Walter Benjamin on Socrates, Histrionic Dialogue, and Comedy as the “Inner Side of Mourning”


Walter Benjamin was fascinated with the figure of the “imposter” (or intriguer) and how it related to the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play) since it represents the meeting point of comedy and tragedy.   This meeting point, for Benjamin, finds its precursor in Socrates.  His silence, as opposed to tragic silence, is ironic. It is based on letting one, as Leo Strauss says of Maimonides, relate chapter headings.  And this act is, in itself, comical, histrionic:

The ironic silence of the philosopher, the coy, histrionic silence, is conscious.  In place of the sacrificial death of the hero, Socrates sets the example of the pedagogue.  But, in Plato’s work, the war which the rationalism of Socrates declared on tragic art is decided against tragedy with a superiority which ultimately affected the challenger more than the object challenged. (118)

The coming together of comedy and tragedy is alluded to at the end of the Symposium. As Benjamin notes, Socrates, Agathon (the tragedian), and Aristophanes (the comic playwright) face each other as “dawn breaks over the three.”  Benjamin notes that what we find in this moment is dialogue as such and he dubs it “pure dramatic language”:

The dialogue contains pure dramatic language, unfragmented by its dialectic of tragic and comic.  This purely dramatic quality restores the mystery which had gradually become secularized in the forms of Greek Drama: its language, the language of the new drama, is, in particular, the language of Trauerspiel.  (118)

This is quite a claim.  It suggests that the Trauerspiel, against what we read in most of the book, is a dialectic of the comic and the tragic. And that the “dramatic quality” of “pure dramatic language…restores the mystery.” In other words, comedy and irony have a major part to play.

Later in the book, comedy makes its first appearance when Benjamin talks about the intriguer (or, as Michel Serres will say, in relation to Moliere – a favorite comic playwright of Benjamin, the “imposter”). Benjamin associates comedy with the “inner side of mourning”:

With the intriguer comedy is introduced into the Trauerspiel.  But not as an episode. Comedy – or more precisely: the pure joke – is the essential inner side of mourning which from time to time, like the lining of a dress at the hem or lapel, makes its presence felt.  It’s representation is linked to the representative of mourning.  (126)

Its representative is an amalgamation of a prince and a buffoon (126).  It is also evinced in the relationship between the satanic (the cruel) and the comic (which Benjamin drew from Baudelaire’s essay on the “Essence of Laughter.)  This aspect of the comic, says Benjamin, has been missed by “speculative aesthetics”: “Rarely, if ever, has speculative aesthetics considered the affinity between the strict joke and the cruel.”

Noting that we have all seen the “children laugh where adults are shocked,” Benjamin ventures that the child knows best and is teaching us about the essence of the mourning play which can be found in the relation of comedy to tragedy.  The alteration between the cruel and the comic finds its figure in the “intriguer”(126).

Using philology and a genealogy of sorts, Benjamin argues that the figure of the intriguer emerges in the 14th century by way of the rogue whose scorn marks a transition.  According to Benjamin, the scorn was originally a Christian kind of scorn for “human pride,” but, over time, it took on a “devilish” aspect.   The merrymaker, says Benjamin, is not a rogue.  And the rogue circumvents salvation; he is seen to emerge out of the murder of Jesus.   And the comic aspect of the rogue, therefore, is devilish.   And by way of the “secularization” of the “passion play,” the rogue becomes the intriguer:

As in contemporary secular drama, the rogue had already, in the religious drama of the fifteenth century, taken over the role of the comic figure, and, and, as now, this role was perfectly adapted to the structure of the play and exerted a fundamental influence on the development of the (comic) action. (127)

In an odd move, Benjamin insists that the role of the intriguer is not simply an “amalgamation of heterogenous elements.” In fact, he seems to suggest something ontological about comedy:

The cruel joke is just as original as harmless mirth; originally the two are close to each other; and it is precisely through the figure of the intriguer that the…Trauerspiel derives its contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences. (127)

In other words, the cruel joke, figured in the intriguer, facilitates “contact with the solid ground of wonderfully profound experiences.”  I put the stress on wonderful because, as we saw above, Benjamin associates the comic with preserving mystery (going as far back as Socrates).

…to be continued

(In my book on the schlemiel, I am currently working on a chapter that addresses Walter Benjamin’s reading of the intriguer since it taps into Benjamin’s deep interest in the comic. This interest in the comic has, for some odd reason, been bypassed by major Benjamin scholars.   This blog, essays to be published on this topic, and my book, look to address this gap in Benjamin scholarship.)


