetheless, his work is valuable and it provides many entry points for this blog’s (and my book’s) investigation into Benjamin’s preoccupation with the man-child (the schlemiel).

Mehlman addresses the daemonic in his book in relation to Benjamin but not in relation to Baudelaire.  To be sure, it was from Baudelaire that Benjamin became intensely interested in the daemonic.  Mehlman’s reading of the daemonic in Benjamin is worth consideration – and we will do so in another post – but it still overlooks a few key links in Baudelaire.   In addition, Mehlman doesn’t mention any of Baudelaire’s reflections on children or on toys. These gaps need to be addressed before Mehlman or anyone tries to bridge the gap between Kafka and Baudelaire (Benjamin’s two final projects).

I have been dealing with this issue by giving an in-depth reading of the Daemonic in Baudelaire and its relationship to laughter. Furthermore, I have shown how it works into Benjamin’s reflections on himself and also Kafka (by way of the Shuvalkin Parable – which Mehlman reads psychoanalytically).

I’d like to continue along this thread. By doing so, we can better understand Benjamin’s conflict with childhood in general and his own childhood in particular. In addition, I think it is imperative for us to approach Benjamin’s reading of Kafka in light of these reflections. Since Benjamin’s readings of Kafka either draw on or reject Baudelaire’s approaches to humor and children.

To this end, I’d like to begin with a quote from Baudealire’s journals about art and horror and relate these reflections to his reflection on children and laughter.

Baudelaire was very interested in horror. To be sure, he imported the work of the master of horror, Edgar Allen Poe, into France by way of translation. Moreover, he introduced Poe to a French audience in his celebrated essay “Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Works.”

In the essay, Baudelaire shows his utter fascination with Poe’s work. Baudelaire gives a detailed description of the terror and excitement the writer and the reader upon writing and reading horror:

The very fervor with which he hurls himself into the grotesque for love of the grotesque and the horrible for love the horrible I regard as proofs of the sincerity of his work and the intimate accord between the man and the poet. I have already noticed in several men that such a fervor is often the result of a vast store of unused vital energy…The supernatural rapture which man can feel at the sight of his own blood flowing, those sudden, needless spasms of movement, those piercing cries uttered without the mind’s having issued any orders to the throat…As he breathes the attenuated ether of this world the reader may feel that vague distress of the mind, that fear on the brink of tears, that anguish of the heart which dwell in strange immensities. But admiration is the dominant emotion, and moreover the writer’s art is great! (The Painter of Modern Life, 90-91)

In a journal entry dated May 13, 1856, Baudelaire writes a shocking passage which echoes these sentiments:

A man goes pistol-shooting, accompanied by his wife. He sets up a doll and says to his wife: “I shall imagine that this is you” He closes his eyes and shatters the doll. Then he says, as he kisses his companion’s hand, “Dear angel, let me thank you for my skill!”

Immediately following this passage, Baudelaire discovers his task as an artist: “When I have inspired universal horror and disgust, I shall have conquered solitude.”

Who inspires this tendency to horror? Baudeliare, in the same entry, describes his style in terms of Poe:

STYLE: The eternal touch, eternal and cosmopolite. Chateaubriand, Alph. Rabbe, Edgar Poe.

The last pair, Rabbe and Poe, is telling when juxtaposed the other two pairs, since Alphonse Rabbe is most well known for his Album d’un Pessimiste which pays homage to pessimism and nihilism. The other two pairs pay homage to culture, philosophy, and religion. The last pair, however, speak to the task of art which is, for Baudelaire, to “conquer solitude” by way of inspiring “universal horror and disgust.”

These reflections on Poe and horror shed an interesting light on Badeliare’s prose pieces on children, toys, and laughter.

To take one example, and I will provide others in our next blogs, Baudelaire when writing on the “Absolute comic,” claims that the European Edgar Allen Poe – namely, ETA Hoffmann – is the best illustration of the Absolute Comic. And the exemplary Hoffmann story that Baudelaire chooses to cite and discuss deals with the horror of a child.

I will end this blog entry with Baudelaire’s intricate description of the story in his “Essay on Laughter.” Notice how Baudelaire’s tone changes when he tells the story: he becomes a storyteller telling stories to children:

In the story entitled Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots…no sight could be more beautiful than the arrival of the great company of the Carrots in the farmyard of the betrothed maiden’s home. Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses! The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility. The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its harms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobally snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds! That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction. (163)

The horror comes when her father, “a wise man versed in sorcery,” lifts the flap of the tent to shock her: “Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp”(ibid)

Notice that Baudelaire moves from the childish and the innocent to the horrific and associates this shift with the “Absolute comic.” This shift marks two principle poles for Baudelaire which he travels between.  To be sure, the biggest shocks and the greatest comic revelations – for Baudelaire and for Benjamin – involve some kind of childhood damage.

In the next few entries I will look into this relationship of children and toys to horror and terror. These reflections on childhood and horror will help shed light on Benjamin’s vision of himself as a schlemiel and his vision of Kafka.

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

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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.

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

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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.