In his writings on contemporary culture, Theodor W. Adorno was inclined to treat laughter with suspicion, in particular the kind of laughter generated by popular film comedies and other products of the “culture industry.” What received its comic comeuppance in such films, he claimed, was anything opposed to or unassimilable by the status quo; such mirth produced a false sense of liberation masking blind conformity to a cruel social order. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment he glumly observed:
In the false society laughter is a disease which has attacked happiness and is drawing it into its worthless totality. To laugh at something is always to deride it, and the life which, according to Bergson, in laughter breaks through the barrier, is actually an invading barbaric life, self-assertion prepared to parade its liberation from any scruple when the social occasion arises. Such a laughing audience is a parody of humanity. Its members are monads, all dedicated to the pleasure of being ready for anything at the expense of everyone else. Their harmony is a caricature of solidarity. What is fiendish about this false laughter is that it is a compelling parody of the best, which is conciliatory. Delight is austere: res severa verum gaudium.1
Nonetheless, like his associates Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, Adorno was a great admirer of the screen’s most celebrated comedian: Charlie Chaplin. For all three men this admiration was informed by a sensitivity to the political overtones of Chaplin’s work; Benjamin remarked that Chaplin had directed himself “toward both the most international and the most revolution ary affect of the masses—laughter,”2 while Kracauer noted “a touch of utopia about [Chaplin’s] challenges to space, time, and gravitation.”3 The two brief essays which follow are Adorno’s responses both to the tough poignancy of Chaplin’s art and to Chaplin the man, whom he got to know during his Californian exile (1941–49). His comments, which culminate in a remarkable personal anecdote, hint at an alternative conception of laughter, of a critical laughter soberly aware of its own affinities to domination.
The first essay appeared under the title “Kierkegaard prophesies Chaplin” in the Frankfurter Zeitung, May 22, 1930; the second as “Chaplin in Malibu” in Neue [End Page 57] Rundschau, Vol. 3, 75th year, 1964; they first appeared together under the present title in the volume Ohne Leitbild (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), 89–93.—jkm
Prophesied by Kierkegaard
In Repetition, one of his earlier pseudonymous writings, Kierkegaard gives a detailed treatment of farce, true to a conviction which often leads him to seek, in the refuse of art, that which eludes the pretensions of art’s great self- contained works. He speaks there of the old Friedrichstädter Theater in Berlin and describes a comedian named Beckmann4 whose image evokes, with the mild fidelity of a daguerreotype, that of the Chaplin who was to come. The passage reads:
He is not only able to walk, but he is also able to come walking. To come walking is something very distinctive, and by means of this genius he also improvises the whole scenic setting. He is able not only to portray an itinerant craftsman; he is also able to come walking like one and in such a way that one experiences everything, surveys the smiling hamlet from the dusty highway, hears its quiet noise, sees the footpath that goes down by the village pond when one turns off there by the blacksmith’s— where one sees [Beckmann] walking along with his little bundle on his back, his stick in his hand, untroubled and undaunted. He can come walking onto the stage followed by street urchins whom one does not see.5
The one who comes walking is Chaplin, who brushes against the world like a slow meteor even where he seems to be at rest; the imaginary landscape that he brings along is the meteor’s aura, which gathers here in the quiet noise of the village into transparent peace, while he strolls on with the cane and hat that so become him. The...