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

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The last two targeting theories I’d like to look at, before I address Emmauel Levinas, Philip Roth, and Andy Kaufman come from Charles Baudelaire and Paul deMan who, apparently, follows in Baudelaire’s comic footsteps.   (I have written several blogs on Baudelaire and deMan’s reading of comedy.  What I look to do here is to summarize their views and to distinguish their approaches to a Levinas-ian one.)

Like many of the other theorists we have seen so far, the 19th century French Symbolist poet Charles Baudeliare, in his “The Essence of Laughter,” associated what he called “essential laughter” with Satanic superiority and human fallen-ness.  The target of this laughter is innocence and the result of this laughter is a kind of double consciousness of oneself in terms of otherness.  The consciousness of the Satanic – double consciousness – is sufficient to overcome and use the Satanic for social progress because, for Baudelaire, it marks a superiority over nature (one’s one and the world’s). However, in laughing at the fallen, one also feels a loss.  Both are incorporated into one’s consciousness and, taken together, they are for Baudeliare part and parcel of being modern.  The best examples Baudelaire gives come from the world of mime and the comic/horrific world of ETA Hoffman.

The element of blindness and naivite, which is found in the subject of any comic routine, act, joke, or passage, is the key to understanding the Satanic.  With respect to the mime, Baudelaire sees the movements of the mime as bringing out a blindness and a disregard for the civil (but this disregard is blind). We laugh at this disregard for the world and, at the same time, its falleness.  We identify with the excessive and odd gesturing of the mime, yet, at the same time, by laughing at the mime’s gestures we are indicating that we are superior.  And this marks our identification and dis-identification, our double consciousness that one is and one is not caught up in a kind of gestural fallen-ness.

But the fact that Baudeliare turns to the example of fallen-ness that comes to us by way of the German writer ETA Hoffman (as the final example) indicates that something is missing in the mime example.  What’s missing is a greater appreciation of how innocence and its loss play the main role in essential laughter.  The story that interests Baudelaire involves the laughter at a little girl’s shock at learning that the soldiers she has idealized are, ultimately, animal-like.  It is her father, a “magician,” who brings her to this profane revelation.  Her shock at fallen-ness and our laughter at it illustrate, for Baudelaire, our Satanic sensibility.  He calls it a kind of madness, a vertigo at this or that loss.  However, as Baudelaire argues, this madness is followed by a moral awareness of how laughter can be used for progress.  We go into the world with a, so to speak, tainted understanding of our “superiority.”  It is far from perfect and works by way of shocking the innocent.  Nonetheless, without such superiority over nature man would have no meaning.

Further to this last point, Baudelaire’s prose piece, “A Heroic Death,” shows us that laughter is far from progressive and positive; it also creates a wedge between the real artist and the artist of consumption.  The cynical conclusion of this piece is that the consumer, so to speak, has the last laugh while we, the readers, lose our innocence as we are exposed to the cruel truth that power is greater than “real” art (in this case the art of a comic mime).

In “A Heroic Death,” it is the Prince, a being in the position of the power, who embodies the Satanic-comic life.   He is the ultimate consumer.   After he learns that the comic mime (jester) has plotted to kill him with other nobles, he puts him into a test where the Mime has to make the performance of a lifetime.  When he, as Baudelaire notes, becomes one with the symbol and effaces the line between himself and what he is performing, he gives the audience something of a revelation.  They are all enraptured and “intoxicated” with what they see.

