Looking Awry: On Frans Hals’ Representations of Rene Descartes, Fools, and Child Musicians


Frans Hals was a Dutch painter from the 17th century.  Many art historians group him together with the school of Mannerism, which developed in the Italian Renaissance of the 16th century.  Hals was a part of what is called the “Northern Renaissance.”  Some mannerist works of art are not simply realistic; many of them are symbolic and allegorical.    And, as many art historians note, Mannerism was transformed into Baroque art.  One of the elements that remains in this transformation is the allegorical.

Hals’s work is often Realistic, but it often errs on the side of the allegorical.  This allegorical dimension, however, is subtle.  It’s not obvious.  In fact, Hals work demands the viewer to pay close attention to subtle gestures, gazes, and movements within the frame (which oftentimes gesture to something hidden and obscure outside of the frame).  The allusions they make suggest multiple meanings.

Hals is well known for his portraits of doctors, aristocrats, and leaders, but he is less known for his portraits of children, fools, and musicians.  Going through many of these paintings, I found that Hals was more fascinated with the gestures of simple people than with aristocrats.  Their gestures are the most suggestive and allegorical; these representations suggest a way of seeing that is based on allusion and movement.

To illustrate the contrast between his representations of aristocrats and simple folk, I’d like to first take a look at his most famous portrait; namely, of Rene Descartes.  After doing this, I’d like to contrast this portrait to the portraits of a fool, a child, and a two child musicians.

In the portraits of many aristocrats and leaders, Hals portrays his subjects in the most serious ways.  Their gestures are simple, their bodies are rigid, and their gazes are focused.  They are in “possession of themselves.”  They are men whose bodies are subject to their reasoning and to civility.  Like those portraits, this portrait of Rene Descartes is of a man who is self-possessed.  The subject looks directly at the viewer with a knowing look. However, the most interesting aspect of this painting is Descartes mouth.  We are not sure if he is smiling or if he is indifferent.  This ambiguous gesture of the father of Modern Philosophy is rich in implication.  It suggests that he is friendly and a part of humanity; on the other hand, it suggests that he is indifferent to – and perhaps even fed up with – humanity.  Perhaps he would rather be thinking than sitting in front of Frans Hals.  After all, Descartes regarded the imagination as inferior to the intellect and associated it with the body and not the mind.

In contrast to this painting of Descartes, the gestural representations of fools, children, and children musicians are much more subtle and suggestive.  I will take a look at a few to bring out this contrast.


When I was looking for a photo to append to my blog post on Charles Baudelaire’s “A Heroic Death” (which pits a fool against the Prince), I chose Frans Hals painting which the Louvre website calls a “Buffoon With a Lute.”  I found that it nicely illustrated the allure of the fool (and his gambol with death) to which the narrator of the Baudelaire prose piece was drawn.

The Louvre, which owns this painting, estimates that it was made somewhere between 1623 and 1625.

I am struck by look and gesture of the Buffoon.  His head is tilted to the side and he is looking askance at something we can’t see.   His smile is also tilted.   To add to the contrasts, one will notice that his hair is longer on one side and shorter on the other.  The tilting of all these features complicates our reading of the Buffoon.  To be sure, its hard to tell whether he is happy or wary of what he is doing and who he is playing for.  I see this, specifically, in his smile.  The fact that it is pulled up on the edge suggests that something is odd.  In fact, I couldn’t help but sense that in the midst of his apparent joy there may be a feeling of terror.  It seems as if the Buffoon is about to be killed or punished; but to mitigate the threat, he plays on and smiles toward the person (or people) outside the frame.   He is tactful.

This gesture is complicated by the fact that this is not simply an absent-minded fool who lacks any sense of the world outside of him.  He is innocent, a boy, and yet, he is a man facing something we can’t see, something outside the frame.  His smile is cunning and responds to something real; unlike Descartes smile which seems to detest the real or only to deal with it as a matter of course.   Since it deals with possible terror and is riddled with anxiety, this painting is more existential than the Descartes portrait, which is more about an intellectual attitude toward the world.

The buffoon’s face connotes subtlety, but his hands and the instrument connote neutrality.  They are –so to speak – doing their own thing.  It is as if his body, in a Cartesian sense, is on auto-pilot while his soul is caught between fear and joy.


In this portrait of a child, the child is smiling, happy, and innocent.  He is present to the painter.  Unlike the portraits of Descartes and the Buffoon, the child is not judging the world or dealing with it in a tactful manner.


In contrast to this portrait is the painting of a “child playing the violin.”  In this portrait, the subject is not present to the painter or viewer.   He is absent-minded.  His head is tilted, but his eyes look heavenward as he plays the violin.  This contrasts greatly to the Buffoon whose eyes look to the side and smile is twisted.  It also contrasts to the Descartes portrait since he, at the very least, is giving some attention to the painter (though perhaps against his ‘real’ interests).

