On Cynicism and Comedy: From Charles Baudelaire and Michel Houellebecq to Slavoj Žižek and Barack Obama


Part I

Illustration by Carl Kylberg. Via

by Menachem Feuer

Cynicism is widespread, and it has been for some time. But its meaning and scope has been the subject of concern and debate for centuries. The approaches to cynicism differ widely depending on one’s location and time period. When it comes to the magnitude and reach of cynicism, modernity is particularly interesting. Cynicism, to be sure, has been the subject of much intellectual and literary reflection over the last two centuries, especially in France. But, against what one may suspect, being cynical is not only about believing, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, that “all people are motivated by self-interest,” being “distrustful of human sincerity or integrity,” or being “concerned only with one’s own interests.” It is also, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests in his book Critique of Cynical Reason, about being “cheeky,” comical, and vulgar – like the cynic Diogenes who, as Sloterdijk tells us, defecated and masturbated in public.

Cynicism includes all of the above-mentioned aspects. We see this by way of three great French writers, Charles Baudelaire, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Michel Houellebecq. Each of them has taught the reading public to see cynicism by way of characters, writing styles, and plots that ooze with comical vulgarity, paranoid distrust of others, blatant dishonesty, and bold self-interest.

While the French writers have often done their utmost to deepen their commitment to cynicism by way of comedy, we have seen a different response to cynicism in the United States. And unlike France, this American response has traveled from the charmed world of literature to the public sphere. By way of comedians and even the President of the United States, cynicism has been amplified and addressed through film, television, and the media. But, unlike France, where cynicism holds sway, the literary and public response to cynicism in the USA is different. In many instances cynicism is deemed to be contrary to the American ethos. And perhaps that has to do with the fact that, as the famous Weimar film critic Sigfried Kracauer once argued, while many Europeans are locked into the harsh view which finds that fate and determinism rule over most of our lives, most Americans turn to chance, hope, and freedom as their wellspring of insight and wisdom.

Regardless of their differing views of cynicism, comedy is to be found in both the European and the American responses to cynicism. The question we need to ask is which kind of comedy is most befitting for us today and whether (and how) cynicism has left the annals of literature to the space of media culture. Should we comically address cynicism in such a way as to deepen our sense of the bitterness of the human condition? Or should we, using comedy, address it in such a way as to restore trust in the goodness of humanity and the falsity of cynicism?

These questions, to my mind, are of the most important for us today since the answers we arrive at will affect how we view ourselves, others, and the world.

But before we can think about a new mediation of cynicism, we need to familiarize ourselves with the cynicism of three of the most cynical French writers of the last two centuries: Charles Baudelaire, Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Michel Houellebecq.

Baudelaire’s “Essay on Laughter,” The Sad Old Clown, and Cynicism 

Charles Baudelaire, in his celebrated “Essay on Laughter” turns to the horrific moment of a child’s shock at the loss of her innocence, as a cynical source of laughter. In the E. T. A. Hoffman short story “Daucus Carota, the King of the Carrots Baudelaire found this moment to be an illustration of the Absolute Comic. Before he gets to this shocking moment, he intentionally takes on the role of a children’s storyteller.

Look at all those scarlet figures, like a regiment of English soldiers, with enormous green plumes on their heads, like carriage footmen, going through a series of marvelous tricks and capers on their little horses! The whole thing is carried out with astonishing agility. The adroitness and ease with which the fall on their heads is assisted by their heads being bigger and heavier than the rest of their bodies, like toy soldiers…(163)

As this delightful narration shifts and becomes dark, Baudelaire’s voice changes:

The unfortunate young girl, obsessed with dreams of grandeur, is fascinated by this display of military might. But an army on parade is one thing; how different an army in barracks, refurbishing its arms, polishing its equipment, or worse, still, ignobly snoring on its dirty, stinking camp-beds! That is the reverse of the medal; the rest was but a magic trick, an apparatuses of seduction.

Baudelaire notes that the girl’s father, a magician (“a man well-versed in sorcery”), tricks his daughter and robs her of her childish innocence.

Then it is the that the poor dreaming girl sees all this mass of red and green soldiery in its appalling undress, wallowing and snoring…In its night-cap all that military magnificence is nothing more than a putrid swamp.

Baudelaire, no doubt, sees himself as a satanic magician, much like the father in the story. He delights in comically tricking his reader (his child). This trick, for Baudelaire, is at the core of what he calls the Absolute Comic.