However, the Prince is troubled because he loses all of the attention of the people.  The comic mime wins their attention and, in effect, robs the Prince of his power.  In response, he laughs at the true artist who steals his power and this, in effect, leads to the mime’s pathetic (not heroic death).  To be sure, it is the artist and the correlation of acting and symbolism that are the target of modern Satanic laughter.  And we can have no doubt that Baudelaire identified with the comic mime who, in the end, although bearing the truth by way of comedy, is the target of power.  The “real artist” loses, while the artist-as-consumer wins.  The death of the mime is something of a premonition of reality TV since the Prince sees the mime’s acting under duress as a form of entertainment.  As the narrator of “A Heroic Death” tells us the prince turns to entertainment to eliminate his worst enemy: Boredom.  The murder of the artist – by way of Satanic laughter – is in the name of amusement.  It has entertainment value.  This disturbing conclusion shows that, for Baudelaire, the target of humor in the modern world is the artist.  Even s/he cannot escape the daemonic.  S/he becomes its target.

Paul DeMan’s challenge to us, today, is to argue that irony and comedy turn the target back on oneself.  Reading Baudealire, deMan sees humor as leading to madness.   But the madness he looks at is not simply the madness that the girl in the ETA Hoffman story experiences or the madness we witness at the failure of the mime’s art in “A Heroic Death.”  According to deMan, we don’t discover the Satanic in what Baudelaire called “essential laughter” so much as the nothingness of oneself.   Comedy shares nothing inter-subjective with the other.  It has no meaning save the destruction of meaning.  That is what DeMan calls the “irony of ironies.”  Meaning, the self, and the inter-subjective are, for deMan, the targets of irony.

For deMan, what we find in the wake of the Prince’s Satanic laughter, so to speak, is the abyss.  The best things humanity has to emulate – innocence, hope, and art – are the targets.   And the elimination of these targets leaves one alone, abandoned, speechless, and cynical.

I would like to suggest that Levinas’s interest in the relation to the other can be understood as a challenge to deMan and to the tradition of comic judgment and targeting.   As Levinas notes in several of his texts, the notion of the isolated consciousness and “essance” – which deMan and the other comic theorists we have discussed, return us to by way of laughter – are challenged by way of the other.  In relation to the other, I am vulnerable, exposed.  I cannot separate my consciousness from the other.  Using hyperbole, Levinas argues that we must use an “amphiblology” when speaking of our relation to the other because we are assymetically related to the other.  Our words cannot approximate our relation to the other; they fall short of what he, elsewhere, calls infinity.   Our signification in relation to the other is Saying.  And, as I would argue, it is comical.  In relation to the other, we are comical but we are not alone.  The comedy is in the relation and not in the act of targeting.

We risk ourselves when we relate to the other who can accept or reject our love or care.  We are, as Levinas says, “traumatized” and “inspired” by the other.   Although Levinas sees this as a very serious affair, the fact of the matter is that comedy can expose us to vulnerability. More importantly, it can expose the audience to its violence against the other.  Through comedy, we can bear witness to being traumatized and inspired by the other.  But, as I’d like to show in the next few blog entries, this witnessing can invert the targeting that is, as we have seen above, part and parcel of nearly every theory of comedy from Aristotle to deMan.

We can see the oscillation of the comic target in relation to what Phillip Roth would call the tradition of “sit down” comedy and to Andy Kaufmann’s “stand-up” comedy.   In the next blog entries, I’d like to contrast the two so as to show how the schlemiel, as a comic character, can be read in terms of traditional theories of comedy which lay emphasis on targets and superiority and to a Levinasian way of reading comedy – one which looks to show how the comic target is inverted by the other.

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

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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)

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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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernstein nudges Federman with regards to this response and says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part II)

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Echoing Jacques Derrida’s reading of Stephen Mallarme’s “Mimique,” Gasche writes that:

If the mime of “Mimique” only imitates imitation, if he copies only copying, all he produces is a copy of a copy.  In the same manner, the hymen that comes to illustrate the theatrical space reduplicates nothing but the miming of the mime.  Miming only reference, but not a particular reference, Mallarme keeps the Platonic differential structure of mimesis intact while radically displacing it.  Instead of imitating, of referring to a referent within the horizon of truth, the mime mimes only other signs and their referring function.

Derrida, Gasche tells us, calls this miming of other signs re-marking.