Irony, Humility, and the Community of the Question: Leo Strauss on Platonic Irony and Being Literary


One of the things I love about the work of Leo Strauss is his suggestion that we read philosophers or religious thinkers like Plato or Maimonides as one would read a good novel.  One of Strauss’s most important essays is entitled the “Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed.”     And the core of his literary method is to make very close readings of the text so as to listen for contradictions and allusions to something other than what is said on the surface.  In other words, he looks for the esoteric by way of paying close attention to the exoteric aspects of the texts.  To be sure, the cracks on the surface always suggests deeper meanings.  And when these deeper meanings compete with the philosophical or religious meanings of the text, the reader is forced to consider which meaning is more important for the author.   Strauss, in truth, believes that true intelligence is to be found in a text that prompts the reader to ask the right questions.   He claims that the person who responds to these prompts in the text becomes a part of a “community.”    And for Strauss the literary device that prompts the most intelligent questions and fosters community is irony.  His reading of irony, to be sure, has us pay close attention to not just what irony is but what it does.  And in doing so, it also makes us play closer attention to his own text with all of its ironies and allusions.  By exposing us to such ironies, he exposes us to a world of rich textual and intellectual possibilities.

A text that demonstrates Strauss’s approach to irony is his essay “On Plato’s Republic,” which appears in his book The City of Man.  At the outset of the essay, Strauss plays the ironist by playing out the question of how one should read Plato.  First he makes a claim, then he negates it; but after doing this, he brings up the claim again, and negates it once again. This process does much to put our assumptions about Plato into question:

Whereas reading the Politics we hear Aristotle all the time, in reading the Republic we hear Plato never.  In none of his dialogues does Plato ever say anything. Hence, we cannot know from them what Plato thought…But this is a silly remark: everyone knows that Plato speaks through the mouth..of his Socrates, his Eleatic stranger, his Timaeus, and his Athenian stranger….But why does he use a variety of spokesmen? He does not tell us; no one knows the reason. (50)

After saying all this, Strauss plays on the reality of how he sounds in front of other scholars and he simply gives up.   He acts as if it makes sense to accept the assumption that Socrates is Plato’s spokesperson when we can clearly see that he is in conflict with this.  And this comes out in the sentence following his decision to conform:

We do not wish to appear more ignorant than every child and shall therefore repeat with childlike docility that the spokesperson for Plato is Socrates.  But it is one of Socrates’ peculiarities that he was the master of irony.  (50)

This “but” changes everything since it suggests that whatever Socrates says is not what appears to be.  So to with our reading of Plato: perhaps Socrates is teaching us is that although he appears to be Plato’s spokesman he’s really not.  Perhaps, Strauss muses, Plato didn’t have “a teaching” and never really “asserted anything”?   But, following this, he says that this can’t be the case.  It is “absurd” to think this.

However, the question lingers even after he states this.

The next paragraph, hinting at this lingering question, is all about irony.  Strauss defines it immediately: “Irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).  But Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle,  Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Strauss goes so far as to equate wisdom with irony and to argue that “it is humanity peculiar to the superior man”(51).  Moreover, irony is selective.  It speaks “differently to different kinds of people”(51).  And, at its best, it evokes questions rather than answers.  However, not everyone is prompted by this or that irony to ask questions; hence, it speaks differently to different people.

For this reason, Strauss suggests that we read Plato’s dialogues not in terms of their philosophical content, alone; rather, one should also read them in terms of who was being spoken to and who was not being spoken to in this or that irony:

One must postpone one’s concern with the most serious questions (the philosophical questions) in order to become engrossed in the study of merely a literary question.  (52)

And by doing this, we realize that there is a deep connection between what he calls the “literary question and the philosophical question”(52).  In other words, literature and philosophy can be brought together by way of the questions evoked by irony.

Strauss goes even further and argues that the “literary question, the question of presentation, is concerned with a kind of communication”(52).  And this communication, through irony, is a “means of living together.”  In other words, irony creates a kind of community of the question (to play on Derrida’s opening to his famous essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics”).

However, instead of taking this to the next level, Strauss keeps it within academia: “The study of the literary question is therefore an important part of the study of society”(52).  He goes on to argue that this is more than a simple literary question: it is a “quest for truth, a common quest, a quest taking place through communication.”  This suggests that literature and philosophy have a “common quest” for truth.  However Strauss redirects this by arguing that the “literary question properly understood is the question of the relation between society and philosophy.”