Baudelaire, in his May 13, 1856 journal, noted that he will have “conquered solitude” when he has inspired “universal horror and disgust” in his readers. To be sure, this is the job of the comic-magician-slash-writer who can shock his readers. In other words, Baudelaire saw his task as destructive, magical, and comical. The task of shock, for Baudelaire, is to, as in E. T. A. Hoffman, ruin innocence.

Baudelaire identified with Edgar Allen Poe’s destructive spirit – Baudelaire was the first person in the 19th century to translate Poe into French – insofar as he saw in Poe’s destructive drive a vitality that was repressed by civility. Baudelaire turned this destructive drive on the most innocent characters: children and fools. This was done in an experimental and deeply personal manner and produced a “souvenir” of sorts. In other words, although Baudelaire wants to destroy something by way of comedy, he also desires to cling to what remains in the wake of this violence.

Notice that for Baudelaire, the “coin” is still there. It is just turned over. Baudelaire doesn’t destroy the coin (that is, the child). She remains but as a damaged child. And this shock, according to Baudelaire, illustrates the “essence of laughter,” which he associates with “fallenness.”

The poet, in other words, is a satanic kind of trickster. He fools the reader into seeing something he or she does not want to see. Yet, the revelation of what he or she doesn’t want to see gives the reader some kind of secret knowledge about human nature or reality that can only be garnered through destruction.

But no one gets out scot-free. For Baudelaire, the trickster is also tricked. Baudelaire understood this lesson very well. Failure marks the dark side of the magician who is not simply to be seen as a satanic devilish poet who lives on the vitality produced by destruction. On the contrary, Baudelaire teaches us that this vitality is often weak. And the solitude that Baudelaire wished to “conquer” is, to be sure, sad and pathetic.

Destruction has a negative effect that, for some strange reason, Baudelaire, as an artist, was attracted to. Solitude has its price. And in the modern world, the comic – though found everywhere – has no place. His life – much like his humor – is cynical.

We see this in Baudelaire’s prose piece “The Old Clown.” One of many enigmatic and powerful pieces in Paris Spleen, it is autobiographical and teaches us a lesson about how the satanic comedian is, in essence, a clown.

Underlying the piece is a question: what would it mean to spend one’s life as a clown? What would happen if, instead of producing vitality, the clown produced… nothing? This is the dark side of Baudelaire’s venture; the “old clown” may have “conquered solitude” by inspiring “universal horror” at his cynical failure.

To emphasize vitality and the end of vitality, Baudelaire starts off the piece with a major emphasis on the “life” of the carnival:

Holiday crowds swarmed, sprawled, and frolicked everywhere. It was one of those gala days that all the clowns, jugglers, animal trainers, and ambulant hucksters count on, long in advance, to make up for the lean seasons of the year (25).

Baudelaire tells us that on these days people “forget everything” and they “become like children.” Baudelaire then goes on to give a fantastic and exciting description of the carnival:

There was a mixture of cries, crashing brass, and exploding fireworks…and dancers, as lovely as fairies or princesses, leaped and pirouetted with the lantern light sparkling their skirts…. There was nothing but light, dust, shouts, tumult. (25)

But then, in a Poe-like or Hoffman-like moment, the narrator sees the “old clown” and the shock it sends throughout him is uncanny:

Everywhere joy, money-making, debauchery; everywhere the assurance of tomorrow’s daily bread; everywhere frenetic outbursts of vitality. Here absolute misery, and a misery made all the more horrible by being tricked out in comic rags, whose motely contrast was due more to necessity than to art. He was not laughing, the poor wretch!…He was mute and motionless. He had given up, he had abdicated. His fate was sealed. (26)

The narrator then describes his own breakdown at the sight of the clown. He, the recipient of the sad joke or “trick” of reality, doesn’t know what to do:

I felt the terrible hand of hysteria grip my throat, I felt rebellious tears that would not fall, blurring my sight. What was I to do?

Instead of talking to him or asking him questions, the poet decides to leave some charity. He felt that compassion would redeem him. However, before he can do this “a sudden surge of the crowd, caused by I know not what disturbance, swept me away from him.”

