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second tableau

Second tableau: Baudelaire, after presenting the laughter in relation to the Fall of man, goes on to divide it, as a form of art, into two kinds: the significatively comic and the absolutely comic. The ghost of Madame de Stael’s distinction between humor and gaiety knocks at the window here – and following de Stael, Baudelaire relates his two different types of comedy to different national types, with the English and Germans being the masters of absolute comedy, or the grotesque, and the French being inclined to the significatively comic – the gaiety, as de Stael would say, of a society in which conversation is cultivated. “The absolutely comic is much nearer nature, presents itself under one genus, and is the kind of thing that wants to be grasped by intuition. There is only one verification of the grotesque, it is laughter, and the laugh submits to it; in the face of the significative comic, it isn’t forbidden to laugh after it is done – this doesn’t argue against its value; it is a question of the rapidity of the analysis.”

Given this distinction and these geographical coordinates, Baudelaire chooses to discuss, under the German grotesque, Hoffman – and under the British grotesque, a pantomime he observed in Paris. It seems to have been a sort of live punch and judy show, except in this one, punch avoids the guillotine, not the hangman.

Which leads us to this utterly astonishing passage. It concerns the prologue of the pantomime:

“The principle persons of the play, Pierrot, Cassandre, Harlequinn, Colombine, Leandre, are in front of the public, very gentle and tranquil. They are almost reasonable and don’t differ all that much from the brave members of the audience. The miraculous breath that will make them move so extraordinarily has not yet been blown on their brains. Some japes of Pierrot only give a pale image of what he will soon be doing. The rivalry of Harlequin and Leandre has just been declared. A fairy gets interested in Halequin: she is the eternal protector of mortals who are in love and poor. She promises him her protection, and to show him what this means then and there, she waves, with a mysterious and authoritative gesture, her wand in the air.

As soon as she stirs that stick, dizziness makes its entrance, dizziness circulates in the air. One breathes in the dizziness; it is dizziness that fills the lungs and renews the blood in the ventricle.

What is dizziness? It is the absolutely comic: it sweeps up every being. Leandre, Pierrot, Cassandre all make extraordinary gestures, which clearly show that they feel introduced by main force into a totally new existence. They don’t look irritated – they are old troopers of great disasters and the tumultuous destiny that awaits them, like someone who spits in his hands and rubs them together before doing some remarkable act. They mill about with their upraised arms, resembling windmills tortured by a storm. This, doubtlessly, loosens their joints, which they will certainly need later. All this operates under the accompaniment of great bursts of laughter, full of a vast contentment; then they jump one over the other, and, their agility and aptitude duly noted, there follows a blinding bouquet of kicks, punches and slaps that make an artillery’s racket and light; but all of this without any anger. All of their gestures, their cries, their facial expressions say: the fairy wills it, destiny precipitates us, I will not worry: Go! Run! Leap! And thus they leap out into the fantastic work, which, properly speaking, only then begins, that is, on the frontier of the miraculous.”

This must be read in French for the full affect – I translate in the same spirit of submission that the pantomime figures play their tricks, as the fairy wills it.


Anonymous said…
LI, yes, that is quite an astonishing passage. You didn't quote the very next line:
Harlequin et Colombine, à la faveur de ce délire, se sont enfuis en dansant, et d'un pied léger ils vont courir les aventures.

Ah, there is so much here, too much, for me try and address in a comment.

Just a link then. Just before the passage you quote, Baudelaire writes, as if in passing or an aside:
Avec une plume tout cela est pâle et glacé. Comment la plume pourrait-elle rivaliser avec la pantomime?

The pen and writing - or at least pen and writing that is pale and colorless, frozen and freezing - cannot rival pantomime; cannot rival the baguette of l'éternelle protectrice des mortels amoureux et pauvres. The fairy who walks and gestures with her baguette and introduces vertige, movement, running, leaping, dancing - and all in a calm.

Baudelaire does leave it open as a question though, and he did take up a pen to write a magnificent poem - a poem in prose - which might just "rival pantomime", though it might just change what one thinks of rivalry and superiority and laughter, or a supposed superior laughter - of man over man, of man over nature.

I'm going to link to it without comment. It is a poem where the pen wants to paint, the poem is called Désir de peindre. One will "see" appear and disappear a woman and mouth read and black bursting with laughter.