This redirection is telling since it suggests that by reading for irony in philosophy we can better address the “question of relation of society and philosophy.”   For Strauss, this implies that there is something about irony that is related to the question of community and truth.

What, in fact, is the true kind of community?

Strauss’s reading of irony suggests that by reading for irony and communicating this irony to others we create a kind of ironic community.  Although he doesn’t use these terms his work suggests a community of the question which is based on a “common quest for truth.”  Moreover, as we saw above, if done “properly,” this community will evince a kind of humility instead of a kind of a snarky kind of arrogance.

What I love about this meditation is the fact that it gives great weight to being a close reader of the text.  To be sure, Strauss gives the act of literary criticism vis-à-vis the religious or philosophical text the highest value possible since it is, for him, the basis of creating a community of the question based on the “common quest for truth.”

I think many of my colleagues and readers should take this lesson to heart since I have never seen a greater vindication of irony and its meaning in any text I have read.  (However, if I am missing something, please do let me know.)   And this bodes well for Schlemiel Theory since the readers of the schlemiel will understand that the ironies of this comic character also seem to be going in the same direction.  To be sure, we don’t read novels, stories, and poems on the schlemiel – with all of their ironies -because they are funny; we read them because we are in search of truth and we are looking to create a community of the question.

The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism as the Difference Between Irony and Humor


One of the most interesting distinctions I have come across, regarding comedy, deals with the distinction made by Gilles Deleuze (a French philosopher) between humor and irony.  According to Deleuze, in his book entitled Masochism, we find irony in Sadism and humor in Masochism (I am capitalizing these words for the sake of emphasis).  As a thinker who is interested in “leaving metaphysics behind,” Deleuze makes the interesting claim that Sadism simply reinstates metaphysics even through it purports to destroy it.   In contrast, Deleuze thinks that Masochism does leave it behind.  Evidence of this distinction can be found in the irony and humor we find in the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively.

The reason this distinction is of such interest to me is not simply that it is unexpected; rather, it is also of interest because, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the psychologist Theodor Reik and the cultural critic Albert Goldman both “psychologize” the schlemiel by claiming that he is a masochistic character or, quite simply, a person who, in fear of reality, finds excuses and “rationalizes” inaction:

‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Theodor Reik, ‘would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances.’  Explaining the popularity of the schlemiel pose in modern culture, Albert Goldman calls it an excuse, an apology, and a rationalization.  (68)

To be sure, the basis of her reading of the schlemiel – in major part – is based on challenging the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  She argues against the psychoanalyst who “treats the schlemiel concept as a neurotic symptom and tries to determine the causes of a patient’s failure in actual situations.”    In contrast, while the author “may or may not be aware of the ‘masochistic need to fail’ that dominates the subconscious of his (schlemiel) character,” such “knowledge may be irrelevant to the story.”  Wisse claims that, in a story like “Gimpel the Fool,” the “irony…rests on our ability to perceive his failure as a success”(68).  And Gimpel’s “antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rationalization of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is a good example”(68).  This mockery of psychological explanations – namely, the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character – affirms, by way of irony, goodness:

Since the schlemiel is above all a reaction against the evil surrounding him, he must reject more and more as the evil increases; Gimpel is prepared to walk into eternity in pursuit of personal goodness. (69).

Read against Wisse’s take on Masochism, Deleuze’s reading offers another way of addressing the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  I’d like to break his reading down and test Wisse’s reading against it so as to see how or whether Deleuze’s reading has any relevance to schlemiel theory.

Cutting right to the chase, Deleuze writes that “in modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law”(86).   Both Sade and Masoch (respectively, the founders of what, today, is called Sadism and Masochism), “represent the two main attempts at subversion, at turning the law upside down.”  But the ways they went about doing this and the success in doing so differ radically.

In view of his claim, Deleuze offers definitions of irony and humor in terms of law.  Writing on irony, he states:

Irony is still in the process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. (86)

Deleuze’s reading speaks directly to the Socratic practice of irony where “Good” is a principle toward which one transcends one’s “secondary nature” in the name of one’s “primary nature.”   Through irony, one “discovers” one’s “primary nature.”   Sade, like Nietzsche after him, took the Good as their target.  And, as Deleuze notes, they used irony to “overturn” it; or rather reveal that the Good no longer exists and can no longer be used as the basis of law:

But what is the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide the basis for the law or a justification of its power?  Sade’s answer is that in all its forms – natural, moral, and political – the law represents the rule of secondary nature which is always geared toward conservation; it is a usurpation of true sovereignty.  (86)

Sade sees the law as the basis of all of societies problems.  It is the basis of tyranny.  Deleuze paraphrases Sade as saying: “Tyrants are created by the law alone: they flourish by virtue of the law”(86).  Sade’s hatred of tyranny is the “essence of his thinking.”  And the heroes of his novels speak the “counter-language of tyranny.”

