Two Bodies of Comedy: On Friedrich Nietzsche & Robert Walser’s Bodies of Comedy


Nietzsche was obsessed with the relationship of the body to thought.   And whenever he articulated his reading of the body, he always made sure to put it forth in what Peter Sloterdijk (winking at Diogenes) called a “cheeky” manner.  He looked to offend and this gesture, for Nietzsche, was healthy.    In the beginning of his book, Ecce Homo, he assesses his health in a cheeky manner. He looks to what he has taken, physiologically, from his mother and father* and what this means to his personal (“unique”) fate:

The good fortune of my existence, its uniqueness perhaps, lies in its fatality: I am, to express it in the form of a riddle, already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old.  The dual descent, as it were, both from the highest and the lowest rung of the ladder of life, at the same time, decadent and a beginning….I have a subtler sense of smell for the signs of ascent and decline than any other human being before me; I am the teacher par excellence for this –  I know both, I am both.  (222, Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo).

These claims to being the “teacher par excellence for this” are outrageous.  They are meant to be.  He wants to be challenged.  And he doesn’t stop on the first page to demonstrate how much he knows about the relationship of the body to thinking. Throughout Ecce Homo, Nietzsche discusses the body and its relation to thought and power (or decadence). He takes any tendency to “dialectic” as a “symptom of decadence” and cites Socrates as a sick thinker.   But he is only one enemy, the other is the moral enemy who asks us to pity or feel for the other:

The overcoming of pity I count among the noble virtues: as “Zarathustra’s temptation.” I invented a situation in which a great cry of distress reaches him, as pity tries to attack him like a final sin that would entice him away from himself.  (228)

The “proof” of his strength is to be found in a rejection not just of pity but a kind of humor that goes along with it.  This kind of humor is the anti-thesis of the humor he employs in his endless satire and cheekiness.  He sees this cheekiness as poetic.  His model for this is not just the cynic Diogenes (Nietzsche calls himself the “medical cynic”); it is also Heinrich Heine:

The highest concept of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine…He possessed the divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection: I estimate the value of men, of races, according to the necessity by which they cannot conceive of god apart from the satyr. (247)

Nietzsche saw the health of Heine’s poetry to be associated with his sarcasm. Heine’s strength could be “measured” by the strength of the opponents he chose to target in his satire: “The strength of those who attack can be measured in a way by the opposition they require: every growth is indicated by the search for a mighty opponent”(232).

The irony of Nietzsche’s interest in Heine is brought out in the fact that Heine was, according to Hannah Arendt, not just interested in satire.  He was also interested in the schlemiel, a comic character that Nietzsche would find to be unhealthy and weak since, through its charm, it called on the reader to laugh in a way that was not satirical.

Hannah Arendt saw Charlie Chaplin as the last in a long line of schlemiels that were first introduced into the German bloodstream by Heine.  His vulnerable and clumsy comic subjects of schlemieldom were poor and simple, not clever and cheeky in the Nietzschean sense.

Robert Walser, who had a major influence on Kafka’s fiction, was fascinated with comic characters who many would find pitiable but charming.   They present another body of comedy which, to be sure, differs significantly from Nietzsche’s body of comedy.   In his short story, “Helbling’s  Story,” Walser has the narrator, Helbling, give his view on himself and work world he has decided to enter.  He is the everyman (who Nietzsche despised) and yet he is different in a way that sets him not a height so much as on a comical plane of existence:  “The striking thing about me is that I am a very ordinary person, almost exaggeratedly so. I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange”(Selected Stories, 31).    He finds it strange because he realizes that, unlike them, he is, like Chaplin in Modern Times (1936), unable to work or be like them.


He tells us that he is not cut out for work.  He’s too fragile and slow.  Like many a schlemiel, he is belated:

I constantly feel that there is about me something delectable, sensitive, fragile, which must be spared, and I consider the others as being not nearly so delectable and refined.  How can that be so?  It is just as if one were not coarse enough for this life.  It is in any case an obstacle which hinders me from distinguishing myself, for when I have a task to perform, let’s say, I always take thought for half an hour, sometimes for a whole one. (32)

His body, when he works, is comical.   Like Chaplin’s body, it can’t keep up and ends up gesticulating in all different directions:

A task always frightens me, causes me to brush my desk lid over with the flat of my hand, until I noticed that I am being scornfully observed, or I twiddle my cheeks, finger my throat, pass a hand over my eyes, rub my nose, and push the hair back from my forehead, as if my task lay in that, and not in the sheet of paper which lies before me, outspread, on the desk. 