Is there an essence of laugher, one essence? Or is it not what happens, makes one shake and tremble, what bursts forth? (Baudelaire writes of une éclate in both the essay and the poem.)

Roger Mexico said…
Great stuff as always, Roger. Two things spring to mind, both of which I’m certain you already know about, and may even be hunting down as I write, but things that I’m nevertheless going to post in an attempt to fulfill my New Year’s resolution to comment more on your wonderful and now duly awarded blog.

The first is Paul de Man’s “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” which draws on a reading of Baudelaire’s “comique absolue” in order to arrive at de Man’s important conception of irony.

Since I read de Man before reading the Baudelaire essay, and since de Man is one of those notoriously strong critics who you must either follow blindly or reject completely, I can never get over the impression that I’m reading Baudelaire by way of de Man. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think, though I offer it as a warning that this may head in a direction other than the one you want.

Here’s what de Man says about the distinction in comedy that you mentioned in your last post:

Baudelaire spends several pages of his essay distinguishing between a simple sense of comedy that is oriented towards others, and thus exists on the necessarily empirical level of interpersonal relationships, and what he calls "le comique absolue" (by which he designates that which, at other moments in his work, he calls irony), where the relationship is not between man and man, two entities that are in essence similar, but between man and what he calls nature, that is, two entities that are in essence different.

Two kinds of comedy, then: A comedy that takes as its subject the superiority of one character over another – this would be the “empirical level of interpersonal relationships.” We might think here of Hobbes’s definition of laughter as a sudden feeling of superiority, or even of the perennial play of master and slave in Roman and neoclassical comedy. And a second comedy that looks to man and nature – for de Man that will mean man as an empirical self and man as a something that can overcome that empirical self and that can survey the self as if from above, by way of language. We might think here (de Man certainly does) of German romantic irony, or any variety of metafiction you like. The point, though, is that this disjunction between empirical-self and language-self is witnessed as a fall, as a comic moment that we ought to laugh at.

Irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness. Sanity can exist only because we are willing to function within the conventions of duplicity and dissimulation, just as social language dissimulates the inherent violence of the actual relationships between human beings. Once this mask is shown to be a mask, the authentic being underneath appears necessarily as on the verge of madness.

The second thing is Benjamin’s “Fate and Character,” an essay which is strangely neglected. If I remember correctly the story is that Benjamin planned a sequel to the Trauerspiel book, one that would replace tragedy with comedy and German baroque theater with French neoclassical plays. That book was never written, and this piece is all that survives. And although Baudelaire is never mentioned in it, we get the same web of concerns you’re interested in here: character and caricature, the fall, guilt, innocence, etc. Check it out!
Roger Gathmann said…
Mr. Mexico (all pseudonyms, by the way, should be from Pynchon) - I'll track that de Man essay down. I'd say that B.'s essay is four-fold instead of two fold, with the idea of joy - non-Satanic laughter - forming the unexplored part of B.'s schema.

More interesting to me, however, is where dizziness stands in relation to nature and man - is it a man thing? Or a nature thing? because at the outset we have cut away the possibility of it being a supernatural thing - which is an odd cut, in a way, for an essay in which Satan figures so strongly, and just where you would figure he would figure - at the crossroads, the fourfold, Legba the organizer of laughter. Which I think does not go too far outside of the text, for I am imagining our Eve, here, Virginie, 'gilded' by tropical suns, may know about Legba. Or perhaps in her innocence she has not gained that knowledge.

But anyway - dizziness. As unrelieved irony, it is surely among the human things. But in fact it is also, in its deepest recesses, a thing of nature, of the sensorium, no? Perhaps this is irony's irony. I've been wanting, using my long, magnetic fingers, to get us to dizziness as ilynx - and ilynx, of course, brings us back to the philosophical culture that continually inversed things that were inversed, and inversed them again - revolved them, made for revolution.
Anonymous said…
Damn, as if the essence of laughter wasn't enough, Mr.Mexico brings irony onto the stage as well - or are they the same?
I'm glad for the reference though, as De Man's discussion of Baudelaire's of essence du rire is quite interesting. De Man brings up the text in the second section of Rhetoric of Temporality, which bears the title "II: Irony". Which brings up a series of questions that I will pose rather bluntly - what is the "relation" of laughter and irony? Is the essence du rire to be read under the heading and title of irony? Is irony the essence of the essence of laughter?