Sade looks to transcend the law, but not toward the Good (as Socrates would do); rather, he transcends the law toward the “direction of its opposite, the Idea of Evil, the supreme principle of wickedness, which subverts the law and turns Platonism upside down”(87).  (Note: The notion or rather language of inverting Platonism was stressed in a several aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche.)  By way of such a process, one will discover his or her “primary nature,” which, in Sade’s view is the opposite of tyranny.  Citing Sade, Deleuze notes that, for Sade, law is “inferior” to “anarchy”:

The law can only be transcended by virtue of a principle that subverts it and denies its power.  

This principle is, according to Deleuze, at the basis of the Sadean irony which destroys the law in order to transcend the law.  But, as Deleuze notes, we are still in the realm of metaphysics since one principle (the Idea of Evil) replaces another (the Idea of the Good).

Deleuze contrasts Sade’s ironic challenge to the law to the Masochist’s challenge, which is based, instead, on what Deleuze calls humor.  Although they both take the law as their “target,” the ironist and the humorist, like the Masochist and the Sadist, are fundamentally different.  However, this assertion may rightfully meet with a puzzled look since, to be sure, the Masochist is one who submits (and here, one would say, submits to the law). Deleuze, nonetheless, claims the opposite: a “masochist would not by contrast be regarded as gladly submitting to it (the law)”(88).

So, what is humor as opposed to irony?  And how does it relate to Masochism?

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

What we call humor –in contradistinction to the upward movement of irony toward a transcendent higher principle – is a downward movement from the law to its consequences.  (88)

This downward movement of humor is accomplished by “twisting the law by excess of zeal.”  In other words, one mocks the law by way of being “too zealous.”  And this is what Masochism-as-humor does:

By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure.  By observing the letter of the law, we refrain from questioning its ultimate or primary character; we then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures it denies us; hence, by the closest adherence to it, and by zealously embracing it, we may hope to partake of its pleasures. (88)

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest applications of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it).  It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity. (88)

How can we, based on this reading, address the schlemiel?  While for Reik and Goodman, Masochism vis-à-vis the schlemiel has a negative value, for Deleuze, Masochism (and its essence: humor) has a positive value: it challenges the law in ways that Sadism cannot.   By over-observing the law one makes it absurd.

A good example of this is evoked by the film theorist and critic Steve Shaviro.  In his book Cinematic Bodies, he writes on Jerry Lewis as a figure of Masochism.  By being over-zealous and through intense mimicry, Shaviro tells us, Jerry Lewis masochistically inverts the law (or the norm).

In the next blog entry, we will continue on this thread and look into how or whether this reading of Masochism and humor relates to the schlemiel.  After all, Jerry Lewis does play a schlemiel.  But this reading is focused less on the psychologizations that Ruth Wisse criticized than on a different way of understanding one’s relation to “the law.”

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 1)


For Kierkegaard, the kata-strophe recurs over and over.   It rotates.  And if we look into the kata-strophe literally, we see that one strophe or verse runs into another.  One group of words counters or negates the truth of another and this, for Kierkegaard, is a kata-strophe.   Strangely enough, for Kierkegaard, this kata-strophe is not simply tragic.  It is laughable.  But this laughter is accompanied by an inner, religious, silence.

In my last blog entry on Kierkegaard laughter, boredom, and the rotating kata-strophe, I noted Kierkegaard’s ultimate wish in his book Either/Or.    The opportunity to make this wish was given to him by the gods.  It was given to him, unexpectedly, when we was in depths of despair:

Something wonderful happened to me.  I was carried up into the seventh heaven. There all the gods sat assembled.  By special grace I was granted the favor of a wish.  “Will you,” said Mercury, “have youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful maiden, or any of the other glories we have in the chest?  Choose, but only one thing.”  For a moment, I was at a loss.  The I addressed myself to the gods as follows: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side.” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 36)

Kierkegaard chooses laughter.  This implies that his choice of laughter over all else will be with him to the very end.  More fascinating is the fact that he is given this opportunity by the gods and not by God.  Given that the gods give him this opportunity and laugh their immortal laughter in assent, makes it explicitly clear that this is a Greek and not a Biblical opportunity.

