Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians

descartes

Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well known for his portraits of doctors, aristocrats, and leaders, but he is less known for his portraits of children, fools, and musicians.  Going through many of these paintings, I found that Hals was more fascinated with the gestures of simple people than with aristocrats.  Their gestures are the most suggestive and allegorical; these representations suggest a way of seeing that is based on allusion and movement.

To illustrate the contrast between his representations of aristocrats and simple folk, I’d like to first take a look at his most famous portrait; namely, of Rene Descartes.  After doing this, I’d like to contrast this portrait to the portraits of a fool, a child, and a two child musicians.

In the portraits of many aristocrats and leaders, Hals portrays his subjects in the most serious ways.  Their gestures are simple, their bodies are rigid, and their gazes are focused.  They are in “possession of themselves.”  They are men whose bodies are subject to their reasoning and to civility.  Like those portraits, this portrait of Rene Descartes is of a man who is self-possessed.  The subject looks directly at the viewer with a knowing look. However, the most interesting aspect of this painting is Descartes mouth.  We are not sure if he is smiling or if he is indifferent.  This ambiguous gesture of the father of Modern Philosophy is rich in implication.  It suggests that he is friendly and a part of humanity; on the other hand, it suggests that he is indifferent to – and perhaps even fed up with – humanity.  Perhaps he would rather be thinking than sitting in front of Frans Hals.  After all, Descartes regarded the imagination as inferior to the intellect and associated it with the body and not the mind.

In contrast to this painting of Descartes, the gestural representations of fools, children, and children musicians are much more subtle and suggestive.  I will take a look at a few to bring out this contrast.

Jester-with-a-Lute-Frans-Hals

When I was looking for a photo to append to my blog post on Charles Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death” (which pits a fool against the Prince), I chose Frans Hals painting which the Louvre website calls a “Buffoon With a Lute.”  I found that it nicely illustrated the allure of the fool (and his gambol with death) to which the narrator of the Baudelaire prose piece was drawn.

The Louvre, which owns this painting, estimates that it was made somewhere between 1623 and 1625.

I am struck by look and gesture of the Buffoon.  His head is tilted to the side and he is looking askance at something we can’t see.   His smile is also tilted.   To add to the contrasts, one will notice that his hair is longer on one side and shorter on the other.  The tilting of all these features complicates our reading of the Buffoon.  To be sure, its hard to tell whether he is happy or wary of what he is doing and who he is playing for.  I see this, specifically, in his smile.  The fact that it is pulled up on the edge suggests that something is odd.  In fact, I couldn’t help but sense that in the midst of his apparent joy there may be a feeling of terror.  It seems as if the Buffoon is about to be killed or punished; but to mitigate the threat, he plays on and smiles toward the person (or people) outside the frame.   He is tactful.

This gesture is complicated by the fact that this is not simply an absent-minded fool who lacks any sense of the world outside of him.  He is innocent, a boy, and yet, he is a man facing something we can’t see, something outside the frame.  His smile is cunning and responds to something real; unlike Descartes smile which seems to detest the real or only to deal with it as a matter of course.   Since it deals with possible terror and is riddled with anxiety, this painting is more existential than the Descartes portrait, which is more about an intellectual attitude toward the world.

The buffoon’s face connotes subtlety, but his hands and the instrument connote neutrality.  They are –so to speak – doing their own thing.  It is as if his body, in a Cartesian sense, is on auto-pilot while his soul is caught between fear and joy.

Laughing-Child--1620-25-small

In this portrait of a child, the child is smiling, happy, and innocent.  He is present to the painter.  Unlike the portraits of Descartes and the Buffoon, the child is not judging the world or dealing with it in a tactful manner.

Boy-Playing-A-Violin-small

In contrast to this portrait is the painting of a “child playing the violin.”  In this portrait, the subject is not present to the painter or viewer.   He is absent-minded.  His head is tilted, but his eyes look heavenward as he plays the violin.  This contrasts greatly to the Buffoon whose eyes look to the side and smile is twisted.  It also contrasts to the Descartes portrait since he, at the very least, is giving some attention to the painter (though perhaps against his ‘real’ interests).

This portrait is haunting in the sense that it seems as if he is about to put down the fiddle and ascend to heaven.  The music, perhaps, is detaching him from the world.  Perhaps he, unlike the Bufoon with the Lute, is the true fool.  His gestures denote a total disregard for the eye looking upon him.  Perhaps he is truly free of the gaze and the world.

Boy-holding-a-Flute-(Hearing)-small

The portrait of the “boy holding the flute” is very odd.  Like the other paintings of musicians, he is also tilting his head and smiling.  But in this portrait, he is looking directly at the viewer.  Juxtaposed to the other paintings, the viewer is no longer thinking about who he or she is looking at or what the subject may be thinking as he plays music.

