Comic Exposure to Targeting: A Levinasian Reading of Andy Kaufman and Phillip Roth’s Portnoy (Part II)


The reflection on and implementation of comic targeting has a long history which stretches back to the origins of Greek philosophy.   The reflection on the target is of utmost importance for thinkers who wish to establish this or that kind of hierarchy or agonistics between appearance and reality, the mind and the body, being and becoming, and other topics germane to Western philosophy.

For Socrates, the role of irony was to create a sense that things are not always as they seem: he looked to separate appearance from reality, being from becoming, and truth from untruth in his ironies.  We see a good example of this in the Symposium where Alicabades, fully intoxicated, bursts into the Symposium and accuses Socrates of being a seducer.  In his drunkenness, Alciabades publicly accuses Socrates of lying about his quest for truth.  For Alciabades, Socrates acted ‘as if’ he thought physical was inferior to the love of wisdom.  It was a front that he used to seduce young men.  The irony is that Socrates “seems” to be into the former and is seducing young boys, but in actuality he is brining them closer to the truth.  His irony is that of a philosophical trickster. In the end, Alciabades claims that Socrates wears that mask of Silenius, the cohort of Dionysus.  He seems to be a seducer but, ultimately, he’s not.  He is committed to truth and being. And the target of his ironies is always what seems to be true: becoming.

In his book On Masochism, Gilles Deleuze argues that Socrates destroys this or that target in the name of this or that principle.  Irony has a philosophical use: it makes one distinguish and judge the difference between appearance and reality.  In contrast to irony, Deleuze, citing Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, posits humor; for Deleuze humor doesn’t aim at destroying a target and establishing a principle so much as elaborating what he calls a contract which reduces absolutes to finite terms and relations.   In Delueze’s model, there isn’t a hierarchy so much as a lateral tension between beings which is not ironic so much as humorous.

In The Poetics (5:14) and The Rhetoric, Aristotle saw humor as introducing the “incongruous.”  The joke surprises the listener by offering something he or she did not expect in this or that series.  This laughter or surprise is another way of saying that what is laughed at is not beautiful or harmonious.  Humor is a distortion of proper mimesis and is, for this reason, a target.  Aristotle notes this in the poetics, Chapter 4:

Comedy, as I said, a mimesis of people worse than are found in the world – ‘worse’ in the particular sense of ‘uglier’, as the ridiculous is a species of ugliness; for what we find funny is a blunder that does no serious damage or an ugliness that does not imply pain, the funny face, for instance, being one that is ugly and distorted…

For Thomas Hobbes, the author of the classic on political philosophy, Leviathan, humor was wedded to power.  As Sander Gilman points out in an essay on post-Holocaust humor, for Hobbes humor was either aimed at people who had less or more than oneself.  And when one laughs, Hobbes tells us that one feels “superiority” and “sudden glory.”  It is this feeling that one strives for as it makes one feel “as if” one is a god and beyond it all.  One sees the other stumble and laughs by virtue of their not falling.  This feeling cannot be attained without the destruction or decline of this or that target.  One, so to speak, becomes free from the target once one wounds it.    Hobbes states it plainly in his opus, Leviathan:

Men experience the passion of a sudden glory by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them; or by apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves (33)

For Immanuel Kant, comedy is also surprising.  And like Aristotle, he thinks it has a critical function. But for Kant laughter also has an ameliorative function.   Its target, like that of Aristotle, is that which causes tension and perplexity.

Simon Critchley, in his book, On Humor, notes that in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Kant sees humor as offering “comic relief” to this or that tension.  Here’s Kant’s joke which, as Critchley notes, has racist overtones:

An Englishman at an Indian’s table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. – Well, what’s so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. – Oh, but I’m not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. – This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished…

In this joke, the comic relief corresponds not simply to the structural tension presented by the joke but ethnic relations and tensions.   Regardless, what we find is that perplexity is the target and it is perplexity which creates the tension.  The surprise (that is the punch line) here is much like the surprise discussed by Hobbes: it grants one a sense of superiority which, ultimately, is based on realizing that what we thought was perplexing or worthy of serious concern really isn’t.