It is the crowd that robs him of his opportunity to give charity. But now, as he looks back at the old clown, he can reflect on himself. He sees a cynical emblem of himself in the clown; he sees (or rather creates) what Walter Benjamin would call a souvenir:

I have just seen the prototype of the old writer who has been the brilliant entertainer of the generation he has outlived; the old poet without friends, without family, without children, degraded by poverty and the ingratitude of the public, and to whose booth the fickle world no longer cares to come! (27)

It’s fascinating how for Baudelaire the destruction of innocence and joy is “magical.” To be sure, as a cynic, he was fascinated with his own failure and with the destruction of happiness in children. This piece, though tragic to us, fits into what Baudelaire calls the Absolute Comic. But here he is the butt of the joke. He, the writer, is a joke. He is an “old clown.” He, the entertainer of children, the child who never grew up, is a joke. He is the odd one out.

Celine’s Post-War Comical Cynicism

While Baudelaire sees himself as a cynical old clown, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s cynicism has youth and vitality. To be sure, Celine’s Guignol’s Band is one of the most cynical books I have ever read. Written in wake of World War I, this book takes on what Sloterdijk would call a “cynical cheekiness” that flies in the face of social mores and the Enlightenment. But it is destructive in ways that are deeply nihilistic. It celebrates violence in a comical way.

Celine, much like Baudelaire in his opening poem to Fleur de Mal (Flowers of Evil), solicits and mocks his readers. But while Baudelaire is morose, Celine is bold in his mockery.

Readers, friends, less than friends, enemies. Critics! Here I am at it again with Book I of Guignol! Don’t judge me too soon! Wait awhile for what’s to follow!…I give everyone a pain in the ass. And what if they study it in school in two hundred years, and the Chinese too? What’ll you say then? “Take it easy! Wise guy!…An outrage! He’s butchering the French language! It’s scandalous! Into jail!…The pig!”(1)

Following this preface, Celine’s first words are those of war, caricatured:

BOOM! ZOOM!…It’s a big smashup!….The whole street caving in at the water front!…It’s Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Café!…A table sails by and splits in the air! (6)

Through all this exploding madness, Guignol and his band of misfits travel. And the narrator’s commentary on the explosions is brimming with madness. He tells us that, in the midst of all the movement and destruction, “there is no time to think.” In this atmosphere where everything and everyone is being shot at, he shoots back with words. His words – like “bullets” and “shit” – express distrust for all things. Everything is an enemy and everyone is a possible target for mockery and violence. Each word is aimed, cynically, at a world that – the writer cynically suggests with each sentence – has turned against the writer.

In the wake of war, Celine turns to himself and to a language that can destroy the world that seeks to destroy him. His comical flair, throughout the book, is the life source behind his bitter, cynical individuality. It doesn’t redeem the world so much as himself. It reminds him that the world must be seen with a kind of comical-cynical harsh realism. Without this vision of humanity and the world, his comical quips have no power.

The question, however, is how or whether, as Celine mockingly suggests in his introduction, his views will be read and celebrated years later. Will Celine’s comical-nihilistic-cynicism survive, specifically, in France at the end of the 20th century? Or will it morph into a different kind of cynicism?

Houellebecq’s Human/Neo-Human Cynicism

Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island is a dystopian novel, which plunges the depths of cynicism that appeal and don’t appeal to the comical. One of the main characters of the novel is a vulgar comedian named Daniel 1. He is, without a doubt, within the tradition of Baudelaire and Celine and even mentions them in the book. Juxtaposed to his comical voice is the voice of Daniel 25, a genetic descendent of Daniel 1 and a neo-human whose view of life after humanity’s demise is lacking any form of humor. Daniel 25 describes cynicism from a post-apocalyptic angle and gives the reader an acute sense of what is at stake in the relationship of cynicism to the world of late-capitalism. Nonetheless, Daniel 1, although a cynical comedian, also plays around with the possibility that there are some serious religious and philosophical questions that need to be addressed about immortality, who “deserves” it and whether one can find happiness in the world if and when one becomes old or unisexual.

The book begins with the question: “Who, among you, deserves eternal life?” Following this – on the opposite page – we see the confession of a person who is dying: “My current incarnation is deteriorating: I do not think I will last much longer.” In the following sentence, he comes to realize that happiness can’t happen with humans. He can only be happy with his dog, fox:

I know that in my next incarnation I will be reunited with my companion, the little dog fox.

On the one hand, this reflection is endearing. On the other, it is cynical since it suggests that although one will not find love in a human being, one will find love in a dog. And, as the legend goes, the cynic Diogenes was called “the dog” because of his “dog-like” behavior. One dog, so to speak, needs another. And, apparently, they cancel out cynicism. But this happens when it’s too late.