Kierkegaard knows this and is acutely aware that the comic salvation of the Greek gods may not be consistent with the salvation of Biblical God.  With this awareness, Kierkegaard does something that was never done before in the history of philosophy: he tries to reconcile Greek irony with faith.

We see this attempt in The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” which was published in 1846.   What most thinkers find most significant about this publication is the fact that it introduces Kierkegaard’s thesis that “truth is subjectivity.”  What many fail to notice, however, is that Kierkegaard makes great efforts to apply his ideas of irony to religion and reconcile his view of laughter, which will always be at his side, with faith.  More importantly, for us, Kierkegaard’s comic-faith model can be read against the schlemiel-as-prophet.

Does Kierkegaard’s reading have anything in common with a Jewish reading of comedy and laughter or does it posit a nuanced Christian reading of the relationship of faith to comedy?

In The Post-Script, Kierkegaard returns to the dialectic of remembrance and forgetfulness that we saw in Either/Or.   Here, he notes that absent-mindedness in relation to one’s existence, which has everything to do with this dialectic, is comic:

Either he can do his utmost to forget that he is an existing individual, by which he becomes a comic figure, since existence has a remarkable trait of compelling an existing individual to exist whether he wills it or not…Or he can concentrate his entire energy upon the fact that he is an existing individual…The existing individual who forgets that he is an existing individual will become more and more absent-minded. (203, Anthology)

Kierkegaard goes on to argue that Hegel’s philosophy is absent-minded and distracted.  It forgets that “those to whom the philosopher addresses himself are human beings” and not concepts.  When the philosopher “confuses himself with humanity at large,” he will come to learn that the “royal ‘we’” no longer has power: “When one discovers that every street urchin can say ‘we’, one perceives that it means a little more, after all, to be a particular individual”(206).   Kierkegaard finds the philosopher and the “basement dweller,” who also “plays the game of being humanity,” to be equally “ridiculous.”

So, if the average man and the philosopher are both absent-minded, who is left?  It seems both of them are caught up in forgetfulness?  Where is memory and remembrance? On the side of existence?

Kierkegaard, in a bold move, turns to religion as the place of remembrance:

Say, rather, which you will always remember; for this expression connects itself more closely with the subject of our conversation, namely, that we ought always to bear in mind that a man can do nothing of himself. (239)

However, Kierkegaard is not satisfied with this because of the language that is used.  He puts the word “always” into italics.  He is, in other words, suspicious of such verbal oaths.   He is more interested in the religious as such which strikes one “dumb” (242) and puts one at a loss for the “right word.”  The relationship to God in prayer, for Kierkegaard, discloses one to one’s powerlessness.  And what happens, in the faith experience, is that the subject realizes that they cannot “bring” God together with “accidental finitude.”  They are left to suffer with this contradiction.  And this is not a laughing matter. Kierkegaard, on the contrary, seems to find no room for irony in this unhappy consciousness which is unable to speak.  To be sure, Kierkegaard notes that faith is equivalent to the “repulsion of the absurd” (which is another way of saying a repulsion of the ironic and the ridiculous).

But faith doesn’t have the last word.  At the end of The Postscript, Kierkegaard turns back to his ally: laughter.  And in this last section, Kierkegaard attempts to reconcile the gift of the Greek gods with the God of monotheism.

The question remains: Do we ever stop laughing?

(We will return to this in the next blog entry – Part 2.)

Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 1)


Soren Kierkegaard’s interest in irony is well-known.  His book The Concept of Irony addresses irony and, throughout his work, one can find many passing references to it.  Moreover, Kierkegaard’s concept of irony has been written on by many different scholars.  I am not a Kierkegaard scholar, nor do I aspire to be one; nonetheless, as a schlemiel theorist, I am very interested in his work on irony.   To be sure, anyone who takes an interest in philosophy and comedy can benefit from a study of Kierkegaard’s “ironic” project.  In addition, I would suggest that anyone interested in Kafka’s work and its relation to irony should also look into Kierkegaard as Kafka read much of Kierkegaard’s work.  There are many instances where their ideas of faith, truth, and irony resonate.