He can’t seem to stay on task.  He seems to be constantly distracted.  And when he is called a “dreamer and a lazybones,” he refuses to accept these descriptions: 

Perhaps I have the wrong profession, and yet I confidently believe that in any profession I would be the same, do the same, and fail in the same way…People call me a dreamer and a lazybones.  What a talent people have for giving me the wrong labels.  (32)

But when he reflects, he realizes that he is a simpleton:

I do not know if I have an intellect, and I can hardly claim to believe that I have, for I have been convinced that I behave stupidly whenever I am given a task which requires understanding and acumen….I have a quantity of clever, beautiful, subtle thoughts; but as soon as I apply them, they fail and desert me, and I am left standing there like an ignorant apprentice. (33)

Unlike Nietzsche’s body of comedy, he doesn’t aim to always win and overpower.  He is, a Michel Serres would say, “inventing weakness” and is calling on us to pity him.  But when he messes up he does so with such charm that we, like millions who were adored by Charlie Chaplin, forgive him.   But Nietzsche would not.

While the body of comedy that Nietzsche favors is tough, invulnerable, rude, and on the offensive, the body of Walser’s comedy is vulnerable, weak, flexible, and self-deprecating.  It fumbles and stumbles when it has to do a task and, for that reason, is more human.  Nietzsche’s body of comedy is that of the overman who looks down at the world it came from and laughs a laugh of health and defiance.  It laughs, as Zarathustra did, from the mountaintops; not from the valley.


*Compare Nietzsche’s reading of the relationship of his father and mother legacy to his fate, to that of Gene Wilder (which, to be sure, is completely different because Wilder frames his birth in terms of the schlemiel not the healthy overman.)



Comic Impositions: The Comedian as Imposter and Parasite


In my last blog entry on Walter Benjamin and comedy, I pointed out how Benjamin was deeply interested in the relationship of comedy to tragedy. The figure of the rogue and the comic schemer are, for Benjamin, central figures which disclose the comic “inner lining” of tragedy which we see in the mourning play.   Comedy, in the figure of the rogue or imposter, is “linked to the representative of mourning.”  The mystery of mourning, for Benjamin, can be found in this comic figure.   And, as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Benjamin marks the original relation between comedy and tragedy in the displacement of tragedy by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium. Socrates “silence” is different from the silence of the tragic figure because it is “histrionic” and it spurs dialogue.  Socratic dialogue works by way of irony.  And as Benjamin notes, at the end of The Symposium Agathon (a tragedian) sits together with Aristophanes (a comic playwright) and Socrates (who mediates between the two).  But what does this mean?  What makes the “intriguer” or the “imposter” so special in Benjamin’s mind?  Does he bring out something that we find with Socrates?

To be sure, Benjamin leaves this out, in a Socratic manner, and asks us to connect the dots.  First of all, isn’t Socrates called an “imposter” by Alciabades in The Symposium?  And isn’t their dialogue, which is prior to the final scene Benjamin discusses, historionic?  The answer to all of these questions is yes.  Benjamin leaves out the fact that Alciabades tries to expose Socrates as a fake.  He is leading young people on so as to seduce them.  Socrates, in response to the drunken reveler, argues that Alciabades is an overemotional lover and that he lies.  And, to be sure, when Alciabades comes into the room he takes over the space.   He knocks loudly at the door and when they open it he stumbles in with an entourage of flautists.  In the sense I discussed recently vis-à-vis Michel Serres’s reading of sound, space, and imposition, we can say that this gesture was comical. It, as Serres might say, “occupies” the space.  And Socrates, with his retort, comes to “counter occupy” it.   And, as Serres might say, this occupation is parasitic.  It is an imposition.