Gasche notes that this remarking has the “structure of the hymen.”  But instead of focusing on a static structure, Gasche looks to depict its dynamic nature.  For this reason, Gasche focuses on “the manner” in which “the double structure of the hymen relates to itself.”

He calls this “manner” a “reflection without penetration.”

In other words, Gasche sees the mime and the reader as taking on a manner of reflection without penetration.  Gasche derives the evidence for this “manner” from a line in Derrida’s essay that depicts the double structure of the hymen in terms of a “violence without blows.” But what Gasche misses is that Derrida links this dynamic structure, which manifests a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks,” to a person who is “made to die or come laughing.”

In fact, for Derrida, remarking is an event.  The manner of reflection without penetration happens when there is a “violence without blows, or a blow without marks.”  When this happens, one “is made to die or come laughing.”   And this laughter is exemplary of what is, so to speak, remarkable.

With all the undecidability of its meaning, the hymen only takes place when it doesn’t take place, when nothing really happens, when there is an all-consuming consummation without violence, or a violence without blows, or a blow without marks…when the veil is without being, torn, for example, when one is made to die or come laughing (232)

Gasche fails to underscore that, for Derrida, the “manner” of the double movement is comic and perhaps tragic (as one is made to either “die” laughing or made to “come laughing”).   Derrida is denoting how the event of  “a reflection without penetration” is the event of laughter.

Perhaps this is because language, unlike God, does not show us, in a prescriptive manner, ethical or political ways of being; rather, the text shows us its absent-minded ways.  In fact, if the text prescribes anything, it prescribes the manner of absent-mindedness.  Or, as Derrida says in his essays in on the poet Edmond Jabes (in Writing and Difference), the text prescribes the detour and the ellipsis.

In the same essay on Jabes, Derrida notes how the text prescribes exile from God. Unlike Maimonides, Derrida would say that the text does not prescribe any ethical or political ways of being.  The text doesn’t perfect man.   While Maimonides would say that Moses was exiled from knowing God and having a “penetrating reflection,” he would not say that God only prescribed exile for Moses.  In fact, as Maimonides argues, God prescribed His ways to Moses for emulation, imitation, and practice.

In contrast, if we reread Gasche by way of Derrida’s own remarks, we can say that the manner of the reader and the text is the manner of a schlemiel.  This manner is prescribed.  Unlike the text (which is unaware of itself), the attentive reader is aware of its absent-mindedness.  If one reflects on the text’s schlemiel-ish “reflection without penetration,” the attentive reader will be conscious or become conscious.  And this, Derrida might say, would happen when one laughs.

But are we who laugh at the foolish text, for this reason, better (or superior)?  As I have shown in other blog entries, this is exactly what Baudelaire proposes at the end of his essay on laughter.   However, this is a conclusion which, as I also have shown, Paul deMan disagreed with.   In fact, if anything, the consciousness that comes out of this, for deMan, leads to madness and self-destruction not superiority.

Would Derrida agree with deMan?  Does the absent-minded schlemiel text, and the reader’s attendant “reflection without penetration,” lead to vertigo, madness, and self-destruction?  Should we read Derrida’s comment that one may “die of laughter” in lieu of deMan?

By virtue of its inability to know itself, by virtue of its being a “reflection without penetration,” the text presents itself as absent-minded.  Recognizing what the text doesn’t see, Derrida seems to be suggesting that the reader will either “die” of laughter or “come to” laughter.  Why?  Because he or she realizes that the only thing he or she can follow is an opaque and aleatory text which, in its absentmindedness, dynamically flows, warps, and weaves in different directions, one will either die of laughter or come to laugh.

Regardless, one laughs at the text’s absent-mindedness.  Perhaps one also laughs at the fact that one’s “reflection without penetration” on the text is also risible.  But in knowing that language doesn’t have a meaning or know of any, are we, in a deManian sense, mad?