Comic relief happens when the target is eliminated; strangely enough, this happens when one learns that the target (the perplexity) is not a target (or perplexing).   It only “appeared” to be so.  Comedy, like perplexity, may make one fell uneasy, but in the end it is supplanted by knowledge.  To be sure, this process of experiencing wonder/perplexity (and unease) and the displacement of it is rooted in Aristotle’s approach to wonder and philosophy in The Metaphysics.   Indeed, Aristotle saw happiness in terms of relieving the tension one feels in the face of wonder (that is, not knowing).  In the wake of perplexity, knowledge is relief; just as in the joke, as Kant understands it, the knowledge that the perplexity was a ruse also grants relief.

One can be assured, that there is no tension.  It was just a joke. And in learning this, one feels superior rather than subordinate to this or that perplexity.

Even for the Romantics, comedy has a target. Irony looks to play with and destroy things.  It is violent.  Wit is, as Novalis says, a Menstruum Universale,  a chemical substance.  It targets thinks and breaks them down.  And what we laugh at, like children, is the fragmentary remains (or the process of this breakdown).  Wit demonstrates one’s ability to break things down and, in the process, one elevates oneself (one’s tactical, practical sensibility) over these things.  Instead of the reign of reason, as with Kant, we have the reign of play and tact.  Regardless, there is a kind of superiority – either of play, humanism, or reason – at work which is based on overcoming this or that target.

As I have pointed out in various blog entries, Kierkegaard saw irony as a challenge to the world and all our mental machinations. Irony can make one into a god of sorts.  As Kierkegaard points out in his book Either/Or, humor seems to come out of nowhere to rescue one from despair.  In a section of the book entitled “Rotations,” Kierkegaard sees humor in relation to what he calls rotation.  In the aesthetic (as opposed to the religious or the ethical) one moves from one thing to another – from melancholy to comedy. Although humor “saves,” it does so by taking the world as its target.  It rotates from being brought down by the world to lifting oneself above it, like a god.  But, ultimately, Kierkegaard sees humor as subservient to faith.  Irony divests oneself of the mind, world, etc.  But it is fear and trembling which, for him, supercedes humor.  Regardless, the theme is, still, about targeting and elevation.

Like Kierkegaard, Henri Bergson, in his “Essay on Laughter,” also has a distinct target.  He argues that laughter takes the mechanical gesture as its target.  For Bergson, it targets the mechanical because laughter is connected to becoming, change, and life – to what he calls élan vital – while the mechanical is connected to stasis.  Laughter is a part of what he calls “creative evolution.”  To illustrate this, Bergson talks about different toys that children find funny: like the Jack-in-the-Box, a toy that mechanically repeats the same “surprising” mechanical gesture.  The same goes for mimes or clowns who repetitively repeat this or that action.  We laugh at it because we want to identify with and yet exclude this behavior from society as society. For Bergson, humor is based on “creative evolution” and becoming not repetition.     We laugh because we want to grow and that requires that we target that which keeps us from being free and becoming.

The surprise we feel is, for Bergson, connected to the fact that what we see is repetitive.  It is ultimately transcended by the desire for change which is surprised by that which can change but does not.  It finds these things that repeat over and over again surprising as they go against becoming which Bergson finds germane to humanity.  Here, the surprise is not wonder so much as an articulation of the superiority of élan vital which cannot tolerate the mechanical, which is below life.

In the next blog entry I will discuss Paul deMan’s targeting as the culmination of all of these targeting theories and, from there, I will relate this to Emmanuel Levinas, Phillip Roth, and Andy Kaufman who either extend or challenge this reflection on targeting.  The point of all this reflection on targeting is to show how deeply entrenched this tradition is and to think about whether or not Levinas, Roth, and Kaufman present an alternate route.