This portrait is haunting in the sense that it seems as if he is about to put down the fiddle and ascend to heaven.  The music, perhaps, is detaching him from the world.  Perhaps he, unlike the Bufoon with the Lute, is the true fool.  His gestures denote a total disregard for the eye looking upon him.  Perhaps he is truly free of the gaze and the world.


The portrait of the “boy holding the flute” is very odd.  Like the other paintings of musicians, he is also tilting his head and smiling.  But in this portrait, he is looking directly at the viewer.  Juxtaposed to the other paintings, the viewer is no longer thinking about who he or she is looking at or what the subject may be thinking as he plays music.

In this painting, the musician has stopped playing.  He looks directly at you.   There is something odd about this gaze.  It acknowledges the gaze but responds to it in a way that is awkward.  Its as if he has missed a social cue or two.  Moreover, the flute he holds interrupts his smile.  And this creates a kind of confusion in the viewer.   To be sure, his smile is not perfect.  It, too, is a bit askance.  And the fact that he is a child doesn’t mitigate the sense of madness that this portrait conveys by way of subtle gestures.

What interests me most in these portraits is how Hals articulates the subtlety of gesture and its relationship to the world.  As we have seen, from Descartes to the boy with the flute, Hals was interested in the different ways his subjects regarded the world.  The difference between the Philosopher and the Bufoon, the child, and child musicians is telling.  The question I have is what value do these gestures have for Hals.  Did he have more respect for his aristocratic subjects or for his folkish and childish subjects?  Did he value the theoretical bearing of Descartes more than the tactical bearing of the Bufoon or vice-versa?

These questions are relevant since I will be looking into the meaning of gesture in Walter Benjamin in forthcoming blog entries.  For a painter like Hals and for a thinker like Benjamin, the gesture and its performance tell us a lot of things about the nature of what it means to have a relationship with the world.  Benjamin, in his readings of Kafka, was interested in characters who (as schlemiels) had an odd relationship with the world.   He focused on their gestures so as to convey (or even teach) this attentiveness to his readers.  Like Hals, Benjamin does not evaluate these gestures so much as pay attention to them so as to understand their relationality.

So, to be sure, I’d like you to consider this blog entry a ‘warm up’ to the reading of gesture that I will be pursuing in the near future.

Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and the Daemonic (Take 1)


In an essay on Walter Benjamin entitled “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” Gershom Scholem notes that one of the things that disturbed him most about Benjamin was his interest in the daemonic.  Scholem, in this essay, notes that Benjamin’s interest increased the more he delved into the work of the Parisian poet and cultural critic Charles Baudelaire:

The Luciferian element…entered Benjamin’s meditations…not directly from the Jewish tradition, but rather from the occupation with Baudelaire that fascinated him for so many years.  The Luciferian element of the beauty of the Satanic, stemming from this side of Benjamin’s interests, comes out often enough in his notes.  (213, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis).

Scholem goes on to provide examples of this element by noting a “Satanic phase” that Benjamin went through when he was writing on a Hashish impression of January 15, 1928.  Strangely enough, Scholem cites a passage from Benjamin that associates the Satanic with the smile:

My smile assumed Satanic features: though more the expression of Satanic knowing, Satanic contentment, Satanic Serenity than from Satanic destructive activity. (214)

Scholem latches on to Benjamin’s reading of the Satanic smile. He notes that, for Benjamin, everything is tainted by the Satanic.  Even the “’indescribable beautiful face’ of a human being can appear as ‘Satanic features – with a half-suppressed smile”(ibid).

The fact that Scholem finds Benjamin’s interest in Baudeliare to be the basis for his description of the smile as Satanic is instructive.  Although Scholem doesn’t delve deeper into this, we will.   To be sure, we can learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to humor  by reading his reflections on Baudelaire’s reading of comedy, the smile, and laughter.   We can also learn a lot about Benjamin’s approach to comedy by simply reading Baudelaire’s reflections on the comic and, as I will point out, children (which, for Baudelaire, are related).  What we will find in both Benjamin’s reflections and in Baudelaire’s work is a keen interest in the relationship of humor to the daemonic.

In an unpublished piece called “Central Park,” written between 1938 and 1939, Benjamin devotes several reflections to Baudelaire’s prose, poetry, and critical essays.  The reflection that interests me most is Benjamin’s reflection on Baudelaire’s well-known essay “De l’essence du rire” (“The Essence of Humor”).

