Aristotle’s schemata of tropes gave us the sight-lines for comedy – the pain that is not pain, the ugliness that is a lure rather than a repulsion, the play between the height and the depth, all constructed from the point of view that comedy is ultimate determined by the audience that enjoys it – an audience that is ultimately base, or common qua audience. There is obviously going to be a problem with comedy from the point of view that identifies pleasure and pain as opposites, feelings that take polar positions on a continuum. Similarly with the point of view that identifies the beautiful, and the high, as the desirable, against the ugly, and the low, as the repulsive.
These tropes don’t reappear in Baudelaire’s essay under Aristotle’s signature. In fact, the essay begins with a question of signature – Baudelaire has read ‘somewhere’ the phrase, la sage ne rit qu’en tremblant. This is a maxim that Baudelaire develops, but doesn’t sign – and yet, he dare not attribute it to another writer. It is an instance – and what writer has not felt like this – of deja-ecrit – in which, just as in deja-vu, one has the feeling that one has seen the thing one is writing down before. To have seen it is to have read it, and to have read it means someone has written it. Something has gone wrong, though – there’s a small deviation in the author’s authority, for neither the writer nor anyone that the writer knows wrote the sentence, exactly.
In an essay in which Satan and temptastion quickly come to the forefront, this deja-ecrit is not external to the system of the text. Rather, the uncertainty of it as a maxim – a pronouncement that gains its truth content from the authority of the experience of the speaker, out of whose mouth it came. Laughter, which also comes out of the mouth, and also seems to hover outside of the speech acts that we sign – is, then, first approached from a quote of a phrase spoken by no one person.
Baudelaire proposes to give us the essence of laughter, but we very quickly see that, in fact, there are at least two kinds of laughter, and a diachronic and geographic politics of laughter. What is it about the ‘modern’ - a magical term for Baudelaire – that has produced the predominent form of laughter – the laughter of pride?
The modern is explicitly posed, by Baudelaire, as a term opposed to the pre-modern or a-modern – the non-European, or the Ancient. At the center of the modern is Satan – for Baudelaire as well as Gogol. Although Gogol’s term, posh’lust, was, of course, not known to Baudelaire, they are both working with the same insight into the ‘real’ – that is, the insight that the routinization of the ‘real,’ or banality, is evil at its core. Evil – mal – is of course as much a preoccupation of Baudelaire’s as of Gogol’s, while the routine – production itself – is a preoccupation of Marx’s.
I have not yet quoted – translated – from the essay, because it would be too powerful to quote before we get these remarks out of the way. To pretend that I can quote anything, and that it is all the same, and that I will apply my little apparatus to draw out the themes, study the development, etc. – well, I think that is simply false. I know incantation, I know enchantment when I see it. There’s a myth about hypnosis – that one can plant a post-hynotic suggestion. Well, reading the Essence of Laughter certainly leaves me feeling that – I must change my life.
So I’m not going to pretend that this is any text.
One final remark: In The Essence of Laughter, Baudelaire’s arguments keep falling under the sway of his tableaux – there are a number in this essay that could easily be prose poems, including one that, I think, is one of his greatest prose poems. Logos, enchanted by mythos, dances. We could – and will – apply to this fact about the formal structuring of the essay the points raised by its themes – which is the kind of gesture that infuriates a certain kind of philosopher, who insists on maintaining a rigid separation of levels in analyzing discourse.
ps - I'll add this today:
“In the earthly paradise (be it supposed in the past or to come, memory or prophecy, like the theologians or like the socialists), in the earthly paradise, that is to say in surroundings where it seems to man that all created things are good, joy would not be in laughter. No pain afflicts him, his face would be simple and homogeneous, and the laughter that now agitates the nations would no longer deform the traits of the face. Laughter and tears will not make themselves visible in the paradise of bliss.” [ne peuvent pas se faire voir dans le paradis de delices.]
Baudelaire’s essay on laughter contains, as I have said, a number of tableaux that do not quite serve wholly as examples, which is how images and situations are put in the service of explanation by philosophy – but rather as a kind of hieroglyph, symbols made out of a combination of elements that are, themselves, already symbolic. The hieroglyph is, of course, read, but – especially in an alphabetic culture – something in it resists the transparency of reading. Or to put it in a nineteenth century vocabulary, form, here, never completely absorbs function. There’s an excess of vision, if you will, encoded in the hieroglyph.
Myself, I want to draw out two of those tableaux.
The first, which falls under the paradisial theme in the essay, concerns one of the odder falls from grace in literature. It is not, though, unprecedented – Baudelaire was a reader of Choderlos de Laclos, and knew the famous chapter, in Liasons Dangereuses, in which the Vicomte de Valmont recounts his conquest of Cecile by means of laughter:
“The little person is a laugh-er: and to promote her gaiety, I bethought myself, in our entr’acts, to tell her all the scandalous adventures that passed through my head, and to render them more piquantes and to fix her attention more closely, I put them on her mother’s account, and I amused myself by ornamenting her with vices and ridiculousness.”
Baudelaire’s Eve falls due to a caricature which, Baudelaire further supposes, is connected to “those times there” – to the time of royalty. This Eve is, for those who know their Baudelaire, irresistibly evocative of Jeanne Duval. Biographers of Baudelaire – I’m thinking in particular of Joanne Richardson – use the testimony of Baudelaire’s contemporaries to give us a picture of Duval – and in so doing, they strangely ignore the crudeness of the testimonies. We do know that Baudelaire made an immense sacrifice for Jeanne – he sacrificed another woman for her, his mother. Madame Aupick could not understand why Charles lived with Jeanne, what “hold” she had on him, and absolutely refused to see Jeanne.
Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, Madame Aupick’s views have tended to be adopted by Baudelaire’s biographers.
So much for personal detail. Baudelaire illustrates what he takes to be the relationship between laughter and innocence – in the cosmic sense, an innocence that finds all created things good – by imagining a first encounter with the alluring ugliness of caricature.
“Permit me a poetic supposition which will serve to verify the justice of these assertions, which many people will no doubt find spotted with the apriori of mysticism. Lets try, since the comic is a damnable element of a diabolical origin, to put it in an encounter with an absolutely primitive soul and coming out, so to speak, from the very hands of nature. Take for example the great and typical figure of Virginie, who perfectly symbolizes absolute purity and naivete. Virginie arrives in Paris still moist from the ocean fogs, and gilded by the tropical sun, her eyes full of the great primitive images of the waves, mountains and forests. She falls here into a civilization full of excessive, mephitic turbulence, she – all impregnated with the pure and rich smells of the Indies – she, attached to humanity by her family and love, by her mother and her lover, Paul, as angelic as she is, and whose sex is, so to speak, not distinguishable from hers in the unappeaseable ardors of a love that doesn’t know itself. God, she knew in the church of Pamplemousse, a little church, modest and puny, and in the immobility of the tropical azure, and in the immortal music of the forests and torrents. Certainly, Virginie is very intelligent, but a few images and a few memories are enough for her, just as a few books will do for the Sage. Thus, one day Virginie encounters, by chance, innocently, in the Palais-Royale, in the pane of glass of a glazier, on a table, in a public place, a caricature! A caricature that is appetizing for us, swollen with bitterness and rancor, appropriate to a bored and perspicacious civilization. Lets imagine a goodly farce of boxers, some brittanic enormity, full of clotted blood and seasons with some monstrous goddams; or, if this smiles better on your curious imagination, lets suppose that before virginal Virginia’s eye there spreads some charming and agitated impurity, a Gavarni of those times, and of the best, some insulting satire against royal folly, some plastic diatribe against the Parc-aux-Cerfs, or he down in the mud precedents of a favorite, or the nocturnal escapades of the proverbial Austrian. The caricature is double: the design and the idea, the violent design, the biting and veiled ideea; a painful complication of elements for a naïf spirit, accustomed to understand by sheer intuition things as simple as it. Virginie has seen: now she looks. Why? She is looking at the unknown. Besides, she hardly understands what it means or what its use is. However, do you see, suddenly the wings unfold, there is the trembling of a soul that veils itself and wishes to get away? The angel has felt that the scandal is there. And, truly, I say unto ye, that if she has understood or not understood, there remains in her some impression of a certain malaise, something that resembles fear. Without doubt, if Virginie remains in Paris and becomes enlightened [la science lui vienen], she will learn to laugh [le rire lui viendra]; we will see why. But, for the moment, we, the analyst and critic, who dare not, certainly, claim that our intelligence is superior to Virginie, observe the fear and suffering of the immaculate angel before the caricature.”
I’ll translate the second tableau tomorrow.