Kafka and Kierkegaard’s Abrahams or the Knight of Faith versus the Schlemiel – Take 2


By way of a comic narrator, Kafka’s readings of Abraham and his creation of “other Abrahams” are educational: they teach us how the other Abrahams are.  I would suggest that, for Kafka, his Abrahams are schlemiels who, while acknowledging Kierkegaard’s Passionate Knight of Faith, also offer a challenge to it.  Instead of passion and concentration they also offer us inertia and absent-mindedness.  Kafka’s close descriptions of Abraham and these “other Abrahams” offer us something like a phenomenology of the schlemiel-as-prophet.  After all, Abraham is a prophet just as much as Moses is; however, as Maimonides notes, his prophesy is weaker because it is oftentimes mediated by the imagination.

In the first of his “other Abrahams,” Kafka sets the tone for his entire piece.  His  descriptions of him offer us foolish wisdom:

Abraham’s spiritual poverty and the inertia of this poverty are an asset, they make concentration easier for him, or, even more, they are concentration already.

Attention, as Benjamin says regarding Kafka, is the “silent prayer of the soul.”  So is humility, which Kafka took as the greatest means to peace (as we pointed out in another blog entry).  Spiritual poverty goes hand-in-hand with humility and, for Kafka, it leads to a kind of slowness (what he calls “inertia”).  And, apparently, humility and slowness are not things one can use to concentrate better; they are concentration.  In other words, Abraham’s humility, his spiritual poverty, is concentration.  To make such a claim is to affirm some kind of pathos.  But, immediately after stating this, Kafka decides to offset this pathos and inserts a joke (which every critic I have read has, unfortunately, missed):

By this, however, he loses the advantage of applying the powers of concentration.

The punch line is that he, the narrator, and not Abraham can’t concentrate or understand the value of being concentration instead of using it.  The voice of this piece, the narrator, is a schlemiel. Kafka seems to be telling us that the schlemiel’s job is to acknowledge pathos and inertia but, at the same time, not recognize it.   Pathos is tainted by distraction – something the schlemiel knows well.

The schlemiel is the “other Abraham” while Abraham is the “knight of faith.”

Its not that the narrator is an anti-hero so much as an almost-hero.  To be sure, this absent-minded joke about Abraham and his “spiritual poverty” resonate throughout Kafka’s Abrahams.

The next Abraham addresses Abraham’s relationship to the world.  The narrator criticizes him by saying that this Abraham falls prey to “the illusion” of not seeing the world as something uniform.  By calling it an illusion, Kafka is being highly ironic.  For Kafka, on the contrary, this is not an illusion.  Yet, for the other Abraham it is.  This is obviously ridiculous.  And that is what a schlemiel is or does: he makes ridiculous claims.  They are ridiculous in relation to Kierkegaard’s Abraham, the knight of faith, who, of course, is sickened by the uniformity of the world.  Kierkegaard is preponderant in this regard; the Knight of Faith is obsessed with “the individual” and being “singled out.”  And Abraham, for Kierkegaard, is the penultimate example of uniquesness.  But the voice in this piece says something ridiculous which misinterprets this, once again.  Or, rather, it doesn’t recognize pathos.

Regarding the next Abraham, the narrator notes that the “real Abraham” had “everything” and yet “was to be raised still higher.”  He was raised, since childhood, for the deed.  The narrator notes, here, that this Abraham did not, as Kierkegaard would say, take a leap; rather, “this (his sacrifice) would be logical.”

The narrator contrasts this “real Abraham” to some of the Abrahams who may not even have a child to sacrifice.  For them, the commandment was impossible.  In response to this “impossible” commandment, the narrator told us Sarah Laughed: “These are impossibilities and Sarah had a right to laugh.”  Lest we not forget, Sarah laughs at what would naturally seem impossible: giving birth to a child in her old age.  However, here, the laughter is something specific that happened after Isaac’s birth.  The point being that the narrator mistakes Sarah’s laugh for a general laugh: the laugh at the impossible commandment.