Socrates, in response, is also parasitic. He feeds, so to speak, on what Alciabades has introduced into the space.  And, in shaming him, Socrates demotes him.  He refuses to let Alciabades sit next to him and, instead, he chooses Agathon and Aristophanes.  In other words, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, established by Socrates, was created out of a cruel joke at Alciabades expense. There is something daemonic about it since Socrates sees Alciabades as an imposter when, in fact, he is.

An imposter is not simply someone who interrupts a party or space; rather, an imposter “imposes” something on this or that space. As Serres would claim, the imposter takes over the space.  Serres’s reading can certainly be used to interpret what Bejamin’s understanding of comedy as the “inner side of mourning.”  After all, in the displacement of one thing by another (for instance tragedy by comedy) there is something comical going on. But that comedy is, in some senses cruel because, in order to speak and to draw on energy, it must feed on the already existing energy in this or that space.

Serres, near the end of The Parasite, discusses the comedic in terms of Moliere’s Tartuffe.  As Serres notes, Tartuffe is described, by one of Moliere’s characters as “The swindler who was able to impose on you for so long”(201).  As Serres notes, this imposition was “usually understood as cheating, the swindler imposing himself”(201).  But this meaning misses the root of the word, which, Serres points out, would “teach us that he keeps, collects, or intercepts a tax.” The tax collector is an “imposter” of sorts because he collects money, goods, etc.  He is a “parasite” who lives off of the money of the people.  Serres notes that in Italian “tartuffe” is associated with a “mushroom” which “detours and captures.”

What Serres is most interested in is the fact that the “economic” meaning of the term has been lost.  He wants to retain it and to take it away from all its negative uses.  (On this note, I would like to point out that he overlooks the association of Jews with parasites in his reading; this omission is telling because it was used, for instance, by Nazi propagandists in many caricatures; I hope to return to this in the near future).  Serres sees the comic imposture as brining out the workings of energy and force.

Like Socrates or Alciabades, the “imposture” slash comedian “takes over the house.” And he “imposes” the ultimate dilemma of human existence, culture, and politics: “exclude or be excluded.” “he chases everyone out so that he can be the master of the house.  He imposes the following dilemma: exclude or be excluded”(202).

This is the sinister aspect of the imposture. It works by way of mimicry – and, like a chameleon, it changes – so that it can insinuate itself into different spaces so as to “feast on the table of the master”:

I am starting with the mimetic action in the sense of a chameleon, of a polar bear or a polar hare in the Artic snows, of a butterfly that becomes a flower, of a walking stick…It is an erasure of individuality and its dissolution in the environment; it is a good means of protection in both defense and attack…I am an other, a and b, once again a synthetic judgment and the birth of the joker and the white domino. (202)

But there is more to the story.  As Serres notes, comedy has a relation to religion. This is what Benjamin suggests when he sees the comic as a secularization of sorts. What counts, for Serres, is that the parasite comedian is that he “sets things right.”  He sets things in the right direction: he “straightens out sinners, sends them to heaven.”

Referring to blood and wine, two major elements of Christianity, Serres points out that in Moliere’s play, Tartuffe, the “hostess loses blood and Tartuffe gets wine.” And “between blood and wine, between wine and blood, a new process appears that tradition calls transubstantiation.” So that now “the question of Tartuffe is suddenly turned over as it has always been: what is religion doing here in the parasitic relation?  Religion is not the subject of the play; it is the problem of comedy”(205).

In a Derridian kind of turn, Serres points out that in the Moliere play the host becomes the “guest of the guest.”   And this suggests that he becomes a parasite who feeds off of the real guest.  This inversion, suggests, Serres, may have religious import.  And it turns the comedy into a tragedy.  He asks, “did you pay for the comedy or the tragedy?”  This turn is a kind of imposture.  It imposes on the audience.  But, in the end, Serres says it is a comedy if the people still remain on stage.”  And this is the final swindle.   The end of play we learn that Tartuffe isn’t a tragedy. Rather, its only a “sickness.” And the “canonic character of comedy is the sick person.”  He survives, but he is sick.

Serres notes that this wasn’t simply a jab at the clergy of France.  On the contrary, it is a near death.  The parasite-comic feeds on but doesn’t kill the host.  He wounds the target and, in the process, he becomes sick. And, in the process, he excludes and is excluded. But, as Serres suggests, he survives.  He, the comic, drinks the wine of religion. He secularizes and is truly an imposter and an imposer…but he gets away with it.  In the end, someone has to pay.   And, as I showed above, that someone, for Socrates was Alciabades.  Or, as Benjamin argues, it was tragedy.