When we meet the main character, Daniel 1 – who also happens to have a dog named fox (and foxes are cunning) – he tells us what occupation he commits himself to in this incarnation: comedy.

Like Baudelaire, he always, every since he was a child, had an interest in being a clown: “How vividly I remember the first moments of my vocation as a clown”(13). Daniel 1 remembers how, upon seeing different Europeans on vacation who were, like animals, attacking food, he made up a caricature to emphasize what Baudelaire would call their animality and fallenness:

Out of the incident I composed a little sketch about a bloody revolt in a holiday resort, sparked by the tiny details that contradicted the all-inclusive formal: a shortage of sausages at breakfast, followed by a supplemental charge for the mine golf. (14)

Daniel 1’s comedy reflects his harsh realistic view of humanity and his own animality. He is basically cynical through and through:

The benefit of the humorist’s trade, or more generally of a humorous attitude in life, is to behave like a complete bastard with impunity, and even to profit hugely from your depravity, in terms of sexual conquests and money, all with great approval. (15)

And this impunity, for Daniel 1, feeds on the worst aspects of humanity. His comic signature, his cynical comedy, draws on supreme egoism and violence:

Any form of cruelty, cynical selfishness, or violence was therefore welcome – certain subjects like parricide or cannibalism, in particular. The fact that a comedian, was able to move easily into the domains of cruelty, was therefore going to constitute, for the profession as a whole, an electric shock. (36)

And of all the scripts he wrote, the most popular was entitled “Diogenes the Cynic.” On Diogenes, Daniel 1 notes:

The cynics – and it is a generally forgotten point of their doctrine – instructed children to kill and devour their parents as soon as the latter, becoming unsuitable for work, represented useless mouths to feed. (37)

In the second part of the novel, Houellebecq nails this home when he notes how Daniel 1, who, earlier in the novel was obsessed with the cynics when he was in his early 30s but is now 47. He is still cynical but, because of his celebrity, he stumbles across and falls in love with a 21 year-old girl named Esther. She, along with her generation, despises the old and has no need for love or sentimentality. They prefer relationships that have utility.

Although Daniel 1 and Esther are together for a little while, she in the end, leaves him for youth and the promises of America (she is a native of Spain). And, even though he purports himself to be a cynic, Daniel 1 is crushed by her cynical rejection of his person. His cynical comedy, we learn, leaves him when he becomes the target. Daniel 1 learns, later in his life, that although life is cruel, love should matter. But today, in this new generation, it doesn’t. This makes him more into a kind of Baudelairian sad-clown-cynic and less like a Celinian “cheeky” cynic.

The final moments of the novel are given over to Daniel 25 who, in contrast to Daniel 1, is not cynical. But this is only because he doesn’t understand the meaning of love, desire, or their loss. Daniel 25 lives by virtue of his reason and doesn’t understand the meaning of mortality. In other words, without the fear of loss – whether of desire, other people, or even a dog – or the fear of death (because there will be other “Daniels” after Daniel 25) there can be no cynicism. Moreover, as the dry dialogue of Daniel 25 suggests, there can be no humor or irony. His happiness is not to be found in sexuality but, as Houllebecq suggests in the last pages, in wandering over the space of an unknown terrain without a sense of time or wondering about what the “founders” (like Daniel 1) were getting at when they spoke of “love” or “loss.” The unhappiness that gives birth to cynicism doesn’t affect Daniel 25 as it did with Daniel 1.

The question that Houllebecq is suggesting is by such differences concerns whether or not cynicism and the humor that attends it is such a bad thing. For Houllebecq, if we rid ourselves of cynicism, we would have to rid ourselves of mortality, sexuality, and desire. Without the human happiness that attends “youth,” sexuality, and pleasure, we would have to find another kind of happiness that is “neohuman.” And without such happiness there will be no need for cynicism.

Part II, examining Slavoj Žižek and Barack Obama will be published September 15, 2015.

About the Author:


Menachem Feuer has a PhD in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Philosophy. He teaches Jewish Studies and Jewish Philosophy at York University in Toronto. Feuer has published several essays and book reviews on philosophy, literature, and Jewish studies in several book collections and peer-reviewed journals including Modern Fiction StudiesShofarMELUS, German Studies Review, International Studies in Philosophy, Comparative Literature and Culture, Ctheory, and Cinemaction.