“Laughter is merely a form of expression, a symptom, an outward sign. Symptom of what? That is the whole question.” – Charles Baudelaire
In this seminar, we are going to examine the role that horror and hilarity plays in the work of Poe, Baudelaire and Beckett. I place the stress on the conjunction “and,” because what is here at issue is the horribly hilarious: an object that lures and repels, attracts and repulses, an object, in other word, that is thus quintessentially ambivalent. It is something akin to what Julia Kristeva refers to as the abject. The abject is a “jettisoned object” whose very absence nonetheless “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” Laughter here serves to sustain the “me” drawn to this vertiginous place where sense no longer makes sense. If the poet, as Baudelaire suggests in the poem “Obsession,” seeks the void, the black and the bare, this search can itself only be sustained by a diabolically comic tone. Otherwise one would simply be engulfed by the flames. The poet can only make oblivion itself into its most cherished object, hell itself into a place where the heart is at home, by forging a new language and tone that finds humor in the humorless. This entails, however, that the subject of the poem, and the subject of thought itself, must be fundamentally be rethought. The human being here at issue, as Baudelaire suggests of Poe, is a “man so out of tune with himself as to express grief by laughter.” What stories does such a man write? They are stories that are not merely grief stricken but subtended by laughter. Such grief stricken laughter is what Beckett in Watt refers to as the mirthless laugh, which he distinguishes from the laugh that is either bitter or hollow:
The bitter, hollow and — haw! haw! — the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well, well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — haw! — so. It is the laugh of laughs, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs — silent please — at that which is unhappy.
Over the course of the semester, closely attending particularly to the writing of Baudelaire and Beckett, we shall attempt to delineate what the latter calls dianoietic laughter, i.e., the laughter engendered in and through the movement of thought.