Comedy, it seems, comes with a price.  But it doesn’t kill its host so much as drain it of some of its life-blood. Nonetheless, as Serres suggests, even in the house of religion, where the comedian is a guest, the host becomes a guest and also becomes a parasite.  For this reason, in the end, the comedian is sick because he is also fed on.   Although he takes over the house, so to speak, through comedy, the comedian is also fed on; and, in the process, he narrowly averts death.  The crowd gives him life, but it also makes him sick.

It’s Not “All” in the Timing: Noise, Space, and Comedy


In The Parasite, Michel Serres looks to get rid of the idea of the center/periphery distinction and the idea that power “occupies” the center.  In its stead, he discusses things that fill and occupy space.  In a chapter entitled, “Energy, Information,” Serres starts from music and from there he moves to noise and the occupation and “counter-occupation” of space. The roar of motors is mixed with music to create a sense that there is no escape from sound. It fills all space:

Music has been a fundamental part of my life. I could not conceive of life without music.  But now, I’ve begun to hate it. It is everywhere nowadays, trapping me everywhere. I knew that we had entered the motor age when the noise coming from motors filled space everywhere. There was no space without a motor.  Even in the most rural country spots, the chain saws…replaced the grasshoppers.  (94)

The motor, says Serres, is an “expansive phenomenon.”   And it became a “founding fact of property.”  It works by making the “occupation of space intolerable” and thus “gets it for itself.”   And these noises are countered and “covered” (94) by others:

The grasshopper counterattacks with loudspeakers. Hi-fi, full-strength, earphones: the motor is beaten.  Music culture – that is to say, the culture of communication – has just wiped out the industrial revolution…Little packets of energy chase out the bigger ones. One parasite chases out another.   One power chases out another.  (95)

Serres sees this power as parasitic. It may be the power of speech or anything that has a voice in space.  He personifies this power:

Where are you?  I don’t know. Where are you going?  It doesn’t matter.  The grasshopper wanders every which way.   In other words, the emitters can be randomly distributed…Where are you going?  Everywhere.  All spaces bathe in its power.  The parasite is everywhere…Voice, wind, sound and noise. (96)

But, given this interpretation of space and expansion, wouldn’t it be the case that an explosion of sound (or an explosion itself) would be the greatest illustration of Serres’ understanding of sound?   To be sure, the explosion of words and sound I am thinking of take place in a comic kind of novel by another Frenchman, Louis Celine.  The first lines of his baudy tale, Guignol’s Band, are an explosion:

Boom! Zoom!…It’s the big smashup!…The whole street caving in at the water front!…It’s Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Café!  A table sails by and splits in the air!…Marble bird!…spins round, shatters a window and splinters!

While this explosion is caricatured with such words as “Boom! Zoom!” it marks something very violent.  The explosion, the “big smashup,” is a total occupation of space.  The fact that it is comic is fascinating since it suggests that comedy is, by and large, about noise and jokes (and the laughter that attend them) are explosions of sorts that fill space. To be sure, they take over space.   It creates a tension or a kind of competition between the comedian who fills space and the audience which, in the wake of his voice, fills space with laughter.

And these explosions of comedy and sound, so to speak, communicate with each other. For your consideration, here’s a clip with many sound and spatial occupations.  To be sure, in this clip spaces are overtaken, emptied, filled, and covered over:

And, in a sense, the comedian needs to clear out the space of different sounds.  He needs to displace other sound-scapes and noises if he or she is to be affective. The schlemiel, in this account, is of prime importance; for, as Ruth Wisse and Sidrah Ezrahi have argued, the schlemiel lives by way of language.  Speech, they argue, is his substitute for sovereignty. But, as Serres seems to suggest, it isn’t a substitute for power; rather, it is power itself. It may not be history, but it overflows all spaces and competes with all narratives by turning to space (of the page, of the stage, etc) rather than time.  And that space explodes with meaning and possibility; but not in a tragic so much as in a comic sense.

Groucho and Chaplin show us the possibility of such explosions of movement and sound, which, to be sure, take over the space: