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.