In this reflection, Benjamin writes:

De l’essence du rire” contains nothing other than the theory of satanic laughter.  In this essay, Baudelaire goes so far as to view even smiling from the standpoint of laughter.  Contemporaries often testified to something frightful in his own manner of laughter (182, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4)

Benjamin is correct in his claim that Baudelaire argues that all laughter is daemonic.  As Baudelaire explains:

Laughter is satanic: it is thus profoundly human.  It is the consequence in man of the idea of his own superiority.  And since laughter is essentially human, it is essentially contradictory; that is to say, it is a token of infinity grandeur and infinite misery (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 154).

However, Baudelaire notes that there is a position that challenges this one; namely, the position of the “wise man”: “Laughter is a sign of inferiority to the wise, who, through contemplative innocence of their minds, approach a childlike state.”

This childlike state, however, seems, for Baudelaire, to be unattainable.  It is messianic: “As the comic is a sign of superiority, it is natural to hold that, before they can achieve absolute purification promised by certain mystical prophets, the nations of the world will see a multiplication of comic themes in proportion as their superiority increases”(ibid).

Baudelaire is basically saying that, as civilization advances, we will need to laugh more as we will feel more and more “superior” to nature.  This is not something to celebrate. Rather, for Baudelaire, it is something to lament.  And he hopes that one day we will become wise and transcend laughter altogether.

Benjamin is aware of this, hence, he notes that even the smile is tainted with the daemonic.

But if one reads Baudelaire’s essay on laughter, one will see that the grimace (the smile) only receives one sentence from Baudelaire while the laugh is mentioned throughout the essay: “All the miscreants of melodrama, accursed damned and fatally marked with a grin which runs from ear to ear, are in the pure orthodoxy of laughter.”

Benjamin latches on to this single sentence to argue that any bodily response which indicates humor is daemonic. To be sure, Baudelaire notes that no kind of laugh, even the laugh of a child, escapes the Satantic.  In fact, Baudelaire calls the laughter of little children the laughter of “budding Satans”(156).

Given this reading, what can we say of Benjamin’s reflections on children? As we saw in the hiding aphorism, which we addressed in an earlier blog, Benjamin argues that they “hide from the demon.”   And, as I suggested in that entry, this hiding place may be the shelter provided by a book.  Benjamin sees such hiding as an admirable strategy which, he claims, he learns from children.

The question we must ask is why Benjamin would see any response to humor is daemonic and whether he agreed, wholeheartedly, with Baudelaire’s reading of laughter and humor. This would imply that Kafka’s humor and Benjamin’s humor are or may be daemonic.  It would imply that Benjamin saw the signature-prank in his dream as wholly daemonic.  This would imply that Benjamin’s awareness of his identity – of his being a man-child – his awareness of a prank – was daemonic knowledge.  But is this knowledge, following a smile or a laugh, linked to superiority?  Did Benjamin read his calling, rather, in the opposite manner? After all, he is the butt of this joke.  As is the kingdom in the Shuvalkin parable we read and explained yesterday.

To be laughed at, to be a schlemiel, is entirely different from being the one who laughs or, as Benjamin notes, smiles.  Perhaps we can say that in the two moments where Benjamin reads himself and Shuvalkin as having been the butt of a joke, which reduced them to children, there is a challenge to the Satanic.  This would imply that masochism is redemptive.

In the end it is the same, Benjamin is not superior, he is a failure, a man-child, and a schlemiel. And perhaps, the “entire kingdom” is sunk into exile because the letters of a schlemiel named Shuvalkin hovers over its head. The implications of this reading are that Benjamin thought that he and “we” are not superior.  The joke, on the contrary, is on us.  And this bleak view suggests that if Benjamin is a schlemiel then Satan (the Other) must have written his name and Shuvalkin’s.  And if the herald who bears that message runs ahead of Kafka, as Benjamin claims, perhaps he runs ahead of us as well.  If this is so, then we are all doomed to endless failure and humiliation.   We are and will be the victims of a prank in which Satan has the last laugh and, as Benjamin seems to imply, doesn’t stop laughing.

Even so, Benjamin’s reflection on his (and our) destiny may in fact be redemptive, quite simply, because, in it, he (and we) is (are) not superior (he is not, as Baudelaire would say, Satanic); in his reflection, he sees himself as a powerless man-child.  And it is fascinating that this reflection on powerlessness stretches beyond Benjamin and finds itself in the pages of French thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze.  They all seem to have taken Baudelaire and Benjamin seriously.  (We will return to this in future blogs.)

In our next blog entries, we will, hopefully, explore Baudelaire’s notion of the “absolute comic” and its relationship to the child and the mime.  This may give us another clue as to where Benjamin may have been going with his childish reflections.