In this painting, the musician has stopped playing.  He looks directly at you.   There is something odd about this gaze.  It acknowledges the gaze but responds to it in a way that is awkward.  Its as if he has missed a social cue or two.  Moreover, the flute he holds interrupts his smile.  And this creates a kind of confusion in the viewer.   To be sure, his smile is not perfect.  It, too, is a bit askance.  And the fact that he is a child doesn’t mitigate the sense of madness that this portrait conveys by way of subtle gestures.

What interests me most in these portraits is how Hals articulates the subtlety of gesture and its relationship to the world.  As we have seen, from Descartes to the boy with the flute, Hals was interested in the different ways his subjects regarded the world.  The difference between the Philosopher and the Bufoon, the child, and child musicians is telling.  The question I have is what value do these gestures have for Hals.  Did he have more respect for his aristocratic subjects or for his folkish and childish subjects?  Did he value the theoretical bearing of Descartes more than the tactical bearing of the Bufoon or vice-versa?

These questions are relevant since I will be looking into the meaning of gesture in Walter Benjamin in forthcoming blog entries.  For a painter like Hals and for a thinker like Benjamin, the gesture and its performance tell us a lot of things about the nature of what it means to have a relationship with the world.  Benjamin, in his readings of Kafka, was interested in characters who (as schlemiels) had an odd relationship with the world.   He focused on their gestures so as to convey (or even teach) this attentiveness to his readers.  Like Hals, Benjamin does not evaluate these gestures so much as pay attention to them so as to understand their relationality.

So, to be sure, I’d like you to consider this blog entry a ‘warm up’ to the reading of gesture that I will be pursuing in the near future.

Destroying Toys With Jacques Derrida and Charles Baudelaire

images-1

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

images-1

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)

images-1

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.

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.

Hide and Seek: Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Children and Childhood – Take 2

DownloadedFile-6

Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”

Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions.  But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself.  After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were.  But was I fascinated for the same reasons?

In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”

I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.”  But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?

At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.”  According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood.  Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.

Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic.  We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.

The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.

Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children.  In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults.  This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”

We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street.    Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children.   It consists of several aphorisms.  The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.

I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries.  For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.

Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries.  The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”

This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.”  His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world.  And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.”  Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”).  To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”

Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying.  But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright.  Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma.   In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma.  To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.

To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world.  He goes to these places out of terror.  A schlemiel does this as well.  A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations.  Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand.  The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on.  He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.

Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time.  I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide.  The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.

Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.”  But these stories were not simply told.   They were written over various spaces, people, and time.  My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality.  My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.

When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book.  It comes to life.  However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner.  Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.

Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.

To Which Childhood Shall We Return? Walter Benjamin’s Child versus Georges Bataille’s “True Child” (Take 1)

DownloadedFile-5

The schlemiel is a man-child.  The character presupposes a man who has not grown up or a child who has not matured to become a man.   The schlemiel lives in the world of people but is in his own world because he doesn’t know how to live in that world.  He lives in a world of dreams and in dreams every little ‘thing’ matters and holds deeper significance.  Everything has a secret.  This interest in little things distracts the schlemiel from “the big picture.”  It distracts him from the world.  The little things makes him absent-minded.

To be sure, Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi characterizes Sholom Aleichem’s Motl in this manner.  He is a character who gets caught up with things; and, as a result, Motl can’t understand his mothers suffering, his life situation, the death of his father, the disaster unfolding around him.   Near the end of Motl, The Cantor’s Son, Motl is optimistic and excited about the fact that he is going to America and will come into contact with more things!  Ezrahi, at one point, briefly evokes Walter Benjamin and his fascination with things to illustrate.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t pursue it further.

I would like to suggest that we contrast two types of men-children which have, most recently, entered the Schlemiel Theory blog space: Georges Bataille’s child and Walter Benjamin’s.

What we have seen thus far is that Georges Bataille wanted, like Walter Benjamin (in his essay on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) to “return to childhood.”  Both thinkers noted that the return to childhood would not, by any means, be without disaster.  Since the world has rejected youth and childhood, and since the project of writers who supported the “youth movement” has failed, the return of childhood, Benjamin tells us, can only come in the aftermath of an “implosion.”

Echoing Nietzsche, Bataille envisioned a KINDERLAND to come.  He also saw it in the aftermath of a disaster.   But, based on what we have seen so far, we can say that while Benjamin didn’t describe childhood and disaster in depth, Bataille did.

