The end of one of Samuel Beckett’s earliest published stories, “Dante and the Lobster,” provides us with a fine example of the object of our collective concern this semester. The story concludes with a discussion of the age-old practice of boiling lobsters alive. Appalled by the practice, the character Belacqua attempts to reassure himself with the consoling thought that at least “it’s a quick death, God help us all.” Beckett, however, annihilates all such assurance with the stark utterance: “It is not.” We laugh, but this not a laughter that relieves. Rather, it serves to shatter consolation. It serves to return us to the fundamental horror of the lobster’s end, and, more generally, to the pain of existence, which has always been the prerogative of tragic wisdom. It is a laughter that places us at the intersection between horror and comedy, the interstitial domain of the tragicomic. To put it in the form of a query: why is “there always something comical,” as Jacques Lacan suggests, “about the duck with its head cut off taking a few more steps around the farmyard”?
This seminar will thus address the intimate relationship between the comic and the tragic, horror and laughter, and consider why the sensibility that André Breton termed “black humour” is more apt to grapple with the ends of modernity, which is to say, ends that do not end well. The aim will be to read closely a diverse range of theoretical and artistic materials, ranging from Shakespeare to Genet, the Marx Brothers to Marguerite Duras, Deleuze to Lacan, Hitchcock to Richard Pryor, focussing on the laughter engendered by the lack of meaning.