Derrida’s text implies that, upon reading the hymen, we are either made to die or “come laughing.”  Derrida seems to be suggesting that we either affirm this “reflection without penetration” with a yes, and laugh or we don’t.  This, in fact, is a suggestion he makes on his essay “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce.”  Without such a suggestion, it would seem that deMan and Derrida would be in agreement: the manner of the text would be a manner of madness and self-destruction.  In other words, the person who reflects on what deMan calls the “irony of ironies” would die laughing or go mad.

Derrida, in that essay (which I will return to in an upcoming blog entry) suggests that we should describe and affirm the reflection without penetration; and, in doing so, say yes to it.  This affirmation, this yes-saying, in a Nietzschean and Joycean spirit, is a prescription of sorts.   Like Sancho Panza who follows Don Quixote on his Journeys, the postmodern saint says yes to following the aberrant and absent-minded ways of the text.  Instead of Moses following the ways of God, we have a much more secular (and risible) model of observance.

So, here’s the question: Do we – like Sancho Panza – learn and repeat the schlemiel’s manner?  Is this, according to Derrida, our postmodern prescription and destiny?  Is this our postmodern ethic?  And will the foolish text do humanity any good?

Since the text has the structure of the hymen, Gasche would say that the repetition of the text (and the “reflection without penetration”) is inescapable.  The text repeats itself and we repeat the text repeating itself.  That’s it.  Nothing more nor less.

But what is the point of the text or our lives if they always remain caught up in an endless textual ellipsis?  Again: What good will this do for humanity?

The structure of the schlemiel, its manner, for Gasche and Derrida, would be an endless reflection on the surface.  It would be a manner of moving across an endless surface or as Deleuze might say, a thousand plateaus.  And in response to it we will, as Derrida –that is, Rabbi Derissa – de (of) the risus (laughter) – claims, either die laughing or come laughing.

(Enter laughter)

After the “YouTubeLoop,” What is the Comic Legacy of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen?