More to the point, Bataille seems to have gone further than Benjamin in describing what kind of child he wanted to be and what kind of disaster this implied. Indeed, Bataille distinguished between the “true child” and the false one.  The true child, for Batialle, is a child who experiences shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The true child, in other words, is passionate; s/he knows, in the depths of her existence, that the “serious exists.”  And this knowledge is disasterous and tragic.

Even though Bataille renounced all projects, he didn’t regard his “spiritual exercise” of becoming a child or stupid as a project.  However, when and if his pursuit of becoming a child does become a project (that is, when and if it becomes too obsessed with a goal), the true child (which Bataille aspires to be) would – Bataille avers – “laugh” at his seriousness.   This laughter frees the “true child” from the serious project.  Yet, this laughter does nothing to mitigate the true child’s powerlessness, shame, and terror.  All laughter does is lighten the weight of shame and powerlessness.  But in doing so laughter embraces stupidity.  Bataille’s “true child” revels in it.   The true child is Bataille’s description of a real and an ideal child; the child he wants to be and can become only through humiliating himself.

Batialle’s model of the “true” child is far removed from the schlemiel.  By contrasting the two, we can have a better idea of what makes the schlemiel unique. 

I suggested this contrast yesterday. The schlemiel gets caught up in dreams and all the little details of life.  The schlemiel gets distracted by things.  The schlemiel isn’t passionate.  He doesn’t experience shame, terror, and powerlessness.  The schlemiel doesn’t know that seriousness exists or, if he knows, it really doesn’t matter to him or her.  He can’t laugh at his passion because, quite simply, he isn’t passionate.

You couldn’t find a greater contrast between one man-child and another than between Bataille’s “true child” and the schlemiel.

Benjamin’s child is different: his “true child” has more in common with the schlemiel than with the passionate “true child” that Bataille aspired to.

In a piece entitled “Old Forgotten Children’s Books,” which was published in 1924 in Illustrierte Zeitung, Benjamin describes the child in a different manner:

For children are fond of haunting any site where things are visibly being worked on.  They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, and carpentry.  In waste products they recognize the face that he world of things turns directly and solely from them.  In using the thing, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.  

What I would like to suggest is a little different from what I suggested at the outset with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi.  The main thing about Benjamin’s “true child” is not his or her passion, and not his obsession with things, so much as her relationship to “waste products” and “things worked on.”   All the things that Benjamin’s true child is interested in are partial.

This child is distracted from the “world of things.” However, children “produce their own small world of things within the greater one.”  This small world was a world that Benjamin was attracted to.

What I wonder is if the child’s world of waste and the child’s miniature world are intimations of what Benjamin would call the world of childhood that lays in the future.  This world of childhood is in the aftermath of disaster.  But, if we look again, we can notice that in this world-to-come the child plays in ruins.  He doesn’t care about the disaster so much as how he can relate one fragmented thing to another.  Perhaps this is the dream of a schlemiel: to live in the garbage and to play in the garbage while not seeing the disaster around him.

In contrast to Bataille’s man-child, Benjamin’s lacks passion but doesn’t lack a love for garbage.  What this implies is that Benjamin didn’t see the path to childhood as passing through humiliation and shame, as Bataille did, he saw the path of childhood as passing through the garbage dump.  Benjamin’s schlemiel turns to broken things – not to passions. He does not know that “seriousness exists.”  And, in this, it seems there is no violence or self-destruction.

If this is the case, then how can we understand Benjamin’s Apocalyptic warnings in his essay on The Idiot?  Such warnings and premonitions puzzled Benjamin’s closest friend – the Kabbalah scholar, Gershom Scholem. He could understand Benjamin’s interest in garbage, partial things, and micro-worlds, but he couldn’t understand Benjamin’s interest in the daemonic  “destructive element.” To be sure, sometimes Benjamin would turn to the destructive child, but, as we shall see, this only happened when Benjamin, personally, had to face failure.

And when that happened, his man-child, his schlemiel, went from being a child that plays with fragments to a shameful creature.

While Bataille’s true child passionately embraced failure, stupidity, and shame, Benjamin’s did not.   His child doesn’t get those things.  When he’s at play in the ruins nothing else matters.  But when he fails, it seems as if his child becomes a shameful figure – a reminder of how ridiculous and tragic things are.

At this point, you might be wondering why such intelligent men like Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille would want to return to childhood?  What would drive them to envision the child of the future, the “true” child?  Why would they spend so much time reflecting on such things?  Did they do so because they realized that maturity was a joke and that modernity had lost what gave it life; that is, childhood?   How would living out childhood as an adult – how would becoming a man-child – be redemptive?  Why were they so desperate for childhood?

We’ll leave these questions for our next blog entry….