This reading is fascinating because what she is laughing at is the schlemiels situation which is essentially impossible; however, what the schlemiel usually does is to act “as if” the impossible can still be done. This, of course, is ridiculous.  But this is the condition of at least one of the “other Abrahams” who may not have a son to sacrifice.  And it is to this part of the parable that Jill Robbins most closely illustrates her reading.  Kafka, for her, is that “other Abraham.”   Regardless of whether or not we read this parable, like Robbins, as an allegorical autobiography, the point remains: the narrator mis-reads Abraham’s specific, unique commandment by generalizing it.  And this has the effect of challenging its pathos.  This doesn’t detract from that Kafka, elsewhere, sees himself as commanded.  The commandment remains but, as he points out there, it is hard to understand.  His prayer, so to speak, is addressed toward understanding the commandment.  To be sure, Kafka associates his commandment with prayer and humility.

And this brings us to the last of the Other Abrahams who is too humble.   In yesterday’s blog entry, we ended with this “other Abraham.”  This Abraham is so humble that he can’t imagine why he, an old man, and his son – a “dirty” child – could have been called upon by God:

True faith is not lacking in him, he has this faith; he would make the sacrifice in the right spirit if only he could believe he was the one meant.  He is afraid that after starting out as Abraham with his son he would soon change on the way into Don Quixote.  The world would have been enraged at Abraham could it have beheld him at this time, but this one is afraid that the world would laugh itself to death at the sight of him.  However, it is not the ridiculousness as such that he is afraid of – that he is, of course, afraid of that too and, above all, of his joining in the laughter – but in the main he is afraid that this ridiculousness will make him even older and uglier, his son even dirtier, even more unworthy of being called.

This Abraham is already ridiculous; he fears becoming older the more ridiculous he becomes.  This is telling.  Here, Kafka, like Baudelaire and his imagining of an old clown in the circus, imagines what life would be like for someone like this Abraham, this schlemiel.

What would it be like to always be a schlemiel?  What would it be like to always be the object of ridicule?  In the end, Kafka’s parable suggests that being a humble-laughing- stock is not easy.  It’s hard to be a clown, and this life of ridicule deeply affects the body of the schlemiel prophet.  The other-Abraham’s fear – the fear of a humble schlemiel – is that the more one is the pit of laughter, the more one will not be “worthy” of being called.  This fear demonstrates the utter simplicity and humility of this Abraham.   This other Abraham mis-recognizes the calling because he is caught up in the reality of being a schlemiel.

Echoing the first joke, which was based on a mis-recognition of passion, these Abrahams are humble and absent-minded.  They challenge Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith since they misrecognize passion, don’t see themselves as worthy, and do not passionately relate to God (but this has nothing to do with their lack of faith; perhaps it has to do with the “inertia” of their spiritual poverty).

Unlike Kierkegaard, this Abraham doesn’t want to laugh with everyone.  He is afraid of what will happen.  And this makes sense.  It reminds me of Andy Kaufmann’s reticence – near the end of his career – when facing a laughing audience.  He can’t join in as he has lived with too much ridicule.  What happens is that when one laughs, one becomes like a god in this moment of laughing with the gods.  This Abraham can’t even entertain that.  Its not that it’s ridiculous; rather, it is embarrassing.  Ridicule exposes the schlemiel prophet and wears him down.

In the end, the schlemiel doesn’t opt for pathos.  He can’t.  The Knight of Faith can.  Perhaps that’s why the schlemiel’s best defense is absent-mindedness?

Do We Ever Stop Laughing? Kierkegaard, Laughter, and Religion (Part 2)


In the end of The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the “Philosophical Fragments,” Kierkegaard argues that the “ironist is always on the watch” for contradictions and verbal malapropisms.  This vigilance is radical.  For Kierkegaard, the true principled ironist will laugh at everyone, equally.  S/he will even laugh at those who die for an opinion.  No stone will go unturned by the ironist.  The point Kierkegaard wants to make is that dying for a claim or idea (in the name of “freedom,” “justice,” etc) is ridiculous because it will always be ironic:

To the extent the gentleman may be right in asserting that he has that opinion with all his vital force he persuades himself he has, he may do everything for it in the quality of a talebearer, he may risk his life for it, in very troubled times he may carry the thing so far as to lose his life for this opinion…and yet there may be living contemporaneously with him an ironist who, even in the hour when the unfortunate gentleman is executed, cannot resist laughing, because he knows by the circumstantial evidence he has gathered that the man had never been clear about the thing himself. (257)

The ironist, so to speak, laughs at the beheading; it is ironic.  But the ironist Kierkegaard is talking about, the vigilant ironist, is not secular; s/he is religious. S/he is not saved by laughter and the gods; s/he is saved by God:

Laughable it is…for he who with quiet introspection is honest before God and concerned for himself, the Deity saves from being in error, though he be never so simple; him the Deity leads by the suffering of the inwardness of truth.  (258)

In other words, for Kierkegaard, God has the last laugh.  For him, people who believe that their words and ideas will save them will always fail. Their martyrdom is (or will be) tainted by this or that irony.