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In yesterday’s post, I made a brief reading of the recent 44 minute video of Woody Allen “stammering” over the span of his career.   The picture I used as a thumbnail for the blog post came from the beginning of Woody Allen’s film Bananas. The reason I chose this image was because it nicely illustrated the mechanistic-slash-comic aspect of the video; in addition, it also illustrated what Henri Bergson believed was the essence of the comic: mechanical repetition. For Bergson, we laugh at the Jack-in-the-Box, or any mechanical repitition, because it is a caricature of life and freedom or what he called élan vital.  Like many in his time, Bergson’s theory is based on an organicist model or what the German’s called Lebensphilosophie (life philosophy). The greatest challenges to life philosophy can be found in meaningless, mechanical habits.  For thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche or Georges Bataille, the source of these mechanical habits was the growing mechanization of society – a society in which everything meaningful or progressive had “utility.”  For this reason, both Nietzsche and Bataille pursued a “vitalism” which looked to act without any meaningful end.  Life, as they understood it, was excessive.  For us to put a determined end on existence, by way of work, mechanism, and habits was, in effect, to say “no” to life.  Saying “yes” to life would be to affirm what Maurice Blanchot would call “un-working.”  Saying yes to life, for Bergson, would be equivalent to saying yes to elan vital and no to the mechanical gesture. To be sure, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, who lived in and around the time Nietzsche, Bergson, and Bataille lived and wrote on vitalism, knew that the greatest threat to vitalism and élan vital was posed by technology.    America, with its concept of the assembly line and mechanical mass production, became the focal point for many Europeans (including Nietzsche, Batialle, Martin Heidegger, Karl Marx, and many others) of what is to come; namely, an existence in which the individual is lost in (and to) the machine. And this is the point: life was at stake – life embodied in the individual (the subject) and his/or her freedom. We see this tension between life and the machine comically elaborated in both Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times (1936) and in Woody Allen’s repetition of key scenes of this film (with, of course, some variation) in Bananas (1971): Here is Chaplin’s film: As you can see, Chaplin is the subject of the machine.  However, his comic gesturing (and the absurd nature of the machine – a toy of sorts – he is subject to) make him distinct from the machine.  Both his gestures and the absurd nature of the machine give him some kind of agency. Here’s Allen’s film, Bananas: This film does something nearly identical to Modern Times.  The machine and Allen’s gestural responses to it give Allen agency.   As one can see, Allen believes that such responses are still affective and meaningful. Although 35 years and major advances in technology and history separate them, both of these clips communicate the same message about comedy and its challenge to mechanization.  For both, one mechanism seems to be defeating another and élan vital triumphs (comically). It must be noted that, for many thinkers and film critics of the early 20th century, the source of this scenario (of comedy versus the mechanical), which Allen repeats, is Charlie Chaplin. In his book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars, Tyrus Miller notes that Andre Bazin, the famous French Film critic, wrote a seminal essay in 1948 about Chaplin claiming that Chaplin’s comedy was a means of ‘brushing aside danger’.  Miller goes on to note that Bazin sees Chaplin’s power as the power of “mimicry” which acts by “reabsorbing time and space”(51).  What he means by this is that Chaplin’s comedy wins time and space back for organic humanity and beats the machine at its own game.  Bazin bases his advancement of mimicry on the work of the surrealist Roger Caillois who claimed that insects, like humans, imitate the environment in order to protect themselves from being killed. Miller reads this in terms of the medium of film: Supplementing Bazin’s claim that time reabsorbs space, then, we might say that Chaplin’s organic body becomes a mimetic extension of cinematic technology, which breaks down movement into constitutive fragments, discarding some while isolating others.  Having incorporated the technical principle of montage into his physical movements, Chaplin is able to mirror it back to the camera in embodied form. (52). Sounding much like Walter Benjamin, Miller argues that Chaplin becomes the “very allegory of cinema in its inaugural phase and the changes in experience it will precipitate”(52). The self survives as a “minimal self: as much technical as organic, and held together by the stiffening bonds of laughter”(52). This presupposes that there is a community between the comedian and the audience and that if we don’t have comedians who can mimic the damage wrought by technology – that is, if we don’t have comedy to laugh at, our agency and selfhood will be diminished to such an extent that instead of a minimal self, there will be no self. It’s fascinating to note that Theodor Adorno also suggests this call for comedy and the minimal self in his book Minima Moralia.   Three decades following Adorno’s plea for the minimal self, comedy and the minimal self are evoked by Jean-Luc Nancy in an essay on Baudelaire in his book The Birth of Presence.  But, as I will show in future blogs, Nancy likens laughter to an explosion.  But the question is this: what does it explode?  Does post-modern laughter – for lack of a better word – explode the machine or the person?  If the latter, then we can surmise that Nancy thinks we can no longer protect ourselves from the machine and might as well celebrate nihilism. Regardless of Nancy’s take on laughter, Allen seems to be more on the side of Chaplin.  He has an optimistic view of comedy and sees it as a “defense” against technology and empty, mechanical repetition. In yesterdays video, however, I wondered about the meaning of the mechanically reproduced stammering which has become a micro-stammering of sorts (concentrated into 44 minutes). Did that video testifiy to the obliteration of the self and absorption into the medium or something else?  How, in fact, do we understand ourselves and one of our greatest defenses (comedy) by way of being looped, re-looped and morphed by new technology?  Has Allen’s stammer exploded and been emptied of all its human (organic) content?  Does such a video evince a subject who is powerless and “defenseless” against the ever expanding field of technology (with all its information and audio and video “flows” and “feeds”)? How does comedy and how do “we” – who are “in the network,” who come after Chaplin and Allen’s comic parody of technology and who now come after the “YouTube-loop” of Woody Allen…stammering – “live on?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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