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.