Even if one grants what De Man says - in a parenthesis - that what Baudelaire calls le comique absolu in le essence du rire (" by which he designates that which, at other moments in his work, he calls irony"), does this resolve the relation between laughter and irony? Unless it be to resolve laughter in(to) irony?

De Man quotes the same passage as LI from Baudelaire about the prologue to the pantomime at the Théâtre des Variétés, just before writing - as Mr.Mexico quotes - "irony is unrelieved vertige, dizziness to the point of madness."
(Ah, the point! yeah, if you are ever there you will never know.)

A little later De Man also alludes to the Baudelaire line I had quoted in my previous comment: "In describing the pantomime, he complains that his pen cannot possibly convey the simultaneity of the visual spectacle: avec une plume tout cela est pâle est glacé"

Is the prologue to the pantomime and Baudelaire's writing of it only a "visual spectacle"? Let's read it again. Let's try to listen to listen to the breathing and the breath, inside and out, that gives the beat, a rhythm.
"..;The miraculous breath that will make them move so extraordinarily has not yet been blown on their brains.[...]One breathes in the dizziness; it is dizziness that fills the lungs and renews the blood in the ventricle. [...]They mill about with their upraised arms, resembling windmills tortured by a storm. This, doubtlessly, loosens their joints, which they will certainly need later."

So i wonder about De Man's laudable effort to draw a limit between the self, the ironic de-mystified self, and social intersubjectivity with its mystifications and "happy resolutions". Does it do justice to the windmills tortured by storm that Baudelaire writes about?

Roger Gathmann said…
I love this discussion! It is part of my punishment on this earth that I don't have the time to do it justice today. But I wanted to say something at least about wands and pens.

If you'll notice, in my post about Gogol, I paraphrase a moment in Dead Souls:

"At one point in Dead Souls, Gogol is about to tell his readers what his women characters are thinking when, as he says, his quill positively stops on the page, as though it were made of lead. The task of revealing the thoughts of the ladies is too much for the poor bachelor author – it crushes him!"

Gogol - who, by the way, Saint Beuve knew and, with his unfailing talent for overlooking talent, overlooked - often comes to the 'point of madness' in his writing. For instance, in the Nose, which is a mad tale, the barber, in throwing the nose off the bridge, is seen by a policeman, who asks for an explanation when: "This made Ivan Yakovlevitch blanch, and — —

Further events here become enshrouded in mist. What happened after that is unknown to all men."

A mist? This is a mist that springs from the page itself. And it is on the page itself that the pen makes a refusal - like an object, a nose, that suddenly takes on an ironic self of its own. The pen suddenly can't describe - can't paint, in terms of the prose poem you referenced, Amie. While the wand can suddenly make human beings fling themselves about, arms upraised, as if they were - well, I can't help think, as if they were letters, words. And they combine, they jump about, they kick and slap each other but show no pain.

Now, what I find interesting in the divide, here, between sanity and madness is that sanity seems, in De Man's terms, to be conditioned on inauthenticity. Myself, I wonder if de Man isn't slyly substituting terms, a schema, here, for Baudelaire's cosmic one - perhaps taking "absolute" too much in the spirit of Hegel, rather than Hoffmann. Although this isn't to say that he is wrong! - but rather that there is another context in which fairies, pens, and vertige assert themselves not as instances of madness, but of of certain folk cunning. I see the fairy waving her wand as a couple with the pen refusing to write. And these things happen not in the world of madness or sanity - that deceiver - but the world persisting under the world that is inventing diagnoses of madness and sanity.
Jeff Rubard said…
Stop, collaborate, and ignore:
*Nota bene* as per the Penguin Prousteses: Material for a fake ad campaign -- "Who is Mark Treharne?" Ans.: somebody playing at being Proust, obvs.; for 'Mark Treharne' is a 'exonym' for "Marcel Proust"; "Proust", 'o'course', meaning *Prost* lik-a "Treharne". A cesky type thang, the 'pointe' being that the "Researches into Past Time" is really a bi-partite; the "City of Lights" does not permit of every justification.

Roger Gathmann said…
I read that at first as the Penguin Procrusteses - I like Proustcrusteses - surely that is a word in Finnegan's wake.