To illustrate, Kierkegaard tells the story of a thief who dons a wig and robs an innocent bystander.  But after committing the crime, the criminal takes off his wig and runs away.  A “poor man” comes along and puts the wig on and he, unfortunately, becomes the scapegoat. Since man who is robbed sees the wig, and not the man, he makes an oath that the poor man – that is, the innocent man – is the criminal.

The irony is that when the man who steals happens upon the court case, puts the wig on, and says he is the real criminal, the oath taker realizes he has made an error; but he can do nothing since he already swore that the poor man with the wig (the wrong man) was the criminal.

The lesson is obvious.  Kierkegaard sees all public oaths and all statements – statements one is willing to stake everything on – to be laughable.  The oath is ironic; it is not a truthful commitment.  In addition, it is the poor and innocent man – who happens to be walking by – who is the victim of irony (and not just the victim of the theft who made the wrong oath).

The final lesson that Kierkegaard wants to teach us is that people who are more concerned with the “what” (the “hat”) rather than the “how” (inner passion and conviction) will always be deceived.

The only thing that can save us from the absurdity of irony (the “error”), says Kierkegaard, is faith.  Faith, “the how,” is greater than “the what” (the public proclamation of truth).  The inner oath, so to speak, is greater than the outer oath.  Apparently, the inner oath cannot be ironic while the outer oath can.

Therefore, laughter, for Kierkegaard, leads to faith since one will realize that truth cannot exist in exterior reality.  All public acts – even the most noble – will lead to error and irony.  Faith may not.  It is a “possibility” or risk that Kierkegaard would like to take.

For Kierkegaard, the internal absence of irony makes faith better than laughter since irony may lead to faith or skepticism.  Kierkegaard chooses the latter.  Laughter may be the gift of the gods, but for the Kierkegaard of The Postscript, the greater gift is the gift of God: the gift of faith.

However, there is a problem.  Kierkegaard’s description of Abraham in Fear and Trembling insists that the inner “secret” of Abraham’s faith-slash-wisdom is not a faith untainted by foolishness but…foolishness:

But Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.

To say that the “secret” of Abraham’s wisdom is foolishness implies his faith is ironic.  A secret implies something hidden from view; what Kierkegaard would call the “inner” or “subjectivity.”  Given what we have learned from The Postscript above, we can understand that this public commitment can be called ridiculous, but his inner commitment (his inner “oath” of faith) should not.

To say that this is a secret invites the question: can anything, even something so serious as faith, escape laughter?  If the secret of faith is irony, then everything is touched with laughter – even the state of “fear and trembling” that Abraham goes through when he “decides” to act.   But can this really be the case?  If faith, an internal oath, is better than the external oath, shouldn’t it be unblemished by irony?  Is irony, still, a saving grace for Kierkegaard?  Is it the secret of faith?  Is Kierkegaard taking the side of the holy fool?

And how does this fare with the schlemiel?  Is Kierkegaard’s notion of irony consistent with a Jewish concept of irony?  Does the schlemiel have a secret, too?  And is this secret foolishness?

The answers to many of these questions come from Kafka.  For him, Abraham was a schlemiel of sorts.   Kafka’s comic rendering of Abraham and his situation makes Abraham into a simpleton and not so much a passionate knight of faith.

To play on Kierkegaard, I’d say that the issue, for Kafka, is not so much whether faith puts an end to laughter as who laughs and how one laughs in relation to “the commandment.”

(I will turn to Kafka’s Abraham in the next blog.)

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?