I am particularly interested in the two opening sections of Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or which alternate with each other in a musical way.  These sections also give us an acute sense of how important the dialectic between melancholy and laughter was for Kierkegaard.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard notes that “as philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of man begins with irony.”  In this passage, Kierkegaard is suggesting that both philosophy and the “life…which may be called worthy of man” both begin with a crisis that is spurred by wonder.  Irony and doubt are at the beginning of the crisis.  But, as Aristotle notes, the goal of philosophy is to leave the state of perplexity and ignorance that initiate the philosopher’s quest for knowledge.

The point, for Aristotle, is to end the crisis.  Wonder, and the doubt that ensues, makes one unhappy and is certainly not the optimal state of man.

Irony, however, may not be the same.  Would Kierkegaard see irony as an obstacle to wisdom?  Or is irony an end in itself?  Wouldn’t irony preserve this crisis?

However, Gilles Deleuze argues in his book Masochism that irony may not simply be the beginning of philosophy; it may also be the end.    Deleuze argues that irony, in contrast to what he calls humor, looks to affirm a principle by way of negation.  Deleuze reads the ironies of Socrates (and even Marquis de Sade) in this manner.  Humor, in contrast, affirms contingency and relation.  Deleuze sees such humor in the masterpiece of Masochism: Venus in Furs.

I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard sees irony as clarifying a fundamental crisis.  It doesn’t affirm a principle so much as an alteration between possibilities and states.  We see this in the two opening sections of Either/Or which interest me.  What we find in these sections is a catastrophe.  And instead of simply looking into what the catastrophe is, we will also look into how it is.  This “how” will lead us to a more sophisticated understanding of Kierkegaard’s choice to affirm laughter above all else.

The word “catastrophe” has its roots in the word strephein which, in Greek, signifies a movement or turn from one chorus to another.   In music and in poetry, a strophe indicates a movement from one verse (or segment) to another.   The word Kata, in Greek, is prepositional.  It indicates movement and location: along, according to, toward, or against.  Taken together, a catastrophe could be read as a movement of one chorus or verse turning toward, along, against another.

Taken literally, a catastrophe suggests several movements: the movement of a verse in a collision course with another verse, a parallel course, a magnetic course, or…a “rotational” course.

To be sure, Kierkegaard suggests this in the first section of Either/Or which is entitled “The Rotation Method.”    He starts the section with a citation from Aristophanes’ comedy Plutus.   The passage, which takes place between two characters named Karion and Chremylos, rotates around many things that one gets “too much” of; they include: love, bread, music, honor, courage, ambition, etc.  The point is not the what one rotates around; that’s arbitrary. It’s the how of rotation that concerns Kierkegaard.  He’s interested in the rhythm, so to speak, of the catastrophe.

But what sets the rhythm off?

Kierkegaard, like Baudelaire, sees the biggest problem of all, which causes all of this rotation, to be excessive Boredom.  I have written on this topic with regard to Baudelaire’s prose piece “A Heroic Death.”  There, I point out how, for the main character (the Prince) Boredom is his greatest enemy and spurs him to do the most unethical things to ward against its power.  In that prose piece, the fool, unfortunately, becomes his target.  And, in some way, the death of the fool (who performs for the Prince) has much to do with the drive to kill Boredom.  But, as I point out there, the real issue is the Prince’s jealousy of the fool-slash-artist who is able to entrance an audience and rob him of his power.  For Baudealire, there is a war between art and entertainment and art and political power; his parable speaks to this conflict.

Like Baudelaire, Kierkegaard is aware of the tension between Boredom and art.  Boredom seeks out entertainment and distraction; art, however, offers a scathing critique of such distraction.  Kierkegaard offers his critique of Boredom as that which spurs endless rotation.  And he slights it for all of our evils:

“What wonder, then, that the world goes from bad to worse, and that its evils increase more and more, as boredom increases, and boredom is the root of all evil” (A Kierkegaard Anthology ed. Robert Bretall, 22).

To illustrate this, Kierkegaard goes through history, starting with the Bible, and argues how nearly every major evil was caused, in some fashion, by boredom.  Kierkegaard states as his universal proposition that “all men are bores” and launches into an interesting rant on boredom which tries to fit in as many particulars as possible within this category:

It may as well indicate a man who bores others as one who bores himself.  Those who bore others are the mob, the crowd, the infinite multitude of men in general.   Those who bore themselves are the elect, the aristocracy; and it is a curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others (24).

So, where does Kierkegaard place himself in this spectrum or does he try to extricate himself, like Baudelaire, from the world of Boredom?


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


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

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

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

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

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

There is one problem.

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

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

Right off the bat, deMan notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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